‘Beyond Criticism’

Eliane Glaser

Margarete Buber-Neumann had the double misfortune of being incarcerated both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Soon after her release at the end of the war, she wrote an account of her experiences that was published in German and Swedish, translated into English as Under Two Dictators in 1949, then published in more than ten other languages before being revised by the author in the 1960s. This new edition was instigated by Buber-Neumann’s daughter.

Margarete Thüring was born in 1901 in Potsdam. After the 1918-19 revolution, she moved to Berlin and joined the youth movement of the German Communist Party (KPD). She trained as a nursery-school teacher and married Rafael Buber, the son of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. After their marriage broke down, Margarete lost custody of her two daughters and immersed herself in politics, writing for a newspaper produced by the Comintern at the Berlin headquarters of the KPD. In 1929 she met and fell in love with Heinz Neumann, a well-known German Communist. But Neumann became a victim of Party infighting, and he and Margarete were forced into exile, at constant risk of arrest by the authorities in Spain, France and Switzerland. In 1937, as denunciations of ‘deviationists’ escalated, Neumann was arrested in Moscow and jailed in the Lubyanka; later that year, he was shot.

Margarete didn’t discover what had happened to him until 1961. Under Two Dictators begins with her search for him in the prisons of Moscow in 1937; by the time she found out where he was being held, her own position as the partner of a ‘traitor’ had grown precarious. The German Embassy in Moscow was in Nazi hands, and Margarete was given leave to remain in the country for only five days at a time, making it impossible for her to work. Eventually, in June 1938, she too was arrested and imprisoned in the Lubyanka.

From this moment on, Under Two Dictators becomes, for the most part, a detailed account of imprisonment in appalling conditions. Buber-Neumann was held in a tiny cell called a sobachnik, or ‘dog kennel’. From the Lubyanka, she was taken to another prison, the Butirka, where she found herself in a cell so overcrowded that all the inmates had to sleep on their sides and turn over at the same time. The bright lights were never switched off and at 4.30 in the morning, 110 inmates had to fight for the use of ten water taps and five filthy holes in the ground. A defiant community spirit emerged, and the inmates would play chess with pieces carved out of stale black bread (the white pieces were dusted with tooth-powder), and embroider dresses with wool painstakingly unravelled from worn-out sweaters.

In 1939, she was charged with ‘counter-revolutionary agitation’ and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Karaganda forced labour camp, a sprawling agricultural complex in a remote Kazakh steppe. Arriving in winter after a journey lasting several weeks, she was quarantined in a clay hut, where she attempted to keep warm at a broken stove. The washing facilities amounted to a bucket of thawed snow. Buber-Neumann was eventually assigned to a flea-infested barracks where she had only an old wooden door to sleep on, and was given the job of keeping a statistical record of the daily performance of tractors. When she asked for her case to be reopened, she was sent to the punishment block, where ‘beds’ were piles of twigs. The inmates were woken at three in the morning, had to queue for a breakfast of watery millet soup, and then spent the day weeding vast sunflower fields.

In 1940, perhaps as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Buber-Neumann was abruptly handed over to the Nazis. On a bridge at Brest-Litovsk, the border between Russia and occupied Poland, she and about 350 other prisoners were crammed into cattle trucks and sent via Berlin to Ravensbrück, an SS camp for women. Most of the inmates were ‘asocials’: prostitutes, vagrants and criminals; the remainder were Jews, Poles and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The camp was organised with what Buber-Neumann calls ‘Prussian thoroughness’: there were authoritarian guards, twice-daily roll-calls and neurotically enforced cleaning routines. On Sundays the women were allowed a special meal of goulash, red cabbage and potatoes, and a concert was broadcast from Berlin: ‘A thousand women in striped dresses, all wearing the same white headdress in exactly the same way, showing just the same amount of hair, promenaded up and down the street singly or in twos and threes to the strains of the music. It was an uncanny parade.’

Buber-Neumann was soon given the job of ‘hut senior’ in the asocials’ block, and her first task was to distribute the midday meal. She was immediately mobbed by a mass of women, and saved only by a ‘sadistic’ prostitute from Düsseldorf who climbed onto a stool and ordered the crowd to line up properly. Relieved to be transferred to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ block, she let the inmates hide their bibles in buckets and floor-cloths – and found her generosity rewarded with incessant proselytising.

As the war went on, conditions in the camp became grimmer. Ravensbrück expanded first into an industrial complex (inmates were used as slave labour: the electrical company Siemens-Halske built workshops nearby and a camp for men was constructed) and was then transformed into a death camp, eventually with its own gas chamber. In 1942, Buber-Neumann heard about the mass exterminations at Auschwitz for the first time, and transports of Jews began to be sent there from Ravensbrück. In February 1945, four thousand women were gassed at Ravensbrück: Buber-Neumann watched the trucks returning with the victims’ meagre possessions, artificial limbs and false teeth. As well as Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, older women were at particular risk, and those who had grey hair began to dye it with a paste made from water and soot. The SS doctor Rolf Rosenthal forced pregnant women who had been arrested for ‘intercourse with foreigners’ to have abortions, some in their seventh or eighth month of pregnancy; and the notorious Professor Gebhardt carried out experimental transplants of bone and muscle on young women, leaving them badly injured. Babies who were born in the camp soon starved to death, their mothers too undernourished to feed them. By the end of the war, more than 25,000 women had died in Ravensbrück of starvation or illness, or had been executed.

Buber-Neumann was treated comparatively well: she was made ‘block senior’ and given a job as secretary to one of the camp administrators (together they managed to prevent many prisoners from being punished for minor crimes). But the illness and death of her friend Milena Jesenská affected her a great deal. Jesenská was a Czech writer and journalist who saved many lives at Ravensbrück by falsifying documents; Buber-Neumann wrote a book about her life, published in 1963. Close female friendships feature prominently in Under Two Dictators: as well as Jesenská, there is ‘Olga’, a German concert pianist sentenced to five years’ hard labour in the gulag; Grete Sonntag, her closest companion in Karaganda; and Carola Neher, an anti-Nazi German actress who had worked with Brecht and Weil.

In April 1945, Buber-Neumann was released from Ravensbrück, just days before most of the remaining prisoners were forced to leave the camp on a death-march. As the Russians advanced from the east she raced towards the American lines (she thought that she might be executed by Russian soldiers if they worked out who she was) and on into Bavaria to look for her family. On the way, she fought off an American auxiliary policeman who tried to rape her, argued with Communists who still kept the faith, and listened to the stories of Jews who had survived the camps. Eventually, she was reunited with her mother, her sister and her sister’s family; her own children had settled in Palestine. She spent most of the rest of her life in Frankfurt, where she wrote several other books, became a prominent critic of Communism and died, after a long illness, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dozens of concentration camp memoirs are published every year. As the last generation of Holocaust survivors dies out, efforts to preserve their memories have intensified. The World Jewish Congress, funded in part by Random House in the US, is running a Holocaust Memoirs Project to help publish survivor testimonies. ‘I want eventually to establish a principle that every manuscript should be published,’ Elie Wiesel, the founder of the project, has said. Under Two Dictators is being reissued now after being out of print for fifty years.

It is a significant account for historians because it was written so soon after the war, because it describes imprisonment under both Hitler and Stalin, and because it pays particular attention to the experience of women prisoners. The writing is very plain. There is only one moment when Buber-Neumann attempts to lift the prose above the functional: ‘It was a typical spring morning,’ she writes, recalling the death of her friend Jesenská, ‘and a warm rain was falling when two prisoners lifted the coffin onto the cart. Somewhere in the rushes of Furstenberg Lake a bird was singing a melancholy little song. Perhaps the guard at the gate thought it was the rain that trickled down my cheeks.’ This new edition has not been retranslated, apart from the final section added by Buber-Neumann in the 1960s, which has been translated by her daughter. The language is often old-fashioned and awkward. ‘Hang it all, do finally stop talking politics,’ an ex-soldier is quoted as saying, ‘the old pig-head doesn’t understand a word of it anyway. We must have quiet at last.’

For some critics, the quality of the writing isn’t an issue. When Al Alvarez reviewed Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir of his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, for Commentary, he wrote that ‘as a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism.’ But no published writing should be ‘beyond criticism’, especially since some of these memoirs – most obviously those of Primo Levi – are so good. It isn’t clear how we are supposed to respond to these books: dutifully, as unimpeachable records of a catastrophe, or critically, as we might any other piece of writing. Reviewers tend to sidestep the problem by summarising what the author went through, then praising the book as an inspiring account of human survival and a salutary reminder of the horrors of the Third Reich.

The vast amount of scholarship about Holocaust memoirs, meanwhile, still gets stuck on the question of whether it is possible to represent the Holocaust at all. Modish language is borrowed from literary theory: there is much talk of ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’, and books are given such titles as The Shriek of Silence: A Phenomenology of the Holocaust Novel and Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. For those who believe that representation is impossible, or at least extremely difficult, the next best thing is full disclosure, the idea that every detail of each victim’s day should be itemised with atomic comprehensiveness. It is as if the distractions and distortions of literary style can be stripped away, leaving the gulf between experience and the representation of experience as narrow as possible.

It is for this reason, too, that Holocaust museums and memorials employ an ‘experiential’ curating style. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has had more than 25 million visitors since it opened in 1993, including eight million schoolchildren and 85 heads of state; 90 per cent of these visitors are not Jewish. Visitors go on a ‘journey’, interacting with exhibits, witnessing survivors’ testimonies and becoming emotional. ‘I don’t believe that you could ever understand the Holocaust with the mind,’ the Holocaust Museum’s architect, James Ingo Freed, has said. ‘You have to feel it.’ Such museums represent the Holocaust in exhaustive detail even as they insist that any true representation of it is impossible. Visitors are given a stern message: you must try to experience the Holocaust, but don’t think you can ever succeed.

The proliferation of published survivor memoirs is a product of this economy of duty and unsatisfiable desire. They don’t have to be well written, because the pleasures they offer are masochistic rather than literary. Although Buber-Neumann was not Jewish, Under Two Dictators has a lot in common with Holocaust memoirs. There is a very clear template. They describe the moment of capture; journeys in overcrowded trains without water or toilets; the shock of arrival at the camp; the rudimentary sleeping arrangements; infestations; rituals around food; rituals of survival; moments when adversity is transcended; the process of becoming inured to adversity; the increasingly chaotic and violent treatment of inmates towards the end of the war; the unbelieving moment of release; and the (often difficult) journey to freedom. Originality is not a concern; readers are supposed to respond with reverence, to identify with the author’s ordeal and to share in their act of witnessing.

When Elie Wiesel was scheduled to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s book club to talk about Night, shortly after James Frey, whose memoir about recovering from drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces, had just been revealed as a fake, Amazon and Barnes and Noble swiftly reclassified Wiesel’s ‘autobiographical novel’ as ‘non-fiction’. Gary Weissman observes in Fantasies of Witnessing that Night has also been called a ‘novel/ autobiography’, a ‘non-fictional novel’, a ‘semi-fictional memoir’, a ‘fictional-autobiographical memoir’, a ‘fictionalised autobiographical memoir’ and a ‘memoir-novel’. Wiesel himself described it as a ‘deposition’. His use of the term would have seemed quite natural to Buber-Neumann. A few years after the end of the war, she had the opportunity to give her testimony as legal evidence. In 1946 Victor Kravchenko, a Soviet defector, published I Chose Freedom, a highly critical account of Communism. Kravchenko was vilified by the Soviet Union and Communist Parties around the world, and when the French Communist weekly Lettres Françaises accused him of being a liar and a Western spy, he sued for libel. During the long trial that followed, Kravchenko called Buber-Neumann as a witness (Under Two Dictators had recently been published). Her account of her ordeal in the gulag was highly influential, and Kravchenko won the case.

Yet one consequence of the way in which ‘authenticity’ is taken to be the hallmark of the Holocaust memoir is that people make them up. Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is the story of a Jewish girl who walked across Europe during the Second World War, living for a time in the company of wolves. It’s been translated into 18 languages, made into a film in France and has inspired an Italian opera. In February, the author admitted that her name was not Misha Defonseca but Monique De Wael; that she was not Jewish; and that her story was false. A few years ago, Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments was also revealed to be a fake, and the veracity of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski has been questioned by many, including Eliot Weinberger.

The reaction to these discoveries has been oddly mixed. When doubts began to circulate about Fragments, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in the Forward that if the story told there were untrue it ‘might complicate matters somewhat’, but that it was ‘still powerful’. A spokeswoman for Véra Belmont, the French film director who adapted Misha, said: ‘No matter if it’s true or not . . . she just thinks it’s a beautiful story.’ There is a paradox here. On one hand, Holocaust memoirs are seen as unique and precious documents that our culture has an obligation to preserve; on the other, even fake memoirs are praised for their underlying authenticity, as if the genre itself carried its own truth irrespective of whether or not a particular memoir is ‘true’. This is what happens when the sanctification of victimhood collides with a desire for escapism: we want true stories, but we also want stories that are too good to be true.