The crematorium is a zoo

Joshua Cohen

  • The Wall by H.G. Adler, translated by Peter Filkins
    Modern Library, 672 pp, £12.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 8129 8315 9

On 18 May 1961, towards the end of Session 45 of the Eichmann trial, Judge Halevi asked State Prosecutor Bar-Or if he’d finished submitting into evidence all the documents relevant to the Theresienstadt camp. Bar-Or said he had, though of course there was also ‘the well-known book by Dr John Adler’: ‘This is the outstanding book about Theresienstadt, and it is called Theresienstadt.’

judge halevi: Was he there?

state prosecutor bar-or: He himself was in Theresienstadt. I simply hesitate to burden the court with material. This is an excellent, authentic book. It is based on impeccable sources. It is a thick volume, and it is at the disposal of the court. I simply hesitate to submit it. Much has been written about Theresienstadt. I try to submit material which refers to the Accused, without impairing the general picture. We are faced with the difficult problem that one has somehow to compromise and to select, otherwise there is no end to it.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt seized on the mention of this book by H.G. Adler as a rare moment of nuance in the trial:

The reason for the omission was clear. [Adler’s book] describes in detail how the feared ‘transport lists’ were put together by the Jewish Council of Theresienstadt after the SS had given some general directives, stipulating how many should be sent away, and of what age, sex, profession and country of origin. The prosecution’s case would have been weakened if it had been forced to admit that the naming of individuals who were sent to their doom had been, with few exceptions, the job of the Jewish administration … The picture would indeed have been greatly damaged by the inclusion of Adler’s book, since it would have contradicted testimony given by the chief witness on Theresienstadt, who claimed that Eichmann himself had made these individual selections. Even more important, the prosecution’s general picture of a clear-cut division between persecutors and victims would have suffered greatly.

Arendt’s point is that no prosecution would have wanted, and no defence would have dared, to address the forced collaboration of Jews in their own extermination. No instance of a Jew unloading the cattle-cars could be allowed to mitigate the guilt of the Accused. But Arendt failed to state the obvious: that being forced to participate in another’s death while waiting for your own was victimisation at its most perverse. What the Jerusalem judiciary didn’t trust the world to comprehend was something that was already being taught in Israeli schools, and for survivors was a basic fact.

Hans Günther Adler arrived in London in 1947, and wrote his nearly thousand-page book in feverish haste. He recorded the activities of the Judenrat alongside how many grams of food each inmate received each day, and how many hours they were allowed to sleep each night. Over the next three decades he became the survivor who wrote the most but was read the least, producing more than thirty books of history (The Administered Man, a study of the deportations of German Jewry), sociology (The Experience of Powerlessness, a study of camp organisation), poetry and fiction, all published on a shoestring in West Germany and not translated into English until now. The revival of interest in him began, in the English-speaking world, in 2001, when W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz was published. Austerlitz’s protagonist is obsessed with Theresienstadt and regrets that ‘now it is too late for me to seek out Adler, who had lived in London until his death in the summer of 1988.’ In 2002, after Sebald’s death, the translator Peter Filkins came across a copy of the German original of The Journey, the middle novel of a trilogy by Adler, in Schoenhof’s Foreign Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Filkins found a very different Adler from the chronicler who had inspired Sebald. Adler’s subject remains the same whether he’s writing fiction or non-fiction – the events between his deportation in February 1942 and liberation in April 1945 – but whereas the style of his non-fiction is conventionally academic, the style of his fiction embodies the trauma: internal monologues turn out to have been spoken aloud; dialogue is exposed as two sides of a psychic break; events are given out of sequence; each passage’s vocabulary is determined by its theme – biblical, technological, legalistic, medical – rather than by its characters.

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