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.

Panorama, the first volume, was written in 1948 but not published until twenty years later. It’s a third-person Bildungsroman about a character called Josef Kramer – a Josef K with his name made explicitly Jewish. When the First World War breaks out, Josef is sent away from an unnamed city that resembles Prague to live with the Neumann family in provincial Umlowitz. Later, he attends boarding school and joins a scouting group on a trip to Landstein Castle. From here, the biographical correspondences can be confirmed: Adler was born to German-speaking Jews in Prague in 1910, studied musicology at its German University and worked as secretary of the Urania, an educational association that hosted popular talks by the likes of Einstein and Thomas Mann; Josef follows a similar track. Adler was pressed into slave labour to help lay a railway line between Prague and Brno, then he was sent to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two subcamps of Buchenwald, Niederorschel and Langenstein. He puts Josef through all of that except Theresienstadt, which is reserved for the second novel in the sequence. In confinement Josef comes to realise that his life so far – from the Neumanns’ dry goods store to his education and employment – has been preparing him for the camps, where ‘everything is a useless nightmare, no one able to think beyond the day itself, the panorama narrow and closed in.’

The Journey, written in 1950-51 and published in 1962, adapts the deportation and internment experiences into an entire book that details in a mix of third, second and first-person narration the destruction of the Lustig family – a doctor, his wife, their two adult children and the wife’s sister. At Ruhenthal, which is Theresienstadt, they re-enact Adler’s ordeal. Adler arrived in Theresienstadt with his wife, Gertrud Klepetar, in 1942; his parents, who arrived separately, died in the camp that year. Gertrud’s father died in 1943 and in 1944 her mother was deported to Auschwitz. Gertrud insisted on following, and Adler followed his wife. Both mother and daughter were murdered on arrival. Filkins, in his introduction to The Journey, writes that of all the German-language novels about the Holocaust, only three besides Adler’s have been written by Jews with direct experience of the camps: Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well, Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar and Night – not the book by Elie Wiesel, who wrote in French, but a vengeful novel by Edgar Hilsenrath. Filkins’s point about the anti-Semitism of postwar German-language publishing would have been stronger if he’d noted that only one of his Germans, Hilsenrath, was born in the Reich. Becker was born in Poland, Wander in Austria and Adler in what, at the time, was the third city of Austro-Hungary. Adler is the only member of this group whose books risk aestheticising the killing, which he describes in a range of metaphors: the Lustig women are portrayed as rabbits; the crematorium is a zoo, a terrarium, a cinema and an ‘ash factory’; the act itself is an efficient performance spoiled only by the victims, who ‘neglected at the end of the execution to step out from behind the curtain and acknowledge the cheers of those left behind’.

The final volume of the trilogy, The Wall, was written between 1956 and 1961 and published posthumously in 1989. Its narrator, Arthur Landau, remembers the immediate aftermath of the war in ‘the city’, which is still Prague, and his émigré life in ‘the metropolis’, which is London. Arthur is a freelance scholar immersed in an interminable manuscript with the working title Sociology of Oppressed People. He’s writing that book, and presumably this book too, in a drab flat on the fictional West Park Row, which he shares with his second wife, Johanna, and their two children, Eva and Michael. Arthur’s first wife, Franziska, was killed at Auschwitz, but his memories of her are so vivid that he is able to project images from their past together onto the wall of the title, a symbol, for him, of both the limits of meaning and of his salvation: ‘Before it I can exist and rise to become a figure that is visible and casts a shadow, though within myself I remain an indeterminate entity.’ In German this final volume of the trilogy was published, against Adler’s wishes, as Die unsichtbare Wand (‘The Invisible Wall’), to avoid confusion with the host of other books that appeared as the Berlin wall came down.

Every writer on the Holocaust is faced with an absurdity: that the most thorough chroniclers of the tragedy remain the Nazis themselves, who left a long paper trail of censuses, genealogies, banking records, transportation manifests and matériel requisitions, a body of evidence accessible to anyone who understands German and euphemism (arisieren, ‘to Aryanise’, meaning to expropriate a Jewish-owned business; liquidieren, ‘to liquidate’, transferred from the lexicon of commerce to death). Holocaust survivor writers have had to become editors or translators of the Reich’s first draft, and none understood this better than Adler. Obfuscation through defamiliarisation (describing Jews as ‘animals’ and ‘units’), the re-valencing of rhetoric (‘reclaiming’ the Slavic countries for the ‘Großgermanisches Reich’), the subordination of individual autonomy to archetype and allegory, the force of repetition: Adler may have been introduced to these techniques by Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil or Alfred Döblin, but he mastered them by studying Goebbels and Eichmann and his clerks, whom Adorno called Schreibtischmörder, ‘desk-murderers’.

The Nazi bureaucrats were responsible for two of the most malevolent fictionalising experiments of the 20th century, both of which Adler experienced and wrote about. The first was Theresienstadt itself. In 1940, the Nazis converted the Czech garrison town into a camp for nearly 150,000 Czech, German, Austrian and Polish Jews, a quarter of whom died of starvation, dehydration or typhus. Most of the remainder were moved to Auschwitz and Treblinka. In the summer of 1944, with Denmark protesting against the deportation of its Jews to Theresienstadt, Germany capitulated to diplomatic pressure and allowed the International Red Cross to visit the camp to prove that no exterminations were being carried out on site. The Reich Security Main Office, sniffing a PR opportunity, ordered the Gestapo to implement Operation Beautification (Verschönerungsaktion) which would transform the camp temporarily into a picture-postcard hamlet.

Sebald describes it accurately in Austerlitz, because he relied on Adler’s account. ‘It was decided,’ Sebald writes, ‘to organise the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up programme: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over one thousand rosebushes were planted.’ Food rations were increased; new clothes – not just uniforms – were sewn. Conditions in the barracks improved, especially after seven thousand prisoners were dispatched to Auschwitz a month before the inspectors’ arrival. Dr Paul Eppstein, president of the Judenrat, was appointed mayor for the day, and tasked with leading the Red Cross contingent on a tour; Brundibár, a subversive children’s opera whose villain resembled Hitler, was performed; a football game was played, and there was a show trial in which Jewish lawyers, judges and jurors tried another inmate for ‘theft’. The Red Cross report, made public only in 1992, might as well have been ghostwritten by the Reich: ‘The SS police gives the Jews the freedom to organise their administration as they see fit.’ A later propaganda film presented the camp as a spa town for the Jewish elite, which explains Adler’s name for it in The Journey: Ruhenthal means ‘Valley of Rest’. The novel depicts it as a sanatorium with an identity problem: sometimes the Jews are the patients and the Nazis are the benevolent physicians pursuing their ‘cure’; at other times the Nazis are ‘the diseased’, armed lunatics bent on eradicating their Jewish caretakers.

Adler encountered the second fictionalising experiment only after liberation, when he returned to Prague as an orphan and widower. The city’s Jewry had been almost wiped out, but Josefov, the medieval Jewish quarter, had been preserved intact. Under the supervision of Reinhard Heydrich and Karl Rahm, the commandant of Theresienstadt, its synagogues, meeting halls and burial society buildings had been turned into repositories of Judaica: prayer books, Torah scrolls, gold and silver religious paraphernalia and textiles seized from across Czechoslovakia. These were to comprise the collection of a clandestine Jüdisches Zentralmuseum, accessible only to Nazi officers and researchers who required accurate, not anti-Semitic, information on an extinct race. The wartime museum held just four exhibits – among them a display of Hebrew manuscripts and an installation illustrating the Jewish life-cycle that featured a circumcision knife and a shroud – and was curated by Czechoslovakian Jewish specialists. The museum, reclaimed by the remnants of Prague Jewry in 1945, hired Adler to catalogue its library of roughly 100,000 volumes. But then the new regime began clamping down on Jewish institutions, and by the end of the decade had effectively closed the museum by nationalising it. Adler, however, was in London by then, and the only books in his cramped flat were the ones he was writing and the ones he’d smuggled out.

*

Cultural continuity; collective memory; the conflation of ‘belonging’ and ‘belongings’; the consoling power of art: these are all humanist concerns that after the Holocaust were less acceptable than ever to Adler’s London cohort of displaced Germanophones, who held with Adorno’s dictum that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ The essay the line is from, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’, was written in 1949, just as Adler, who’d written poetry throughout his time in the camps, was trying to publish his first novel. The next year he reviewed Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music for the Third Programme, and used the opportunity to initiate a correspondence with his fellow musicologist. Several meetings ensued, alternately fraternal and fraught. In 1956 Adorno invited Adler to lecture on Theresienstadt at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. In 1957 Adler was invited to give another talk, this time to a private circle. The title was ‘Ideologies under Slavery’. Adler interpreted the title socially and psychologically: ideologies are imposed on a people until a people imposes them on itself. Adorno’s interpretation was political and economic: ideologies are the result of systems that determine the identities and actions of everyone, both oppressors and oppressed. A rift ensued, which Adorno exacerbated in the essay ‘Negative Dialectics’ in 1966, in a passage that unmistakably attacks his former friend:

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems … But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living – especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared.

Or of him, perhaps, who spent the war in Pacific Palisades, California?

The Wall travesties Adorno in the person of Professor Kratzenstein, a man convinced that all miseries are ‘the result of economic conditions’. He is the head of the International Society of Sociologists, which is the Institute for Social Research done up in clown make-up and fancy dress. Bereft in London, his English still shaky, Arthur seeks the support of the society for his Sociology of Oppressed Peoples, but all he gets are ‘platitudes’ and ‘dogmatic declarations’. The émigré intelligentsia are no help either: Leonard Kauders (based on Franz Baermann Steiner) and Oswald and Inge Bergmann (based on Elias and Veza Canetti) refer him to a philanthropist who doesn’t offer any money, just a job at a wallpaper factory. Arthur is going broke for writing a book about deception, self-deception and persecution, while professional Marxists brand him a schnorrer and advise him to return to Soviet Czechoslovakia. The absurdities of Theresienstadt and the museum recur in Hampstead, not quite as tragedy, but not quite as farce either.

It was Adorno’s idea that capitalism had stripped philosophy of its revolutionary capacities. What was left was art, the last emancipator and partisan of truth. But Adorno was using the word ‘truth’ (or Wahrheitsgehalt, ‘truth-value’) in a way that was already becoming outmoded. His ‘truth’ always gestured towards an ‘essence’, a below-the-surface system of pitches, colours or symbols that would organise an artwork and instantiate its worth; but contemporary usage was returning the word to its Enlightenment definition – quasi-scientific ‘factuality’. This is the position we’re in today, when most writers invoke ‘truth’ only as a pre-emptive defence against those whose primary impulse is to fact-check and accuse. It’s perverse that the closer a writer is to the Holocaust the more closely their work is scrutinised and questioned. In the 1990s the old news re-emerged online that Elie Wiesel’s most famous Holocaust book was a revision of an earlier, fiercer Yiddish version. The French text, written under the spell of Sartre and Camus, sublimates the parochial appetite for revenge into a universalist obligation to testify. Wiesel’s revision was ammunition to denialists. He had already proclaimed, decades before he won the Nobel Prize, decades before he took Oprah to Poland, that ‘some events do take place but are not true; others are – although they never occurred.’ Along with Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, Aharon Appelfeld, Piotr Rawicz, Jakov Lind and Jerzy Kosinski, he elided events and fashioned composite characters to attain a sense of realism – but that doesn’t mean that Auschwitz was a hoax, or that Israel is illegitimate. Writers who survived don’t seem to be allowed the same licence as Cynthia Ozick or Martin Amis, who’ve imagined their Shoahs in comparative peace.

The lasting legacy of Holocaust literature seems to be its utility as a template for contemporary sagas of victimisation, be they memoirs of child soldiers in Africa, or of women throughout the ummah. These books are regarded as proof of adversity conquered: they dramatise all powerlessness or blunted will into martyrdom; their characters endure on heart alone, in scenes arranged with Hollywood cunning; their authors treat their grief as an imperative not just to write but for readers to read them. But Adler warily wrote the truth, and he did so by the Adorno method, even if Adorno never certified it: his fiction individuated the non-fiction he wrote, in forms that adapted, and realigned, the grotesque ‘non-fiction’ he experienced. Between the two genres was a wall, perhaps ‘invisible’, perhaps imaginary – a mental fence between allied integrities. Arthur concludes The Wall with a fantasy in which Kratzenstein offers him an apology, and celebrates his work at a sociology gathering on Shepherd’s Field – Hampstead Heath – which resembles a carnival, complete with bumper cars and a shooting gallery. As the festivities dwindle, and Arthur stalks back alone to West Park Row, he prepares himself to face the fact that not only was it all just a dream, but that its recording and even its dreaming have consequences: ‘Thus I have robbed myself of the last opportunity to find a place among my contemporaries, to feel that I have a function as a member of society, even if it is only that of being a recognised witness to what I have lived through.’