In his 1994 book, published in English in 1997 as Literature or Life, Jorge Semprún recalls how, a few days after his liberation from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945, he joined a conversation between several fellow former prisoners, while they awaited repatriation to their home countries. In a scene which he recounts in detail, they wondered how they were going to tell people about their experiences in the camp.
They agreed that talking would not be the problem. The issue was, would anyone want to listen? The discussion became heated. Most agreed that people would listen if the story was well told.
Someone said, ‘You have to tell things the way they are, with no fancy stuff!’ The others nodded approvingly, but Semprún objected:
‘Listen, guys! The truth we have to tell, [. . .] isn’t easily believable[. . .]. It’s even unimaginable –’
He went on: ‘How do you tell such an unlikely truth, how do you foster the imagination of the unimaginable, if not by elaborating, by reworking reality, by putting it in perspective? With a bit of artifice, then!’
The men talked at once, interrupting each other, but someone made himself heard; Semprún did not know his name but thought he was an academic, a professor from Strasbourg.
‘I imagine there’ll be a flood of accounts,’ said the professor. [. . .] ‘And then there will be documents. [. . .] Later, historians will collect, classify, analyze this material, drawing on it for scholarly works. [. . .] Everything in these books will be true [. . .] except that they won’t contain the essential truth, which no historical reconstruction will ever be able to grasp, no matter how thorough and all-inclusive it may be.’
The others nodded, relieved that someone could express their doubts so clearly.
‘The other kind of understanding, the essential truth of the experience, cannot be imparted. [. . .] Or should I say, it can be imparted only through literary writing.’
Raw truth was not enough to make people listen and take note. One had to shape the truth with the devices of storytelling to convey its full meaning. Semprún followed this precept for the rest of his life, blending fiction even into his memoirs. He was criticized by those who believed his inventions were self-aggrandizing and called into question the accounts of all eyewitnesses, and the debate continues to this day. How to tell the truth about horror, when the horror is repetitive and meaningless, or beyond the imagination? Semprún chose life over literature, and did not write about his experiences for sixteen years after his release from Buchenwald.
Semprún’s first book, The Long Voyage, was published in 1963; it won two literary prizes and was translated from its original French into a dozen languages. Later, he wrote screenplays, novels and memoirs characterized by a fragmentary style and melding truth and inventions. Another memoir/ novel is What a Beautiful Sunday!, the account of one Sunday in Buchenwald, inspired by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Here, Semprún wove incidents from life in the camp with autobiographical anecdotes, and literary musings on the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and other writers and intellectuals. Buchenwald was built on the Ettersberg, a hill frequented by Goethe; a large tree in the camp was thought to have been one of his oaks. Semprún wondered what Goethe and his Enlightenment contemporaries would make of Buchenwald, that place with a beautiful name (beech forest), where through brutal conditions, overwork and executions more than 56,000 people lost their lives.
Semprún was wise to delay telling his story. After the war, people were not disposed to listen to tales of horror. Another camp survivor, Primo Levi, was unable to suppress his need to write about his experiences in Auschwitz. In contrast to Semprún, writing for Levi was the only way to become reconciled with his memories, to return to life. His first book, If This is a Man, was rejected by several major publishing houses. Eventually, it was accepted by a minor publisher. It sold poorly and, thwarted in his literary aspirations, Levi returned to his pre-war occupation as an industrial chemist. The world was not ready to listen to his account until much later. We should be grateful he did not give up writing for good, as he produced some of the most limpid, beautiful and unsentimental literature on the Holocaust.
Now, two generations later, we are still debating what stories can be told by whom, and how, and when. A number of fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust have become bestsellers and been made into Hollywood movies, while being criticized as kitsch or for distorting the truth. I try to avoid such popular books, probably out of unconscious snobbery (if they are popular they must be bad), although I do read many books on the Second World War and concentration camps. I wonder at my reaction, and fear that I may have succumbed to a fashionable disapproval of cultural appropriation. But this is not the case. I do not believe that only survivors should be allowed to write about their experiences. Anyone should write about anything as long as the writing is good, or make a film about anything if the film is good, whether or not they have lived through the historical events in their own skin. When the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked in an interview on BBC Radio 4 (Today programme,12 February 2020) whether he believed white people were entitled to write about the experiences of African slaves, he replied with a categorical ‘yes’. As long as the writing was good, he emphasized.
What makes a book or film good is another matter. Artistic merit is a complicated subject and I will not concern myself with it here.The focus of my interest is on how stories are told and what makes people want to listen. How to be truthful while using artifice, the tricks of the storyteller. I have a vested interest: I am writing a family memoir of my Berlin-born father and grandfather, whose lives spanned the twentieth century. They both escaped the Holocaust, my father on a Kindertransport to England in 1939, and my grandfather by a circuitous journey to New York in 1941. To understand their life and times, and aid my writing, I am reading books on European history, German society, the war and the Holocaust. I also read memoirs and novels to learn how other authors have tackled these subjects and find out what literary devices they have used. It is not until I made a list of the authors and titles of the books I read last year that I became aware of my obsession.
All of the books on my list are by men, and most are about war, death camps or labour camps. I am not
a systematic reader and have often found a book by accident, which led me to another book, and so on. The first on my list is The Seventh Well, by the Austrian Jewish writer Fred Wander. My copy is second-hand. I saw it in the window of the Amnesty Bookshop in Mill Road, Cambridge, on a cold January morning when killing time between dentist appointments. The English translation by Michael Hofmann has a black-and-white photograph on the front, showing the legs of two men sitting side by side on a step. One can imagine the men waiting patiently, with all the time in the world. I had never heard of Fred Wander, but I went into the shop and bought the book for its cover. Torn between horror and wonderment, I read The Seventh Well in one sitting. Here was a collection of tales, almost fairy tales, about people encountered by the narrator when he was imprisoned in a Nazi camp. We learn of the fates of his doomed companions, the death march, the snow, and how those who lagged behind were shot. There is something almost biblical in the dignity and simplicity of the writing and the fundamental love of life and humanity.
I searched for other books by Wander, and found a few in German, out of print. He was unknown in the English-speaking world before the 2008 translation of The Seventh Well. One reason is because he spent a large proportion of his life after the war in East Germany, where he earned a living as a writer and photographer. He could not be reconciled to post-war Vienna, watching former Nazis living with impunity. In the German Democratic Republic he found camaraderie among other writers and peace to work and write. Also bureaucracy and restrictions but, as he wrote in his memoir Das Gute Leben (A Good Life), you get used to everything, and what matters in life is the everyday: friends, family, security and a good view out of the window. Of course, with an Austrian passport and the right to travel he was one of the privileged few, but we should not forget that there is much to be commended in the ideals of socialism, however unfashionable they have become. My father too returned to live in the GDR, probably for the same idealistic reasons as Wander, and my recollections of the cultural life, excellent education system, social services, and good beer and rye bread are far from all bad.
It is disappointing that such an important European author is not known widely in the English-speaking world. Wander’s Das Gute Leben remains untranslated. The situation is changing, however, and more and more foreign-language books are being translated into English or reprinted in fresh editions.The New York Review of Books Classics series has been instrumental in this area. My bookshelves are full of NYRB Classics with their lovely covers; one of my first was Vasily Grossman’s magisterial novel Life and Fate, which I read in one sitting on its publication in 2006 (for a week I did nothing other than read, eat and sleep). Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s translation of Grossman’s Stalingrad, the prequel to Life and Fate, was issued by NYRB Classics in June 2019, and I bought it immediately but have not even opened it, for fear it will grip me and I won’t be able to put it down until it’s finished. I am saving it for a special occasion when I have no distractions. Instead, I read A Writer at War, a compilation of Grossman’s war notebooks from 1941 to 1945, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Here, I learned how the fat, bespectacled Grossman was rejected from active service after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. He badgered the political department of the Red Army until he was conscripted as a special correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the official newspaper of the Soviet army, and sent to the front in August 1941. For the next four years he reported from Stalingrad, Kursk and many other battles. He described the advance of the Red Army and the liberation of formerly occupied areas, and recorded Holocaust atrocities in his home town Berdichev and the Treblinka death camp, as well as the fall of Berlin. He would use these experiences in his books.
Grossman impresses me with his concern for epic themes of social justice and heroism, while noting the smallest details of individual lives and deaths. He writes with equal humanity and compassion about Soviets and Germans. In May 1945, there are thousands of corpses on the streets of Berlin and the city is mostly in ruins. Starvation and disease threaten civilians, soldiers and displaced persons. Colonel-General Berzarin of the Red Army, the first town mayor of the Soviet-occupied zone, summoned the ‘directors of Berlin’s electricity supply, Berlin water, sewerage, underground, trams, gas, factory owners . . .’, all former Nazis, and gave them positions in his new office. Berlin needed to function again as a city and people had to get on with life, at whatever cost. Grossman sees a couple on a park bench: a wounded German soldier hugging a nurse. They are still there when he walks past again an hour later. ‘The world does not exist for them, they are happy.’
Grossman wrote on the parallels between Stalinism and Hitlerism, and of course the two dictators became allies after the signing of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939. In September, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west, and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. The Poles were now enemies of both sides, and Polish men active in the fight against the invading Nazis were arrested by the Red Army and sent to Soviet prison camps. Among them was the multilingual aristocrat and artist Józef Czapski, who was to be one of the few survivors of the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers and soldiers at Katyn and other Soviet camps. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Czapski was freed under the Soviet ‘amnesty’ of Polish prisoners, and joined Anders’ Army, the name given to the Polish Armed Forces under General Władysław Anders.
NYRB Classics has issued two books by Czapski. The first, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, is a mere ninety pages, of which almost a third are the introduction and glossary.The remaining sixty pages are a record, after the event, of lectures given by Czapski to his fellow officers in the Soviet prison camp. Without books or writing materials, he conveyed the essence of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to his freezing and starving fellows, making the work relevant to their daily lives in the camp.
If in Lost Time Czapski can be likened to Scheherazade, weaving beautiful tales from memory, he could also be compared to Odysseus for the long and difficult journey he took after his release from prison camp.This is told in Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941–1942, a detailed account of Czapski’s return to the Polish army in the Soviet Union, newly formed with uniforms and equipment supplied by Western Allies and the Polish Government in Exile. Tens of thousands of starving, sick and ragged men made their way from prisons and labour camps in the Soviet Union to join Anders’ Army, whose headquarters were established in Tashkent. The growing army crossed to Iran together with thousands of displaced Polish civilians and Jewish children. Czapski had a senior position in Anders’ Army, responsible for propaganda and education. He made great efforts to locate the missing 20,000 officers and soldiers, without success.
Inhuman Land opened my eyes to historical events previously unknown to me. Later, in my own researches through my family tree, I discovered a cousin of my grandfather, whose family had chosen to remain in East Prussia some years earlier when it reverted to Poland after the First World War. Fritz Guttmann was a Jewish engineer and newspaper editor who devoted his life to keeping the German language and culture alive in his home town of Katowice, Upper Silesia. He and his teenage son Reuben fled east after the Nazi invasion of Poland, only to be arrested by the Red Army (as Polish men of fighting age) and sent to a Soviet labour camp in Asbest, in the Urals. Fritz died there of lung disease, but his son survived, joined a unit of Polish fighters and was present at the fall of Berlin. There he found that his grandparents, my grandfather’s aunt and uncle, had been deported to Theresienstadt, where they perished. Fritz’s sister Eliese, also from Berlin, was luckier than her brother: in 1939 she and her teenage son managed to emigrate to Australia. However, her husband had been arrested by the Nazis on Kristallnacht in November 1938, and died a few days afterwards in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just outside Berlin. I know this because it was Eliese who warned my grandfather not to return home on Kristallnacht, but instead to hide with my young father at another address until the danger of arrest had passed.
My reading feeds into these family stories, giving them context and new meaning. Last year, I reread W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Emigrants. I love Sebald for his melancholy, his sense of displacement and his obsessiveness, traits that mirror my own. Jacques Austerlitz grows up feeling that he does not belong in his dark home in Wales, and learns that he was sent to England at the age of four by his Czech mother, who probably perished in Theresienstadt or one of the extermination camps in the east. After spending decades unable to come to terms with his newly discovered identity, Austerlitz travels to Prague to discover his roots.When he arrives at his mother’s former apartment after a lengthy search, he meets her former neighbour Vêra, who had been his nurserymaid, now a very old lady. She immediately recognizes the infant in the elderly man before her, and cries out, ‘Jaquot, is it really you?’ They hug and hold hands for several minutes. This passage, full of both sadness and joy, makes me weep when I recall it. There is something intensely poignant in the stories of the 11,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who were sent to England on the Kindertransports in 1939, about half of whom were never to see their parents again.
Still, these children were the lucky ones. Hundreds of thousands of others were sent to camps or killed by Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi death squads. Only a small proportion survived, among them the Hungarian writer and Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész. He was picked up and sent to Auschwitz as a fourteen-year-old, but avoided selection for the gas chambers by pretending to be sixteen. Children were gassed, and only the strongest and youngest men, and more rarely women, were kept alive as labourers. His novel Fatelessness is a fictionalized account of his experiences in the camp. My clearest memory is from the ending, when the boy, after the long journey back to Hungary following liberation, is thrown off the tram in Budapest for lacking the correct fare. People look at him, filthy and skeletal, in disgust, and he begins to miss the camaraderie of the camp.
The Communist authorities in Hungary hated the book for its presumed cynicism and lack of redemptive values, but I loved it for the same reasons. It describes the world through the eyes of a callow boy, full of hunger and thirst, curiosity and desire for life, and without a socialist message of resistance or redemption. I was drawn to Kertész’s ideas, and learned more about them from a little booklet called The Holocaust as Culture. It is here that I first heard of Jorge Semprún (whom I mentioned at the start), and got to know of the Austrian-born essayist and camp survivor Jean Améry, and about Kertész’s views on the choices made by writers and survivors, including Améry’s suicide. Despite their bleakness, I found these readings heartening. The Holocaust has no easy message of redemption. Nevertheless, for Kertész it has produced ‘unmeasurable knowledge’ and ‘unmeasurable moral reserves’.
After reading about Jean Améry, I had to read him first-hand. He wrote relatively little, mostly essays, and not much of his work is in translation, although NYRB Classics has published Charles Bovary, Country Doctor: Portrait of a Simple Man, a rebuttal of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary from the point of view of her cuckolded husband. This is on my ‘to read’ list. Instead, I have read At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, a series of essays by Améry on subjects including resentment, torture and being Jewish. Difficult themes written in beautiful and accessible language.
I braced myself before reading Torture, knowing that once I read it I would not be able to unread it. Eventually, I read it at my desk, almost holding my breath. It is not ghoulish. It is about how the body and soul of a human being, somebody’s son, can be broken by pleasant young men in the course of their daily work. Just like that. It is essential reading.
I worried about Améry’s suicide, disappointed that someone of such supreme wisdom would reject life. But then Primo Levi, that exemplar of humanity who never lost faith in the beauty of poetry, even after Auschwitz, also took his own life in his sixties, the same age as Améry. Their deaths still trouble me. Reading Améry was probably the lowest point of my literary year, on account of the deep pessimism of some of his works.
All these books reinforced my sense of the fragility of peace, and of the danger of demonizing others, be it immigrants, Jews, Muslims or whichever group we choose to scapegoat. This dark mood deepened after I’d read Walter Kempowski’s novel All for Nothing, and his Swansong 1945, a collective diary made up of a thousand extracts of diary entries and letters from four days at the end of the Third Reich: 20, 25 and 30 April and 8 May. Kempowski is another relatively little-known German writer who has recently come to prominence, and these two masterpieces (from his output of more than forty books in German) took over ten years to appear in the English-speaking world. In different ways, both works give a picture of the enormous destruction and upheaval caused by the war, not only through the fighting and bombing raids, but through mass stupidity, cruelty, murder, rape and suicide.
All for Nothing takes the reader into a magical world of a country estate in East Prussia in the last days of the war, seen from the vantage point of a twelve-year-old boy. The cast of characters reminded me of those in a Chekhov play, fretting about their daily concerns and the housekeeping, while the Russians advance and long lines of refugees can be seen slogging west on the road just outside the gate. By the time the members of the household decide to join them, it is too late. All the beauty, culture and life are worth nothing.
Sadly, as time passes, the spectre of Holocaust denial continues to haunt the world. In one of my peregrinations through second-hand bookshops, I found The Holocaust on Trial, by journalist, writer and academic D. D. Guttenplan. Sometime last year, I was offered the pneumococcal vaccine by a nurse, and I accepted gladly. I did not know I would suffer a strong reaction and be confined to bed for a day, in total prostration. I picked up Guttenplan’s book and found it so engrossing that I had finished it by the evening. It tells the story of the libel suit by Holocaust denier David Irving against the academic Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin, her British publisher, using first-hand testimonies from Irving, Lipstadt and the legal team, as well as the trial proceedings and reports. The Holocaust on Trial is one of the best books I have read about Holocaust denial, libel laws, and the power of fake news. Despite the serious themes, the book reads like a crime thriller; I loved the way the legal team carefully and without emotion ferreted out historical evidence, laying a trap for Irving. I was grateful to my fever for giving me the chance to devour the 300 pages of this book without interruption, and so have a heightened sense of the urgency of the trial.
Last year was an unusual one for me in terms of reading matter. It was also unusual in that it marked my resolution to turn my back on science and devote myself to writing. If asked the question ‘Why do you write?’ I can do no better than refer to the Czech writer Ivan Klíma, author of The Spirit of Prague, the last book on my list. After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, Klíma and his parents were interned in Theresienstadt and only survived because his father was an electrical engineer, an occupation that made him invaluable in the camp. After the war, Klíma resolved to be a writer. While he admitted that he enjoyed making up stories and finding ways of telling them, his main reason was that, as the result of his experiences in the concentration camp and later in an unfree society, he felt an overwhelming compulsion to keep the memory of others alive, and to speak out the truth. ◊