October 20, 2018

Memories of Auschwitz, on a return trip

How does any man survive unspeakable trauma?  After 70 years of controlled silence, Otto Dov Kulka, Czech-born Holocaust historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has come forward to show us his roadmap in “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination” (Allen Lane/Penguin: $23.95), an intricate journey of muffled grief and remembering, translated by Ralph Mandel. 

Eighty-year-old Kulka has remained eerily quiet about his childhood experiences in Auschwitz and the loss of his beloved mother.  He speaks now for reasons that remain mysterious.  His utterly original voice is laced with a painful authenticity and has a stuttering eloquence.  He feels no need to claim authority over what has befallen him, but wanders freely between flashbacks of vivid memory and the haze that still surrounds him.  Kulka seems to have been able to create for himself his own private universe for remembering; complete with its own vocabulary and select images.  Auschwitz for him is never Auschwitz, but rather a land he refers to as the “Metropolis of Death.”  He lived there as an 11-year-old boy surrounded by corpses and the terrible stench of death under what he describes as an intoxicatingly beautiful blue Auschwitz sky.  It seems that it might have been Kulka’s ability to store in his fragile young mind images of great beauty alongside utter despair that ultimately saved him from succumbing to complete desolation.

Kulka first began making notes about his feelings back in 1978, during a trip to Poland where he went to attend a professional conference.  Afterward, he set out to visit the Auschwitz site and found his mind saturated with new memories that for decades had lain dormant.  Kulka lived with his mother and 5,000 other Jews in the family camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  At first, these Jews thought themselves “lucky” to have secured such accommodations.  They were not tattooed or shaven and allowed to sleep with their families in private quarters, an unheard of situation for prisoners of Auschwitz.  But it was merely a malicious scam conceived by the Nazis to fool the Red Cross inspectors who were coming to investigate.  Shortly after their visit, almost all 5,000 were immediately gassed.  Otto escaped since he was being treated for diphtheria in the camp hospital; it would be the first of his many miraculous escapes.

Kulka found his return to Auschwitz in 1978 unsettling.  He wandered the desolate grounds disturbed by the silence, remembering when it “had been so densely crowded with people, like ants, with armies of slaves, with rows of people making their way along the paths. …”  Now he stood facing concrete pillars with taut steel wires that back then had upon them huge lights that flooded their faces as they entered the camps.”

Many months later, Kulka and his father would leave with others on a death march out of the camp.  He writes: “What I remember from that journey, in fact, I remember everything, but what is dominant, is, as I said, a certain color of snow all around, of a very long convoy, black, moving slowly, and suddenly black stains along the sides of the road: a large black stain and then another large black stain, and another stain…”

Kulka remembered how he attempted to hold on to any lifeline he could find.  There were some who were particularly helpful to him.  He recalls a teacher in the special barracks who continued to teach him and the other children their daily lessons, as if a bright future awaited them.  Looking back, he feels a deep sense of awe for this man’s repeated acts of denial and resistance.  Another young man whom he met in the camp hospital tried to inculcate young Otto with his abundance of knowledge about European culture.  He would teach him about Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Beethoven and then segue to politics attempting to analyze for him the merits and drawbacks of Zionism and communism.  Otto remembers being comforted by these diversions, but they were always short-lived.  He admits that he knew back then that regardless of his fate he would always remain “a prisoner of that Metropolis, of the immutable law which leaves no place for being rescued, for violating this terrible ‘justice’ by which Auschwitz must remain Auschwitz.”

Kulka’s prose seems reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, a writer who seemed to simultaneously live in multiple worlds at once.  Kulka reveals almost nothing to us about his life for the last several decades as a teacher and writer and husband and father.  He does not speak about religious faith.  He states quietly that he knows that there has always existed in him “a dimension of silence, of a choice I made to sever the biographical from the historical past.”  He has chosen not to read any of the major literary works on the Holocaust and has not visited any of the museums and exhibits around the world that commemorate it.  He has used the archives at Yad Vashem for his research, but has never seen the central exhibit or memorial there.  He avoided seeing the film “Shoah” for reasons he cannot express.  He reports being disturbed by hearing other survivors speak, finding their experiences utterly alien to his own.  He finds solace in guarding his own memories, which he describes as “these landscapes, this whole private mythology, this Metropolis, Auschwitz — this Auschwitz that was recorded here, which speaks here from my words, is the only entrance and exit, perhaps, or a closing — the only one that exists for me alone.”

Writer Jay Ladin asked: “Do we, in fact, have words for the Holocaust, or does the Holocaust mark the grim border of language, a boundary of anguish and degradation beyond which, before which, silence is the only possible signifier?”  Kulka seems to have found a way to break through his own self-imposed silence.  His prose carries within it no false sense of triumphalism, or rigid ideology, or heroic bravado.  He refrains from overt declarations of anger or fantasies of revenge.  He mourns quietly just as he has lived. 

This incredibly compelling work echoes the aching sentiment found in the poetry of Tadeusz Rozewicz, who wrote:

“After the end of the world
after death I found myself in the midst of life
Creating myself
Building life
People animals landscapes…
people eat to live
I kept saying to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
is greater than the value of all things
which man has created
man is a great treasure
I repeated stubbornly….

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.