Singular Survivors: A Holocaust Trio plus One

“Singular Survivors” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of Jewish Book World. Elsewhere in the same issue (and presented below the “trio”) is my review of a newly translated classic Holocaust-related novel — Panorama. The same review article (less Panorama) is reprinted in the August 2011 issue of L’Chayim (published by the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida) and in the September 2011 issue of The Jewish News (published by the Jewish Federation of Sarasota and Manatee Counties, Florida).

 THE LAST JEW OF TREBLINKA: A MEMOIR. Chil Rajchman; Solon Beinfeld, trans. Pegasus Books, 2011. 160pp. $22.00. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6851-7

 THROUGH A NARROW WINDOW: FRIEDL DICKER-BRANDEIS AND HER TEREZÍN STUDENTS. Linney Wix. University of New Mexico Press, 2010. 166pp. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-8263-2

THE DRUGGEST OF AUSCHWITZ. Dieter Schlesak; John Hargraves, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 374pp. $26.00. ISBN: 978-0-374-14406-7

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

 Cast in an affectless narrative voice, The Last Jew of Treblinka, written in 1945, is one of the rare first-hand responsesto incarceration in Treblinka. Because Treblinka was solely designed to be a death camp, it had far fewer survivors than concentration camps or work camps. Its business was strictly annihilation. We learn from Rajchman about the ruthless efficiency of what can only be called a death factory. The Nazi war machine engineered assembly-line techniques to transport, confine, torture, gas, and then bury and/or incinerate its victims. Those in charge regularly explored refinements in efficiency, even as their underlings gleefully satisfied unfathomably sadistic longings.

 Overwhelming deprivation and constant torture was the lot of the Jewish inmates who were forced to participate as laborers. Rajchman joined a team of untrained “dentists” stationed along the assembly line to extract false teeth, gold, and other valuable materials from the astounding number of corpses. Others had to unpack corpses from the gas chambers, convey them to be buried in pits, or load them into ovens. In the end, the corpses were dug up and incinerated in an attempt to obliterate traces of this gruesome enterprise.

 Rajchman’s narrative concludes with a startling portrayal of the Treblinka rebellion that allowed him and a handful of others to escape.

 Illustrations, maps, preface.

 ***

 A remarkable project, Through a Narrow Window sets the historical, cultural, esthetic, and situational context for   the amazing production of art by children that took place in the Terezín concentration camp. Terezín, a Nazi propaganda showplace, was designed to show the outside world how well its prisoner-guests were treated. Dicker-Brandeis, an accomplished Bauhaus-trained artist and theorist in art pedagogy, was brought to Terezín to work with the children. Make no mistake: she and these children were Nazi prisoners. Their lives were severely circumscribed. And yet, Dicker-Brandeis had the opportunity to teach them how to express themselves – how to find themselves – through artistic creativity.

 Based on an exhibition curated by Linney Wix for the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the book reviews Dicker-Brandeis’s training and artistic career, the artistic milieu in which she flourished, and her trailblazing teaching methodology. It also recounts her successful scheme to sequester two suitcases full of her students’ art, which reached the Jewish community of Prague soon after the close of World War II. The heroic teacher had already been relocated to Auschwitz, where she was executed.

 The glory of Through a Narrow Window is the generous presentation of color photographs and plates representative of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s own work as well as those of the incarcerated children whom she taught. Through their art, they are alive.

 Chronology, foreword, preface.

 ***

Subtitled “A Documentary Novel,” Dieter Schlesak’s achievement needs to be measured against its colossally    ambitious goal: to balance documentary truth and the truth of the imagination. By selecting and arranging passages from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963-65, and intermingling them with less formal interview material, the author has already taken the first step toward uncovering the real Dr. Victor Capesius – a man convinced of his moral innocence.

 Capesius, who rose from “sorter” of new detainees to a postwar life of great wealth based on exploiting his upward mobility in the Auschwitz command hierarchy, presents himself as a man making the best of a horrible situation – almost a victim. He blocks all glances into his grotesque soul, including his role in unconscionable medical experimentation, and thus stands for many of his contemporaries. 

 To unify the collage of voices, of interrogatory transcripts, Schlesak invents a character named Adam as a kind of central consciousness. Adam reflects the life of the Auschwitz inmate and is given a place in the range of testimony about Capesius. Sometimes discursive and cerebral, sometimes stream-of-consciousness, his voice is at once individual and choric. There is yet another narrative voice, a step removed from Adam’s, that is nameless and thus perplexing. Is it a version of the author’s own voice?

 A challenge for readers both in substance and experimental style, The Druggist of Auschwitz is functionally disorienting. It succeeds by not playing it safe.

 Biographies, sources.  PKJ

——–

PANORAMA: A NOVEL. H. G. Adler; Peter Filkins, trans. Random House, 2011. 480pp. $26.00. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6851-7

Written in 1948, first published in German in 1968, Adler’s masterpiece is now available in English. Based on the author’s life, this modernist classic uses the conceit of the panorama, in this case a series of magnified pictures from around the world viewed through a peep-hole, to introduce his protagonist’s particular psychology as well as the structural technique of this iconoclastic novel. In ten unconnected prose tableaux, significant slices of Josef Kramer’s life are set before the reader. Adler’s technique amplifies Josef’s uncanny duality of self-awareness, just as one witnessing the magnetic panorama may project himself from mere spectator to a figure in a scene and back again. 

 Stylistically, Adler’s experiment employs a version of stream-of-consciousness: long, complex, winding sentences that pile up clauses and phrases as if echoing the processes of perception and contemplation. The technique addresses while it imitates Josef Kramer’s personality and states of mind. Technically a third person narration, the final effect is of Josef somehow voicing the narrative, at once inside and outside of himself.

 Born into Prague’s German-Jewish community in 1910, Adler captures the transformation of his homeland from a region in the Austro-Hungarian Empire through WWI to its independent statehood (in 1918) and then to its subordination under Nazi Germany. Josef Kramer’s life and vision of himself are impacted by these transitions, as Adler details his surrogate’s family, schooling, young adulthood, early occupations, impressment into forced labor, and imprisonment in concentration-extermination camps. Josef, like his creator, ends up an exile in England, ruminating upon his experiences.

 At once realistic and impressionistic, nightmarish and richly satirical, Adler’s earliest novel probes the vacuity of intellectual pretentiousness, the absurdity of bureaucracy, the insatiability of ego, and the means and meaning of survival.

 Afterword, introduction, translator’s note. PKJ

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