This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am sometimes embarassed of my interest in holocaust literature. There is something morbid about wanting to read the tales of death chambers, of cattle cars, of people being pulled out of their homes in middle of the night.
And yet, it is such a bizarre side of reality – something so humongous and beyond understanding, that I feel compelled to know more, to understand what happened. The many books and many films on the topic mostly share the survivor tales, or tales of tragedy – the after-effects of the holocaust (or more appropriately “Shoah”). These tales, the most beautifully written ones, like from Sebald, or Kertesz – bring to fore the sense of loss, the disorientation, which goes far beyond the actual physical act of mass-murder. But there is little written or said to explain the perpetration, what went on in the minds of the tormentor and the tortured when the physical act was being carried out. How did a whole machinery get convinced to participate in the barbarism? What went on in the minds of people in the camps, seeing the fumes from the chimney?

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Eichmann in Jerusalem

I am glad that online bookstores have finally found their way to India. Despite the numerous instances of canceled orders or ‘Out of stock’ messages that you encounter when dealing with them, they do offer you a chance to get your hands on a few books that remain elusive. Eichmann in Jerusalem was one of those books which I had been hunting for since a long time, and even though published by Penguin, which is a publisher most widely found in India – I had been unable to locate a copy anywhere. (Another book that remains elusive is Nadine Gordimer’s collection of stories: Why haven’t you written, again published by Penguin and nowhere to be seen/heard of/mentioned.)
I received my copy of this report by Hannah Arendt very unexpectedly from Rediff some time back – unexpected because Rediff had canceled three of my previous orders for some not-so-elusive books after holding on to them (the orders) for about 2 weeks each, so I scarcely expected them to honor this one. I am glad they did – reading the book was worth all the effort I expended in hunting for it.

The book is an account of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem for his role in the holocaust, and is exactly the way a journalistic account should be – based on facts, raising the relevant questions and unbiased. Hannah Arendt neither accepts Eichmann or any Nazi criminal as a psychopath or homicidal maniac, nor does she absolve them of their role in ‘Ha Shoah‘, on the pretext of being mere cogs in the wheel, for the cog stands as a human in the court of justice . She is, like most people, horrified at the extent to which this criminal ‘never realized what he was doing‘, for his complete thoughtlessness, his apathy towards the moral choice available to him, his banality. She thus stripped these Macbeths, as they are perceived by society at large, to reveal a criminal who is simply a switch in the system, a very compliant switch, quite satisfied with going on and off on command. What she tries to point out is that it is the switch or the banal criminal that is more dangerous than the lunatic, for he is a common, repeatable phenomenon.

This report found itself amidst widespread controversy (something that every un-fearing journalist is likely to encounter at least once in his/her profession). For one, she tried too hard to understand things from Eichmann’s perspective, often rationalizing some of his actions, and described him in monochromes of a plainness which most people convinced of Eichmann’s acute antisemitism disagreed with. She also questioned Israel’s right in holding the trial and to make matters worse, pointed out some of its own laws that were not different from the Nuremberg Laws in essence. What sparked most criticism, however, was her expansion on the role of Jewish Organizations during the Shoah and her remarks on the possibility of far fewer deaths in absence of the Jewish collaboration with the Nazi’s in the destruction of their own people.

Some of the criticism seems undeserved – as she did agree with the court’s verdict and praised it for delivering justice, and she did believe that despite all rationalizations, Eichmann made a choice to participate and deserved punishment for that. However, you are forced to wonder if her banal, stupid Eichmann is not too much at loggerheads with the other staunch ‘anti-semitic expert on the Jewish Question’ that the world knows, and whether she did refuse to see the complete reality.

There are times when the report looks too stretched and you feel you are reading the same sentences you had perhaps read in a chapter before. That however does not take away their essence and sometimes even serves to reinforce points. It is those points which make you think of the holocaust in terms outside of sheer horror and disgust and fight the immediate instinct to shut your eyes in face of the Assembled exterminations.

Still Alive: A Holocaust girlhood remembered

Difficult times are often swept under the carpet. The natural course is to run away from them, almost negating and denying the memory. Most tragic events are narrated not by people who suffered them, but those who heard/read/researched about them, sometimes being born in the same century being their only claim to that narration. Perhaps that’s why a lot of these narrations have a God-like or at least saint-like ring to them, pretty much like – “This my child, is the essence of life….” or something equally pedantic.

A lot has been said about the holocaust, most of it by people who were simply alive in those times or others who, fascinated by the tragedy struggled to imagine it, weave it in their thoughts and super-impose it on their lives. Most of the victims of holocaust did not survive to give us the story, those who did, had the happy end which somehow diminishes the tragedy and concocts it into, what to our minds is, a fairy tale. The treatment of holocaust essentially is either a narration of unspeakable evil, or a fleeting, vague account of the rootlessness felt by the survivors. Both treatments make us restless about the tragedy , but both of them are in a way incomplete.

Ruth Kluger’s memories of a holocaust childhood, however are as close to the reality of that sunken, cold, frost-bitten life that I have ever come across. Perhaps that’s because it is a very honest account; I am surprised she remembered her feelings of so long ago with such remarkable clarity and had the courage to live through them again. (Is this too, then, another super-imposed account, even though the imposition is internal and not forced? That, however, is beside the point). These feelings are not those of a tragic heroine who bore the atrocities backed by an unshakable faith, nor do they emphasize dramatically the death that hangs around her life. They are an account of a daily decay, perceived through minor changes at school, the fighting of old women, and many such small events that no one associates with the holocaust.

The author, born in Vienna is very young when Germany takes over Austria and the extrication of Jews begins. She loses her father, who escapes to France, and her brother who is sent to a camp. She and her mother are unable to escape and are eventually sent to the ghetto of Theresienstadt, then transferred to Auschwitz, then to a slave labor camp. As the war breaks out, the prisoners are taken on the death marches, where she escapes with her mother, and then eventually emigrates to America. In America, her past associations never leave her and in a way continue to shape her behavior, friendships, relationships.

In recollection of all these stages of her life, there is a remarkable perception, clarity and objectivity. In a few words, Kluger is able to capture the moment as perhaps it must have seemed to the young girl. Her relationship with both her city and her mother are captured in a line each:

“Vienna was a city that banished you and didn’t allow you to leave.”

“During an earthquake, more China gets broken than at other times”

In this earthquake, Ruth’s already tepid relationship with her mother increasingly became difficult, suspicious and intolerant. Again, I was surprised at the anger that she still holds for that mother, even though she was not a particularly malicious person. Is their relationship with each other also another broken china? Perhaps, but as she correctly points out the error of people who judge her marginally through her one experience, one would be wrong in summarizing it thus. She resents these judgments and presumptions; abhors the indiscretion of curious intruders (I too feel like one sometimes, wanting to soak up the reality of that horrifying time) and strongly dislikes the turning of death chambers from the past into a shrine visited by enthusiastic homage-payers. I understand that resentment, even though I know that if I ever visit Austria/Germany, I will also go to these death-chambers – not to pay homage, but only to satisfy a pathetic curiosity.

I put down the books moments before I set down to write this blog, and I am still quite moved by whatever she described here. Perhaps a little bit of it is imagined, but still it is a very honest account, and definitely should be read by everyone who has any interest in the holocaust literature.


I am currently on a roll of experimenting with European tragedy. After Roth’s disillusioned hero, I am now meeting the alienated, fate-less anti-heroes of Bernhard’s Frost and Kertesz’s Liquidation. Though Frost, with all its density of thought and observation will take me sometime, I was able to get through the slim volume of Liquidation soon enough, with ease.

Liquidation was a good read, my one complaint with it being the introduction of a narrative structure within it, and then a complete abandoning of that that structure mid-way. Had it been a simple assortment of thoughts and recollections, without that ambitious and un-natural structure of a play within the novel, it would have perhaps been a far superior work, or more sincere.

Characteristic of Kertesz, the work is based in Auschwitz, and though none of the events in the plot happen there, the whole story rings around that one horrific word/place/planet. We find a set of characters haunted by Auschwitz and leading a life that is a kind of death. The main character B., born in Auschwitz, carries on with his life as a self-inflicted torture, a punishment and also a rebellion against the perpetrator of the holocaust, and accepts evil as the core of the world. And his bitterness, if that’s a word we can use to characterize his perception, seems perfectly justified when we imagine the holocaust horrors. Kertesz being a camp survivor himself, must know this feeling of hopelessness firsthand, at least in some bleak moments of reliving the tragedy.

The narrative structure is slightly flawed – we meet a character Kingbitter, who is supposed to be that invisible, slightly hidden narrator that we meet in a Sebald or Bernhard, but this narrator refuses to be in the shadows, and even in a small book that already has a tough task ahead of it, he manages to dedicate many pages to himself, forcing himself in every aspect of B.’s life, including an affair with his wife and then his mistress. This intrusion, sometimes was annoying, at other times it explained Kingbitter’s anxiousness to tell B.’s story, but if I had to take sides, I would say he should have stayed behind as the editor instead of trying to take the limelight.

A Village Voice review of the book can be found here. The reviewer sums up the book succinctly when he says:

Liquidation is at its core a book about writing, about trying to tell stories that resist being told. “Man may live like a worm,” Kingbitter insists, “but he writes like a god,” which, sometimes at least, in flashes, is enough.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

While studying history, the two world wars captured my imagination more than any other historical event. However, even amidst these, I was most haunted by the holocaust – a tragedy of boundless dimensions that touched and wrecked the life of millions of beings. Since then, I have come across this horrific truth in many movies and books, and it is still a mystery to me as to why this ugliness fascinates me and the rest of the world so much that we pursue it time and again.
This fascination and a suggestion from a fellow blogger prompted me to pick up this book. It is said that Sebald is an authority on holocaust, and thus what I was expecting from this book was another vivid account of the misery afflicted on Jews. But in stead, this book completely stormed me by giving a haunting account of life after the holocaust and a victim’s almost violent denial and suppression of its memories.
The book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz – an academician who, in his childhood, is forced to leave Prague as a refugee due to the Nazi accession of Czech territory. He lives in London under an alias and does not come to know his true identity until senior years of schooling. During this phase of anonymity, his subconscious mind suppresses all memories of his exile and childhood spent in Prague.
At some stage, perhaps after meeting the narrator of the novel (who almost seems indistinguishable from Austerlitz himself), he decides to go down the memory lane and uncover the fate of his parents, who, it turns out were not able to escape the holocaust. To piece together the history he goes first to Prague, then tries to trace his mother’s movements from one ghetto to another. Eventually he attempts to find an account of his father’s life.
Austerlitz’s life through these narratives, appears to be a tale of melancholy, disorientation and identity confusion. He is almost friendless and detached, seeking solace only in buildings and their stories. It is this silent loneliness and personality disintegration which makes the story so powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sebald’s narration is monotonous. He uses a narrator to convey Austerlitz’s story, but apparently the only purpose the narrator serves is to screen off parts of the story and emotions that a first person narrator could not have escaped. The gaps between the meetings of the two serve well to cover the gaps in the protagonist’s life. An interesting dimension is added by the use of pictures, and I understand that it is a dimension used by Sebald in most of his works. The pictures do not have any labeling and sometimes you have to struggle to find a connection between them and the accompanying text. While this may be disconcerting at times, the pictures also say their own story and somehow make the sense of a haunting isolation more acute. I particularly liked the use of Turner’s watercolor ‘Funeral at Lausanne’, which reminds Austerlitz of farewell and a funeral he himself attended.
It is difficult to imagine how many lives would have been shattered by a whimsical tyranny, and when we shudder it is only for those who met this terror. But it seems much harder to imagine the agony of those who lived in the aftermath of this terror and survived to face the tremors everyday.

Sophie’s Choice

I have been stumbling upon too many Meryl Streep movies lately – it appears that she figures in many important ones. That perhaps is explained once you see her act – for she is a graceful actress – a woman with substance and it is hard to shrug her away with decoratory roles.
The latest in the list of her movies that I watched is Sophie’s choice, adapted from the famous novel by William Styron. The story is set in Manhattan and centers around a struggling writer (Stingo) and his relationship with a couple – Sophie and Nathan, both of them being a little eccentric and a little esoteric.
Sophie is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and is a non-Jewish Pole, while her lover Nathan is a schizophrenic American Jew. The story moves back and forth in time, narrating Stingo’s own experiences, Sophie’s memories of her experience in Poland and then Auschwitz, the couples’ memories of their encounter and of course the present.

Both the book and the movie are needlessly long. In the book Stingo struggles to keep the focus on himself with his sexual escapades, his fantasies, his life in Southern American and his thoughts, only relating Sophie’s stories in the gaps. In the movie, the story continues to move in the present for the longest time, focusing on the strange relationship between Nathan and Sophie and Nathan’s unpredictable countenance. Sophie’s story begins much later and is over very soon. Her life in the concentration camp is almost glided over when compared to the book.

However in both versions, the crux of the story – that of Sophie’s choice comes towards the far end and if I had felt that the book did not do enough justice to the dilemma, I think the cinematographic Sophie made up for this injustice. For even though short, the scene is impactful and splashes a small cold shiver on your spine.

Even with a strong story, I think Styron has messed up a little by trying to put too many words in the same book, but for his verbosity, I believe his book would have been higher than now on the critics list. As for the movie, I think the adaptation is wonderful, especially so because of Streep. Neither Kevin Kline as Nathan, nor Peter Mcnicol as Stingo were too impressive but Streep kept the focus away from them. Her Polish accent was so perfected that even after so many movies from her, I was convinced that she could be Polish. I am a fan.

Judgement at Nuremberg

The entire world condemned what happened during the holocaust and the atrocities Hitler and SS unleashed on humanity. The Germans themselves suffered significantly in the aftermath of the world war and were perhaps subdued for a long while under a towering guilt. The legimitation of the guilt was done by the allies, primarily US by trying the entire backbone of Nazi Germany – whether economic, administrative or political in a series of trials famously or infamously called the Nuremberg Trials.

The 1961 Stanley Kramer movie is a powerful and moving depiction of the trials. Based on the trials of judges who carried out the Nazi law, it raises some very interesting and thought-provoking questions. Though a fictional account of the trials, the movie carries remarkable pieces of the horrible reality. There did occur a Judges’ trial, there was an infamous “Feldenstein case”, which outraged all sense of justice and the movie shows actual videos of German ghettos/concentration camps shot by American soldiers. Though all of us have heard about and shuddered at the account of Jewish miseries, no thought could match the actual image of a thousands of barely skinned skeletons lying in heaps and paraded by bull-dozers like factory trash. Watching those images leaves a lump in your throat that is difficult to swallow.

The trial raises some uncomfortable questions – Is it a crime to look away and give tacit approval to the monstrocities, even if you are only vaguely aware of them? Is it a crime to continue with a regular life when your neighbours are vanishing into the night and the faces you have known perhaps for years are slowly disappearing from the streets? If it is, then why are the Germans the sole bearers of this crime? Did not the whole world look away even as they heard Hitler’s views on ethnic cleansing? If they continued with normal lives and sometimes even lent a credibility to Hitler and his agenda, are they not equally to blame as the Germans?

The film both raised and dealt with those questions skillfully – it did not attempt to answer all of them because moral dilemmas cannot be always cleared by Q&A. However, it maintained that shifting the blame on a greater world does not absolve the active prepetrators of those crimes, even if the participation was limited to legalization of crime and not the act itself. I think the judgement of Judge Haywood was remarkably mature and a hard one.

The film had some great performances that are difficult to see in one place. Maximilian Schell as the defense lawyer was brilliant and won an Oscar for his performance. Spencer Tracy (as Judge Haywood) , Richard Widmark (prosecutor) and Burt Lancaster (defendant) suited the characters to a Tee. I tremenduously liked each of them.

A wonderful creation of cinema, the kind that makes us see the reality with greater clarity perhaps.