History and memory—each is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the past but they are not easily reconcilable. Where the one insists on the attempt, at least, to be objective, to describe the past dispassionately and impersonally, the other insists on the primacy of the self and the ultimately inchoate jumble of experiences that comprise it. Otto Dov Kulka, now an emeritus professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has devoted his professional life to the former. His area of academic study is the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust and his long career has established his reputation as an estimable historian of some of the most difficult and emotionally fraught subject matter imaginable. Kulka’s scholarship is a model of intelligent analysis and reasonable speculation.
For example, in an appendix to the main body of his most recent work, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imaganiation, titled “Ghetto in an Annihilation Camp: Jewish Social History in the Holocaust Period and its Ultimate Limits”, Kulka draws on primary source materials to analyze a relatively obscure element of the Final Solution: the establishment of the so-called ‘Family Camp’ at Auschwitz. In this section of the larger complex, families were allowed to live and work in relatively accommodating conditions—though they lived literally and figuratively in the shadow of the crematorium and its pall of smoke. What were the reasons for this reprieve from the genocidal mission of the camp?
The truth, as some prisoners at least came to suspect, was that Nazi officials were using the facility as a showcase to convince outside parties, primarily the international Red Cross, that imprisoned Jews were being treated humanely and to dispel allegations of mass execution. In other words, the entire project was an extraordinarily cynical exercise in public relations. Astonishingly, it worked. The records indicate that outside investigators were completely convinced of the basic humaneness of the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and other imprisoned populations (or at least they claimed as much). Kulka’s analysis of the event is both probing and cautious in its conclusions. It’s an exemplary and important exercise in historiography.
But it’s only an appendix. The main body of the work, constituting just over 100 pages, is a far more numinous and, ultimately uncategorizable, reflection on his own experience. For Kulka was a prisoner of the camp, interred there as a young boy with his mother and father and several other relatives. The source for these reflections is an audio diary that he kept for some ten years, from 1991 to 2001.
The bizarre and terrible circumstances of life in the Family Camp make for an existential predicament of excruciating acuteness. After initial befuddlement, inmates begin to realize that they will have exactly six months to live between arrival and indiscriminate execution. The question they face, then, is a horrifically immediate version of what they should do with what remains of their lives. The answer—astonishingly, wondrously, almost unbelievably—is to live as much as possible as they lived before. The Family Camp establishes functional versions of the civic institutions and avocational endeavors familiar from their pasts: a school, debating clubs, a theater company, a children’s choir that performs Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
Is all of this a grand exercise in collective denial or insanity? Kulka neither explicitly raises nor answers this question. He simply presents his experiences, or more accurately his memories of his experiences, in an admittedly disjointed fashion. His aim is not to provide a precise record of his time in the camp, but rather, to evoke something of the mythscape of what he repeatedly calls ‘the metropolis of death’, a place whose sole purpose (at least after the departure of international monitors) is to murder as many people in as efficient a manner as possible.
In fact, Kulka includes several recurring dreams in the narrative, along with poems by other inmates, each acknowledged as an attempt to speak to, if not encompass, the surreal order of things at the camp: mountains of stacked corpses that Kulka and other children walk past on their way to school; the hideous medical experiments of Josef Mengele (at whose medical facility Kulka spent some time); the forced march away from the concentration camp with the routine shooting of prisoners unable to keep up; the separation of Kulka from his mother when she is forced to leave Auschwitz.
The account, however, does not consist solely of a litany of horrors. Kulka acknowledges that as a boy he found some days beautiful and that the fact of that beauty is essential to his recollections, even if it no way expunges the terribleness of Auschwitz from his memory.
Kulka admits to the central problem facing any account of the Shoah: how to invoke the horror of experiencing it when words simply are not up to the task. In a startling but admirably honest passage he admits to feeling only alienation when faced with others’ accounts:
I went ahead and read one of the books that were mentioned in the lecture. After all, some of the books were written by people […] whom I know—excellent writers, who are frequently quoted… I took one of these books, perhaps one of the finest of them, and started to read—about Auschwitz: a description of a situation the author experienced. To my appalled astonishment, all I felt, all I read and saw in that evocation, in those descriptions, was utter alienation. Between the description of a world, the description of landscapes, the description of a reality which was divorced from the images, the scenes, the landscapes, the experiences, the presence of the past that is perpetually part of my present, there are rivers that cannot be crossed. In no way can I connect and integrate these things into those landscapes.
Some readers of the volume may be frustrated by its lack of explicit condemnation or moral outrage, its insistence on personal rumination rather than broad critique. That, though, seems for Kulka to be the business of historiography; here he is interested in something very different: evoking the experience of a place and time that existed beyond the farthest reaches of comprehension. For Kulka the works of Franz Kafka best evoke the sheer absurdity of Auschwitz, its creation and implementation of a logic that existed solely unto itself: “Victim and perpetrators, or the floggers and the lashes of justice to which the prisoner was sentenced, were as though one system, in which it was impossible to distinguish, to separate the victim from the deliverers of the punishment.”
No doubt partly due to the fact that the volume is transcribed and edited from tapes, the organization of the volume is not always a model of coherence. But the effect, whether intended or not, is powerful, as if the reader is bearing painful witness to an obsessed mind attempting to exorcise its demons. That task is impossible, though, because in the end the demons constitute a significant portion of the mind. It must exist with them or not at all.