“Literature and the Holocaust have a complicated relationship,” wrote Menachem Kaiser in “The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship With Literature” (The Atlantic, 28 Dec 2010). “Good literature makes artistic demands, flexes and contorts narratives, resists limpid morality, compromises reality’s details. Regarding the Holocaust, this seems unconscionable, even blasphemous.”
It is a position with which writers have struggled and argued, ever since Theodor Adorno in 1949 uttered his oft-debated and misunderstood statement that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
Those who hold what Kaiser describes as the defining stance of Holocaust literature — “that a work’s verisimilitude, or its truth-value, far outweighs its literary merit” — would no doubt be critical of two recently translated works which speak primarily to the literary merit of Holocaust literature. What’s more, the two works offer a unique vantage from which to consider the Holocaust: both are written from the perspective of fascist protagonists. One takes the fascist perspective in a sort of tongue-in-cheek fashion, using it as the basis for a clever metaphorical morality play. The other work comes from a former fascist who survived the concentration camps, yet who, incredulously, entered them voluntarily and of her own accord.
There’s wisdom to be gleaned from these unorthodox works, to be sure, but seeking it requires an ability to accept the demands that good literature places upon its authors, flexing and contorting narratives and resisting “limpid morality”. It’s more challenging than it sounds. Yet the urgency of doing so is dictated by the uncertainty of an age in which fascism is no longer quite the dead beast that it was presumed to be in the mid-20th century. That, if anything, underscores the imperative to grit our teeth and look deep into the dark soul of the Holocaust and its actors, lest our aversion lead us to repeat its horrors without even realizing it.
The Colonel’s Wife
The Colonel’s Wife, by Rosa Liksom (translated by Lola Rogers) is purely a work of fiction and offers a Finnish setting for the fascist narrative. The novel moves with a sprightly pace, and the rough Northern landscape is beautifully depicted:
“The white, nightless night of the North took good care of me. The chill August land was always in motion. The wind carried the scent of new-mown hay and clover and tarred boats to me on my silent walks through the trees on the shore of Lake Inari. I saw the shining, dark silver leaves of shrubby willows, was soothed by the rustle of dry brush, the autumn storms that could blow up in minutes, the islands, and the great expanse of the lake.”
The protagonists’ love of the natural world accords with the back-to-nature sentiment with which early strains of fascism were infused, but it also makes for lovely reading. Whenever life gets too serious, the Finns, it seems, simply drop what they’re doing and take to the woods to frolic and recharge (and if the woods are not an option, a nice playful sauna tides them over).
The light-hearted lifestyle seems incongruous with the total war that erupts around them. Finland finds itself divided: bartered between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, then invaded by both. The narrator is a woman who, like many of her peers, fell in love with fascism during the uncertain years which preceded the war. She also fell in love with a like-minded colonel many years her senior.
The two eagerly throw themselves into promoting the Nazi cause in their divided homeland, and when the war comes, they embrace it. Life is good for them: good food, good sex (and lots of it), good (highly-placed friends), and of course the Finnish forests to run off to whenever they need refreshing. Indeed, the first two thirds of the book makes a good pitch for fascism. Fascism’s dark side creeps out around the edges of the tale, however: gifts exchanged with friends (the astute reader realizes these confiscated gifts once belonged to Jews); rumours of atrocities that seem incomprehensibly distant in the pure, clean woods of the north.
The sanitized narrative is unsettling to read, particularly for readers who know (as we should all know today) the true scale of fascism’s horror. But Liksom has constructed a striking metaphor. The narrator is so in love with her colonel that she brushes off whispered warnings from people about his abusive and violent nature. Even when she sees evidence of his abusiveness before her very eyes, she dismisses it: what matters is her relationship with him, not the experience of other women, and surely their love is so fierce and perfect it can overcome any obstacles?
It doesn’t, of course. Once they finally marry, true to form his violent abusive nature emerges. The metaphor of an abusive relationship is apt for fascism. Despite all the tell-tale signs, all the warnings and historical evidence, still today people fall for the fascists’ preening courtship. They succumb to its lure, fall for its charms and what they think it has to offer, and brush off their misgivings with the reassurance that it will be different this time. The relationship can be managed; it will never turn on them.
There is a certain willful disbelief associated with fascism which indeed evokes parallels with violent, obsessive relationships. It’s easy to ignore the warning signs; to downplay the bad and overplay the good; to convince yourself that if you just try harder it’ll all work out.
Liksom’s tale is a brilliantly drawn metaphor, and just as it took tremendous hardship and effort for so many people to wake up from their simplistic, codependent love affair with fascism, so the narrator faces the painful and torturous challenge of struggling to break free of her relationship with the Colonel and to rebuild a new life for herself. Being trapped in an abusive relationship is, no doubt, much like being trapped in a totalitarian regime: one doesn’t know how to break free; one adapts (however troublingly); one becomes entirely focused on doing whatever it takes not to provoke the violence which can strike out so unpredictably and yet so inevitably.
“I was so ashamed of myself and the state I was in… I was ashamed because I understood the trap I was in. I was ashamed at how childish and naïve I had been. I was ashamed at my stupidity, that I hadn’t believed what I’d been told,” the protagonist confesses. Her self-examination is directed toward her marital relationship, but could just as well refer to her politics.
Throughout the nightmare, and despite the violence her husband inflicts on her, she maintains the conviction that things will get better, and the good times will return – a sentiment shared, no doubt, by millions of Nazis as the nightmare of the militaristic dictatorship they’d allowed to take over their lives unfolded and showed its true face.
“I comforted myself with the thought that everything would be better once we got over our memories of the war and accepted that it was over, and we lost. I told myself that the Colonel was disappointed in democracy and bitter at the military. That was the reason for the beatings, and over time they would stop…I thought that I could get through it. That the Colonel’s love would gradually be cleansed and deepened and become an even greater love than it was before. That the respect that forms the basis of everything between two people would come back. That even the hardest times in life feel like happiness if you have courage and you think alike and are heading in the same direction.”
The Colonel’s Wife is a quick read but a difficult one in many respects. The casual fascism of the narrator, who so easily brushes off the genocidal violence of the Nazis, makes for easy reading but a troubled conscience, particularly for readers who know there’s more to it than the narrator makes out. The author’s technique is clever, but still difficult to read. Sexual abuse is rife, and the narrator, herself abused as a child, in turn initiates a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy who is one of her pupils at the school she later teaches at (she is in her 40s by this point).
The implications of these actions bounce off the protagonist’s casual conscience, whose personal philosophy is rooted in an almost primal individualism, a legacy of the fascism which once offered it political and institutional form. There are times when the author describes such things with just too light-hearted a tone; the literary dimension of harsh truths clearly given primacy. Yet there is a wisdom to be found in this sort of a tale as well.
While The Colonel’s Wife is an entirely fictional tale, Luce D’Eramo‘s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel) is based on the the Italian author’s actual experiences during the war. Long a bestseller in her native Italy, it has only recently been translated into English.
D’Eramo’s story is surely unique among concentration camp narratives. D’Eramo was raised in a fascist household, the daughter of a prestigious Italian family. She grew up a devoted fascist, and as the war progressed, found herself tormented by the stories and rumours which emerged about fascist brutality, concentration camps and genocide. She also felt stifled by her home life. A rebellious and strong-willed young woman, she was convinced all the stories were merely falsehoods made up to slander the fascists, yet decided that she needed to learn the truth for herself. So she ran away from home and entered a labour camp for prisoners and detainees (one step up from the concentration camps to which Jews, homosexuals, and other prisoners at the lowest echelons of the fascists’ perverted socio-racial hierarchy were sent), as a volunteer worker.
From there her story unfolds in a complex, zig-zag timeline. Chronologically: she was transferred between labour camps; helped organize a strike at one of them; was hospitalized after attempting suicide, and then forcibly repatriated back to Italy (her family connections saving her despite her attempts to break free of them). Back in Italy, she stubbornly refuses to return home, and instead instigates a confrontation with the Nazi Gestapo which leads to her deportation to Dachau, an actual concentration camp.
After several weeks there she manages to escape and goes underground in Germany, surviving along with other homeless drifters and escapees. After a bombing raid on the German city they’re staying in, she’s helping to rescue victims from the rubble when a house collapses on her, permanently paralyzing her from the waist down. She spends the remainder of the war in hospital (the nurses are convinced for several days that she won’t survive), and is eventually returned to Italy. There she became a noted writer and academic (and died in 2001).
From this timeline D’Eramo has woven a very complex, and psychologically remarkable autobiographical novel which took form over nearly three decades. The book is divided into several parts: the first few are individual stories she wrote shortly after the war about her experiences. Yet she leaps back and forth in time, skipping large swathes of the story, and occasionally discussing the narrative with her reader. The construction of the book is confusing, but this is a deliberate plan on her part, as the reader who sticks with it eventually comes to realize.
The reason for the book’s unusual chronology — which opens with her escape from Dachau, and her subsequent paralysis; only later does it return to her first arrival in the Reich — has been widely debated, but one of the effects is that it helps reassure the reader they are not reading some piece of fascist propaganda. By the end of the war D’Eramo has become a character with whom the reader can be sympathetic, divorced from her youthful fascist inclinations. Had this turn of character waited until the end of the book to come about, it would have been harder to accept her as a protagonist in whom the reader can emotionally invest. But by presenting the narrator-protagonist as a reformed escapee, it helps keep the reader from just dismissing her during the portions of the narrative where she is actively fascist.
It’s only in the final third of the book that the author reveals her true purpose, and the book as a whole coheres with a provocative brilliance. In the earlier, episodic wartime portions of the narrative, it’s hard to know what to think of the narrator. She seems impetuous, selfish, independent, courageous, torn between a driven sense of individualism and the desire for camaraderie and acceptance. She’s entirely unpredictable: fascist by self-identification, yet also self-critical and caring.
In the final section of Deviation, D’Eramo takes the reins and shifts from storytelling to engaging directly with the reader. The focus shifts to the politics of memory, and the author explains that over the years her own memory of events, and of the trauma she experienced in the concentration camps, has been partial and incomplete. She’s blocked parts out which only surfaced in her conscious memory decades later; other parts she invented or remembered in ways they did not really happen. This was due in part to her efforts to understand what happened to her – what she experienced in the camps, how it affected the way she understood humanity, as well as her experience of disability and the altered sense of self it left her with.
Over the years she sought to put this all into a coherent narrative, to understand her own role – hero? Martyr? Victim? Class traitor? Class revolutionary? Her different ways of remembering her war-time experience, and of making sense of her own identity in relation to it, was shaped by these efforts to form a coherent narrative.
Throughout the remainder Deviation D’Eramo struggles, valiantly and violently, to come to terms with the experience, shifting between memories of the war and post-war experiences shaped by the trauma (both conscious and unconscious) with which it left her.
Nazis as human beings?
She struggles above all to understand what the concentration camp experience says about human nature. Unlike many of her fellow prisoners, she entered the camps as a fascist, and for her, turning away from fascism meant, paradoxically, coming to see the Nazis as human beings. They were mostly poor folk, who stumbled or were pushed into their positions as Nazi soldiers, and who were imprisoned, in their own way, in a role many of them would probably not have chosen had fate afforded them other opportunities. She gets to know one of the guards: “he was the son of woodcutters who were driven from their land when it was deforested, and who had moved to the city when he was still a boy. This guard was a stocky man, a drunk, inclined to violence.”
“Now I wondered: If I accused the Nazis of dehumanizing us foreigners, whom should I blame for the dehumanization of the Nazis? To whom are they Untermenschen? They take it out on us because we’ve been allocated to them as subhumans; better yet, they themselves designated us so. But are they free men? Reduced to the low-level jobs of slave drivers, jailers, exterminators, plunderers, torturers, and therefore ultra-subhumans. Acting on whose behalf? There must still be men somewhere who don’t do these things, without necessarily being victims themselves. Or is all of humanity subhuman? Only tyrant-slaves and slave-slaves, the former rounding up and guarding the latter? A universe of victim-slaves and executioner-slaves?”
“I must confess that I didn’t even hate them anymore. Instruments of a power they didn’t understand, they deluded themselves into believing that they weren’t automatons by committing cruel acts that no regulation required of them. Nail them to their role of slave. Don’t forget that every time you despair you’re giving them a gift. Just remember that the further into degradation one falls, the more brutality becomes your last glimmer of humanity.”
These realizations help free her from the fear and terror she originally felt in the camp. One of her coping mechanisms is engaging in unexpected and bewildering behaviour, which unsettles the Nazis; for instance singing and whistling Nazi songs, which the other prisoners abhor. Eventually she winds up in a physical altercation with the other prisoners. They accuse her of debasing herself by singing Nazi songs. She explains it’s her way of psychologically unsettling and therefore overpowering the Nazis. They say it’s better to die than debase herself; she disagrees, arguing the best form of defiance is to not die, and that requires unorthodox tactics, not blind resistance. They call her a savage for singing such songs and for being afraid to die. “Anyone who separates men into savages and non-savages is already a Nazi,” she retorts, accusingly.
These exchanges, as she reflects on them across subsequent years and decades, bring her to a realization that the true horror – and effectiveness – of the concentration camp was the way it divided prisoners from each other, preventing them from uniting together (the one exception was the strike she helped organize, the solidarity of which had a catalytic effect on changing her way of thinking). Everyone was so focused on finding a way to wring out their personal survival – a psychological survival, on which physical survival was predicated – and the fact that each person required a different psychological response to the horror of the camps divided them further. For her, singing Nazi songs and anthems to unsettle the guards was integral to her psychological survival. For other prisoners, refusal to sing those songs was key to survival.
“Even when it did not kill individual people, the concentration camp managed to achieve its real purpose: to destroy the social conscience of the internees…hatred of the Nazis became an exclusive passion that did not socially unite the inmates. Already cunningly divided into arbitrary communities of yellow, red, green, pink, and black [triangles], the deportees felt threatened not so much as unified members of dominated classes, which they were, but as individuals. And along with his physical existence, each one fought tooth and nail to defend his personal identity. Hence the fever pitch at which we enacted our eccentric behaviors, each individual’s uniqueness making effective cohesion among the internees that much more impossible.”
The Nazi Eye: Purity and Disability
At this point in the narrative, D’Eramo’s reflections shift from the Nazi concentration camps to her own disabled body. She reflects on the ways in which, over the years, she constantly compared herself to other bodies, and the little internal gloating she felt when she realized that she was in some little way not as bad off as another person with a disability. She realizes that this was the same perspective which prevailed in the concentration camps, in which for everyone their personal survival became paramount. No matter how bad things were, and how much self-pity and anger and hatred the inmates felt for their situation, they could all take solace at the end of the day in the fact that they were still alive, which left them a step above all those around them who had died.
If they managed to snag an extra bit of food, or blame some other inmate for an infraction that would have gotten them punished if they’d been caught, they don’t feel guilt because they feel instead an over-arching relief at staying alive. This automatic ranking of oneself and one’s plight against those of the people around oneself was what gave the concentration camp system such horrible power over its prisoners, and D’Eramo realizes that this outlook continues to pervade society in so many ways, including her own coming to terms with her body’s war-induced disabilities.
“I studied myself with a Nazi eye,” she realizes, reflecting on her years of surgeries and therapy, all designed on restoring her body’s functions to their original pristine state.
“All that concentration so I would be seen as a normal person and not a poor unfortunate (as disabled individuals were commonly viewed).”
Later, when she winds up in a home for persons with disabilities for a period of time, she feels humiliated and recoils from contact with the other residents, until realizing one night that the Nazi sentiment had emerged again.
“I suddenly saw myself in the mirror of my mind: there I was, me of all people, looking at my comrades in physical humiliation with an aesthetic eye. I myself had become that societal eye that had blighted my existence…I, because I was thankfully spared the incontinence of bodily functions, because of a little hard-earned motility, felt superior to my fellow patients, arming myself with their disabilities so they could be used against them. What had happened during those years to reduce me to this vulgar aristocratic revulsion from physical contact with those who are dependent and infirm? I sat there like a killer who has mentally slaughtered her subhumans. How easily my class-conscious skin had grown back, like that of a snake.”
She also draws a parallel between herself and humanity writ large, seeing in the plight of a war-victimized humanity the same helplessness that she feels toward her own body. The inability to control one’s body, to control the political destiny of one’s country, to control one’s fate — they all merge in a confusing miasma of despair which echoes through the war and subsequent decades. When is it right to resist? When is it right to submit? How do we know when resistance is futile, or when resistance might betray the very ideals and hopes which gave rise to it in the first place (as it did to all the Germans who went fascist in the hopes of resisting their post-WWI fate)? Yet how are we to go on, if not by resisting the forces that constantly try to wear us down?
“I saw my inability to govern my own body extend into the starving, bewildered German population, which after seeing its cities razed to the ground, its men killed in the war, its youth shattered, found itself saddled with the guilt of the regime that had suborned, enticed, and deluded it. I couldn’t stand the fact that, just at a time when these people could reflect on the mechanisms that had influenced them – might understand that they had let themselves be led by hopes of collective advancement, in a unanimity that did not face facts and therefore did not consider at whose expense – that just at that time these German masses were prevented from dispelling the fog but were sent back, hammered, frightened, and demoralized, and made to keep exonerating themselves, to justify themselves, to go begging. Those who submitted once again as they had submitted to Hitler were absolved. Accordingly, bow your head, always.”
“There was nothing to understand except that the bulk of humanity was at the mercy of factors over which it had no control. I was so crushed by my destruction that I saw it everywhere. In the rubble. In the foreign workers still amazed at having survived the Lagers and the bombings alive, dubious about looting food and clothing so long denied to them, millions of beggars throughout all of Europe who had learned to accept one another, only to return home marked by the subjugation they’d endured, scattered as before, on hand for the next war that would again mobilize them, shunting them back, on opposing sides, to mutilate and mangle one another, until the next truce, when they would be obliged to thank the winners.”
Like The Colonel’s Wife, there’s a heavy dose of misogyny and abuse in this tale as well. When she is paralyzed and after the war ends, Lucia’s boyfriend becomes an obsessive stalker. She marries him in the hopes of using his Russian citizenship to avoid being sent back to Italy after the war, but this merely helps to entrench his control over her, already visceral as a result of her inability to walk. She has to rely on the good will of the German nurses and a tremendous amount of ingenuity in order to escape his violent, controlling pursuit of her.
Then after returning to Italy, she marries another man, who also turns about to be manipulative and unfaithful. Caught repeatedly in the throes of abusive relationships, she finds herself drawing on the same psychological strategies of survival that she’d honed in the concentration camps.
Deviation, as a whole, and the psychologically introspective quest with which it concludes, evades any easy answers. The reader is brought along for the ride as D’Eramo ruthlessly dissects her feelings, motivations, and history, and struggles to sift the truth of what happened during the war from the various ways in which she’s re-imagined it all since then.
There are no totalizing answers, but various intriguing and sometimes contradictory observations. She arrives at an over-arching realization, as well: that the lessons she took with her from the concentration camps are in many ways a deviation from the common narrative of the camps. This becomes apparent to her during her years of trying to make sense of the experience in her writings. “In my mental confusion, I wasn’t even certain of my way of viewing things. I doubted my own feelings, my own memories, I had second thoughts, I didn’t dare give myself any credit.”
She reads books about the concentration camps and realizes they are all written by academics or internees with intellectual and social capital — “that is, by civilians who had protected themselves within the niche of their pre-existing morality, and never as workers, as fugitives, or as those who shared their vulnerability,” she explains (most of the people she associated with in the camps were imprisoned sex workers, thieves, and deserters; as opposed to the defiant political activists and resistance fighters who feature as the heroes of many concentration camp narratives; these types appear as distant and aloof in the camp’s hierarchy which D’Eramo describes).
Yet, “I distrusted my direct perceptions all the same,” she writes. “Even when describing accounts of escapes and life underground in the Third Reich that had never been written before, I tried to correlate my recollections with the accurate memories of authors who had been recommended to me,” she writes. It was easier to write about the concentration camps when her narratives matched other peoples’ narratives. But wasn’t that what brought her to the camps — and to fascism — in the first place? A desire to cohere her own beliefs and understanding of the world with the majority beliefs prevailing around her at any given time?
She also struggles with her class position, and comes to see the concentration camp experience as indelibly class-based. It’s not true, as she suggests, that rich Jews were not sent to the camps. But it is perhaps true that wealth had afforded some people greater opportunity to flee the ravages of the coming war. People’s wealth and class position not only shaped the ways in which they survived during the war, but also the degree to which they were able to rebound once it was over; social capital mattered. She reflects on her own fascist family, who were able to evade accountability for their fascist roles and who rapidly rose to wealth and prominence once again after the war.
It’s not that she necessarily wanted to see these friends and relatives imprisoned and punished. “But what stuck in my craw were the social circumstances that enable certain people to pass through the history of their time unscathed, while others find themselves bearing the full weight of it on their backs.”
At an Italian hospital for persons with disabilities, she sees the scale of this social and class divide again. The hospital includes both fascist and resistance veterans. Physical fights often break out between these two sides among veterans of the lower classes, who continue living their bitter enmity against each other years after the war. Yet the higher class patients, those who were officers during the war on both fascist and resistance sides, not only have better living conditions but are able to co-exist quite civilly with each other.
“I had the same feeling I’d had in Germany, that the utmost would be done to keep the social hierarchies intact after so much liberation. Ideological crusades were proclaimed so as to better conceal everything that hadn’t changed. At that time I realized that a war isn’t enough to banish prejudices, but I didn’t understand that a war isn’t enough to overthrow a social structure unless the elements of its dissolution are already contained within it. Was that what I was afraid to say, hiding behind the shield of paralysis?”
This too is the source of the book’s title. Not only is it a matter of her account deviating from other concentration camp narratives; not only is it a matter of truth and memory deviating in her own recollection of events; but the drift from fascism for her also involved a profound deviation from her class background.
D’Eramo’s tale is riveting, yet leaves the reader mired in complex moral dilemmas. But that’s the price — and the value — to be derived from literary contributions to Holocaust literature. Literary works of art — and Deviation is a stunning, brilliant example — don’t make the Holocaust any easier to understand. But they do offer a more expansive range of ways to learn from it, in the hopes that we may not repeat any of its myriad horrors again.