What I Read, May 2020

Finished the semester, was sad about not getting to see students graduate. Hair grew. Won a teaching award, finally something unequivocally good, a helpful validation. Made occasional trips to pick up groceries and the like, and to drive the car a little so my already temperamental battery didn’t complete die, was bewildered by the apparent alternate reality outside my door: no masks, no distancing, no cares. Hair grew longer. Thought about my upcoming sabbatical, worried over how to use this gift of time. Feared failure more than usual. Read too much news, was despondent, angry, grief-stricken. Hair reached crisis point. And, as always, read, quite a lot, most of it pretty undemanding.

EZIlJ48XYAA-tuGSusie Steiner, Missing, Presumed (2016)

When Lissa Evans and Nina Stibbe tell you to read a book, you don’t fuck about. Happily, this was as delightful and engrossing as promised. Manon Bradshaw is getting on for 40. She’s a bit lonely, but she’s a good cop, she’s funny and sarcastic, and she is just ordinarily neurotic, not hell-bent on self-destruction. Steiner manages the trick of putting the investigator’s personal life front and center and writing a suspenseful plot. Above all, Missing, Presumed is a properly female-centered crime novel (there’s more than one important female character, they don’t hate each other, they aren’t pitted against each other by men). Mostly what I took away from the book is that women’s clothes are often extremely uncomfortable. There’s lots of strap-tugging and pushing and pulling.

Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1994) Trans. Ethel Broido (1994)

Twenty-five years on, Gutman’s history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising feels dated. It’s filled with detailed information about an extraordinary moment, and is especially good on the various Jewish political and social groups in both pre-war and wartime Poland. But it has a narrow definition of resistance—namely, the use of force, especially the taking up of arms. I don’t reject this in principle—the power of violent resistance is on display across America as I write—and I get that Gutman is presenting events as the actors experienced them (he quotes various documents in which the handful of Jews left after the ghetto’s liquidation in late 1942 exulted in finally feeling human again, once they were able to shoot a gun or set an explosion, etc.). But Gutman also implicitly validates these statements, in part by underplaying other forms of resistance (he has surprisingly little to say about the Ringelblum archive, for example). His take makes sense when you learn that Gutman actually fought in the uprising himself. But you won’t learn that from his book. In fact, I’d no idea of his role until the students I was reading the book with told me. I can’t imagine a book written today that wouldn’t acknowledge the writer’s involvement in the material. Time for a new history of this moment, I say. One more thing bothered me: I’ve never before seen a book that acknowledged its translated status in a brief aside in the acknowledgements. Reprehensible!

Susie Steiner, Persons Unknown (2017)

DI Bradshaw is back, and her life has become more complicated, more exasperating, more fraught, and more joyful. Part Laurie Colwin, part Tana French, these books are terrific. Forgot to mention that Steiner is worth reading in paperback, because each of the two books so far includes a bonus chapter that bridges the current book to the next. I’ve not seen that before.

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (2015) Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2020)

Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of a young Polish gay couple. This is the first of what I imagine has become a series centered on Zofia Turbotynska, a society woman in Cracow in 1893, who feels herself coming alive when she inadvertently begins investigating a series of murders at an almshouse. The novel doesn’t quite avoid the pitfalls involved in stories of amateur detectives, but if like me you can’t get enough of late-19th, early 20th century Galicia, or if you just appreciate a well-drawn character (Zofia isn’t entirely likable, a bit self-satisfied and prim, but we are asked through her to think about our own fascination with investigation, which makes us like her more and ourselves less) you should give this a try. Props to Houghton Mifflin for bringing Szymiczkowa to the US, and to East Bay Books, who put their inventory online for online browsing by section, which is how I stumbled across this.

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

Wonderful essays.

Emiliano Monge, The Arid Sky (2012) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2018)

Young Mexican novelist plays with temporal order and the relation between narrator and character in telling key events (dire or violent or, most often, both) in the life of a criminal turned priest turned criminal. (At least, I think that’s what’s going on; it’s not always easy and I read it in snatches, when immersion would probably be better, given the style.) Bunstead, I sense, is a great translator (I thought his translation of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve was terrific), and there are some resonant, Bernhardian sentences here. My sample size is small, to be sure, but so much Latin American literature seems to come out of Faulkner, who I don’t much care for. Are there Spanish-language equivalents of Barbara Pym or Tessa Hadley, or is that simply a misguided/stupid question?

Marcie R. Rendon, Murder on the Red River (2017)

Don’t sleep on this one. Jenny Davidson recommended it as the best crime fiction she’d read this year. Cash Blackbear is a nineteen-year-old Anishinabe woman in the Red River Valley in the early 1970s. (The war in Vietnam is a repeated touchstone.) Cash does farm work, mostly driving grain trucks. She adds to that income by hustling pool. And she drinks pretty steadily. She has a close relationship to the local sheriff, who watched over her when she was taken into care as a child, keeping her away from the worst of the foster parents. (They were all pretty bad, and Rendon slips in glimpses of those microaggressions throughout the book.) Cash has an ability to listen to the dead (this dreaming isn’t particularly well-developed, and I’d have liked to hear more about it). So when a native man is found stabbed to death, the sheriff brings Cash in to give him a hand. The resolution of the crime is anticlimactic; suspense is not the reason to read the book. Cash, though, is a great character, dogged and smart and torn apart by her love of a place that has no love for her. As an indigenous woman, Cash has suffered a lot, but the suffering is more constant low-level trauma rather than singular overwhelming moment. When I complained to my wife, who’d already read the book, that the hard-drinking investigator was a cliché, she pointed out that what Cash was doing was medicating. Rendon is good with action scenes (and I appreciate how modest those are—this is not Jack Reacher stuff). The reason they’re so good is that Rendon’s descriptions of Cash’s actions are fascinatingly detailed (yet the book is a short, quick read). We learn about every bath Cash takes in futile attempt to rid herself of wheat chaff, every trip to the bar, every cigarette she smokes, every meal she eats (when she remembers to), every route she takes through the isolated towns of the valley. I wondered about this, and finally it dawned on me that the prose was mimicking Cash’s need to control what she can in life. The repetition, the circumscribed life—these are the analogues of a person always at risk of losing a sense of self.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003) Trans. Anthea Bell (2003)

My daughter and I read this together over a couple of months (it’s like 500 pages), and I’ve been badgering her to write a review, but so far without luck. Inkheart has a good premise—what if you could read yourself into a book?—and then complicates it by adding the caveat that, every time you did, something from the world of the book came into our own. Meggie lives with her father, Mo, a bookbinder; when a stranger arrives at their door one night and Mo becomes shifty, even frightened, Meggie learns a lot of things, including, eventually, what really happened to her mother. Bell’s translation of Funke’s German text is excellent, and although I didn’t find this as breathtaking as, say, The Golden Compass, I loved how much my daughter loved it. It was too scary for her to read alone, but manageable with me reading it. It’s the first of a trilogy and we’re on the second book now—seeing my daughter’s joy and fascination with the map at the front of the second volume has been a joy in itself.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Flight of the Falcon (1965)

Even second-tier Du Maurier is worth reading.

Marcie R. Rendon, Girl Gone Missing (2019)

Cash returns, and the big development from the end of the first book means her life is different—that change is both an opportunity and a challenge to her always fragile stability. When several young women from different farming communities go missing, Cash follows the trail to Minneapolis, where she has never been before. In my favourite scene she visits the Grain Exchange, walking around the imposing stone building, amazed to find that this name, from which the all-important commodity prices come through farmers’ radios each day, is attached to a physical place where people actually work. Rendon brings Cash into contact with the American Indian Movement (AIM), which allows her explore the idea of whether a loner like Cash, at once attached to her native identity and frustrated by it, can find any meaning in an identity-based movement. A significant hanging thread from the first volume is reintroduced, which I appreciated. Rendon’s going to have to step up the crime aspects of these novels (the plots are thin), but I want many more books about Cash. Great midwestern farm neepery, too. During beet season, the local roads develop “a sheen of mud. This close to the Red River, the mud was mixed with river clay that was slicker than ice if a rainfall or early frost or, god forbid, an early snow coated the road.”

Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day (2019)

It’d been a while since I’d read Hadley, a writer I’ve always liked, but who has exceeded herself here. Late in the Day tells the story of four friends whose lives have been connected since student days. It begins with the death of one of them and goes both forward and backward from this traumatic beginning. Hadley is great with character—she sketches them so clearly (they are among the few literary characters I can actually picture) and lets them change and surprise us. She’s also adept with narrative voice, changing perspective regularly and using omniscience to its potential. There’s a scene when the four friends, drunk and high after celebrating a big accomplishment, almost exchange sexual partners, only to have the moment interrupted by one of the children, who can’t sleep; later, that child, now grown up, tells a sibling about a dream—which we know was real. I found this misunderstanding moving, somehow.

What does it mean to create something? Is a relationship or a friendship a kind of creation? Is middle age the time when creation is most fruitful? These are Hadley’s questions; in her answers I got a strong To the Lighthouse vibe. Hadley is warm, almost fond of her characters, but never indulgent with them. Fittingly, I stayed up late with the book, willing myself to the end but sad to reach the final page. Read Catherine Taylor’s piece in The Financial Times, it’s very good.

Dan Stone, Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (2019)

Historian Stone has written an amazingly lucid and useful book, which covers much historical ground and asks big theoretical questions, all in only a little more than 100 pages. Stone looks at late 19th-early 20th century camps in South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines, noting how they were designed for non-combatants. He of course considers the camps of the Third Reich (his own area of expertise), which clearly distinguishes the various Nazi camps and, even more interesting, compares them to the institutions set up to create and validate the Volksgemeinschaft (Hitler Youth camps and the like). Camps, Stone argues, were for the Nazis as necessary to those “drilled into” the community as to those excluded from it, given that the regime’s aim was a society modelled on the barracks. To that end, “inclusion and exclusion went hand in hand.” Stone adds a chapter on the Gulag (really helpful to someone like me who knows too little about it), and on camps around the word (in colonial scenarios, within so-called liberal-democracies, under Communism). He concludes by casting a critical but not unsympathetic eye on theorists who make the camp a metaphor for modernity, and then tackles the difficult issue of comparison. In the end, although he says there is no clear line between camps and other sites of incarceration, Stone doesn’t think, for example, the migrant camps at the US border are concentration camps because they offer at least the possibility of the rule of law. I disagree, but I think he’s absolutely right in concluding, “Concentration camps are the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels itself most threatened.” As if this wasn’t enough, his bibliography is excellent. The book’s a keeper, and I plan to start assigning it in all my Holocaust-related courses.

Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (2020)

A frustrating book that tells a gripping story in undistinguished prose. Neumann grew up in Venezuela in the 1970s and 80s with a father, Hans Neumann, who was a magnate of industry, a patron of the arts, and a general force of nature. Hans had a past in Europe—specifically in Czechoslovakia—that he rarely addressed. As a child, Neumann once found a box of papers that included what looked like a passport written in a language she couldn’t read. It had a photo of a man who was clearly her father at a much younger age. But the name underneath the photo was someone else’s. When she asked about it, her parents put her off. The box disappeared. But it came to her after her father’s death, along with some other family papers, which launched Neumann on a years-long project to uncover her father’s story, and to relate what she discovered to otherwise unexplained moments in her past—like when a fellow student in college asserted that she must be Jewish (first Neumann ever heard of it), or when she accompanied her father on a trip back to Prague after the fall of the Wall, a trip in which he refused to visit places from his past. When Time Stopped, in other words, belongs to the genre of the second-generation Holocaust memoir, like Maus or Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (third generation, actually) or Bart van Es’s The Cut-Out Girl.

Neumann’s book is better than van Es’s and not as good as Mendelsohn’s. (No one’s as good as Spiegelman.) I was so irritated by the laxness of Neumann’s descriptions of her own life (I especially wanted to know more about Venezuela) and her trite meditations (on receiving an important letter, for example, she writes, “There is a moment of connection in receiving an object, a physical link, that is lacking in the virtual instantaneity of email”). But if you can get through this stuff, the story Neumann tells about her father and his family is incredible. Plus the book is well-structured, the slow unfolding of the story deftly and engagingly arranged.

Hans was one of only nine people in an extended family of 34 to have survived the war. He did so by having papers that declared him an essential worker at his father’s expropriated paint factory as well as a network of friends who risked their lives for him. The two most incredible stories involve clandestine forays into the world of the perpetrator. His brother’s sister smuggled herself into the ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt twice in order to bring packages to her in-laws. (Neither survived the war.) And Hans himself, once it was clear that no Jew, no matter how “essential,” would be permitted to live in Prague after a certain date, hatched an insanely audacious plan to use a friend’s passport to travel to Berlin in the fall of 1943, where he posed as a Gentile Czech willing to offer his services as a foreign worker. He obtained an identity card and work permit under the assumed name of Jan Sebesta and was hired at a paint factory that made protective polymer coating for German warplanes. It is amazing that Hans was never found out (fortunately for him, he had not been circumcised); it is amazing he did not die in the Allied bombing raids, especially as he was conscripted into the civilian firefighting service; it is especially amazing that he did not go crazy from cognitive dissonance. Except that he kind of did—as is true in so many second-generation stories (Maus again being the great example), “survival” is shown to be an ongoing project that is often incomensurate with a “happy ending.”

Laurie R. King, Justice Hall (2002)

I blow hot and cold on the Mary Russell—Sherlock Holmes series. Not sure what brought me back after not particularly enjoying the previous installment, but this one is better. Russell and Holmes are tasked with finding out what happened to the heir of a grand family fortune in the Great War. It’s an open secret he was court-martialled and executed by firing squad for disobeying an order, but what led to that terrible moment has been a secret until now. Jacqueline Winspear wrote a book on the same topic at about the same time; I wish I’d read King’s first, as she’s a better writer. Anyway, diverting enough, especially if you’re into English country houses, but nothing spectacular.

William Trevor, After Rain (1996)

My first collection of Trevor stories, and, yes, he is as good as everyone says. There are two kinds of stories in this book—New Yorker stories (resonant, rueful, wise, maybe a bit perfect) and uglier ones, which remind me of early Ian McEwan (grubby, a bit horrible). A couple of these stories mix both modes—I liked those best, especially “A Friendship,” which I found shocking (a man discovers his wife’s infidelity: he forgives her but forces her to break with the lifelong friend who had helped her arrange the logistics of the affair) and “Lost Ground,” set in a Protestant farming family in rural Ireland in the 1980s, which I at first took to be an ingenious reworking of Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” but which takes a darker turn. Friends extoled “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and “The Potato Dealer,” both excellent. I could imagine teaching any number of these stories and learning much more about them that way. (Just great: the last thing I need is another white guy to teach.) I thought Trevor would be nicer than he is. He reminded me a bit of Alice Munro. Both are cold writers, and I can’t warm to them, much as I admire them. For a sense of the whole collection, Jacqui’s overview is really good.ETrQo6eWAAITlxPIn summary: Trevor’s good—no surprise there—and I’ll be reading more of him in the next few months. Jamie is a brilliant essayist; I’m finding her especially enlivening in these times when distancing is our reality rather than our fantasy. Neumann’s book is at once clunky and captivating. But the pick of the month was Hadley’s Late in the Day; a great book of middle age. I hope June brings more good reading, but events being what they are right now—I don’t know if I’m more thrilled or scared that people are finally saying enough is enough—I’ll settle for any reading at all.


“A Cemetery of Books”: David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers

Remember in 2001 when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamyan, those giant statues in Afghanistan? Cue handwringing about the desecration of an important cultural treasure. I was in graduate school at the time and I remember one of my professors rejecting that response. People care more about those sculptures than they do other people, he said. Where’s the outcry about everyone the Taliban oppressed, violated, killed?

My tendency to please others, to see the point they’re making, especially in situations I perceive as confrontational, combined with the inescapable servility of grad students toward the professors who have such power over them made me accept this claim, even though there had in fact been plenty of horror at the Taliban’s human targets. And, after all, I could see the man’s point. It is easier to lament cultural rather than human destruction, cultural objects being less difficult than people. Paintings and buildings and books—they’re less annoying, insistent, demanding, less, you know, living than people. Silently, to myself, I worked myself into righteous indignation. Shouldn’t we care more about people than about the things they’ve made? Fuck everyone getting all weepy about, say, a manuscript while they’re resigned to torture or genital mutilation or mass rape. I resolved to take this line from then on, to harden my heart against the loss of “cultural treasures,” especially since this sort of dismay is usually accompanied by the idea that culture is morally improving, something I’ve never been able to stomach.

I maintained my people > objects stance even as, years later, I began to study the Holocaust seriously. But having done so I couldn’t maintain the belief for long. Not because people don’t matter. But because the differences between people and objects are less evident than my professor would have us believe. I’ve written before, for example, about how diaries, Holocaust diaries in particular, treat books as extensions of people. Not just that the book is a synecdoche for the person, but that diary and diarist become indistinguishable, an equation made by the writers themselves. Think of Chaim Kaplan, writing on August 2, 1942, amidst liquidation of Warsaw ghetto, in the last line of his last entry: “If my life ends—what will become of my diary?” Or of Hélène Berr, writing in October 1943: “It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée [the family’s cook] will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore.” Neither Berr nor Kaplan effaces themselves by valuing their writing. Rather, each pays tribute to the reality of experience by affirming its indirection: what’s real is what’s written.


But maybe books—which I’ll use as a synonym for cultural artifacts generally: I mean representations—are different from other things. Do books have a special quality that is either the same as or, if different, then morally equivalent to the one that we rightly assign to people? These thoughts were prompted by my reading of David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, a book centered on events in Vilna, Lithuania, known for centuries “the Jerusalem of the North” because of its status as a center of Jewish learning and study.

Fishman’s story begins in the interwar years, when Vilna was part of Poland. (Before WWI, it had been ruled by Russia for 125 years; today, Vilnius is in Lithuania.) Almost 30% of its 193,000 inhabitants were Jewish, making it the fourth largest Jewish city in Poland. But its cultural weight was even greater. Its Great Synagogue, modest looking from the outside (by decree, synagogues had to be shorter than churches), astonished visitors, who descended a staircase and looked up at its marble columns and silver ornaments. Nearby was the home and synagogue of the Vilna Gaon (genius), Rabbi Elijah, an 18th century Talmudist, and spiritual head of the Misnagdim, the opponents of Hasidic Judaism.

But by the 20th century much of Vilna’s Jewish life was secular. The most famous Yiddish play, S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, was first performed there in 1921. The Strashun Library, “the intellectual hub of Jewish Vilna” contained 40,000 volumes and was open even on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. A Jewish gymnasium (academic high school) taught modern chemistry and physics in Yiddish. Publishing companies and newspapers pumped out Jewish books and reported on Jewish life. Most importantly, Vilna was home to the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), “a modern research academy that employed the methods of the humanities and social sciences to study Jewish life.” Founded in 1925, by the 1930s YIVO had branches in Berlin, Paris, and New York (the latter is still around). Befitting its status as what Fishman calls “the national academy of a stateless people, the Jews of Eastern Europe,” YIVO held a vast archive of all things related to Jewish life: religious texts, but also folksongs, playbills, posters, you name it. YIVO housed scholars but also offered wide-ranging educational programming for general audiences.

Having introduced the setting, Fishman turns to some of the key players (helpfully introduced in a Dramatis Personae). They include:

Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908—1954), known as the heart of the “Young Vilna” literary group. This poet and sing-songwriter had been orphaned at a young age and educated at night school. After the invasion of Vilna in 1941 he spent seven months roaming the countryside disguised as a Polish deaf-mute, but voluntarily slipped into the ghetto in 1942 where he and Avrom Sutzkever (see below) became inseparable. He participated in the failed ghetto uprising and escaped to the forest where he joined a band of partisans. After the war, Kaczerginski set up the Vilna Jewish museum, the first post-Holocaust Jewish museum. He clashed repeatedly with Soviet authorities, however, and, after ensuring that many of the documents that survived the war were shipped to YIVO in New York, he left Vilna, first for Lodz, then Paris and, in 1950, Argentina, where he died a few years later in a plane crash.

Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885—1944), who held a doctorate from university in Königsberg, became co-director of YIVO in 1928. In midlife, he was increasingly religious and Zionist. Known as “the prophet of the ghetto” for urging those imprisoned to maintain their dignity.

Rachela Krinsky (1910—2002) was a historian and high school teacher whose (first) husband died weeks after the German invasion of Vilna, leaving her with a small child. Krinsky later gave her daughter up to the girl’s Polish nanny in hopes she might survive outside the ghetto. The girl did, and the two were later reunited.

Herman Kruk (1897—1944) had been the director of the largest Jewish library in Warsaw, an ardent Bundist who believed books were central to Jewish flourishing. Kruk fled Warsaw for Vilna after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. He turned down the chance to emigrate to the US in 1940 because he hoped to track down his wife and child, who were trapped in Warsaw. (They perished.) In occupied Vilna, Kruk became the director of the ghetto library, an enormously popular and life-affirming institution. He kept a diary of his experiences in the ghetto and beyond, after he was deported to various labour camps. Miraculously, this document survived, though Kruk did not. (It’s available in English, but it’s very expensive!)

Abraham (Avrom) Sutzkever (1913-2010) is the most famous person in this story: the poet laureate of Young Vilna, and probably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th Century (Jakob Glatshteyn would seem to be his main competitor). Sutzkever escaped death many times, first in the ghetto and later with the partisans in the forests of Lithuania. (His infant son, murdered in 1942, was not so lucky.) From there, Sutzkever was brought by special plane to Moscow (the Soviets plucked him out of the forest), but he returned to Vilna at end of war. Sutzkever later testified at Nuremberg trials, made his way to Paris, and eventually settled in Mandate Palestine, later Israel.

All these principals were members of the paper brigade, a work detail founded in February 1942 to sort through Jewish documents for the Nazis. The brigade was founded at the insistence of Johannes Pohl, a former Catholic priest turned Nazi orientalist who worked for the Einsatz Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the agency in charge of looting cultural treasures in occupied Europe. Much of that plunder was Jewish; Pohl, who had lived and studied in Jerusalem, was appointed a Judaica expert. Soon after, he was named chief librarian at the Institute for Investigation of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. (The Nazis planned to commemorate the people they had exterminated.)

Pohl had first arrived in Vilna in July 1941, just weeks after the German invasion. At that time, he arranged for a mass of Jewish material to be shipped to Frankfurt. But the YIVO archives were so big a dedicated work detail was needed to sift through the materials. Thus the “paper brigade,” which gave surprising shelter to the intellectuals and artists named above. The brigade was unusual in that it was one of the only all-Jewish work details (no non-Jewish overseers) and that its work took place outside the ghetto, as that’s where the YIVO building was located. As a result, the brigade was a peaceful place to work, with plenty of chances to snatch a cigarette and to hide valuable documents on one’s person for smuggling back into the ghetto. As you can imagine, such smuggling was dangerous; Fishman dramatizes various near catastrophes when workers were searched at the gates. For most of the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto, however, the paper brigade was not a desirable work assignment. Not so much because of their lack of interest in smuggling paper, or their fear of being caught if they did, but because opportunities for the most valuable kind of graft were almost nonexistent. You couldn’t find or trade any food while toiling in the YIVO archives.

Food, of course, was all-important. As was true in all the ghettos the Nazis set up across Eastern Europe, life in the Vilna ghetto was terrible: overcrowding, hunger, and despair were rife; these conditions led to widespread disease. Yet the Jews of Vilna also made heroic efforts at maintaining more than mere life. (That was true in other ghettos as well; Fishman sometimes implies that Vilna was unique in this respect, though I think that implication stems more from his focus: this isn’t a comparative work.)  A distinguishing feature of the Vilna ghetto was its lending library, composed of 45,000 titles, which was extraordinary well used. Fifteen months after its inauguration in September 1941, over 100,000 books had been checked out. Because the director, Kruk, kept detailed statistics, Fishman is able to show what kinds of people used the library and what kind of books they checked out. Users were mostly young, they mostly read novels, and most of those novels were what Fishman dubiously calls “pulp fiction” (Margaret Mitchell and Vicki Baum were especially popular). “Socially mature readers” gravitated to books that resonated with their own wartime experience. Favourite titles included War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front and, especially (heartbreakingly, all too pertinently) Franz Werfel’s novel of the Armenian genocide, Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

Kruk hung two signs near the circulation desk. One was prosaic:

Keep the books clean and intact; do not read while eating. Do not write in books; do not dampen them; do not fold pages or break bindings. If a reader has been ill with a contagious disease, he must notify the librarian upon returning the book.

The other exhortatory:

Books are our only comfort in the ghetto!

Books can help you forget your sad reality.

Books can transport you to worlds far away from the ghetto.

Books can still your hunger when you have nothing to eat.

Books have remained true to you, be true to the books.

Preserve our spiritual treasures—books!

Reading these words now, I’m filled with respect for this commitment to literature in the face of suffering. But I’m also filled with doubt—are these sentiments accurate or advisable? Kruk was aware that books in the ghetto were a narcotic, with all the double-edged qualities we might associate with the term. “It often seems to the ghetto librarian that he is a drug pusher,” he wrote, adding that it sometimes seemed what he saw in patrons was not so much reading as “self-intoxication.”

We often find references to fantasy in Holocaust literature: day-dreaming, sleeping, reveries, memories are regularly described as ways to help manage the situations victims found themselves in. It makes sense that books would do so too. But every description of a strategy for removing one’s self from current reality is immediately qualified: fantasy is as dangerous as it is helpful.

Similar ambivalence haunted the members of the paper brigade. “Kalmanovitch and I don’t know if we are gravediggers or saviors,” Kruk confided to his diary. Despite the relatively benign working conditions, workers were often in tears at what they were asked to do. Fishman compellingly shows how the protagonists of his tale regularly compared the fate of the cultural objects they were helping the Nazis spirit away and/or destroy to the fate of the Jewish people. When the brigade was first sent to the YIVO headquarters to begin their mission they found the place a ruin (it had been briefly used as a barracks), which papers piled a meter high in the basement: “It looked like after a real pogrom,” wrote one member. Kruk was even more explicit: “like everything here, [YIVO] dies in a mass grave, along with scores and scores of others … The mass grave, ‘the trash paper,’ grows bigger every minute.” Zelig Kalmanovitch—former YIVO co-director—wrote similarly in his diary. In an entry dated August 26, 1943 he notes:

I sorted books all week. I sent several thousand books to their destruction with my own hands. A mound of books is lying on the floor of the YIVO reading room. A cemetery of books. A mass grave. Books that are victims of the War of Gog and Magog, along with their owners.

Once again we see books equated to people. Both are vulnerable. Both can be murdered. (Even, as was true so often during the Holocaust, by their own—Kalmanovitch speaks of sending books to destruction in the same way members of the Sonderkommandos, for example, spoke or sending people to death.) There is a strong sense that people and books need each other. The paper brigade workers often used their lunch hour to read some of the books they were surrounded by, not idly but desperately. Rachela Krinsky later wrote of this intense experience: “Who knows? These might be the last books we ever read. And the books were also, like us, in mortal danger. For many of them, we were their last readers.”


Sorting through material at YIVO, April 1943

Fishman makes his story accessible without sacrificing nuance. Sometimes that informality misfires, as in a present tense reconstruction of smuggling scene at the beginning of the book, or a tour of pre-war Vilna, imaged to be given by Kaczerginski. But the book gets better as it goes along. Readers whose knowledge of the Holocaust is limited might find the topic a bit niche, yet they are exactly who I most wish would read The Book Smugglers. It’s important to understand that resistance took many forms in this period (knowledge that might help us imagine similar forms of resistance in our own, increasingly authoritarian times). It’s important to recognize that Jews suffered under both the Nazis and, after the war, the Soviets (not in the same way, to be sure, but neither regime was interested in enabling Jewish life). It’s important to see how Jewishness remained a problem in a post-war world still defined in nationalist terms, a problem that persists to this day. (A problem that, in a different world, could be taken as an opportunity.) And, finally, it’s important to think, pace my grad school professor, about how the objects we live among, perhaps especially those we use to tell the story of ourselves, are versions of ourselves. We shouldn’t mourn the lost manuscripts of Vilna—or the Buddhas of Bamyan—more than the death of the people who made, read, or otherwise appreciated them. But we shouldn’t disparage that mourning either. The destruction of the one is so tightly connected to the murder of the other.

(I was recently introduced to this footage of Avrom Sutzkever testifying at the Nuremberg trials–in Russian rather than Yiddish, as he desired, because, perversely, Yiddish was not a recognized official language of the trials. Anyway, he’s much more dashing than I expected!)

Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.

Earlier this semester, I presented for the third time at the annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. In addition to giving the keynote talk (“Holocaust 101”), I also taught a session (basically, a class). The conference has an unusual format and remit. It is designed for high school students, their teachers, and interested community members. In a single busy day, participants hear two plenaries plus a presentation from a Holocaust survivor, and attend two breakout sessions from a selection of about six or seven.

I love being able to teach such a wide range of ages and experiences: a typical session will include as many retirees as 15-year-olds. The unusual format comes with its own challenges, of course: keeping the students from feeling intimidated by the adults; making sure the older participants really listen to the younger ones. By making participants work together to close read something, I seek to put everyone on the same footing and build a sense of community.

My session this year was called “Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.” As I’d like eventually to turn it into a more formal piece of writing, I thought I’d transcribe my lesson plan here.


Ruth Kluger

The handout that we used for our exercise was headed by two quotations; together, they offer a condensed version of what I was hoping the participants would learn:

I had found out, for myself and by myself, how things stood between us and the Nazis and had paid for knowledge with the coin of pain.

—Ruth Kluger

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

—W. E. B. Du Bois

At first glance, Kluger—the Viennese-born survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and a death march—and Du Bois—the legendary African American sociologist and writer—might seem an unusual pairing. I argued that, on the contrary, they share the same way of thinking about the vicissitudes of being a member of a persecuted minority. For persecuted minorities, to know is to hurt, to exist is to be a problem.


Nechama Tec

I began by explaining my title, which I adapted from an anecdote in Kluger’s brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In 1937—Kluger was about to turn six—her family summered in Italy. They had a car, rather unusual for the time, especially in Italy. Driving through the rural South, they pass another car with Austrian plates. The tourists wave to each other. Kluger is taken by the experience. She thinks, We wouldn’t have done that at home; we don’t even know each other. Writing many years later, she reflects:

I was enchanted by the discovery that strangers in a strange land greet each other because they are compatriots.

But this comforting nationalism, in which strangers become acquaintances by virtue of calling the same place home, would soon prove false and alienating. Kluger learned, along with the rest of Europe’s Jews, that being Jewish trumped being Austrian (or German or Polish or French or whatever). On her prewar holiday, Kluger enjoyed the experience of being a stranger in a strange land; just a year later, after the Anschluss, Kluger became a stranger in her own land.

To realize you are not at home in your home is shattering. The experience is powerfully ambivalent one, at once harmful and helpful.

To show how that might be the case, I referenced three Holocaust survivors: Kluger, Nechama Tec (born in Lublin in 1931 and hidden together with her family in a series of safe houses across Poland), and Sarah Kofman (born in Paris in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and who survived in hiding with a family friend she learned to call Mémé). Interestingly, all of these women later became academics: Kluger a professor of German, Tec of sociology, Kofman of philosophy.

(I’ll skip the potted bios, but I’m happy to say more in the comments if you’re interested.)

That brief orientation over, I divided the class into three and assigned each group one of the following passages, which we first read aloud together:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever. The girls in the boarding school were so near and yet so far. The wall that separated us was thick indeed, and eventually I could not bear to go near it.

—Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84)

(Before we read, I explained the context. The scene takes place in 1940 or 41. Tec and her family are living in hiding in a disused part of a factory formerly owned by Tec’s father. The factory abuts on a convent school, a source of fascinated longing for Tec.)

In 1940, when I was eight or nine, the local movie theatre showed Walt Disney’s Snow White. … I badly wanted to see this film, but since I was Jewish, I naturally wasn’t permitted to. I groused and bitched about this unfairness until finally my mother proposed that I should leave her alone and just go and forget about what was permitted and what wasn’t. … So of course I went, not only for the movie, but to prove myself. I bought the most expensive type of ticket, thinking that sitting in a loge would make me less noticeable, and thus I ended up next to the nineteen-year-old baker’s daughter from next door with her little siblings, enthusiastic Nazis one and all. … When the lights came on, I wanted to wait until the house had emptied out, but my enemy stood her ground and waited, too. … She spoke firmly and with conviction, in the manner of a member of the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, to which she surely belonged. Hadn’t I seen the sign at the box office? (I nodded. What else could I do? It was a rhetorical question.) Didn’t I know what it meant? I could read, couldn’t I? It said “No Jews.” I had broken a law … If it happened again she would call the police. I was lucky that she was letting me off this once.

The story of Snow White can be reduced to one question: who is entitled to live in the king’s palace and who is the outsider. The baker’s daughter and I followed this formula. She, in her own house, the magic mirror of her racial purity before her eyes, and I, also at home here, a native, but without permission and at this moment expelled and exposed. Even though I despised the law that excluded me, I still felt ashamed to have been found out. For shame doesn’t arise from the shameful action, but from discovery and exposure.

—Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)

(The passage offers its own context; but I reminded participants that by 1940 the situation for Jews in Vienna was increasingly dangerous. Kluger’s father, a doctor who had already been arrested for seeing Aryan patients, had just fled for France (from where he was later deported to the Baltics and murdered); Kluger’s own deportation was less than two years away.)

Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but she was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made me feel the little bump that was the sign of it. She also said, “Jewish food is bad for the health; the Jews crucified our savior, Jesus Christ; they are all stingy and love only money; they are very intelligent, no other people has as many geniuses in music and philosophy.” …

My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father [arrested and deported]; no means of visiting my brothers and sisters [in hiding in various places in the French countryside]; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from herself and from Judaism. I had, it seemed, buried the entire past: I started loving rare steak cooked in butter and parsley. I didn’t think at all any more about my father, and I couldn’t pronounce a single word in Yiddish despite the fact that I could still understand the language of my childhood perfectly. Now I even dreaded the end of the war!

—Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)

(The passage, set in 1942 or 43, describes how Mémé, the woman who saved Kluger, also abused her.)


Sarah Kofman

Each group worked together to discuss the passages and answer two questions. The first was the same for everybody: Do we see self-awareness in this passage? If so, how?

The second was particular to the excerpt. I asked the Tec group to track the passage’s verbs. What can we learn about Tec’s experience when we pay attention to those verbs?

I asked the Kluger group to track the word “home” and its synonyms in this passage. What can we learn about Kluger’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

I asked the Kofman group to track two repeated words in the passage: “detach” and “nose.” What can we learn about Kofman’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

As the participants worked on their assignment, I wandered the room, eavesdropping and cajoling if the conversation seemed to falter. After seven or eight minutes, I brought the class back together and asked each group to report their findings (after reminding everyone that, since we’d all read the passages aloud, anyone could feel free to chime in at any time).

They did well! If you like, you can take a minute to think about how you’d answer the questions.



My annotations

Here are some of the things we noted:

Tec shows us both the appeal of fantasy and its cost. Spying on the children lucky enough to still be living ordinary lives takes her out of her situation, allows her to remember another life, even to almost forget the war. But the school bell that rings for them but not for her recalls her to reality. And that reminder is painful: she feels even worse than before, to the point where she eventually gives up her voyeurism. I’m always struck by “these small excursions”—such striking and unusual phrasing. What does an excursion imply? A vacation, a trip, a holiday, students will say. An adventure, but a safe one. Yes, I’ll add, an inconsequential one (a sense furthered by the adjective “small”). Tec is an explorer, but not, in the end, a successful one. She can’t keep going back to look at the childhood she no longer has. Excursion implies choice; yet this fantasy too fails her, just as the active verbs of the beginning of the passage (to find, to watch, to envy—things Tec herself chooses to do) are replaced by the experience of states of being (become engrossed, become acutely aware—things that happen to Tec).

The story of Kluger’s clandestine, dangerous trip to the movies (itself a salutary reminder for participants of how thoroughly Jews were shut out of ordinary life) centers on exposure. The “ex” prefix here, as in her use of “expelled” and Tec’s “excursion,” gestures to a desire, expressed at the very level of phonetics, to get out, to escape. Kluger tries to hide in plain sight, but the effort fails. Significantly, it is her next door neighbour who finds her out, showing us both how intimate persecution is, and how much, in this context at least, it functioned through an undoing of everything home should stand for. (To sell the point, Kluger uses many variations of the word home: I’m especially struck by her decision—not unidiomatic, but also not typical—to describe the theatre as a “house.”) Just as persecution makes home foreign, so too does it pervert justice. The baker’s daughter is right when she scolds Kluger for breaking a law: it’s easy for us to forget that Nazi persecution was legal. Kluger’s world has been turned upside down (her use of “naturally” is thus ironic); only she herself, her personality, her determination, offers the possibility of continuity. She is forbidden to go to the movies, so “of course” she goes. That’s just who she is. But the consequences of that persistence (nearly being turned over to the police) suggest that the idea of being true to one’s self is for Kluger as much a disabling fantasy as Tec’s spying.

Kofman similarly struggles to understand who she is. The figurative nose in her first sentence (and I’m cheating here, since we were working with a translation, and I don’t know the original) is echoed, then amplified by the literal one that Mémé so disparages. As a group we marveled, if I can put it that way, at Kofman’s anguished situation: out of a complicated mixture of gratitude, internalized self-hatred, and adolescent rebellion against a difficult mother, who, to be sure, is herself in an unbearably difficult situation she falls in love with a woman who turns her against herself. Mémé teaches Kofman to hate her own body and her own identity, by making her experience herself as others do. In that sense, she turns Kofman into someone who must live in bad faith. Yet, as we noted, the repetition of “detachment” inevitably carries with it a reminder of attachment: in describing what she has lost Kofman indirectly reminds us of what she once was. And we speculated that Kofman’s similarly indirect presentation of Mémé’s litany of anti-Semitic canards (where even the compliments are backhanded) implies a kind of resistance on her part to the older woman’s actions. It is unlikely, I suggested, that Mémé said all of these things at once, in a single sentence, as Kofman presents it. Which implies she has arranged the material: by piling the attacks on, she is inviting us to see them as ridiculous, contradictory, unhinged. But Kofman’s critique is retrospective. At the time, her position is utterly confused. Witness her (classically hysterical) aphasia—able to understand her mother/father tongue, but no longer able to speak it. Years later, Kofman eventually throws Mémé over, even refusing to go to her funeral. The “good mother” in the memoir—well worth reading—turns out to be neither of the two women she is caught between but rather Frenchness itself: the language & culture Kofman becomes so adept in, able to wield rather than submit to.

Having facilitated discussion, and with time drawing short, I emphasized that resistance and rejection are intertwined in these passages. Resistance takes the form of self-knowledge.


W. E. B. Du Bois

To understand the implications of that double position, I had us turn to a thinker from a different tradition. I read aloud the last passage on the handout:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him [sic] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Then I defined that consequential term double-consciousness: it’s what results when we have to define the self through the eyes of others. (I always use the example of Canadian identity, because it’s relatively low stakes and I can try to be funny with it: when Canadians think about what it means to be Canadian, as they often do, they usually begin, “Well, we’re not Americans…” In my experience, Americans seldom think about what it means to be American. They certainly don’t say, “Well, we’re not Canadians…” Which is because in geopolitical as well as cultural terms, America is dominant; they set the terms of understanding. The tape Americans use to measure themselves has been made to measure them.)

Minorities, Du Bois argues, typically define themselves in terms set by the majority. A significant result of this claim is that there is something valuable about that position of double-consciousness, for it is by definition a critical position. As Kluger explains in her memoir, her earliest reading material was anti-Semitic slogans, which gave her “an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination.”

The position of the majority or the dominant is properly speaking stupid, because it never has to translate its experience into terms given by someone else. It need never reflect. That is the definition of privilege.

But double-consciousness isn’t just enabling. To be in that position, to be a minority, specifically a persecuted minority like Jews in fascist Europe or Blacks at any time in American history, including the present, is to be at risk. Critical positions are precarious, dangerous, even intolerable—not just psychologically but also bodily. Think of Du Bois’s resonant, pained conclusion: to inhabit double-consciousness (to be at home in the idea of never being at home) is to feel “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Torn asunder. How can we read that and not think of lynching, or gassing, or any of the myriad ways minority bodies have been and continue to be made to suffer?

We were out of time. So I could only end by saying that the reason I had us to read Du Bois alongside Holocaust survivors was to think intersectionally. In terms of double-consciousness, minority experiences are more similar than different. And I wanted participants to think about the lesson for us today from these (to them) very old texts. To ask these questions: If we are a member of a minority, can we harness the power of double-consciousness and not be crushed? If we are a member of a majority, can we become self-aware enough not to harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly, minorities?

Can we be at home without being smug? Can we be self-aware without being strangers?




Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (II)

In my first post on teaching Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, I discussed the conclusions I help students come to in regards to what I take to be the two most important chapters in the book. In this post I’ll list some of the other aspects I address. I never get to all of this material; there just isn’t enough time. Take this then as a menu of options, from which I choose based on our conversations:


1. Levi’s aims—reading the preface:

Survival in Auschwitz begins with a short author’s preface. It’s easy to skip, but you shouldn’t. It tells us interesting things about what Levi thinks he is up to in his book. The first phrase—“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” and the last sentence—“It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented”—offer good opportunities to think about tone and rhetoric (the irony of the opening, the preterition of the closing). More than that though I want students to think about Levi’s aims. As the final line suggests, Levi is at least in part motivated by the impulse to document. The things he will relate really happened. Levi was often asked whether the Holocaust could happen again. His response: it happened once, thus it can happen again.

But Levi isn’t only a documentarian. Yes, he wrote the book, he explains, not to accuse but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Levi apologizes for “the structural defects of the book,” which date to his time in the camp, where the need not just to tell his story to others but to make them participate in it had already taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” On one hand, Survival is sober and reasoned (that quiet study of the mind: Levi refers to syllogisms and logic); on the other, it’s an emotional outpouring. This isn’t some kind of failure on Levi’s part; it’s typical of the fractured quality of so much Holocaust literature. These texts struggle with its very textuality. Every text has some kind of shape or form. But what happens when the subject matter of that form is destruction, terror, violence, in a word, formlessness? Each work of Holocaust literature answers this question in a different way, but, I tell my students, it’s one we’ll come back to again and again.

2. Author as character:

I’ll often start our second session, by which time students have read most of the book, by asking these questions: Who is Primo Levi? How does he present himself? What do we learn about him from his memoir?

He’s Italian. He’s Jewish. What does Jewishness mean to him? He doesn’t seem to be very Jewish. How can you tell? He’s not religious. (This is a useful place for a mini-lecture on Jewishness as both religion and culture: my students, almost none of whom are Jewish, often have many questions.) How does he end up at Auschwitz? That is, what brings on his deportation? He’s arrested. For what? For fighting as a partisan. (Mini-lecture on the partisans, and the situation in Italy before and during the war, especially 1943-44.) Right, he’s arrested as an anti-fascist. And when he is arrested, he prefers to admit, as he puts it, his “status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race,’” believing, wrongly as it turns out, that it would be more dangerous to confess to being a partisan. To me this suggests that he thinks of his Jewishness as a kind of bargaining chip: not that he doesn’t care about it, but that it isn’t central to his sense of self.

What else do we know? How old is he? 24. Why is that important? He tells us that he was neither too old nor too young—adducing as an example of the latter a teenage prisoner known simply as Null Achtzehn (Zero Eighteen, the last digits of his tattooed number). No one likes to work with Null Achtzehn because he has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t husband his strength. He works flat out until he collapses, invariably bringing trouble on whomever happens to be his partner that day. (Their job in this particular anecdote is moving “sleepers,” railway ties frozen into the Silesian mud.)

What about Levi’s background? Can we tell anything about who he’s been before deportation? I’ll often have us look at a passage where Levi mentions how, for days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he would reflexively look at his wrist, and find, instead of a watch, a tattoo. What does this anecdote suggest? Dehumanization, of course—his name has been taken away (along with his clothes, his hair, his belongings, his dignity), he has been entered into a vast bureaucracy. (Which requires us to complicate the consoling idea that the Nazis are monsters, irrational, barbarians, etc. They are efficient, methodical, all-too-human.) All true. But what else? What kind of person looks at their watch? (Tricky question, getting more abstruse every year, as watches fade from memory.) Students will offer hesitant replies. An anxious person? A punctual person? A detailed-oriented person? (Levi was all of these things.) How about, I say, a person who understands time in a certain way: a person who doesn’t work in the fields. Levi is bourgeois, a middle class professional. The Italian Jews—secular, assimilated—are known throughout the camp for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). What do other prisoners think of them? They laugh at them, think of them as useless, hopeless. Right. Levi notes they can’t do anything practical, they are not long for this world.

What is Levi’s own training? He is a scientist, a chemist. Why is that important? It saves his life: he is transferred to a work detail, a chemical unit, which gets slightly better rations and, just as importantly, works inside, out of the worst of the cold. Some students will suggest that we can see Levi’s scientific background in his style. I am always a little resistant to this idea, which always seems to me based on a crude idea of science, but they adduce his matter-of-factness, almost brusqueness, the absence of showy stylistic flourishes. I admit they have a point, especially when we think of how thoroughly Lei effaces himself in the text, and, more generally, how much he downplays agency, that is, willpower.

But I want us to get back to the matter of Levi’s style as a function of his background. Does Levi only know about science? Does he have other knowledge that appears in his writing? Those questions don’t always go anywhere right away. So I’ll point to the passage about the guard on the truck taking the “lucky” prisoners from the ramp to the labour camp at Monowitz: Levi calls him “our Charon.” We discuss who Charon is, and briefly consider the implied comparison of Auschwitz to the underworld. My point, though, is that this is a classical allusion, an example of Levi’s humanist education, which we will consider in detail when reading the Canto of Ulysses chapter. Levi is as much a humanist as a scientist. He is well-rounded, a real liberal arts guy. Levi is interested in everything pertaining to the human.

3. Levi’s style:

An exercise that always gets good results is to ask students to find a passage they consider representative of Levi’s style and to free write why. I’ll choose a few students to share their examples, selecting students who’ve been quiet so far. (This is usually in the second week of the semester.) I always have my own example in reserve. Depending on how much time we have, we sometimes work through it. (Sometimes students even select it: always a happy occasion.) Levi is describing the arrival of his transport at Auschwitz:

The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.

A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment, they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: “How old? Healthy or ill?” And on the basis of that reply they pointed in two different directions. […]

In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.

Here is Levi’s version of a scene central to so many Holocaust memoirs—the scene of arrival at the camp, with its sudden shift from limbo to hell. One of the most surprising things about Levi’s depiction is how calm, almost silent is a scene that other writers describe as a cacophonous tumult. After the opening crash of the transport doors and the barked orders, there is only silence. This is matched by the casualness, even indifference of the SS, their legs akimbo. There is no sadism here. And the scene is the more terrible for its absence. (Though Levi will certainly experience that later, not least in a famous scene when, tormented by thirst, he has tried to grab an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away. Why? he asks. The guard responds, chillingly: Here there is no why.)

The unexpected calmness is further conveyed by Levi’s unadorned, modest prose. In this passage (as elsewhere), he is chary with metaphor. The SS men have faces of stone, the night swallows up those sent to the gas chambers, but those are the only examples. The description in the first paragraph of the ramp swarming with shadows is probably literal, given the glare of the lights.

I suggest the scene is more report than narrative. Notice Levi’s pronouns. He doesn’t use I at all here, and quite seldom in the text, which is surprising since he’s writing a memoir. That effacement of the self by the group reflects Levi’s wish to consider the event in its larger significance. It’s not just about him. Sometimes students want to take is use of “we” as a gesture of solidarity, which is a fine thought, though neither here nor elsewhere is that a real possibility. Besides, the “we” doesn’t, in fact, just refer to the deportees. In the excerpt’s last sentence, it expands to refer maybe not to everyone but to all who have studied these events. And Levi makes it clear that each of us must take up the task.

Perhaps for this reason—his desire to record the truth about an experience the significance of which extends beyond himself—Levi often writes in the kind of judging, assessing, almost omniscient style we might find in Balzac, or, more pertinently, Manzoni. Look at the end of the first sentence: orders are uttered in “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” The orders aren’t just barked; they are barked the way Germans bark them, expressing a thousand-year-old rage. (Maybe there is a buried reference to the thousand-year Reich here, too.)

What most concerns Levi in this passage is the speed with which human beings can be turned into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself seduced by Nazism, called “standing reserve”: an inability to see anyone or anything in anything except for their use value. Levi and his fellows are so many kilojoules, units of work to be extracted before their bodies are discarded as useless husks.


Arrival records from Auschwitz. Levi’s name is seventh from the top.

4. Kraus, or, Friendship in Auschwitz:

I often devote time to short chapter called “Kraus.” Unusually, Levi is at the center of the action. Kraus is one of the thousands of Hungarians who flood Auschwitz and its sub-camps in the summer of 1944. By now it is November and it is raining. The veterans, like Levi, who counts as one after having survived nine months, fear the onset of winter. Kraus, though, is still a newbie. Kraus can’t march in step and he risks bringing the Kapo’s ire on the rest of the work detail. For some reason, which he cannot or will not explain, Levi suddenly addresses the man in pidgin German. He tells Kraus he dreamt about him. In the dream, the war was over and Kraus visited Levi in Italy, bringing a warm loaf of bread with him. Levi puts him up for the night, introduces him to his family, they share good fellowship.

Then comes this:

What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian: he will not survive very long here, one can see it at the first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. … Poor silly Kraus. If only he knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.

Why, I’ll ask the class, does Levi include this moment? He wants to show a full picture of himself, that he’s not just good. What, is he bad? Well, no, not bad. The situation is bad. So that’s what he wants to show? The whole book is about that. Why this moment? Discussion ensues. He’s mean to Kraus, someone will say. Yeah, the way all the veterans are mean to the new arrivals, retorts another. I don’t know if he’s mean, he’s trying to encourage Kraus. But he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a trick, cynical even. I’ll jump in: so is this like “bless your heart”? I always ask this question, because I can’t help playing to the gallery and it always gets a laugh. (I lived in the South for several years before I realized just how double-edged this expression is, which mostly means something like “What an idiot,” but can sometimes mean “Poor you.”) Then I’ll add: has Levi become like the prisoners he condemned in an earlier chapter, people who’ll use anyone in any way to aid their own survival? Depending on time, I’ll juxtapose this scene to Levi’s descriptions of two people who were really like friends, as much as possible in that place, anyway. Alberto was another Jewish deportee from northern Italy; Leonardo a civilian worker sent from Italy to support the war effort. As a non-Jew, he lived in a different kind of camp, had access to food parcels, and received a much greater ration. The two encountered each other by chance one day and realized they were both Piedmontese. For six months Leonardo left a pint of soup each day for Levi.

By comparing these descriptions of friendship to the example of Kraus we can think further about whether solidarity is a meaningful concept in the world of the camp. Since everything in the book goes back to the concept of the human, we can think about how solidarity might preserve humanity.

5 “The Story of the Last Ten Days”: The end of Survival in Auschwitz:

Why does the book end as it does? Why is the last chapter presented as a diary, unlike anything else in the book? (Even though it is clear that the diary is fake—that is, written retrospectively. Interestingly, Levi wrote this chapter first.) Why does it end so abruptly? The last entry concludes by stating the fate of two Frenchmen with whom Levi formed a trio dedicated to helping each other in the newly-liberated camp: “Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher’s profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The students and I note that liberation is presented neither as a triumph nor an invitation to resume life. The abrupt ending suggests that something has ended, but nothing has yet replaced it. (Levi would write another book about the many months it took him to return home.) The only hint that humanity will be a part of whatever that new state turns out to be is the fact that Levi’s last lines reference communication and connection. The last chapter describes the stages by which the prisoners slowly inch towards becoming human again, the best evidence of which is their willingness to help each other.

As part of the process of reawakening, the dated “entries” reintroduce ordinary time to the text. Which is where the book begins: the first line is “I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943.” But that’s one of the last references to time. Survival in Auschwitz is organized thematically, not chronologically. This decision is a function of Levi’s interest in structure, in analysis, in the big picture. As we’ve already noted, he isn’t just telling his own story. But it is also a function of the way time changes in the camp. The days are all the same, only the weather is a little better or a little worse. The linearity we attach so much importance to in thinking about our lives is gone. There is no beginning, middle, and end. The final chapter, then, is important as a marker of change. Liberation returns Levi to time.

That’s hardly everything there is to say about this important book. But we return to Levi throughout the semester. He becomes our touchstone, not so much the arbiter of how to think about the camps, but the one most interested in documenting it as scrupulously as possible. Levi sometimes bridled at the term “witness.” In the book’s first reviews—basically uninterested: the book was not initially a success—Levi is often called a witness, a term explicitly contrasted to writer. As if Levi were merely transcribing, rather than also shaping experience. But Levi came more and more to embrace the term. As he wrote to Jean Samuel, immortalized in the book as the Pikolo in “The Canto of Ulysses,” who remained a close friend after the war: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.” Studying Survival in Auschwitz is one of the first ways my students learn what it might mean to bear that weight.

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

This month I’m reading and writing about Primo Levi. Here’s the first of two posts on my experience teaching his most famous work.


Along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only book to have remained constant on my Holocaust Literature syllabus is Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. It sounds grandiose, but Levi’s memoir is one the most important books in my life. It drew me to the field of Holocaust literature in the first place, but it would be a desert island book for me even if I didn’t do what I do for a living. One of the key testimonies of the 20th century, it is the book I recommend when people ask me what they should read to learn about the Holocaust.

I’ve taught the book often enough (12-15 times, I’d say) that I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a sense of how I teach it, usually over three 50-minute class periods. Not enough time, but what can you do, there’s so much other material to get to, plus I typically spend two more days on two important essays by Levi, which gives me some extra time to squeeze in a few more bits of the memoir. By the way, the book I am calling Survival in Auschwitz is really called If This is a Man. (Readers in the UK know it under that title.) Unfortunately, for all the predictable reasons (sales, expectations of what American readers want from a text, etc), Levi’s US publishers changed the title. It’s one of the great publishing travesties, but since that’s what it’s come to be known in the US, that’s the title I use in class. Plus we can have a useful conversation about the differences implied by the titles.

What follows is likely more useful for those who have read the book. If you haven’t, I hope you will. It’s not long, and it’s really powerful.

Over the years I’ve varied my teaching approach, partly to keep things fresh and partly because my ideas about the book have changed. (Not fundamentally, but the more time you spend with a book the more clearly you see how its parts fit together.) But despite those refinements, I’ve always spent a lot of time on two chapters. They are central to Levi’s project, and they’re what I’ll talk about in this post, adding a second one about some of the other topics I like to get to.

The first of the two chapters is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” which is Levi’s way of distinguishing between two types of prisoners. For whatever reason, the alpine Levi, born and raised in Turin, always used water metaphors to conceptualize the fate of the Nazis’ victims. He uses the terms sinking and touching bottom when speaking of death in the camps. He gives the name “the drowned” to those who are not dead yet, but will be soon. Even if physiologically alive they are mentally and spiritually dead. They are barely human. In the argot of Auschwitz, the drowned are Musselmänner, Muslims. (The term in no way refers to actual Muslims; scholars still don’t know where the term came from, though some speculate it is connected to the concept of submission that is one of the pillars of Islam. But this would be a terrible distortion of what Muslims mean by that term.) No prisoner could live much more than three months on the rations they were given without succumbing, without drowning. Only those who could find a way to cheat the system, to gain some small privilege that will result in an extra half slice of bread, an extra ration of soup had a chance of surviving.

When he talks about “the saved,” Levi does not mean the elect. The saved are not better than the drowned. In fact, in an essay written much later, Levi argued they were in fact worse, because they had to have compromised their morals in some way. He does not exempt himself from this charge. (Students struggle with this. They really want Levi to be saying that the saved are morally superior: in this way, they reflect our culture’s poor understanding of Darwin, who was describing not prescribing when he spoke of the survival of the fittest.)

We spend a long time on Levi’s distinction, not least because it preoccupied Levi his whole life. I want students to figure out Levi’s attitude to the drowned. To that end, I ask them to close read this sentence:

All the musselmanns who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

I’ll begin by asking, What are the implications of this metaphor? If that doesn’t generate anything useful, I’ll break it down. Why do streams go to the sea? Gravity, someone will say. That’s just the way it is, says another. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s natural. What, then, is the implication of these answers for our understanding of the drowned? Is it in their nature to drown? Is Levi describing something like fate? Is the universe just made for them to succumb? If so, what about Levi’s many claims that chance was the main determination of who survived? Is Levi judging the drowned?

Later passages make it clear that he is not. Take this resonant, stern assertion:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

What he judges is the universe in which it is natural for the drowned to sink to the bottom, which is to say, the universe of the camps. That last sentence is further evidence of a tendency we will by this point in our conversation already have talked about, namely, how highly Levi values thought and reason. To be able to reason is to be human. But to reason in the camps is painful—it reminds the prisoner of all he has lost. That is the ambivalence of the camp infirmary: it spares prisoners from the back-breaking labour for a time (assuming they recover), but it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to them.

An even more complex consideration of the double-edged quality of reason lies at the heart of the book’s most magisterial chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” the second I emphasize. (In recently learned from Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi that he wrote it in a single 30-minute lunch break at his first job after returning home to Turin.) Here Levi submits reason to the most intense and consequential scrutiny.

“The Canto of Ulysses” concerns Levi’s relationship with his work kommando’s Pikolo, a young man named Jean. A Pikolo (also known as a Pipel) was a kind of messenger boy/mascot selected by the Kapo or head of the commando. (Kapos were themselves prisoners, but almost always criminals or sometimes political prisoners.) A Pikolo was typically a teenage boy, who was often used sexually by the Kapo; either way, he had a higher status than ordinary prisoners and received certain privileges. Jean’s full name was Jean Samuel: after the war, he and Levi maintained a decades-long friendship. Jean, an Alsatian, speaks French and German equally well. Mindful of the importance of languages in the camps, he asks Levi, on a day when he has selected the older man to accompany him from the work site to the kitchen to fetch the day’s cauldron of soup, to teach him some Italian. The chapter describes what counts as an idyll in Auschwitz. The task takes about an hour, in which the two men are free from hard labour and the threat of punishment.

Levi makes the unusual decision—which Samuel later said bemused him at the time—of granting Jean his wish by reciting for him a canto from Dante’s Inferno. He readily admits he does so more for himself than for Jean: being able to turn his mind to the foundational text of Italian literature imbues him with new life. But the canto Levi chooses—in class I pass out a copy of the relevant section, as only some lines are quoted in the chapter, and in the process offer a quick summary of Dante’s aims and achievement in the Divine Comedy—is surprising.

In the poem, Dante is surprised to find Ulysses in Hell (as opposed to in Limbo with other virtuous pagans). What, he wonders, has Ulysses done to deserve this fate? Ulysses answers by telling the story of how, having escaped the enchantments of Circe, he goaded his men into sailing across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and past the edge of the known world. He trespassed the boundaries of human accomplishment—and was punished for that audacity. Levi makes a clear parallel between the expedition he and Jean are making and Ulysses’s own, which the wily Ithacan launched in a rousing speech: you are men, and thus made for wisdom, he tells the sailors, mere beasts of burden. The canto matters to Levi because the story it tells “has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulder.”

They are not the oxen they appear to be. In using the phrase “dare to reason,” Levi echoes the Latin sapere aude, dare to know, the credo of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even this early in the semester, students hunger for a positive moment. They welcome the message that humanity can’t so easily be destroyed.

To complicate this wishful thinking, I assign an activity in which half the students make connections between the excerpt from Dante and Levi’s chapter, and other half close the chapter’s final paragraph in order to figure out how it’s related to what’s come before. In pushing them past the obvious comparisons between the rousing Ulysses and the valiant camp inmates, I focus on how Ulysses gets his men to do what he wants. (They are rightly reluctant.) The poem says that his speech about how knowing is central to being human is an example of zeal. We consider the ambivalence of this word, which can be used as much to condemn as to praise. Zeal is almost always too much. It’s irrational (think of the way we use “zealot”). What I want students to see how reason is compromised by the very intensity with which it’s upheld. Ulysses is irrational in his praise of reason. Think about our own culture’s unreasoning and often unreasonable belief in the importance of science and technology, of progress, of improvement. It’s not that these are fictions. It’s that they are hollowed out when they are fetishized. This contradiction is important, because too often the Holocaust is taken to be an aberration from Western culture, when it is, if not its logical conclusion, completely in keeping with the way the West has thought about the world.

That’s why the chapter’s final paragraph, which is set off from what’s come before by a break, is so important. Levi and the Pikolo have reached the kitchen before their language lesson can be completed. Their idyll is over; the reality of camp life returns:

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. ’Kraut und Rüben? Kraut und Rüben.’ The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ’Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’

‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’

The last line is Ulysses’s description of his expedition’s fate. This language resonates with the references to sinking and drowning I mentioned earlier. Levi’s language (“sordid, ragged”), his description of the crowd that swallows the two men, putting paid to their conversation about Dante, and his use of foreign languages to talk not about poetry but about food combine to return is to reality. What matters is what’s in the soup today. But what about that final line from Dante. Should we read it as a final irony, a dismissal of what Levi and Jean have achieved? Or as an insistence, however faint, that poetry (and human accomplishment more generally) can persist? What does it mean to describe the press of starving men in the language of Dante? Does it elevate the scene? Does it denigrate Dante? Does the scene even need elevation?

Our difficulty in answering these questions—a result of the text’s complexity, nuance, and appreciation of paradox—challenges any consoling beliefs about the human spirit.


Next time, notes on some of the other questions I ask in teaching Survival in Auschwitz.