A Centenary of Levi Facts

As part of my efforts to celebrate Primo Levi’s centenary, I read Ian Thomson’s biography. Primo Levi: A Life (2002) is thorough, chilly, occasionally a little plodding. But it’s full of fascinating material. Here are 105 things that struck with me. (Tried to keep it to a round hundred, but the effort defeated me.) After the list I offer brief thoughts on the biography itself.


1. Bartolo Mascarello, apparently the maker of the best Barolo in Piedmont, described Levi this way:

Primo was a sort of owl, you know, extremely intelligent and observant—but at the same time apparently quite ordinary. Primo had a kind face, laughing eyes, extraordinary eyes—penetrating and sagacious. He struck me then and much later as un uomo allegro, a happy man. He was very measured but not in an aristocratic way, in a human way.

2. Levi was “raised on a mixture of coddling and bourgeois stiffness”

3. His mother, Ester, was formal, reserved, cautious, prudish, fastidious. Passed on many of these traits to her son. His father, Cesare, trained as engineer, sold machinery, fancied himself man about town, a sophisticated roué. In fact, claims Thomson, he was an autodidact and a bit of a bumpkin.

4. Cesare grudgingly joined Fascist party (like so many Italian Jews, though many were enthusiastic); Primo joined fascist youth movement in 1924, as a five-year-old.

5. Levi was a frail boy who grew up determined to overcome this frailty. As a teenager (and for the rest of his life) he was an avid mountaineer.

6. The Torinese have an expression for the fatigue that comes from a strenuous mountain hike, la grande fatica.

7. In August 1932 Levi observed his Bar Mitzvah—later in life he described his religious education as entirely perfunctory: in the milieu he grew up in, boys could read Hebrew just well enough that their family could be congratulated.

8. Levi was drawn to study of science because other learning (especially of classics) was done by rote. Fascist regime valued humanities; devalued science.

9. Entered university in October 1937. His first professor told the entering students, “Chemistry is a bricks-and-mortar trade and you lot are brick-layers. Don’t expect to discover the meaning of life around here.” Levi would eventually set his sights on just that grandiose aim, but he always appreciated the brick-layer role. Nonetheless he Later wished he had studied physics.

10. In 1938 Levi narrowly avoided being thrown out of university along with most Jewish students as Mussolini’s regime acceded to Hitler’s demands for anti-Semitic Nuremberg-style laws. At the last minute, it was decided that those who were already in their second year of study could complete their education.

11. The assimilated Jews of Turin and throughout Italy were blindsided by new anti-Semitic laws. Couldn’t believe they would really be affected.

12. Like so many young European Jews, Levi was intrigued by Zionism, especially its secularism. Encouraged by his English tutor (many Italian Jews belated prepared to leave the country), he even translated the British White Paper of 1939 (which reduced number of Jewish refugees to Mandate Palestine). But the Levis would never have been persuaded to leave Turin: 95% Italian, 5% Jewish, they said.

13. Indeed, Levi had no interest in the Jewish refugees arriving in Turin and other parts of Italy from Eastern Europe.

14. Levi wrote his dissertation on what would eventually be called quantum chemistry, specifically the idea that asymmetry is central to the make-up of the universe: the carbon atom is asymmetrical.

15. In summer 1941, Levi graduated with first class-honours—only the second such degree in 25 years. He was a Dottore, but as a Jew had no career prospects.

16. In summer 1942 Levi was hired by a Swiss film in Milan. His project: to extract anti-diabetes medication from burdock root. Swiss firms could hire Jews but needed to keep them on the down low. Levi was taken on as Doctor Primo.

17. In Milan Levi ate at canteen across from the main newspaper. There he met reporters and editors who knew the paper’s Russia correspondent Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt, The Skin). All of them, Thomson says, knew what was happening in the East.

18. By 1942, when Levi’s father died, Italian Jews were no longer allowed to place obituaries in the newspaper.

19. At this time, Levi began to be involved with the Resistance: wrote slogans (LONG LIVE PEACE) on Lira notes and smuggled propaganda into provinces from Milan.

20. 1 December 1943, Salò regime decrees Jews of all nationalities be arrested & placed in special camps.

21. Levi joined Partisans in the mountains in the high valleys above Turin. His ragtag group was soon infiltrated by fascist spies; he and the others were arrested on December 13, 1943.

22. The night before the arrest, Levi spent the evening discussing the famous Lippizaner horses of Slovenia, said to be able to spell words with their hooves.

23. Levi spent 39 days in jail before being transferred to a transit camp at Fossoli.

24. Life in Fossoli under its corrupt Commissar Avitabile (he demanded sexual favours from women, for example) was relatively good: communal living, packages allowed in, sharing of food and clothes. “Primo is well,” one of his fellow prisoners wrote to her relatives.

25. A minimum number of prisoners was needed for a deportation train: to meet this quota, Italian officials raided a Jewish old folks home. Numbers in the camp began to swell. On February 22, 1944, Levi and the other prisoners in Fossoli were deported to Auschwitz.

26. Levi later described the assimilated Italian Jews who arrived with him at Auschwitz as “eggs without a shell.”

27. Levi sent as slave labour to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, run by the chemical company IG Farben. The rubber-producing plants at Buna, which came online in mid-1944, consumed as much electricity as all of Berlin. It gave Levi satisfaction that the plants never produced any useable rubber.

28. Buna was short for Butadiene and Natrium (Latin for sodium).

29. The SS & I. G. Farben sabotaged each other: former wanted to kill prisoners as quickly as possible; latter needed them for labour. SS ordered Jews to bring back 40 bricks every day from Buna to delay construction; Farben allowed Levi to sell blankets he stole from barracks.

30. In Buna Levi met Alberto Dall Volta, also an Italian chemist—Alberto spoke German well, and was a genius at “organizing” (finding ways to steal and otherwise get ahead in the camps). He and Levi became inseparable—eventually dividing their rations. Alberto died in the so-called Death March just before liberation.

31. Levi also met Lorenzo Perrone, a Piedmontese mason, a volunteer worker in the Third Reich (i.e, he was not Jewish), who smuggled an extra soup ration to Levi every day for six months. His help contributed immeasurably to Levi’s survival. As a civilian, Perrone received packages from home and had a reasonable ration. The soup wasn’t pleasant—it “might contain a sparrow’s wing, prune stones, salami rind, even bits of La Stampa newsprint reduced to pulp”—but it gave Levi an extra 500 calories a day. Perrone suffered upon returning home; he became an alcoholic, which Levi understood as a form of suicide. He died in April 1952.

32. Thanks to his training, Levi was conscripted into a work commando in the lab at Buna. It was in the relative warmth of the lab during the winter 44-45 that Levi began to secretly record his experiences. His notes never amounted to 20 lines, and he destroyed them after committing them to memory. But If this is a Man born already in camp.

33. Caught scarlet fever in January 1945. When admitted to Infektionsabteilung (the camp infirmary) on January 11th, Levi weighed 80 lbs.

34. In the weeks before and after liberation, Levi formed a close friendship with Leonardo De Benedetti, a Turinese doctor who was appointed head of surgery by the Russians after they took over the camp. Benedetti: “I’m like a beggar who has lost everything—except life.” They would be lifelong friends, although they never quite recovered from an argument over Israel late in their lives.

35. On June 6, 1945, Levi—at this point halfway through the six months it took him to make the journey home—wrote a letter to his mother and sister. Here is the PS, which Thomson rightly calls extraordinary:

Maybe I’ll come home shoeless, but in compensation for my ragged state I’ve learned German and a bit of Russian and Polish, I also kjow how to get out of many situations without losing my nerve, and how to withstand moral and physical suffering. To economise on the barber I’m sporting a beard. I know how to make a cauliflower or turnip soup, cook potatoes in a hundred different ways (all without seasoning). I know, too, how to assemble, light, and clean stoves. And I’ve been through an incredibly variety of careers: assistant bricklayer, navy, sweep, porter, grave-digger, interpreter, cyclist, tailor, thief, nurse, fence, stone-breaker. I’ve even been a chemist!

36. Levi reached Turin 19 October 1945. Of the 650 Jews on the transport from Fossoli, 24 returned.

37. At the end of 1945, beginning of ‘46 Levi began buttonholing strangers on trams and on the street to tell them of his experiences. He was in the grip of a compulsion.

38. At Rosh Hoshanah 1945, Levi met Lucia Morpurgo, who would become his wife. A coup de foudre, but although their marriage was lifelong, it wasn’t especially happy. A big reason was the fact that they lived with Levi’s mother for their entire marriage.

39. In January 1946 Levi began to work at a paint factory (DUCO) near Turin. Train service was still so poor that Levi roomed there during week. That’s when he began writing If this is a Man.

40. He began with the last chapter, “The Story of Ten Days.” The famous and brilliant “Canto of Ulysses” chapter was composed in a single half-hour lunchbreak!

41. That chapter describes an experience with a fellow prisoner, the Alsatian Jean Samuel. He also survived, and the two men stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Levi to Samuel: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.”

42. The hardest thing for Levi to deal with in writing If this is a Man was his anger.

43. Lucia was an exacting editor of the manuscript.

44. The book was turned down by Little, Brown in 1946 on recommendation of a well-known American Rabbi.

45. Even earlier, it had been turned down by Einaudi, the most prestigious Italian publisher. A huge blow to Levi. The novelist Natalia Ginzburg, a reader at the publisher, liked it but thought it not right for their list. Rejected by 5 other Italian publishers too.

46. Levi’s classical style was paradoxically a reminder of Fascist times.

47. Franco Antonicelli, a former leader of the Resistance, agreed to publish the manuscript with his (valiant but small) press. The working title was In the Abyss. Then Drowned and Saved. Antonicelli decided on the final title.

48. Levi was asked to testify at the trial of Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz, but couldn’t get the time off work.

49. Levi married Lucia Morpurgo 8 September 1947; on 11 October If this is a Man was published.

50. Levi frustrated by being labelled as a witness. Thought of himself as writer first, witness second.

51. This now canonical book was indifferently reviewed (except by the writer Italo Calvino). Sold less than 1500 copies.

52. The Levis’ daughter, Lisa Lorenza, born 31 October 1948; their son, Renzo Caesare, born 2 July 1957.

53. SIVA (the paint and varnish company Levi moved to in the late 1940s and spent the rest of his career at) moved to new head office about 20 miles from Turin. Levi would choose the wines for the canteen. Employees enjoyed a 2-hour break, complete with, depending on season, snowball fights and bicycles rides.

54. Levi received a reparation payment from I. G. Farben worth about $12 000 today.

55. In 1955 Einaudi agreed to republish If this is a Man but the press’s financial problems meant it wouldn’t appear until 1958. In meantime, Levi revised and added a new chapter (“Initiation”). He also changed the opening sentence, added the section on the WWI vet he names Steinlauf. Steinlauf was modelled on a man named Eugenio Gluecksmann, but also, apparently, on Otto Frank, who Levi had seen at Auschwitz and then met later in Turin (1952 or 53). He also added material on Alberto, but misrepresented him, saying, for example, that he couldn’t speak German.

56. Einaudi’s first printing sold out; Levi began to become a spokesman of the Holocaust.

57. Met Stuart Woolf, who would translate If this is a Man into English. Levi worked closely with him. One day, Woolf gave Levi Tolkien to read. He hated it, returning it the next day.

58. Samuel Fischer bought German rights, with Heinz Riedt as translator: remarkable man who had grown up in Italy where his father was consul in Palermo, got himself exempted from Wehrmacht, fought with partisans in Padua. His father-in-law imprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. “Perfect collaboration” between two.

59. US reviews middling; UK better.Germany different: 20,000 sold immediately. Levi spoke to Germany’s young.

60. Began writing The Truce in 1961—important moment in his writing career because it was the first time Levi consciously turned his experience into literature. Published in 1963, it was an immediate success in Italy—but more with ordinary readers than critics. Where If This is a Man had not been neo-realist enough in 1947, The Truce in 1963 was criticized as too neo-realist.

61. At the end of 1963 Levi suffered his first serious depression. He feared he had said all he had to say about his experiences and that he was finished as a writer. This fear reappeared regularly for the rest of his life.

62. In April 1965 Levi returned to Auschwitz for 20th anniversary of the end of the war. Felt nothing at Auschwitz. Saw Birkenau for the first time (!). Amazingly, the plant at Buna was still operational.

63. Levi published two collections of science fiction. Neither was a success. Later he would virtually disown them.

64. Levi wouldn’t tolerate anyone who made fun of others, even children playing together: “The moment the defenceless are derided is the moment Nazism is born.”

65. In late 1966, entered into what would become sixteen-year correspondence with Hety Schmidt-Maas, a German who came from an exemplary anti-Nazi family. As a child, she had refused to join the League of German Women (v unusual). Her ex-husband had been a chemist for I. G. Farben. Schmidt-Maas was on a one-woman mission to understand Germany’s recent past. Levi asked Hety if she had any contact information for the German chemists he had worked under at Auschwitz. Most were dead or had disappeared. But Ferdinand Meyer, who had treated Levi as an equal more than anyone else, was still alive—she offered to put them in touch. Meyer wrote to Levi in 1967. Levi was wary, especially of Meyer’s platitudes of working through past.

66. Meyer (wrongly) saw in If this is a Man the spirit of forgiveness. (Surprisingly, the survivor and philosopher Jean Amery also saw this trait in Levi.)

67. Levi decided not to meet Meyer. He didn’t want the responsibility of forgiving him: not his place. The survivor and historian Hermann Langbein called Meyer a “spineless grey creature.”

68. Later in 1967 went to visit Hety. Successful visit. She called Meyer while Levi was there; the two men spoke by phone. It is not known what they said. Levi confessed to Hety his great fear of seeing Meyer again. Meyer died in December 1967. Thomson’s verdict: “Meyer was less infamous than inadequate.”

69. In 1968 Levi made his only trip to Israel. Not a success. Levi couldn’t square Israel with his preference for the diaspora. Levi was only published in Hebrew in 1988, after his death.

70. In late 1971 Levi wrote to Hety about his depression:

We are not masters of our mood, of our reactions, of our very personality: a slight disturbance in one’s hormonic [sic] balance, and you are turned into somebody else; and you are liable to revert to this obnoxious state again and again, and each time you will stubbornly be persuaded that this is your ral and final condition, that you will have no future…

71. Neither of his children wanted to hear of his past experiences. Thomson concludes Levi had neighbourly but not affectionate relationships with them.

72. In early 1973 Levi began writing The Periodic Table.

73. This was a time of serious neo-fascist violence in Turin: gangs prowled the streets with knuckledusters. Later in the decade, businessmen would take tourniquets with them when going to work in case of being shot.

74. Levi retired from SIVA on December 1, 1974. Had long wanted to do so. Not a good manager, the responsibility tormented him. He felt like a Kapo. At his retirement party, the staff urged him to make a speech. He said, in full: “I believe I have always tried not to get on anyone’s nerves.”

75. Both he and Lucia’s mothers were in poor health. Levi walked his mother around the block twice a day. The only time in their life they were separated for any length of time was the 22 months he was deported.

76. The Periodic Table published in 1975—big hit, much feted, Levi by now a literary legend in Italy. The book expresses the tension between the writer he was becoming and the writer he was taken to be (invention v documentation).

77. Hety visited the notorious Nazi Albert Speer in prison and gave him If this is a Man. Speer didn’t read it, saying he didn’t want to “disturb” Levi by reading it (?!?!)

78. In the late 70s, Levi was indicted on two counts of ‘personal injury’ for causing involuntary injury to workers at the SIVO plant. In the end, no evidence was found and he never stood trial. But the incident shook Levi. The investigating magistrate did find Levi to have been careless of others’ safety—perhaps, Thomson speculates, because of his Auschwitz experience.

79. After retiring, Levi took German lessons diligently for several years at Turin’s Goethe Institut: enjoyed being “their oldest student.”

80. Levi’s literary taste was conservative: found Proust boring, Beckett “annoys me terribly.”

81. In 1979 Levi began to research what would become If Not Now, When. Thomson thinks it a bad book, embarrassing even. (Crude rhetoric, schematic, mouthpieces, over-researched: that was the US critical consensus too.) Began writing in October 1980—wrote the novel quickly in what he called eleven blissful months.

82. On 7 November 1980, the remains of the Holy Virgin St Lucy stolen in Levi’s name from a church in Venice. The thieves left an anonymous ransom note: “St Lucy will be returned on condition that a page of If this is a Man be read each day in all secondary schools and lycèes in the Veneto area.” A local criminal eventually claimed responsibility.

83. Levi thought the natural world was inimical to language, not a human phenomenon like Auschwitz.

84. In 1982 Levi accepted a commission to translate The Trial. He didn’t like the book—“revived his disquiet about Jews and Judaism.”

85. Levi met regularly with students who were writing about him. He was very patient. One student telephoned him about his school essay on If this is a Man, which he hadn’t read: “I promise to read all your books soon,” he told the bemused Levi. (See under: chutzpah)

86. Visited Auschwitz again in summer 1981. Flinched at the sound of a passing freight train.

87. Levi: “Sometimes I wonder if I belong to the Jewish people at all.”

88. The US had been largely uninterested in Levi. If Not Now, When published only reluctantly. The Periodic Table had been published only when Saul Bellow offered a rave blurb. But when Levi met Bellow on his US tour in 1985 Bellow snubbed him.

89. Levi met Elie Wiesel in summer 1981. He had no fondness for Wiesel. The latter had claimed to have had a friendship with Levi in Buna. Levi denied this, saying he had no memory of him.

90. In the fall of 1981, the doctor and survivor Leonardo de Benedetti Nardo died. Levi, as he put it, “became a lonely survivor.” De Benedetti’s maid claimed she never saw Levi smile again.

91. In summer 1984 Levi bought a personal computer. Became a “Mac bore”—convinced the American translator of Italian William Weaver to buy one. Talked about it all the time.

92. The Periodic Table published in the US in the fall of 1984. Finally, Levi received praise and recognition in the US, and he accepted his publisher’s request for a US tour the following year. In America, Levi was always a survivor first and a writer second. Indiana UP had accepted Periodic Table in 1981 but on the condition that only the Holocaust parts be published. (Levi declined.)

93. Einaudi had shorthand for his two Levi writers, Primo and Carlo: “Levi Man’ and “Levi Christ” (Carlo Levi’s most famous book is Christ Stopped at Eboli.)

94. The US trip was a mixed success at best. When Levi met Nahum Glatzer, the publisher of Schocken Books, he left his prosciutto and melon untouched; he didn’t want to offend the observant Glatzer. Thomson claims Levi was puzzled by how much Americans emphasized his Jewishness, complaining that they had “pinned a Star of David” on him. Yet he was very glad to have the US market open to him; his publishers thought he would be back within a year.

95. At the end of June 1985, Esther Levi turned 90. Levi felt increasingly imprisoned by her. He even likened her to “the drowned” of his famous Holocaust metaphor.

96. Jean Samuel visited in the fall and found his friend in very low spirits. In particular, Levi worried about the rise of revisionism; feared all his writing would one day fall on deaf ears.

97. Writing to an Englishwoman who thought she had recognized her uncle in The Periodic Table (it turns out she was right), Levi said “I preserve absurdly precise memories of that period.”

98. In response to an interviewer who asked if he ever dreamed of Auschwitz, Levi told of a dream he occasionally had. He was being driven back into the camp, but protested: “Gentlemen, I have already been here. It is not my turn.”

99. In April 1986 Levi met Philip Roth in London. The two men got on very well: “With some people you just unlock—and Levi was one of them,” Roth later said. In the fall, Roth and his then-wife Claire Bloom visited the Levis in Turin. Roth insisted Levi take him to the paint factory. They shared an emotional farewell: both men cried. Levi: “I don’t know which of us is the older brother, and which is the younger brother.”

100. In an interview, Levi rejected the interviewer’s claim that he wrote from the experience of an underdog:

Levi: I was never an underdog.

Interviewer: But you were in Auschwitz…

Levi: The ones below me were the underdogs. I kept my human abilities. I never sank that far. Underdogs lose the capacity to speak, to articulate. An underdog would never be likely to write anything.

101. Levi’s essay collection The Drowned and the Saved was published in June 1986. Levi planned to write a sequel investigating the German industries involved in the camps. Would that this had come to fruition.

102. Levi’s “unidentified antagonist” in his last book was Bruno Vaari, survivor of Mauthausen, who believed ex-deportees survived thanks to their virtue.

103. Levi fell into a particularly dark depression in the winter of 1987. In February he wrote to a friend: “I know that this phase will pass, just as others have done, but I’m aware of this only at the rational level; my overriding impression is that it will last for ever and that I will never find an exit out.”

104. On the morning of Saturday, April 11, 1987, Levi fell from the landing of the stairwell in front of his third (in the US, fourth) floor apartment. He died immeditely. Ever since, people have debated whether he jumped or fell. (He was on medication that made him dizzy.) Thomson plumps for suicide. To my mind, it doesn’t matter. What is more instructive is our desire to want to make sense of the event. At any rate, news spread quickly in Turin and respectful crowds gathered in front of the building.

105. Levi had said he wanted words Homer uses to describe Odysseus, pollà plankté, much erring, driven to wander far and wide, as his epigraph.


I don’t read biographies much, so it’s hard to say how good this one. My sense is it’s ok. Thomson is a pretty pedestrian writer, which surprised me, as I read a fabulous essay about his father’s death in the TLS a couple of years ago. The last third of the book feels like a grim, plodding forced march, but, then, Levi’s last years were not easy.

Thomson doesn’t seem to know much about Jewishness. And he has the attitudes of the time regarding depression and mental health. (I gather he did most of the research in the 1990s). He’s not exactly judgmental, but says, for example, that Levi “abandoned himself to black moods.” Just a little dubious, and unsympathetic.

He’ll also occasionally say something silly, as when he writes, apparently with a straitght face, that in Los Angeles Levi “saw no evidence of the murderous gunplay that defines the City of Angels.”

But Thomson, who knew Levi and interviewed him, knows Italian well, and seems very sound on the politics of the 30s and 40s as well as the terror of the Years of Lead in the 1970s. Most importantly, I learned a lot about Levi from this book, which is the point. It reaffirmed by love of him, but also usefully tempered it. Levi wasn’t a saint, and he didn’t want to be one. He was endlessly frustrated at being known as a witness first and a writer second. But witnessing matters. And he can rest assured that he is both a great witness and a great writer.


Beyond Night: A Holocaust Remembrance Reading List

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day; it was on that date in 1945 that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A powerful way to commemorate the Holocaust is to read its literature: the letters, diaries, memoirs, essays, poems, and fiction created during the events and since. A handful of these texts are well-known: Anne Frank’s Diary, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s memoirs Night and Survival in Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. These are rightly famous, and well worth reading (even if Night drives me crazy).

But what if you’ve read them and are looking for more?

Here are 15 less-familiar titles that will deepen your understanding of the Holocaust:

David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (1998) Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (2004)

In this novel, a teacher in Belgrade traces the fate of his relatives, uncovering the circumstances of their deaths in a gas van driven by the SS officers of the title. A novel about the limits of history and the possibilities and perils of the imagination.

Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (2017)

Why read this out of the many fascinating and heartbreaking Holocaust diaries? For one thing, the story is extraordinary: together with a cousin, Applebaum took refuge on a farm near Tarnapol, Poland. For much of their time in hiding, the two young women were buried in a wooden box, about the size of a wardrobe, able to come out only for an hour or two each night. More vexingly still, both women had sex with their protector, events described obliquely yet excitedly by Applebaum, yet which can’t help but lead us to ask questions about consent and abuse. Another quality that distinguishes this diary is that it’s paired with a memoir written much later, in which Applebaum describes her new life in Canada and reflects on her wartime experiences, yet in ways that seem at odds with the way she told them in the diary.

Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (1986) Translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling (2010)

Conceptual poetry, writes the scholar Leslie Morris, “seeks to create texts that disavow the very act of creation.” Bäcker’s poems are taken from official documents and eyewitness testimony. Here’s one, taken from a postwar record of criminal proceedings:

whereas he had to prepare breakfast each morning for about 300 prisoners in camp III, he had to provide a midday meal for only about 150.

Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar (1969) Translated by Leila Vennewitz (1990)

Maybe the most brilliant ghetto novel, written by one who survived the Lodz ghetto and two concentration camps. At the beginning of the novel, Jacob happens to overhear a bulletin on German radio describing a Russian advance. Having let slip the news, Jacob, who is too frightened to explain how he came by this knowledge, pretends that he has a radio (strictly forbidden in the ghetto) and invents the news. Amazingly, the book is funny, as well as very, very sad. Jacob’s inventions are an allegory for our own desires as readers of traumatic events.

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (written 1946-48) Translated by Barbara Vedder (1967)

Dark. So dark. These stories are more or less loosely based on Borowski’s own experiences as a non-Jewish political prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau, most famously about his time as a member of the “Canada Kommando,” the prisoners tasked with separating the new arrivals from their belongings. Desperate.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Translated by Samuel E. Martin (2017)

The bark of the title comes from a birch tree at Birkenau, peeled off by Didi-Huberman on a recent visit. These same trees can be seen in the four famous photographs taken (at great risk and with daring subterfuge) by a member of the Sonderkommando (the “special squad”—the name given by the Nazis to the groups of Jews they selected to take the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria) in the summer of 1944; these comprise the only images of the Holocaust taken by its victims. In this little book, Didi-Huberman intersperses his own amateur photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site with essayistic meditations on the paradoxes of commemorating mass murder.

Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1983) Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (1987)

Ah, these stories! I’m in awe of how much Fink packs into just a few pages. Plus, she turns each text into a meditation on the stakes of representing and interpreting traumatic events. You would think the allegories of reading would get in the way of the emotional power of the stories. But no, Fink’s genius is to combine self-awareness with heart. Maybe the greatest Holocaust writer.

Imre Kertész, Fatelessness (1975) Translated by Tim Wilkinson (2004)

The most difficult but also the most brilliant Holocaust novel I know. Fourteen-year-old György is deported from Budapest in the summer of 1944 to a series of camps and (barely) lives to tell the tale. He tells his story in a fussy, roundabout style that is more amazed than horrified. What makes the book so challenging is that Kertész never allows his narrator the benefit of hindsight. Which allows us to experience the events of the Final Solution as its victims would have: as bewildering, boring, even at times exciting. An amazing accomplishment.

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

Kluger’s bitter insights spare no one: she’s as scathing about the Vienna of her childhood as of the Jim Crow America she arrived in shortly after the war. And her portrait of her relationship with her mother—together, the two women survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen—is similarly unflinching. The memoir is highly self-reflexive; no surprise, perhaps, for Kluger, who re-wrote the book in English after writing a version of it in German, became a professor of literature.

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

Enigmatic and fragmentary memoir by an eminent philosopher of Nietzsche and Freud about her experiences as a hidden child in Paris after her beloved father, a rabbi, is deported. The heart of the story is the triangular relationship between Kofman, her mother, and the loving yet anti-Semitic woman who took them in. I blogged about it here.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991)

Brilliant memoir in which Millu tells heartbreaking stories of life in the women’s Lager in Birkenau. Here we find stories of pregnancy, prostitution, maternal love, self-sacrifice, sabotage, and gossip, told in unshowy, elegant prose. I’ve no idea why this book isn’t much more famous.

Jona Oberski. Childhood (1978) Translated by Ralph Mannheim (1983)

Spare, memorable novel based on Oberski’s own experience: born in 1938 in Amsterdam to German Jewish refugees, then deported first to the Westerbork transit camp and then Bergen-Belsen, where he was orphaned and cared for by a family friend. Much of its power comes from the point of view—we see what the child sees, we know what the child knows, leaving us often in the dark. I wrote about the effects of its style when the book was reissued a few years ago.

Göran Rosenberg, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012) Translated by Sarah Death (2015)

Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist, uncovers his parents’ story: how they respectively survived the war and built a life in Sweden after being miraculously reunited. As the title suggests, though, that life, although successful in many ways, was always lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rosenberg, as I wrote here, excels at depicting the scope of the concentration camp system, and the similarity between it and the Displaced Persons camps that replaced it.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)

Proving that great books about the Holocaust can still be written, Seiffert’s novel has several things going for it: its discrete, matter-of-fact style, which is nonetheless beautiful, even at times incantatory; its focus on an underexamined (at least in the English-speaking world) facet of the Shoah, the depredations of the Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine in 1941/42; and its braiding together of stories of victims, perpetrators, and so-called bystanders.

Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, revised 1984)

A recent discovery for me: an absorbing account of Tec’s wartime experiences, in which she lived with a Polish family and passed as a Gentile.

Do you have favourite Holocaust texts? Particular omissions you want to rectify? Let me know! And take a moment to thank the translators of these books; the Holocaust was a multilingual phenomenon: we need translators to understand its true dimensions.

On Holocaust Diaries

I gave this paper as a talk the other day at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The next day I taught three hour-long sessions using passages from three of the diaries I reference in the talk  to middle- and high-school students and their teachers. Both events were part of the 27th annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. My thanks go to the conference organizer and Chair of the Arkansas Holocaust Education Committee, Grace Donoho, and, especially, Dr. Jennifer Hoyer of the German Department and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Fayetteville.


I want to focus today on our fascination with Holocaust diaries, and I want to suggest that the reasons they typically fascinate us are not actually the reasons why they are so important.

We tend to privilege diaries, and especially Holocaust diaries, for their seemingly immediate access to experience. We are getting events as they happened and so are placed directly in the midst of a historical event to which we might otherwise not have access. So the thinking goes, anyway. Holocaust diaries can be considered Exhibit A in the category of testimonial literature that Elie Wiesel, writing in the late 1970s, deemed the genre of his generation, and that critics writing in the wake of Wiesel have described as the kind of writing most commensurate to the traumas of the 20th century.

In this context, let’s consider the following statement by survivor Primo Levi, who incidentally did not write a diary [other than the “retrospective” diary at the end of Survival in Auschwitz]:

We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. … We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are… the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.

Survivors, he adds, “speak in their stead, by proxy.”

The Final Solution was designed to be just that—final; there weren’t supposed to be any survivors. Survivors can thus be considered as a kind of noise or static, or, to change the metaphor, as the flaw that inheres in any system or machine. Exceptional, and interesting as such, but hardly representative. And because it is the case that many diarists did not survive the war—to use Levi’s language, those who did are the exception rather than the rule—these writers could be said to be what he calls “the complete witnesses” and therefore to offer us something even more valuable than survivor memoirs. But what interests me about Levi’s claim extends beyond the distinction between who lived and who died. To my mind, what Levi is really pointing to is something more fundamental about the very nature of experience, namely, that there is an inescapable surrogacy at the heart of experience.

I’m arguing, on the basis of reading Holocaust diaries, that all experience is characterized by indirection, by proxy-ness. To rephrase this in terms given to us by literary criticism, there is always a distinction between the “I” that narrates and the “I” that experiences.

Here, for example, is Hélène Berr, a 20-year-old student of literature at the Sorbonne, writing on June 24, 1942 about the traumatic events of the previous day, when her father, a prominent industrialist, had been arrested:

The first time I awoke and saw the morning light through the blinds, it occurred to me that this morning Papa would not have his usual breakfast, that he would not be coming to the breakfast table to get his toast and pour his cup of coffee. The thought was immensely painful.

That was only my first awakening, and gradually (I often drifted back to sleep) other thoughts came to me, making me realize what had happened. I am still waiting for the sound of keys jangling in his pocket, of him opening the shutters in his bedroom; I am still waiting for them [her parents] to get up, because he’s the one who turns on the gas. At those moments I can grasp it. At this moment of writing, I am not managing very well.

In her description of how she feels when expecting her father, she can grasp the fact of his arrest—via absence, via what’s not happening, and who isn’t there—but in the actual act of writing, she cannot grasp the situation at all. In other words, what the narrating I grasps is that it cannot really grasp what has happened to it.

Later, on October 10, 1943, taking up her diary after a year-long hiatus, Berr describes this split even more clearly:

Then there is the considerable repugnance I feel at thinking of myself as “someone who writes”, because for me, perhaps mistakenly, writing implies a split personality, probably a loss of spontaneity and abdication. [Not mistakenly!]

The split between narrating I and experiencing I allows us to see that even the testimony of direct witnesses to the Holocaust is indirect. The record of experience is at a remove from experience itself. That doesn’t mean these records are fictional or biased or untrustworthy. But it does mean that no one, not even the person doing the experiencing, has unmediated access to direct experience.

[Riff on James Young: the things diarists say are said from within the frame of their world-view: contrast Frank with Flinker—I absolutely agree but my point is more about experience itself.]

Moreover, even the very diaries themselves, irrespective of what is in them, are themselves examples of mediation, documents that stand in for the life of the person who wrote them, a person that is often no longer present, even alive once we are reading their entries.


Published Holocaust diaries usually begin with an introduction explaining how the diary came down to us. Some of these stories are almost as well-known as the diaries themselves.

For example, many people know that Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, searched through the secret annex after the Gestapo raided it and retrieved Anne’s diary, which she kept in case any of the family returned from deportation.

Anne Frank had no way of knowing her writing would be preserved. Others were more deliberate about attempting to enact that preservation. Often, they relied on non-Jewish friends to keep their pages safe. Hélène Berr passed hers on to the family cook with instructions that she get them to Berr’s lover, who was fighting with the Free French. Victor Klemperer similarly gave his to a sympathetic friend.

Other stories are more haphazard, even dramatic. Dawid Serakowiak’s notebooks were found stacked on a stove, ready to be burned, when the Lodz ghetto was liberated. And consider the case of the diaries of Petr Ginz—a Czech teenager who wrote and illustrated adventure stories in the mode of Jules Verne, and whose entries are usually laconic descriptions of which of his friends are no longer at school, but who also wrote a heartbreakingly detailed description of the day he received his deportation notice, a description that focused on the delicate task of disassembling typewriters to clean their keys (this was his after-school job) (it’s a remarkable example of disassociation or of preserving one’s dignity, depending on how you look at it). Ginz’s diaries resurfaced when a man remembered some papers and drawings he had inexplicably kept after he bought an old house in Prague. He was reminded of the documents because of a news story about the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Among the crew was an Israeli astronaut who had taken with him a drawing of the moon by a teenager deported from Prague to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz—the same Petr Ginz.

There’s something avid in the way these stories are described by editors and readers alike. (I confess I share this sentiment.) I think that hunger, that fascination is worth thinking about, because it allows us to consider more fully the relationship between the diarist and the diary.

Diaries often seem to be direct replacements for the writers themselves. Perhaps even to be more important than the writer.

Think of Anne Frank naming her diary Kitty—turning it into an other, and, even more importantly, into an authority that legitimates her writing by being not only confidante but also judge.

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?”

Think 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.”

Think of Molly Appelbaum, writing from near Tarnów, Poland, on March 1, 1942: “I look at each written page [of my diary] with respect. Why, these are the pages of my existence, my life.” (Even though her emphasis is on herself, the proof of the value of that life lies only in the diary.)

Think too of Artie Spiegelman, in the autobiographical comic Maus, listening to his father tell him about his separation from his wife, Artie’s mother, upon their arrival at Aushwitz-Biurkenau after months in hiding. Artie exclaims, “This is where Mom’s diaries will come in especially useful. They’ll give me some idea of what she went through when you were apart.” (But he finds out his father burned them, at which point he bursts out, accusingly, “God damn you, you murderer!”, as if the diary was in fact a person.) (It might be worth noting that these dairies were themselves reconstructions: they were lost in the war and she re-wrote them once settled in America.)

These are all instances in which the person seems subordinate to the diary.

Holocaust diarists are often convinced—usually rightly—that they will not survive. (The last line of Sierakowiak’s diary” “There is really no way out for this for us.”) But they want their diaries to survive. We might say that the narrating I triumphs over the experiencing I.

What does that mean, then, about the status of diaries as witnesses if the experience contained within them is never as direct as we assume?  Have we fetishized diaries at the expense of the actual lives involved?

The diarists themselves offer a response:

Klemperer famously writes, on May 27, 1942, “I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!”

Berr says something similar on October 10, 1943: “I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill.”

And Samuel Golfard, in hiding in Eastern Galicia, begins his diary on January 23, 1943:

I am not composing these words for myself. They are intended for those who will survive and who might quickly forget what they had lived through not so long ago. Let these words refresh in their memory the moments of horror, the bloody scenes that took place before their eyes, the black night of savagery.

These statements are directed outwards, beyond the self. There’s even a sense that the writers don’t want to keep writing any more, or do so only at great cost or against all odds. Berr says as much: “I’m not even keeping this diary anymore, I’ve no willpower left, I’m just putting down the salient facts so as to remember them” (September 10, 1942). Sierakowiak doesn’t say it in so many words, but the terseness of his entries, coupled with his laments over his weakening concentration, failing health, and ebbing vitality, indirectly indicate to us how much the writing takes out of him.

On this way of thinking, the diary is an instrument, a tool of survival. Moreover, it is the often the only means of survival, and the only way it survives is by becoming separated and distanced from its writer. It is the very distinction between the writer’s experience and the diaries’ representation (their being a form of representation) that allows us to have access to these historical events at all.

Diaries, then, substitute for people who aren’t there any longer. [Even prey upon them? Cf Berr: I’m not even writing this diary anymore, but I have to.]

This is a melancholy, even dismal state of affairs. And inasmuch as we replace the reality of loss, suffering, and death—starvation, terror, dehumanization, typhus, tuberculosis, all the terrible traumas suffered by Frank and Berr and Sierakowiak and Klemperer, to name only a few—with the survival of the diaries themselves then it’s worse than that. To do so is to emphasize triumph where there is in reality only loss, a loss we’re literally papering over by fetishizing the miracle that the documents have come to us at all.

But this doesn’t have to be the only way to think about diaries as proxies for their authors. We can take the distance between diary and diarist not as a replacement of the latter by the former, but as a tribute the former pays to the latter.

Because if it weren’t for the mediated-ness of representation we wouldn’t have witnessing at all. The distance between person and diary is necessary. Sometimes that distance is physical (the two get separated: think of Frank’s pages scattered on the floor of the secret annex; think of Sierakowiak’s stacked on the stove, that narrow escape from the funeral pyre) but it is always structural (as I’ve been arguing, it’s constitutive of the form).

The separation of the diary from the diarist—sometimes a contingent fact of the vicissitudes of history but always an inescapable fact that is constitutive of the very act of writing—does two things at the same time: it keeps us from accessing direct experience but that very separation allows us to have any access to experience at all.

For Elie Wiesel, the legitimacy of the literature of testimony lies in its urgency:

We have all been witnesses and we all feel we have to bear testimony for the future. And that became an obsession, the single most powerful obsession that permeated all the lives, all the dreams, all the work of those people. One minute before they died they thought that was what they had to do.

The “we” in Wiesel’s first sentence refers to Holocaust survivors. But, like Levi, although less consciously, he distinguishes between those who survived and those who were murdered. Beginning with “we” Wiesel moves to “they” and “those people.” Holocaust diaries, I have hoped to show, show us in action what Wiesel can only unconsciously recognize, the fundamentally mediated quality of supposedly immediate or direct testimony.

Holocaust Lit Fall 2016: Week 6 Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

This fall, I’m blogging about my course on Holocaust Literature. You can catch up on the first two installments here.

We’re already through six weeks of the semester, and if you’re keeping track at home you know I’ve missed three weeks. I hope to get to those later, but don’t hold your breath. It’s hard to keep up, and even harder to reconstruct. The headlong pace of the semester sweeps all before it, but I’m delighted to say that I’m having so much fun teaching this group. They are the best class I’ve taught in years. After six weeks, almost all students still participate regularly in discussion, and most of the ones I suggested come meet with me after less-than-distinguished early papers actually did so. Unheard of!

This week we faced our toughest challenge yet: Imre Kertesz’s novel Fatelessness (1975). Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, insists the novel is not especially autobiographical, though its protagonist, György Köves, shares some of Kertesz’s wartime experiences. Like Kertesz, György grows up in Budapest to divorced parents, is deported to Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 14, and is later transferred to Buchenwald.

Fatelessness is a hard book. It’s not only a lot longer but also far more conceptually complex than anything we’ve read so far. (Which is saying something, since Primo Levi, in particular, is no slouch when it comes to intellectual sophistication.) I teach the newish translation by Tim Wilkinson; it seems to me admirable though by no means easy or always elegant, which I suspect is true of the original too. There’s an earlier English translation by Christina and Katharina Wilson, which goes by the slightly but significantly different name Fateless. I’ve not read it, so can’t compare them. If anyone has, I’d love how the translations match up. I’d especially like to hear from anyone who has read Kertesz in his native Hungarian.

It’s been several years since I taught Fatelessness. Students tended to resist it, and although I could tell it was remarkable, I didn’t have a good handle on it myself. The ending in particular is hard to make sense of. I took it off the syllabus for a couple of years, but I never found anything that satisfied me more and the book kept calling to me, so back on it went. Third time’s the charm, I guess. I’m still not entirely clear on what Kertesz wants to say, exactly, in the last chapter, but I feel more confident with it than before and this group of students tackled the book cheerfully and with good will, which made me like the book even more.

So it was a good week in the classroom. (Really, the book deserves even more than a week, but sometimes less is more.) Here I’ll concentrate on the first day’s discussion and allude occasionally to some of the things we covered during the rest of the week.


We began, as I like to do, at the beginning. I read the opening paragraph:

I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to “family reasons,” my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the “family reason” might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn’t raise a further peep against it.

What’s the tone here, I asked the class, and how can you tell? It’s straightforward. What does that mean? Is “straightforward” a tone? It’s simple, you can tell already he’s young. How can you tell? Well, he is supposed to be in school. Right. But can you tell by his way of speaking? His sentences are simple—they’re not complicated and they almost all start with “I.” That’s mostly true, here, about the syntax, though that third sentence is a bit more complex. And we’ll see that his sentences are actually often rather hard to parse, clotted as they are with seemingly unnecessary qualifications and hesitations, the most apparent of which is the term “naturally.” But let’s stick with your other observation—the sentences almost all start with “I.” Does that suggest anything about him?

Maybe he only cares about himself, came the tentative reply. Is he selfish elsewhere? Maybe not selfish, but he doesn’t know how to deal with other people. For example? Well, later he’s embarrassed about all the emotion around his father leaving. And he always seems to be astonished by other people’s reactions. We considered a couple of examples from the first third of the book. Then I brought us back to the opening paragraph. Are there other things you notice about his way of speaking or the kinds of words he uses? He says, “peep.” That’s a young word. A young word? I teased. Like, we just invented it? The student blushed, became more precise. A word a young person would use. Immature. Right, this instance of slang seems important. It suggests something about this person. Neither Levi nor Wiesel would have said “peep.”

What else can we tell about him based on his way of speaking? Think especially about the first and second sentences. What’s the relation between them? After a minute we concluded that the second sentence reverses the first, or, rather, qualifies it. Qualification of this sort is everywhere in the book. It’s the most obvious characteristic of György’s narration. (Later we looked at a famous, grotesque example. György gets inflamed wounds on his hips—phlegmons—that burst and become infected with the lice that are everywhere in the camp. Contemplating the voraciousness of the parasites he comments: “In the end, I realized that, to some extent, and taking everything into account, I could see it their way.” Three qualifying phrases in one simple sentence—typical of his way of speaking.) What kind of person might he be then, given these incessant qualifications and hesitations? Here I was pushing a particular line, and the students could sense it. That always make them clam up—they get scared of giving the wrong answer. Someone ventured: he wants to get things right?

Interesting. Yes, accuracy matters to him. He can’t cut any corners, someone said, he has to tell it exactly. He likes rules, I added. Can we think of any examples? He worries about being with his father on the day of his deportation because that’s the day of the week he’s supposed to be with his mother, according to the court ruling in his parents’ divorce. And he worries about the star on his jacket, someone added. Oh yeah, remind us about that. It’s on page 5—he’s walking and decides not to take his coat off in case his star gets covered up: “It was a clear, balmy morning, considering it was still just early spring. I was about to unbutton myself but then had second thoughts: it was possible that, light as the head breeze was, my coat lapel might flap back and cover up my yellow star, which would not have been in conformity with the regulations.”

The stakes of following rules are high for someone like György, I said. But he’s also shallow, someone said. How so? He doesn’t want a home made star. He thinks those are embarrassing. Yeah, he’s really immature, someone else piled on. But he’s only 14, another student said. He doesn’t know anything other than the rules the Nazis made for him. (Here I gave a brief clarification about the relation of the Hungarian and German governments during the war, but the student’s point still stood.)

So thinking about this rule following and then going back to the opening paragraph, we can see that there is something both fussy and oddly accepting about György’s attitude to his experiences. Fussy is the word I always come back to for György’s style, with its endless qualifications and circumlocutions.

All of this had taken a while, so I also didn’t mention the two uses of euphemism in the opening paragraph—one quoted (“family reasons”), the other not (“labor service”). But they are significant because of a tendency we remarked on later—the way György accepts, even takes on and unthinkingly uses, the language of his oppressors.

Over the course of the week, we saw that tendency ever more clearly and worried a lot over what it suggested. Is it a sign of how thoroughly he’s been duped, how unable he is to escape from the ideology that vilifies him? Or is a sign of something more nefarious—is he a traitor to his people? (A people he has little to do with—an early scene shows how assimilated the family is, serving pork at the father’s farewell supper, stumbling through prayers in a language almost none of them speak. György falls in with the other Jewish kids in his building, but only because they have all been singled out as Jewish, something that never meant anything to them before.) Is György an idiot? Totally clueless? Self-hating?

I reminded students of the extraordinary, ten-page long description of György’s arrival at Auschwitz, where, among other things, young György admires the SS officers spotless uniforms and observes with interest but also revulsion the prisoners who unload them from the train: “It was quite a shock, for after all, this was the first time in my life that I had seen, up close at any rate, real convicts, in the striped duds of criminals, and with shaven skulls in round caps. Dude, I shouted, shamelessly mugging for the students, that’s you!

The best way to understand György in moments like these, I suggested, is to think about the novel’s unusual use of time. When is György telling his story? A hard question, met with silence. As they’re happening to him, someone finally ventured. Is it in present tense? The student had to admit it wasn’t. So not quite as it’s happening, but you are basically right, I said. It’s very close to the events, from some imaginary, impossible to pinpoint position that is after the events but not much after.

Compare this, I said, to the texts we’ve read before. Borowski also used a first person narrator in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” but he told the story in present tense. Even more characteristic is the first person voice of Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (these are the missing three weeks’ worth of blog posts). Remember that Levi and Wiesel regularly used retrospection. They narrated from well after the events. We noted how Levi liked to move from narrative to essayistic mode (typically noted by a shift from “I” to “we”), as he stepped back to consider, for example, how the Germans’ thoroughgoing utilitarianism was at work in the “selection” process. We noted how Wiesel regularly castigated the Jews of his hometown of Sighet for not seeing what was about to befall them. These attitudes can only be offered in retrospect, through a hindsight that, in Wiesel’s case in particular, is pretty dubious. (Hindsight 20/20, etc.) Kertesz’s novel, by contrast, is never retrospective. It sticks so closely to its events, because it believes that is the most honest way to represent them, especially for its young protagonist, who lacks any context to make sense of what’s happening to him and his world.

At the end of our last class on the novel, I would wrap up the week’s discussion by reading an excerpt from Kertesz’s Nobel Prize address in which he takes up this method:

But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists. So he has to languish, poor boy, in the dreary trap of linearity, and cannot shake off the painful details. Instead of a spectacular series of great and tragic moments, he has to live through everything, which is oppressive and offers little variety, like life itself.

But the method led to remarkable insights. Linearity demanded that each situation that arose be completely filled out. It did not allow me, say, to skip cavalierly over twenty minutes of time, if only because those twenty minutes were there before me, like a gaping, terrifying black hole, like a mass grave.

What Kertesz here calls linearity is linked to a scene at the end of the novel that we considered, in which György returns to Budapest at the end of the war and is asked by a reporter to share his stories with the world. The reporter seems to have his heart in the right place: he wants to avoid platitudes, he wants to mobilize citizens’ attention to what happened, he wants to fight the apathy the world threatens to sink into even though the war has only just ended. (He’s a lot more sympathetic than the family who has taken over György’s father’s apartment, and refuses to let him in or even to acknowledge his existence.) But he also sees György as a symbol of the times rather than as an individual, and he presses him to describe what it was like in “the hell of the camps.” György responds firmly that he is “not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like.”

Here we see the outcome or even payoff of the extreme literalism that characterizes György’s way of expressing himself from the beginning of the book. He refuses to speak grandiosely of atrocities, not out of some kind of perverse admiration for the camps, but because he never experienced anything grandiose, only boredom and pain and hunger and even pleasure, the pleasure of still being alive, a sensation that never abandons him even when he is reduced to the most minimal sentience. The reporter give György a slip of paper with his address and urges him to come see him but György lets it drop into the street as soon as the men take their leave of each other. Why does he do that I asked one student, a really smart kid who saves everything for his writing and is unaccountably quiet in class. He hadn’t been expecting the question and struggled a little and then said, simply, I don’t know, I was wondering that too. How did it make you feel, I asked. Upset. Frustrated. That seemed to me a completely understandable response and many students agreed. Despite the novel’s first-person narration, we’re much closer to the reporter than to György, who we have a hard time identifying with. But then another student piped up to say that she was glad György dropped the paper, because the reporter just wanted to exploit him. (Indeed. And that should make us think hard about what our relation to the works we’ve been studying might be. What do we want from them?) I agreed, even if the exploitation was more metaphysical than financial (the reporter admits that neither of them is likely to make much money from any articles they would write together.)

Our insistence that survivors return to tell the world about the atrocities they suffered through is a version of the retrospection that Kertesz contests. What Kertesz wants instead is to present the experience of the survivor from within, which is to say, from the position of someone who is merely surviving, not yet a survivor. Some of the power of Fatelessness comes from the dramatic irony that arises when we compare our knowledge of historical events with György’s—we know what it means to have been “selected,” whereas Györy can only, disquietingly, exult in the clear physical superiority of those in the group he’s been sent to when the people in his transport are separated out. But most of its power comes when we allow ourselves to think about what that disquiet implies: an utter refusal to make of the events something other than what someone going through them might have experienced.

Fatelessness is the only novel I know of that attempts to portray the experience of what was known in camp slang as the Musselmänner, the Muslims, those who were unable through bad luck or poor constitutions or mere inability to find a way to finagle, through some kind of position or job, a few scraps more to eat than the allotted rations and who quickly wasted away. These figures are present throughout Holocaust literature, sometimes as objects of fear, sometimes of contempt, sometimes, as in Levi, as the representatives of the truth of the entire genocidal project, a truth no survivor can be said to share. Here we see one reason why Kertesz needed to write a novel rather than a memoir. By definition, we have no testimony from within that experience, since no one survived it. But Kertesz makes it palpable and plausible how one could be reduced to this state, and how within this zero-degree of human sentience there could still exist, however minutely, the desire for life. It is in this sense that György, transferred to Buchenwald, nothing but a sack of skin and bones who can no longer walk and is left for dead on the ramp until through the most contingent action—he happens to blink just as he is about to be carted to the charnel house and is instead taken to the camp infirmary, it is suggested because the prisoners sorting the living from the dead are so amused at the sight of one so obviously far gone attempting to announce his connection to the living—only in this sense can we understand what otherwise seems only ironic or deluded, György’s breathtaking statement. “I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.” In the same vein, György, who survives by being taken on as a kind of pet prisoner in a hospital unit manly for non-Jewish prisoners, for reasons that are obscure to us because they are unclear to him, can also think, back in Budapest, fondly on the camp: “I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.” This feeling too must somehow be accepted as part of what Kertesz woudl doubtless shudder to call “the Holocaust experience.”


There’s so much more to say about Kertesz’s remarkable—and still too little appreciated—novel. But I’ve already said a lot. Suffice it to say that the class did terrifically well with this demanding novel. Next week, after a break for Rosh Hoshanah, we’ll spend several days working on the first long essay. I’m crossing my fingers that when we return to the course texts, this group will continue to keep on bringing it the way they have so far.




Holocaust Literature Week 2: Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka”

This semester I’m blogging about my class on Holocaust literature. Here is the first installment.

Vasily Grossman (1905-64), who we studied at the beginning of Week 2 of the course, is not nearly as well known in the canon of Holocaust literature as someone like last week’s author, Primo Levi (or some of the other writers we’ll study this semester, like Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski).

I can think of at least two reasons why. First, the reception of Holocaust literature in North America has been biased towards texts written in Western European languages. At least in part, this preference was a function of the inaccessibility of documents and archival material in Soviet-occupied Europe during the Cold War. Second, Grossman was not a survivor, per se, though his mother was murdered by the Nazis along with more than 20,000 other Jews in the family’s hometown of Berdichev in the Ukraine.

Grossman was born to an assimilated Jewish family. He did not have a Jewish education. It is unlikely he knew Yiddish. Berdichev, an important banking center, had one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a prosperous, cosmopolitan world quite unlike the shtetl world made famous in Sholem Aleichem’s work and depicted in the early parts of Wiesel’s Night.

Grossman studied to be an engineer, but turned to writing in the 1930s. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Grossman was assigned to the Red Army newspaper. He became one of the most famous Soviet war correspondents, taking on many dangerous assignments, including a posting in Stalingrad. He accompanied the Red Army on its march westwards, where he reported on what has been called “the Shoah by bullets” (the death meted out by the Einsatzgruppen—mobile units or death squads—across Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. These firing squads murdered approximately tow million people in the years 1941-44, 1.3 million of them Jews, among them Grossman’s mother). Later, in 1944, he also reported on “the Shoah by gas.” He was with the Red Army when it arrived at the extermination camp Treblinka in August 1944.

Immediately he set about writing an essay called “The Hell of Treblinka.” Published in November 1944, it is one of the earliest accounts of the death camps. After the war, it was submitted as evidence by the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials. This extraordinary work is readily available—translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler together with Olga Mukovnikova—in an invaluable collection of Grossman’s essays, stories, and journalism called The Road (New York Review Books).


I began by asking the class to recall the question I’d given them at the end of the previous meeting as a way to guide their reading: What does Grossman value?

Hands shot up. I was relieved to see it, since, on the face of it at least, this is an easy question. Grossman is a passionate writer, not shy to render judgment and lay blame. And since that is what students want to do too, at least when it comes to the Holocaust, they take to him immediately. Of course, Grossman also gives us the tools to complicate what seem like straightforward categorizations.

Life, people, humanity, came the answers. Each student who spoke—and I reminded students that if they hadn’t yet said anything in class this was absolutely the day to chime in because soon, maybe already by the next class, their identity would be sealed: they would be a person who doesn’t talk in class—had to point to a specific passage to support their claim. “The most precious valuable in the world—human life.” “The epitaph history will write for [the victim] is: Here Lies a Human Being.” “Killing turned out to be supremely easy… This must be unflinchingly borne in mind by everyone who truly values honor, freedom, and the life of all nations, the life of humanity.”

These were all good examples. I pointed to another quintessentially Grossman-ian formulation: the victims, he says,

were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human heart.

The list of attributes and qualities here is typical; Grossman loves lists. (At one point in the essay he simply names, for almost ten lines, the belongings the new arrivals would have left scattered on the ground, commenting only, tartly, “It requires real skill to sort out, in the course of only a few minutes, all these thousands of objects.”) This particular list is a strange one. Ranging from physiology (the coughing) to emotion (love and wonder) to human accomplishment (reason and science), it seems to want to encompass everything that might go under the name the human condition in a single sentence.

Grossman absolutely believes in the idea of the human condition. This emphasis on common humanity is at least in part a political and ideological choice. In the course of this forty page essay, Grossman only mentions once that most of the victims were Jewish. That decision is a function of the Soviet insistence that only the suffering of Mother Russia rather than any individual group of people be commemorated. Grossman’s insistence on a kind of universal brotherhood of mankind is also evident in his insistence that the victims looked out for each other. Solidarity of this sort did exist in the camps, but so too did its opposite. Many of the course texts, I noted, will offer a quite different view of affairs.

Grossman was no doctrinaire Marxist—in the essay he even obliquely criticizes Stalinism; after the war he fell into disfavour and his great masterpieces Life and Fate and Everything Flows were written “for the desk drawer” and only survived because they were smuggled to the West in the Krushchev period. But he also insists in classic Marxist fashion that “what engenders a particular regime is the material and ideological relations existing among a country’s citizens… the nature of these relations is what should appall us.”

Yet Grossman never interprets Nazi Germany this way. Instead, as the students noted, he regularly describes them as demonic monsters, purveyors of “bestial madness.” They are refused any redeeming qualities; indeed, they aren’t even human: “The beast that triumphantly kills a man remains a beast.” What, I asked the class, is the effect of Grossman’s rhetoric? What is implied by this way of thinking and talking? (To offer compelling interpretations, students need to be able to draw out the implications of their observations, so I wanted them to practice drawing out the consequences of their ideas.) It’s like they’re not real people, someone said. Exactly, I responded. And why does that matter? Well, they were people, said another. Yes, I added, people like us.

It’s easy for us to imagine that these events have nothing to do with us. It allows us to approach the Holocaust as a kind of macabre spectator sport. But if we treat the Nazis as monsters, we effectively let ourselves off the hook. We don’t need to think of ourselves as in any way implicated in their way of viewing the world. In this way, Grossman risks devaluing the idea of humanity he values so much. In an oblique way, this risk is evident too in his treatment of what the historian Raul Hilberg would later call bystanders, in this case the local Poles who Grossman uses as mere neutral evidence for German actions. He doesn’t’ consider more complicated questions of implication or degrees of guilt, concepts that someone like Primo Levi would develop in his essay “The Grey Zone,” which we’ll read in a week or so.


Whenever I teach “The Hell of Treblinka,” I work towards a close reading of a single passage. This time, I left it too late and we didn’t have the time to really do justice to it. But that’s okay. The work the class did in pointing to specific passages to support each claim, although time-consuming, was worth it. I want students to see that they can’t just go with their gut, can’t just offer a vague sense of what the text is saying (which often amounts to what they wish it were saying). They have to work with what’s there. Only then will their readings convince.

At any rate, here’s the passage that to my mind gets to the heart of Grossman’s enterprise. Having described the chaos new victims would have experienced on arrival—separated from loved ones and possessions, shaved and otherwise physically humiliated, herded along a path lined by high fences towards an imposing brick building—Grossman explains what would have happened next:

The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut […] Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, “Patience now—this is the end.” Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, “Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?” Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people’s glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? OF the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: “Ah, so that’s why he was laughing…” Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony… No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold. (Ellipses in original unless bracketed)

Here Grossman imagines the ground zero of the Holocaust, the centre of what the French political prisoner David Rousset, a survivor of Neuengamme and Buchenwald, called l’univers concentrationnaire. He takes us into the gas chamber. What happened there? Historians and forensic researchers can tell us a lot: we know that people were so desperate to escape that they clawed at the walls. We know from the evidence of the piles of corpses that those who were bigger and stronger climbed over those who were smaller and weaker to get the last bit of air. But the desire to enter into that scene—to turn it into a scene—is both taboo and inescapable in Holocaust literature.

Remember this passage, I told the students, when we read Maus: we’ll see how self-consciously Spiegelman points to the limits of eyewitness testimony. Remember this scene when we watch Schindler’s List: we’ll see how dubiously Spielberg flirts with exploiting our dark compulsion to enter into this space.

For now, I want us to see that when Grossman wonders whether we can “find the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt” he is asking a real question. This vivid passage aims to make us feel present—we see that most clearly in its use of physical and corporeal details: the clammy sweat, cracked bones, and crushed rib cages.

It even imagines how people might have acted and thought in those final moments. What kind of actions are these, I asked the students. They’re kind actions, caring. An old man shouts “Patience,” a mother seeks to make space for her child. The people evoked are vulnerable: that old man, that woman with her child, the young woman who wants to live. There’s even the intimation of revenge and resistance—someone, the only person here who isn’t described in any way, shouts out “a holy curse,” which he or she, as well perhaps as Grossman himself, insists, which is to say, hopes, must be fulfilled. These aren’t just victims; they are also resisters, not least in their staunch avowal of basic human dignity. They resist by maintaining solidarity with each other: “they stood as if they were a single human being.” Here we have Grossman’s credo in a phrase.

With only a minute or two left, I asked the class to tell me what happens in the passage between the sentence starting “Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat” and the one starting “Someone, perhaps some wise old man.” A moment’s silence: the students were tired but still game. They hadn’t packed up their stuff yet. But they knew there was an answer I was looking for and it made them wary.

Look at the verbs, I prompted. They shift from past tense to present, someone said, half-hesitantly, half-triumphantly. Yes, I said, pointing out examples: someone makes an effort; a mother tries to make more room for her child; heads spin; throats choke. What’s the effect of this shift? It’s like replacing statistics with stories, one student said. Yes, but that doesn’t explain this particular choice on Grossman’s part. What does the shift to present tense suggest? It makes it more intense, another said. Normally, I would have payed out this suggestion further, getting the student to expand on what she meant by intensity. But I was in a hurry, so I finished the thought. Right, it makes the scene immediate, vivid. In a way, it undoes what happened in the chamber, bringing the dead to life.

And yet, I concluded, these attempts at immediacy fail. The dead don’t live. Even if the passage returns to present in the final sentence (suggesting an ongoing duration—these bodies are in some way still standing there) the penultimate sentence, like the rest of the essay, is in past tense. In that sense, the key statement here is: “No, what happened in the that chamber cannot be imagined.” We are left only with a statement of absence: “All we know is that they cannot speak now.” Grossman has tried to do that for them, but ultimately refuses the possibility.

Grossman’s passionate desire to do justice to the victims and his equally ardent disgust for the perpetrators is matched by his modesty and reserve. He speaks for them only inasmuch as he rejects that speaking.

We’re returning to Primo Levi next class, I said, as the clock showed two minutes past the hour and the next group of students milled around outside the room. Think about Grossman’s humanism as you read Survival in Auschwitz. Will Levi’s humanism look like Grossman’s?

Class dismissed.

“A Long Continuity”: Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost

In 1937, the nineteen-year-old Eleanor Stone, daughter of a career naval officer and a novelist, was invited to a dinner party at the American legation in Budapest. There she met an Oxford-educated, communist-sympathizing Hungarian nobleman, Baron Zsigmon (Zsiga) Perényi. He called on her the next day and they spent the rest of her week in Budapest together. On her last evening, they went out to dinner. Here’s how the now Eleanor Perényi would describe it a decade later in her wonderful memoir More Was Lost:

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could,”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

This could come from a Lubitsch movie, and indeed both Eleanor and Zsiga have qualities recognizable from the pictures of that time—her pluck, his debonair decency (he always introduces bad news, and there’s quite a lot of it in this book, by saying, “Fancy, darling…”).

But even if this passage reads like a more reticent version of the “meet cute” scenes so beloved of 1930s Hollywood, there’s nothing cute about this book. Zsiga gives up his job in Budapest so that the two of them can return to and manage his ancestral home of Szöllös. Sounds romantic, but there are several problems with this idea. Eleanor especially has no idea how to run an estate. They don’t have any money. And worst of all the estate isn’t even in Hungary anymore. It was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI: Zsiga needs a passport and permission from the authorities to be there at all.


The young couple isn’t dissuaded by these difficulties—but they don’t ignore them either. Eleanor in particular sees things for what they are. She is hardly the stereotypical naïve American abroad. It might seem as though she has fallen into a fairytale, but she’s a careful, thoroughly unsentimental observer of her situation. Consider for example her description of the estate at Szöllös:

The property was at the exact geographical end of the Danubian plane, and at the beginning of the Carpathians. Our farm was on the plain, and on a mountain that was the first spur of the Carpathians we had a large forest, and a vineyard. The farm was managed by a tenant. He paid us an outrageously low rent, but the forest and the vineyard brought in some money too. An old tutor managed them. He did what he could, but it was a thankless job, and he was tired of it. The place was not in good condition.

Hardly rosy. And here she is meditating on the new circumstances of her life:

 A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

I admire how Perényi moves so assuredly from analysis into narration in that last sentence. I appreciate the self-assurance that’s gone into that off-handed but firm remark about putting her stamp on the place, “I would change it, of course.” And I love that she has the largeness of spirit to feel enriched rather than threatened by that sense of “long continuity.” She’s also a bit strange: is that bit about the cats dressed as Louis XIV a reference to a real tale? Either way, it’s wonderful that what she wants isn’t a prince but someone (or something) to wait on her. But what could make a worse servant than a cat? Even Perényi’s fantasies are unusual. That’s fitting though, for the period she’s living through, when dreams most often turned to nightmares. More Was Lost presents itself as slight, even whimsical, but as this passage clearly reveals, it’s anything but.

Perényi can be tart (the Czech trains, she tells us, were always dirty, “but I know enough not to associate clean trains with political freedom”). She can be reticent, which might seem counter intuitive in a memoir but which only makes us feel more strongly how personal this story is (writing of the restaurant in a rural train station, she says, “I had a special reason for liking this restaurant. We had been there often, and once, sitting at a corner table drinking coffee between trains, Zsiga had said the nicest thing he ever said to me. It doesn’t matter what it was.”) But mostly she can appreciate things, for in this world of continuity paradoxically nothing lasts. Everything has been overturned by the last war—Szöllös was looted three times—and will be overturned still further by the next.


In the first half of the book Eleanor and Zsiga bring the estate back to life. Perényi was a wonderful gardener—much later in life she wrote a book about gardening that I gather is considered to be her masterpiece, though I can’t imagine how it could better this book—and we hear a lot about how she took the 10 acres of jardin anglais in hand. More pertinently, the gardener’s need to take the long view, her sense of time passing according to seasons rather than days or months, structures the first half of the book. Perényi referrs to passing seasons, uses phrases like “over time” and “eventually,” and generally marks time quite vaguely: “Once we had a sudden influx of visitors”; “In the summer the ripe eating grapes were packed outside the winehouse in the vineyard.” In this way, the narrative of the young American who learns to be a Baroness is continually eclipsed by a bigger story, which isn’t really a story at all, but rather a scenario or situation, about a house and the way of life supported by it. As much as I loved this section, I was kept off-balance—I kept wondering what year it was—and I fretted over the war that my knowledge of history and Perényi’s gentle foreshadowing told me was coming.

The war comes, of course. But first we follow Perényi as she gets the house into shape, learns passable Hungarian, navigates the Church, manages servants, pays calls on the local families, and, most charmingly, is invited for opulent house parties at the much more expansive estate of Zsiga’s cousin across the border in Hungary. (Count Laci is one of those larger than life characters it’s so delightful to delight in.) You can just imagine the terrible movie to be made from this book: plucky American gal becomes a Baroness, overcomes obstacles, wins the hearts of the locals, and lives happily ever after.

But More Was Lost never falls prey to cliché. Nor, alas, does it have a happy ending. The second half of the book is narrated more straightforwardly: story swallows up situation. Events begin with Britain and France’s refusal to support the Czechs when Hitler demands the Sudetenland. In the ensuing shakeup, Hungary gained back most of its lost territory, but not the land around Szöllös. That became part of a new and short-lived Ruthenian separatist state called Carpatho-Ukrainia which was quickly defeated by the Hungarians. (After the war, Szöllös became part of the Ukranian province of the Soviet Union—the estate was turned first into a museum and then into a school administration office, its furnishings and moldings stripped.) Hungary was an initially tacit and eventually (after 1940) official ally of the Germans. When Zsiga got his call up notice in 1939 he already knew it was likely he would have to fight in support of the Germans. For an avowed anti-fascist, this was intolerable. But Hungary was his country, and he loved it. What to do? In the midst of everything, Eleanor gets pregnant. Life continues somewhat normally for a few more months, and Eleanor enjoys one more spring on the estate. But when Germany invades Belgium in May 1940, it becomes clear that Sziga would have to fight. He urges her to return to America while she still can, and after some anguished uncertainty she does.

Perényi is convinced the absence will be relatively short and that she and Zsiga and the baby will be reunited after the war, but that’s not the way things turn out:

 When you leave a place you are never going to see again, you are supposed to have some sort of premonition. I have been mildly clairvoyant in my life, but not this time. I left as if I expected to be back the following week, straightening one of the little cherubs on each side of the clock, reminding Laci to throw out last month’s New Yorkers on the table by the porcelain stove, leaving the lid of the rosewood piano open… a hasty glance around the garden over which I had worked so hard… I didn’t pay any farewell calls. I didn’t go to take a last look at my trees in the orchard. I walked out with only one bag, got into the carriage to be driven to the station by Sandor as usual, and never looked back.


I’m a sucker for stories of decaying, tragic Mitteleuropa; I’m really the ideal audience for this book. I could read about lavish hunting parties all day long, and I was fascinated by Perényi’s sympathetic portrayal of the local Jewish population. (Already in the 30s when Hungary introduced a looser version of the Nuremberg Laws, Eleanor and Zsiga helped a neighbouring Jewish landowner keep his property; later in the war Zsiga hid Jews on the estate and smuggled seed grain to help feed others in a nearby ghetto; some quick internet research tells me that it’s only about 40 miles from the estate to Sighet, the town from which a young Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz.)


But what I really love about this book, what sticks with me most, is Perényi herself. You can see again, in that passage of leavetaking, her matter of factness, her unwillingness to sentimentalize even this moment of great loss. And that’s only fitting because however much she loved Szöllös she loved Zsiga more, and—spoiler alert!—she loses him too, even though he survived the war. When he finally writes to her in the summer of 1945 she hasn’t heard from him in three and a half years. In that time of silence she worries less over whether he’s alive than what he might have been up to during the war. “He had always had a pessimism born of privation and failure,” she writes. Would he have supported the fascism he so detested because he felt the need to fight for Hungary? Would he have joined the Communist resistance even though his father detested Communism? She concludes, rather remarkably, I think:

I didn’t altogether trust him. I said to myself that he would never willingly have collaborated with the Germans, but on the other hand he might simply have failed to take any stand at all. Yes, I decided that that was probably what he had done. And I said too that I didn’t blame him for it, because the choice he faced was almost an impossible one to make…. But my motives were not all so high-minded, fair, or explainable. It was also true that by assuming he had chosen the safer curse, or no course at all, I spared myself the pan of worrying about him.

We already saw in the passage about fairy stories that Perényi is never as artless as we might expect her to be. I have to stop myself from calling this book “charming.” It’s almost charming—it’s almost a fairy story—but the sentiments in this passage aren’t charming. They’re heart-rending, not least because they’re a little cold, much harder on Perényi herself than on her husband or anyone else.

In the introduction to this reissue we learn what we don’t in the book itself: a year after its publication in 1946, Zsiga came to New York and lived with Perényi and their child for several months. But it didn’t work out. They couldn’t overcome the past, the differences in their lives. He didn’t want to live in the US and she didn’t want to go back to Europe. He died in 1965, shortly after his second wife. Heartbreakingly, it is said he always kept his copy of the book with him. Perényi herself never talked about what happened between them. She kept his name, though. But maybe that’s just what people did then. Amazingly, everyone in the book survives the war. But they don’t live happily ever after, at least not the way they thought they would.

More Was Lost is another example of what New York Review Books does best: bring you books you didn’t know how much you needed. How lovely that More Was Lost is lost no more.