Understanding Forward: Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed

A woman in Essen brings flowers to friends of her in-laws; their home, where she has enjoyed many musical evenings, was looted the night before. To get to the couple cowering in fear and shame inside she fights her way through a crowd of hostile onlookers.

A man who knows that deportations to the East have begun seeks to offer moral and physical support to the deportees, slipping into a synagogue where hundreds have been ordered to marshal. A woman—she will be sent to Minsk the following day—thanks him for his efforts. He should be thanking her, the man replies; his paltry efforts have allowed him to feel a little less guilty for what is happening “to his fellow countrymen.” The woman breaks down at this gesture of solidarity.

A woman writes to the professional association of teachers: she has lost her ID card and needs a replacement. She includes a photo not of herself but of a friend who has been in hiding for six months. The card which duly arrives, bearing the name of one woman and the photo of another, is a lifeline, not proof against discovery but enough to give the hidden woman a modicum of freedom.

A man who works for the Acoustic Institute of a university in Braunschweig is sent to an isolated site in the Harz mountains to run some tests for the military. While there he stays in an old forester’s hut. Friends ask if he can help a woman on the run; he agrees, and the woman, whom he has never met and never sees again, stays with him for several days.

These vignettes launch historian Mark Roseman’s fascinating new book. Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany tells the story of the Bund, an organization of about two hundred men and women in the industrial Ruhr valley who, beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the 60s, sought a different way of living. Their idealism led them to resist the Nazi regime in small, uncoordinated, but meaningful ways. Roseman describes this resistance, shows how those involved considered their actions both at the time and afterward, and, most significantly, offers a new understanding of resistance.

The Bund—not to be confused with the better-known secular socialist Jewish movement in interwar Poland—was “part political group, part 1960s commune, and part Quaker society.” Its full name was Bund: Gemeinschaft für sozialistisches Leben, which Roseman translates as “League: Community for Socialist Life.” Yet even though its members were close to the socialist and communist parties of the period, the Bund was never a political organization. Founded in 1924, it was one of many social movements in Weimar Germany, movements that modelled themselves on prewar youth groups, like the Wandervögel, the Naturfreunde, and even Zionist groups. These organizations believed themselves to be “natural fellowships,” in contrast to the artificial institutions of society. As Roseman nicely puts it, such organizations typically “sought freedom for the collective rather than for the individual.” Yet it was also true that they tended to be organized around a single leader, whose charisma would keep the association from splintering.

In the case of the Bund, that leader was Artur Jacobs, a high school teacher in his mid-40s, whose commitment to revolutionary pedagogy had gained him devoted followers and implacable enemies. (He once led a group of girls on a hiking trip during which teachers and students slept in the same barn. People were not amused.) Stymied by parents and superiors from bringing his teaching aims to fruition, Artur poured his passion, energy, and conviction into the Bund. He led the organization until his death, age 88, in 1968, together with his wife Dore (neé Marcus), the daughter of “two highly acculturated, educated German Jews.” (She had been one of the students on the hiking trip; maybe his critics were on to something. Their marriage was quite devoted, though.) Dore’s passion was Körperbildung, “body education,” an all-purpose name for activities—including nudism, sun worship, and primal dance—aimed at cultivating a more natural relation to the body. The most popular of these was eurhythmic gymnastics, invented by Émile Jacques-Dalcroze in the late 19th century. (It was the yoga of its day and features prominently in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.) In 1925, Dore founded a Bund school for body training and eurythmic education in Essen; many of the Bund’s core members were introduced to the organization through the school, which also provided crucial cover during the Nazi years (both literally—as a place to hide from prying eyes—and figuratively—as an activity the Nazis deemed harmless).

But even at its most corporeal, Bundist activity was grounded in core philosophical beliefs, specifically a counterintuitive attempt to blend Kant and Marx. (Marx directly opposed his materialism to Kant’s idealism.) Whereas Kant believed individuals must “learn to act in such a way so as not to impinge on others,” as Roseman puts it, Marx believed that social change would come from inescapable class conflict that exceeded any voluntarist acceptance of moral positions. Perhaps the tension between individual ethical beliefs and determinist social forces allowed the Bund able to negotiate the Hitler years as it did. In pressing “for socialist transformation at the societal level and for individual ethical improvement at the personal level” the Bund was neither an established organization nor a temporary confluence of individuals. It was something in between—flexible enough to evade easy detection yet strong enough to maintain the faith of its members. Thus, the Bund allows us to rethink our ideas of resistance and rescue, which, Roseman convincingly argues, have been narrowly conceived and overly reliant on retrospective thinking.

Before the war, the Bund sought cooperation among left-wing organizations and groups. But its main interest was to ensure members abide by Bund ideas about how to live—freedom for the self would come from freedom for the collective. Bund adherents organized camping trips and hiking excursions, celebrated the solstice, danced and trained their bodies, abjured alcohol and tobacco (caffeine, though, was a bridge too far), and generally enjoyed being among like-minded souls (so much so that their children often felt left out and later harboured ambivalence to the organization).

Thanks to Dore the Bund attracted many more women than most Weimar-era organizations. This would be important later—the Nazis certainly had plenty of rigid ideas about how women should live, but in general didn’t think of them as potential resisters. When the Nazis came to power, the Bund, like so many progressive groups, felt existentially threatened. Artur even spent several months in 1933 tramping through the countryside and hiding with friends, convinced he was on an arrest list. This fear eventually proved unfounded, but it was reasonable at the time. More at risk were Dore and Lisa Jacobs, Dore’s second-in-command at the eurhythmic school, both of whom were Jewish. In general, the pre-war Bund had little interest in Jewishness. Its spirituality, if it could be said to have any, was ill-defined and centered on nature-worship. Moreover, the small Jewish population of the largely working-class Ruhr valley tended to be middle-class: owners of the means of production, in Marxist terms, rather than workers. It is remarkable, then, and a sign of the group’s lack of dogmatism and willingness to shift to meet the needs of the moment, that many of the Bund’s wartime actions centered on helping German Jews, by expressing solidarity, sending food parcels to deportees, and even hiding Jews who had gone underground.

After the war, Bund members presented themselves as natural opponents of Nazism, suggesting that countering the regime—by providing both material aid for the persecuted and mental succor for “ordinary Germans,” as a light in the dark times and a possible way forward afterward—had been its rationale during those twelve terrible years. Roseman, who has been studying the Bund for almost 30 years, uses the group’s surprisingly large surviving historical records to show that this thinking in fact appeared only in hindsight. At the time, especially in the years after the Nazis took power but before the war, Bund members were shattered and demoralized, both scared for their safety and unsure how they could continue to live meaningfully when forced to limit their activities to secret meetings and despondent correspondence.

Paradoxically, the Bund’s postwar self-understanding obfuscated its wartime reality:

If there was one key words for the Bund in staking its claim in the postwar period, it was that it had continued to “live” in Nazi Germany—that is, it had gained vibrant, meaningful, lived experience. Yet the more the group marshaled its memories to establish its postwar fitness to lead, the more the complexity of lived experience—with its despair, fears, and more—slipped out of view.

Thanks to letters, diaries, and official documents, Roseman is able to reconstruct not just the Bund’s activities but also its members’ feelings during the Nazi era. He tracks them as they send hundreds of parcels to deported Jews, both to Poland (until 1942 when such parcels were no longer accepted) and to the way-station/giant prison of Theresienstadt. They added letters of succor and encouragement; Roseman notes that, especially “for a certain kind of high-minded, politically left-leaning German Jew, the Bund’s language and ideas were instantly recognizable and appealing, conveying the sense that the ethical and intellectual world they had felt themselves to be a part of still existed and accepted them within its fold.” As one recipient wrote from a ghetto in Poland, “to feel the warmth and proximity of people so similar to myself is like having a transfusion after losing a lot of blood—it is lifesaving.”

Bund members even accompanied deportees to holding centers, sometimes carrying their bags—risky actions, especially after a regulation prohibiting “persons of German blood” from having friendships with Jews was enacted in October 1941. Perhaps the most courageous thing they did was to help at least two and perhaps as many as five Jews survive the war. Dore was more or less protected by her marriage to Artur (though she and a dozen of the group’s core members spent the last year of the war in hiding in a house near Lake Constance, close enough to Switzerland that they sometimes risked slipping across to border to mail letters). But Lisa Jacobs had become a “non-person” by deciding not to answer her deportation notice, which meant she had to live without a ration card and at constant risk of discovery. She moved frequently from house to house—the fake teacher’s ID offering a little protection—staying only a few days at a time to reduce the risk to the person hiding her.

Perhaps even more surprising was the group’s efforts to save Marianne Strauss, who they had not previous known. In 1941-42, Artur had befriended David Krombach, a leader in Essen’s shrinking Jewish population. Krombach’s son was engaged to Marianne; the young woman, who worked in the Jewish Community office, acted as the intermediary in Bund efforts to help the Krombach family once they had been deported. When she went underground in 1943, defying her deportation order, Marianne had to trust that the kindness Bundists had shown her would hold: she showed up late one night at a member’s home, literally on the run from the SS. Until the end of the war she stayed with at least ten Bund families and made between thirty to fifty journeys across the Ruhr, each of them highly dangerous. (Not least because the Allies were bombing it pretty much every day.) Roseman gives us only a taste of this extraordinary story, having devoted his first book, A Past in Hiding, to it. (I’m reading it right now; it’s excellent.)

Importantly, although Artur and Dore and some of the others had talked about helping Marianne, they had no plan for doing so. They improvised, they sacrificed, they did what they could, never knowing if it would be the right thing or for how long they would be able to do it. They did not set out to “rescue” Marianne. Moreover, neither Marianne and Lisa—like everyone, Roseman intimates, who survived the war in hiding or on the run—were simply passive victims, mere recipients of aid. Lisa, for example, taught occasional gymnastics classes and even arranged to send packages to Poland. Marianne cooked for the people who sheltered her and even made artificial flowers from felt, which she sold for valuable ration coupons. Too often we think of survivors as either passive objects of rescue or as self-interested actors cheating fate through shrewdness and luck. Roseman complicates this view, showing us that, yes, survivors contributed to their own survival but they also helped others in need.

A similar sense of complication inheres in his argument that rescuers are not only disinterested altruists. Many of them were motivated by greed and graft, desiring money or sexual favours. (Nechama Tec’s terrific memoir of her experiences as a hidden child in Poland, Dry Tears, offers examples of both.) But Roseman also argues that “even those who made a strong and conscious decision to help Jews might have been involved in their destruction.” In fact, “some perpetrators were rescuers, and some rescuers were perpetrators”—not everyone who helped Jews did so for ethical reasons, and not everyone who helped out of moral principle could escape being caught up in the killing process. Several Bund members were conscripted into the army; one was sent to France, where at one point he was a guard on a transport that he knew carried Jews. This is a dramatic example; more innocuous is Artur’s criticism of Marianne when she got involved in a domestic dispute between a husband and wife who were hiding her. Roseman marvels that Artur could have rebuked a young woman whose parents had just been deported to Auschwitz, but he insists we need to take account, as much as the historical record allows, of realities, like this one, that “became unsayable after the event.”

Time and again, Roseman offers startling conclusions. The Bund succeeded in its resistance because it “created a collective space, a counterweight, to the world outside.” But that collectivity was loose, seemingly harmless (the camping trips, the gymnastics), and involved at least as many women as men (also deemed harmless). It had a big goal—“to create a just, socialist society”—but used small ways to achieve it, “day-to-day decisions, commitments, and practices.” Postwar German society did not think of the Bund—inasmuch as anyone thought of it at all—as a resistance organization. After all, it had predated the Nazis and had never been solely motivated by their defeat; it had rejected leafleting and vandalism as risky and ineffective; it lent its efforts to victims of the regime rather than setting its sights on the regime itself. (It was the opposite of “the Red Orchestra” group led by Harro Schulze-Boysen and Libertas Haas-Heye.) Roseman suggests that the Bund was an embarrassment to postwar Germany—it showed what had been possible but that almost no one had done.

Although Bund members continued to meet throughout the late 1940s, 50s, and even into the 60s, the movement petered out. Young people were not interested. Even though the Bund self-consciously did not criticize the younger generation that had been indoctrinated by Nazism, the hierarchical nature of the organization (Artur was still the leader) and its insistence on personal discipline (the Bund’s commitment to communal ideals did not include sexual liberation or experimentation with drugs) turned young people away. They saw it as too similar to the Nazi past they were eager to leave behind. On the face of it, the comparison is ridiculous. I was shocked, though, to read these lines written by Artur on the day when the Allies liberated the region around Lake Constance:

That we remained strong, that not a single one of us fell by the wayside, even among those who lived far from us, that is a glorious page in the Bund’s history. And that we remained alive, that we lived through this time awake, that we matured and grew—we owe that all to the Bund.

I thought immediately of Himmler’s infamous exhortation to members of the SS at Posen in 1943:

Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And . . . to have seen this through and—with the exception of human weakness—to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.

Both writers reference strength, pride, and, most disquietingly, pages of glory. Both allude to a difficult task not just undertaken but seen through.

Of course, the comparison is ultimately not just ridiculous but disgusting; Artur’s references to maturing and growing have nothing to do with Himmler’s mass murder. Artur was no Führer. But that young Germans could have rejected the Bund as another relic of a terrible and embarrassing past begins to be understandable.

Which was ultimately a failure on their part, for as Roseman convincingly shows the Bund offers an inspiring model for social change. In recent years, historians have emphasized the ways the Nazi regime worked to gain acceptance, binding ordinary Germans together and, thereby, ultimately eliciting their at-least tacit support for its genocidal acts and aspirations (after the Jews, the idea was to kill the so-called Slavs). Considered in light of the regime’s efforts, the Bund’s quiet refusal is all the more remarkable:

The more historians have uncovered the degree of support the regime was able to elicit in its “dictatorship by acclimation,” the more impressive the Bund’s ability to maintain its separate life becomes. Perhaps we do not quite have a category that fits this intense, self-conscious cultivation of a communal shared space. It was more than mere non-conformity, but less than active combat against the regime.

Roseman adds that we especially lack accurate ways of thinking about rescue, which for many years after the war was not thought of as a mode of resistance—nice, for sure, but not something that could bring down totalitarianism. The reason Lives Reclaimed is one of the most consequential books I’ve read this year is that it argues not just, yes, rescue is resistance, but also, and more importantly, that our definition of rescue must be expanded. The way we usually think of rescue is too retrospective and too reliant on the idea of individual will-power. After the war, more than one attempt to have Bund members declared as Righteous among the Nations failed. This is the highest honour the state of Israel, through the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, bestows on non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Bund dancers; Lisa Jacobs in front

In the postwar environment of anti-communism, with Israel and West Germany locked in a delicate pas de deux, rescue meant actions done by a single person who had no self-interested reasons for helping. On this definition, Jews could not be deemed Righteous, nor could non-Jewish spouses of Jews—they were said to be acting in self-interest. Roseman asks us to shift from a psychological mode (which, by focusing on the individual, is also a capitalistic one) to a sociological one. Rather than looking for extraordinary, almost saint-like people who do good out of awe-inspiring altruism, Roseman suggests, we should look to networks of people who did good things, or things that had good results, from complicated motives. Most people who survived were helped by several, often many people, like Lisa Jacobs and Marianne Strauss who moved from house to house.

By overvaluing the individual, Roseman argues, we lose sight of what he calls rescue-resistance really happens. In the case of the Bund, then, we need to look beyond the Bund’s postwar emphasis on moral principle, which Roseman judges to be as misleading as psychologist’s insistence on empathy, and instead look at what they did and why they did it at the time. Even the term “rescue” is too retrospective, Roseman suggests—it implies a completed action; it suggests that people helped others with a definitive end point in mind. (“I will do something to save this person from the Holocaust”—a statement that makes no sense when we think that at the time no one knew, exactly, what “the Holocaust” was.) In reality, as Bund members diaries and letters suggest, people help others from much more temporary, obscure, and uncertain reasons and in temporary, obscure and uncertain ways. They were answering a knock on the door and giving someone a bed and soup for a few days, not “rescuing a Jew.”

There will always, Roseman notes, be tension between experience and memory. As Kierkegaard put it, “life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” But we would do well, Roseman argues, to reverse the dictum as best we can, to try to live in that past. After the war, people wanted heroes—and a particular kind of hero. The exigencies of the postwar moment, particularly in western Europe meant it was better for reasons both economic (we want the US to help us) and psychological (we don’t want to think about all of us as a collective) to emphasize individual responsibility. But those reasons have been falsely naturalized into unchanging psychological concepts (martyrs, saints, etc). Even the retrospective self-understanding of those who helped is shaped by those concepts, obscuring and distorting their actual motivations and actions. If we take even the Bund’s own postwar self-presentation as the truth, we will paradoxically dilute the power of what the Bund did. Taking flowers to an elderly couple the day after Kristallnacht, or thanking a woman on the point of being deported for the chance to help her, says Roseman, are not actions that “lead” to rescue. And when we look back on the Holocaust and other fascist atrocities, such actions seem insignificant. But at the time they were pretty amazing, and certainly consequential.

Lives Reclaimed really impressed me. It’s super learned but also very accessible. Roseman is a much better writer than most academics; he offers us satisfyingly detailed historical context without overwhelming his narrative drive. And even as we learn about many of the Bund’s members, he keeps his focus on the group as a collective. Personally, I found it liberating to think that we can resist without setting out to be resisters, especially if we can find some likeminded people to surround ourselves with. Too often, Holocaust education, especially for children, argues that people need to be “upstanders,” not bystanders. But we don’t have to—can’t—do it all alone. Surprisingly, given its subject matter, Lives Reclaimed is one of the most optimistic books I’ve read in a long time.

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.

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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.”

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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.