Götz and Meyer By David Albahari, trans Ellen Elias-Bursa

Deadly service from Hitler's butlers

The whole Holocaust seems like one Bosch nightmare. But the Serbian-born, 56-year-old writer David Albahari heralds a new wave of Holocaust fiction, coming out of the former Yugoslavia. His crazy, bizarre work is set in Nazi-occupied Serbia. In 1942, before the killing factories were belching out their smoke, the SS went east, into Serbia, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Albahari tells the story of the two SS men who started the killing of Jews, before Serbia's Jasenovac extermination camp started to gas Jews, Serbs and Gypsies. We all know about Auschwitz, Dachau and the satellite camps. Few, however, know of the gas vans first used to exterminate German psychiatric patients, or Aryans unlucky enough to be less than physically or mentally "perfect".

These vans were exported into the wider Reich to eliminate Jews, and Albahari's novel gives us insight into these little-known murders. This poignant tragicomedy is to be welcomed for opening up what was hidden under the Yugoslav régime. As literature, it feels as if it was written by a Serbian Kafka.

Belgrade's Jews were taken to the assembly point of the fairgrounds. What better metaphor for absurdity? Once shunted together, the Jews were promised a better life in Romania or Poland; and the waiting vans were supposedly the way out. Little did they know that Hitler's "butlers" Götz and Meyer were planning to gas them by turning the exhaust pipe into the sealed vans. It was a crude murder method which exterminated thousands, including the author's family.

Albahari's narrator is a middle-aged Serbian Jewish teacher in search of his murdered family, who disappeared in the fairgrounds. The narrator imagines the lives of their ordinary killers. The novel's narrative tension comes from the pull between trying to understand Götz and Meyer, and the big picture of the destruction of Serbia's Jewish community. Throughout, the tone is satiric and disturbing.

There is a detached, wry humour to the writing, an irony that initially surprises. This is a heartbreaking short book, sardonic and brutal, written at unrelenting pace with great compassion and wild humour.

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