Allen Lane, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, By Otto Dov Kulka, trans. Ralph Mandel

After a career spent studying genocide, this survivor of Auschwitz finally tells his own story

It is astonishing that the Holocaust scholar Otto Dov Kulka has not, before now, written of his childhood incarceration at Auschwitz. He has had a distinguished career – much of it spent analysing Nazi Germany - yet has assiduously avoided writing about his own experience: how it felt to live in the concentration camp's "family" wing, within 200 metres of the selection platform where newcomers were picked to live or die, and within sight of the crematoria smokestacks. After the war, he gave evidence at the Frankfurt trials of Auschwitz war criminals and went on to become professor in Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Auschwitz directed his life's work, he admits in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. That he did not allow his experience to encroach on his formal study is explained but not fully interrogated in this profound and melancholy book of remembrance. Instead, he focuses on philosophical inquiries into the relationship between memory and forgetfulness - what a boy remembers of such traumatic events and how memory re-processes the trauma.

The memoir is made up of descriptions, reflections and dreams, emotionally restrained but so intense that they read like nuggets of interiority, or "landscapes of a private mythology". Some passages are impressionistic; others forensic in detail, and together they sum up the reality of being at such close and certain proximity to death.

Perhaps because of his separation between the "objective" pursuit of history and the "emotional" impact on the historian who lives through it, Kulka's reflections have an unsettling rawness, as if the Auschwitz of his childhood has lain undisturbed within him all these years, only to be disinterred now from the dark place where it has resided. "Few are aware of the existence within me of a dimension of silence," he says, suggesting that this silence required great effort, if not pain.

Stark photographs accompany his words; most are images of the remains of Auschwitz, wretched, eerie and empty – the burnt crematoria and a flat field where the family block once stood.

Some are portraits of key people – Dr Mengele; the SS guard who ordered Kulka back to the camp even as it was being liquidated; his mother, who died during its evacuation, and his latter-day self, standing mournfully at the edge of the photo on his visit decades later. Kulka's family went willingly to Auschwitz from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia.

Once there, they learned the life-span of an inmate in their wing was precisely six months. This six-month law, the "immutable law of the Great Death", in systematic cycles of annihilation claimed the lives of his neighbours, his friends, his mother and new-born brother.

Death is in these pages a constant and close companion to the living. It is the dark stains left by blood in the snow during the evacuation of the camp. It is there in the ritualised violence of public beatings and the magnetic force that surrounds inmates: "That primal experience of looming horror and of being sucked into it... that is what persisted".

Yet even in Auschwitz, there are moment of protest, black humour and beauty: the subtle defiance of the Jewish singers who decide to perform Schiller's "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at a spot directly opposite the crematoria; the bright blue of the sky over the camp that Kulka's childhood mind snaps and files away like a photograph; the Russians who shout out their protest as they are publicly hanged.

This is a grave, poetic and horrifying account of the Holocaust which does not so much revisit the Auschwitz of the past, but the Auschwitz of Kulka's inner world. It is his own internalised city, with its own enduring horror.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week