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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
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013, and is currently a judge of the Fiction Uncovered Prize, 2014.
Friday 25 January 2013
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.
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