Where the dogs are men (and vice versa)

Rena's Promise by Rena Kornreich Gelissen with Heather Dune Macadam Weidenfeld, pounds 16.99 The War After by Anna Karpf Heinemann, pounds 16.99
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The greatest and most necessary books about the Holocaust were published by the late Fifties - books like Primo Levi's If This Is a Man and Elie Wiesel's Night. The truth is that most "ordinary" survivors lack the skills to explore and express their experience. The result is that we see Auschwitz through the unordinary philosophical eye of Levi, or the poetic eye of Wiesel, and that the direct experience of more "ordinary'' survivors remains less known.

There are a few survivors' books, however, that manage to squeeze into the narrow space between the inarticulate majority and the eloquent few. Rena Kornreich Gelissen's is one of the best. If This Is a Man seems unliterary, but Rena's Promise genuinely is. Rena did not survive in order to testify, as Levi (largely) did. She survived in order to see her parents again, and to bring her sister Danka back to them.

It is clear that Rena was a special "ordinary person" from the start. Ordinary because she had little education, and no extra skills. But special because she was extraordinarily brave and daring; and because she seems to have known instinctively how to occupy, another extremely narrow space - the one between adapting to a Nazi death camp and still keeping her humanity alive. All the lessons of If This Is a Man are borne out here: that you had to be - apart from young, strong and lucky - resourceful, invisible, self-assured; that you couldn't lose energy in feeling too much for the past, or for everyone around you; but that solidarity and love for (and from) a few were necessary for mental, even physical, survival. This is an extraordinarily dramatic story - Rena and Danka survive three years in Auschwitz, which could only happen with amazing luck, and many hair's-breadth escapes. It is a heartening story, since it shows that the urge to survive as fully human is as strong as the urge simply to survive. But it is also, I must warn you, an infinitely painful story, which - perhaps just because it is unmediated by great literary art - disturbed me more than almost any other I can recall.

Anne Karpf's The War After also contains two survivors' stories: those of her parents, recorded by her in the 1980s. They are valuable too; her mother's account of Plaszow camp, for instance (the main setting of Schindler's List) includes a deadly image of the reversal of values that was the Nazis' first weapon of destruction: Commandant Goeth saying to his dog Mensch (i.e."Human Being"), about a prisoner: "Mensch, friss den Hund": "Man, eat the dog."

Karpf's main point, however, is to tell her own story, as an example of the effect of the Holocaust on the next generation. My first response, and still my main one, was to enjoy her book: especially Part One, where she describes growing up Jewish in England. (I grew up Jewish in Canada, but it was much the same.) I hooted in recognition at things like "feeling phobic about frizz," and "Being Jewish in England was a little like being gay. You didn't so much meet other Jews as detect them by sonar."

Problems soon arrive, however. For example, Part Two "tries to place my family's experience in its historical context", with chapters on Jews in Britain, changing attitudes to survivors and the Holocaust in psychology. This is laudable in principle, but it doesn't belong in the middle of a very personal book.

The more serious problems are with Karpf's own story. The first is that she tells it in terms of the therapy she has had. This was successful, so you can see why; but its analyses are unfalsifiable (she gets eczema because "Skin marks the frontier between I and not-I"), its language is reductive, and its whole project (a cure, a happy ending) is deeply inartistic.

The second is that the whole thing can feel too much like special pleading. Karpf is accurate - often, again, to the point of laughter - about the impossibility of hating your parents, disappointing them, leaving them, when they have survived concentration camps to have you. But people can survive less awful things, with much the same effect on their children. Too often she sounds as though she's claiming a monopoly on suffering - claiming, indeed, too much of everything. She's angry when English people don't know what Yom Kippur is, or refer to "Christian values", only. But why should they, and why shouldn't they? It's because I'm an assimilationist, I know, but the old Jewish question comes unbidden to my mind: Is it good for the Jews? Anne Karpf intended the exact opposite, but I fear that some parts of her book aren't good for the Jew.

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