When God went away

"Like asbestos gloves, these images and tropes enable us to grasp what otherwise would be too hot to bear..."
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The Independent Culture
MIKLOS HAMMER, a rabbi's son from Budapest, is a cosmopolitan young man at odds with his strict and pious father. Prevented by quotas from studying at the University - it's the early 1940s - he wins a place at medical school in Palestine; the rabbi forbids him to go. When he is called up into the the Hungarian Jewish Labour Battalion, he sees it as part of an adventure, a chance to get away. The atmosphere in the comfortably straw-lined cattle truck that takes him to his first posting is "like that of a children's holiday outing".

That ride is the first leg of a descent into hell, from the Nagyvarad ghetto to Birkenau, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald and Dachau, in a series of nightmare trains that gradually fill up with excrement and bodies. In Birkenau he gets his first glimpse of the smoking chimneys, named to him by another prisoner as Himmelfahrt - "going to heaven". In Auschwitz he's lucky to get a job sorting through the suitcases of the dead. En route to Buchenwald he sees a man "bent over ... like a pathologist conducting an autopsy", slicing flesh to eat from the buttocks of a corpse. By the time he reaches Dachau his own skin is stretched like paper over his bones; he collapses from typhus two days before the liberation. Through a combination of luck, wits, optimism and toughness - "the steady, everyday containment necessary to keep a stride or two ahead of death" - Miklos survives, only to find himself interned for eight months by the British government in a camp for "suspicious foreigners", with Hitler's press chief and assorted SS officers for company.

Thanks to the outpouring of Holocaust literature and films over the last few years, from Primo Levi's memoirs to Schindler's List, we now have a public set of images and narrative tropes for the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Like asbestos gloves, the images enable us to grasp what would be too hot to bear; unless they are carefully made, they also risk participating in a pornography of death. Gerald Jacobs - the Jewish Chronicle's literary editor - tells Hammer's true story simply, in a plain English enriched by a faint Central European cadence. The style gives the writing a kind of innocence, allowing us to trace for ourselves the human experience of the camps: the complicated calculations of survival, the way horrors mount like the stages of a disease, each degradation preparing the way for the next. As the prisoner gets used to the "dung-heap hierarchy" of Auschwitz, they find a strange comfort in its language of Kapos, Kommandos and "in the Kamine" ("in the ovens"); at the same time, the constant killings produce a numb terror that snaps into madness at the slightest touch. A French rabbi starts screaming "There is no God in this world" during the camp orchestra's performance of Beethoven's Fourth, and is carried off "like a struggling insect". A young Hungarian finds a photo of a girl he knew in a suitcase he's sorting and goes berserk; the picture is rolled up and stuffed in his mouth by the SS guard.

Neither history nor first-person memoir, Sacred Games is as much a ritual act as a book, a gesture of expiation. Remembering is our only means of salvage, but Jacobs' epigraph, from Nietzsche's The Madman, reminds us that catharsis is not the same as healing: "Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?" Tact-fully, Jacobs argues against the religious tendency to sacralise the Holocaust and see the Nazi genocide as part of Jewish destiny. "We are now learning the lessons our ancestors learned. We ... can be one with them in the remarkable wholeness of Jewish history," says Rabbi Hammer to his son in 1942, and when his words are echoed by a devout Jew in the camps, they sound insane. "God is on holiday," says Miklos; on the last page of the book, when he reproaches his father for not letting him go to Palestine before the war began, the reply seems to seal their estrangement: "It was God's will."

Our role, like the Ancient Mariner's wedding guest, is to listen, but what are we to do with what we've heard? After Bosnia and Rwanda, to name only two, no one can take the smug position that mere knowledge prevents recurrence.

Of course, it's not for Gerald Jacobs to solve that problem. But in his rather detached account of Miklos's internment, marriage and early life in London at the end of the book, he perhaps misses an opportunity to bring the war back home. The bare style that works so well to describe extremity becomes frustrating here. How did the aftermath of Miklos's ordeal play itself out in familiar London? What spaces has he found in its upholstered culture to acknowledge what he's seen? That story may be almost as important as the harrowing one he has so bravely told.