BOOK REVIEW / Memories, brutal secrets and questions of faith: 'Drowning' - Gerhard Durlacher Tr. Susan Massotty: Serpents Tail, 7.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
GERHARD DURLACHER was five years old and living in Baden-Baden when the Nazis came to power. He describes the moment he heard the news with childish bewilderment; the room falling silent as a hoarse, excited voice on the radio reports that the new Chancellor of the German Reich is Adolf Hitler. 'Adolf,' he thinks, 'just like my uncle,' who a few weeks earlier had been celebrating Hanukkah with a bandaged head after an 'encounter with the Brownshirts'.

Drowning is a prequel to Durlacher's first memoir, Stripes in the Sky, in which he described his experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942 to the end of the war. At just 97 pages it is a deceptively slim volume, but this is a determinedly honest account with no pretence to total recall. Durlacher's remembrances are piecemeal and incidental, yet the apparently ordinary is always loaded with significance.

He describes an experience at a Christmas pantomime when he is called on to the stage to sit on Santa's knee. The young Gerhard immediately recognises his Uncle Herbert behind the beard and says so loudly. When he returns to his seat a man sitting nearby with his perfect Aryan daughters hisses at Durlacher, 'Smart-aleck little Jewboy.'

Despite the time which has passed and the withering experiences in Birkenau that blighted his teenage years, Durlacher can still retrieve from the past not only memories, but, most importantly, that original sense of childish naivety and ignorance. Yet the clues to the impending doom are all there, obliquely, whether it be his description of being given a Nazi-style haircut so as not to seem out of place at school, or his annoyance at not being allowed to watch a marching parade with its drums and banners.

According to Durlacher, his memories flooded back after reading two books in the early Eighties: Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies and Walter Laqueur's The Terrible Secret. Both are attempts to investigate precisely why the Allied forces ignored pleas for help after the true purpose of the concentration camps became known.

The Holocaust remains one of the most perplexing tragedies, which only seems to pose more and more questions. Why did the Allies fail to act? How were the Nazis able to draw a veil of secrecy over the most appalling, systemised brutality? Even Durlacher describes how, at the moment of his family's arrest, his mother dutifully opens the door to their persecutors, 'because why should you let them kick in a perfectly good door?'

Walter Laqueur's conclusion, which Durlacher concurs with, centres on the question of belief. Accounts of terrible atrocities can be so harrowing that they are almost impossible to accept. Not because they are considered false, but because for those who are not first-hand witnesses to believe that such things are possible can be simply too devastating. As Durlacher points out, even new arrivals at Auschwitz, people on the brink of their own destruction, could still not believe that the smoking chimneys did not belong to factories and interpreted the stories from other prisoners as some kind of cruel initiation rite.

Whereas Stripes in the Sky was filled with an abiding sense of frustration and anger, the mood in Drowning is more of acceptance mixed with deep sorrow. The title story refers specifically to one telling incident. While on holiday in Riva young Gerhard watches two boys playing with toy boats at the edge of the jetty. The adults nearby are captivated by the Italian and German radio announcements coming from loudspeakers when first one boy, then the other, falls in. Ignoring Gerhard's screams for help, the grown-ups listen with rapt attention: the Nazis have assassinated the Austrian leader Dolfuss in a failed coup attempt - the first palpable demonstration of Hitler's real menace. Only at the last moment are the boys rescued.

It is a moving story and a very powerful metaphor for the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany. Even when full realisation begins to dawn, Durlacher's family still seems paralysed by a kind of desperate optimism. By the time they flee to Holland it is already too late.

The puzzle of The Final Solution remains as insoluble as it has always been and that dilemma of believing still faces us now, in the accounts of unspeakable crimes which continue to seep out of Bosnia.