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Point Zero

Enda O’Doherty

The Seventh Well, by Fred Wander, Granta Books, 160 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1847080226



Postal Indiscretions: The Correspondence of Tadeusz Borowski, Tadeusz Drewnowski (ed), Northwestern University Press, 384 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0810122031

Also referred to:

If This is a Man / The Truce, by Primo Levi, Abacus, 398 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0349100135

The Drowned and the Saved, by Primo Levi, Abacus, 170 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0349100470

Other People’s Trades, by Primo Levi, Abacus, 224 pp, £6.99, ISBN: 978-0349101859

Primo Levi: A Life, by Ian Thomson, Metropolitan Books, 583 pp, ISBN: 978-0805073430

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski, Penguin, 180 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0140186246

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz, Vintage, 272 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0099502524

Night, by Elie Wiesel, Penguin, 128 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0140060287

The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz, Penguin, 272 pp, £11.99, ISBN: 978-0141186764

In his preface to The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi recounts a phenomenon he recalled from his time as a slave labourer for the German war machine in the Buna-Monowitz plant at Auschwitz:

… this same thought (‘even if we were to tell it, we would not be believed’) arose in the form of nocturnal dreams produced by the prisoners’ despair. Almost all the survivors, verbally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of imprisonment, varied in its detail but uniform in its substance: they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved person, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and most cruel) form, the interlocutor turned and left in silence.

Though the intuition embedded in this prison nightmare was to prove in some respects prescient, it was not in fact borne out by Levi’s initial experiences of telling his tale on his return to his native Turin, as his biographer Ian Thomson relates. With a compulsion “as strong as hunger”, he began, in late 1945, buttonholing fellow passengers on the Milan-Turin express, not so much at first to bear witness to the mass murders that had taken place in Auschwitz as simply to unburden himself of his remarkable personal story. Surprisingly perhaps, he was only once asked to desist; one fellow passenger even requested him to speak louder as he was hard of hearing.

These snatches of stories, told to strangers or to friends and family, were the oral basis of what was soon to become a written memoir, If This is a Man, which Levi finished by late 1946 and began to show to friends whose literary judgment he respected. The reception was favourable, even enthusiastic. He also sent some sample chapters, through an American cousin, Anna Yona, to the publisher Little, Brown. Here, however, his work was greeted less positively. “In 1946,” Thomson writes, “the subject of Europe’s dismal recent past did not engage – indeed it repelled – American readers.” Little, Brown’s rejection was to prefigure an Italian one. If This is a Man was turned down by the prestigious Einaudi house and by five other Italian publishers (though the book was “quite interesting”, the moment was not right was the judgment of one publisher’s reader). Levi’s memoir was eventually issued in late 1947 by the small Turin publisher Franco Antonicelli. It received respectful but unenthusiastic reviews (though Italo Calvino did recognise its merits) and sold just 1,500 copies. It was to be another eleven years before the book was republished (by Einaudi this time); after the Little, Brown rejection Levi had to wait forty years before his name became known in America.

Fred Wander was born Fritz Rosenblatt in Vienna in 1917. His father, a salesman, was often away and the young Rosenblatt “grew up on the street, and later on the road” (hence his adopted name). In 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria, he fled Vienna and travelled to France, where in 1939 he was interned as an enemy alien. He escaped from several camps but was eventually, in 1942, deported from Drancy to Auschwitz. Later he was transferred to Gross Rosen and then to Buchenwald, where he was liberated by the US army in April 1945. On his eventual return to Vienna he discovered that his entire family, except for one brother, had died in Auschwitz or Sobibór.

The Seventh Well was first published in 1971 in East Germany, where Wander lived for twenty-five years, then successfully republished in the Federal Republic in 2005 and in Michael Hoffmann’s English translation in 2008. In the early 1980s Wander had tried to have Levi’s If This is a Man brought out in the DDR, but it was rejected by the official “Committee of the Anti-Fascist Resistance”. The Seventh Well has been variously found by some of its less enthusiastic reviewers to be too poetic, too generous, insufficiently Jewish (in a religious sense) and, somewhat oddly, too European: Joshua Cohen, in New York’s Forward, proclaims that “the greatest reputations of postwar Jewish writers have been made, and will continue to be made, in America” before deprecating Wander’s “estranging” (estranging to whom?) “obsession with European culture in the midst of a murder that was European culture, too”. It is difficult to discern from the content and tenor of Wander’s novel and of Levi’s memoir what would have recommended the one to the DDR’s cultural gatekeepers and excluded the other, save that one writer was within their control and the other not; the few genuinely “anti-fascist” figures Wander portrays are not given a particularly attractive coloration. Cohen’s remarks about European culture are also puzzling: what Wander is celebrating in The Seventh Well is not the elevated Kultur of Goethe and Schiller (arguably the culture of the executioners) but the culture of the victims, a phenomenon as heterogeneous as its carriers, Hasidic dreamers from Poland, prosperous tailors and modest schoolmasters from Holland, Turkish-Jewish peddlers and communist resistance fighters from France, rabbis, public servants, literary gentlemen, peasants and the urban Jewish poor, who, wherever they live, are much the same:

Without ever having been to Odessa, to Granada, to Riga, Lemberg, or Kursk, I had somehow encountered the smell of old cities in the night-black barracks, put together from odd words, melancholy confessions, declarations of love to a place, a street in some outer precinct, a narrow back yard with a pear tree growing in it, a mossy flight of steps, a little house … “I was born in Poltava,” said Feinberg, “but I lived for forty years in Paris, in the rue des Rosiers, a little Jewish street, just like in Poltava, if you like, or Baranovici. A little lane full of miserable dreamers, who’ll scold you if you don’t treat them like proper bourgeois! Full of meshugeners and thieves, just like all old cities: fantasists, naïve businessmen, who, if you’re a stranger there, will try and sell you the blue out of the sky and are deeply offended if you question their honesty.”

Wander’s tone can at times verge on the sentimental (“a little house”, “a little Jewish street”, “a little lane”) and indeed Carole Angier, another Levi biographer, has, while praising The Seventh Well as “a remarkable addition to Holocaust literature”, contrasted its emphasis on the dignity, even nobility, of the camp victims with the Italian’s “more mercilessly honest” exploration of the moral grey zone into which many inmates – and particularly those who survived – were forced. “No Holocaust writing,” writes Angier, “can be read today without reference to the great touchstone, Primo Levi.” This is certainly true, but we should be careful: there is no single correct or best way to write about any experience; few writers are likely to come out all that well when held up against Levi, and we should also remember that while If This is a Man is a memoir, The Seventh Well is a novel.

Wander indeed hints rather broadly at the nature of the literary enterprise he is engaged in in his first chapter, “How to Tell a Story”, when he introduces the Polish Jew Mendel Teichman, “the magician, the master of words”, whose tales conjure up for the miserable camp inmates the “entire beautiful lost world” from which they have been torn – “a richly laid Sabbath table, the winsome loveliness of a Jewish girl, the heady aroma of sweet Palestine wine and raisin cake”. The narrator asks Teichmann if he can learn from him the art of the storyteller and is in turn told of another young man who had posed the same question but lamented his lack of any significant experience on which to base his stories:

‘I like it when people say that to me,’ I answer, and I start asking the young man questions. How can such a thing be, I ask, and where did he live, because so far as I knew there wasn’t anywhere in the world where you could hide from life. He lived in an old house, on an evil-smelling street on the edge of town. He’d lived there from the day he was born, and it was all he knew. A house full of stupid, loathsome people. It could make you sick, the mere sight of them … He didn’t say much more, my aspiring young man, but it was enough for me – I can see the house before me, I can smell it. I don’t even need to go there to look at it …’

And so Teichmann tells the story of the house and its inhabitants as Wander will later tell the stories of the inmates of his camps, or of others like them, Chukran the Turkish Jew from Tours, the resistance fighters Jacques and Pepe, Lubitsch the Slovak aesthete (and pederast), the “little gentleman” Tadeusz Moll, a rich lawyer’s son from Lodz. Wander’s purpose is narrower than that of Levi, who was a storyteller but also a scientist, an anatomist. His Kapos and camp guards are portrayed as stupid and casually vicious, with an oafish, adolescent cruelty (“pink faces bursting with health … German farmers’ sons … And they were murderers”). But he has little interest in the “why” question, indeed little real interest in the psychology of these murderers or that of their masters. Could it be that, twenty-five years after the event, he feels that some people are not worth remembering, while others are?

Mendel Teichmann died shortly after Yossl. He died a senseless and undignified death, let me pass over it in silence. His poems are forgotten, his ashes are scattered over the woods and fields of Poland. Mendel Teichmann, who tried to teach me how to tell a story.

“At a distance of years,” Primo Levi writes in The Drowned and the Saved, “one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers [camps] has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.” Most of the survivors, if not complicit in some form of (perhaps minor) collaboration with the German authorities, were at the very least tough “operators” who stood up for themselves, necessarily to some degree at the expense of others; the drowned on the other hand, the Muselmänner in camp parlance, have all the same story “or more exactly have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea”. “Whosoever does not know how to become an ‘Organisator’, ‘Kombinator’, ‘Prominent’,” Levi writes, “ … soon becomes a ‘musselman’. In life a third way exists, and is in fact the rule; it does not exist in the concentration camp.” Elsewhere he quotes, from another memoirist, Ella Lingens-Reiner, words attributed to a woman doctor:

How was I able to survive in Auschwitz? My principle is: I come first, second and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others.

And yet this doctor did not quite seem to act by this maxim but was generous and brave and saved many lives. Guilt may however persist, even in the absence of any good reason for it. In the final chapters of Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical novel Night, which give an account of the death marches to which the prisoners were subjected as the Russians closed in and the camps were evacuated, the son is advised not to share his food with his father but to let him die: he is marked for death anyway, whereas there is just a chance that if the younger man can keep up his strength he will survive. The son does not do this, but finally cannot find the courage to go to his father’s aid when he is struck by an SS officer, a blow which proves fatal. And this failure – the failure to perform an act which could have had no positive outcome and would probably have provoked the deaths of both father and son – still rankles ten, twenty, fifty years later.

Tadeusz Borowski was born in 1922, in Zhitomir in Ukraine. When he was just a child his Polish parents were arrested and sent to the camps by the Soviet regime, the father as a slave labourer on the White Sea Canal project, the mother to Siberia. In the 1930s they were exchanged for communist prisoners held in Poland and were able to start a new, precarious life in Warsaw. When the war started and the country was invaded by the Germans (and the Russians) Borowski was not quite seventeen. His official education was interrupted (secondary and university education were outlawed for Poles in the German sector), but he was able to find a job as a night watchman and studied literature at an underground university. He was also active in the thriving clandestine press, which published information on the war, calls to insurrection – and poetry, “lofty, metaphysical hexameters” – as Borowski was later ironically to recall.

Czeslaw Milosz first met Borowski in 1942, and he made an immediate strong impression on the older poet. A “lively boy, with black, intelligent eyes”, he was “one of the young people who started writing during the War, in the language of slaves”.

None of these young people believed any longer in democracy. Most of the countries of Eastern Europe had been semi-dictatorships before the War; and the parliamentary system seemed to belong to a dead era. There was no question as to how one came into power; whoever wanted to take over authority had only to seize it by force, or else create a “movement” … This was an age of nationalist “movements,” and Warsaw youth was still very much under their influence even though, obviously, it had no sympathy for either Hitler or Mussolini. Its reasoning was confused. The Polish nation was oppressed by the Germans; so, one had to fight. When [Borowski] declared that they were merely countering German nationalism with Polish nationalism, his comrades shrugged their shoulders. When he asked what values they wanted to defend or on what principles Europe was to be built in the future, he got no reply.

All of this, Milosz writes, was reflected in Borowski’s verse, full of “grayness, fog, gloom and death”. Still, it was not a poetry of grievance, but of “icy stoicism”. Almost all of the young poets in Borowski’s circle died during the war, either at the hands of the Gestapo or in battle. They were obsessed by death, which they saw not as a romantic theme but as a constant real presence. But if many of his comrades thought they were dying for Poland and its future freedom, Borowski entertained no such hope: a poem called “A Song” in his first collection, Wherever the Earth, concluded: “We’ll leave behind us iron scrap / and the hollow, mocking laugh of generations.”

Borowski was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, imprisoned in Warsaw for two months then transferred to Auschwitz, where he was given employment as a medical orderly. He was “lucky” enough to arrive when he did: feeling more strongly the need for manpower as the war turned against them, the Germans had recently stopped gassing “Aryans”, except in particular circumstances. Borowski the Pole could live, if not carried off by disease or accident. He survived two years in the camp and was eventually transferred to Dachau, where, on May 1st, 1945, he was liberated by the Americans. Settling for the time being in Munich, he wrote two short stories based on his camp experiences, which were to be published in Poland before his arrival back there in May 1946. The stories, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” and “A Day at Harmenz” produced a shock, writes Jan Kott in his introduction to the Penguin collection. “The public was expecting martyrologies, the Communist party called for works that were ideological, that divided the world into the righteous and the unrighteous, heroes and traitors, Communists and Fascists. Borowski was accused of amorality, decadence, and nihilism.” Borowski had little inclination to interpret the martyrdom of Jews and Poles at Auschwitz through an ideological prism, either communist or Catholic. Yet if he was no humanist he was neither devoid of personal ambition nor immune to a certain cold, distrustful ambition for humanity, in which people might be the bricks and mortar used to construct a new society. He could not, writes Kott, “resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history”: in early 1948 he joined the Polish United Workers’ Party, the communist party.

“I have read many books about concentration camps,” Milosz writes (in The Captive Mind), but not one of them is as terrifying as [Borowski’s] stories …” In “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”, a transport arrives at Auschwitz, where it is awaited by a small detachment of SS and a camp commando composed of inmates, whose job is to facilitate its rapid processing, the separating of the men from the women and children, the young from the old, the fit to work from the ready to die, and the separation of all from whatever worldly goods they have brought with them. The latter task is the main attraction of what is known as the “Canada” commando, for these inmates live off what the Jews on the arriving transports will no longer need: “mountains of bread pile up at the exits, heaps of marmalade, jams, masses of meat, sausages; sugar spills on the gravel”. Meanwhile, the SS officers count as the trucks depart for the gas chamber and the crematorium; each truck is a mark in a notebook, “sixteen gone means one thousand people, more or less”. And as the trucks leave, a Red Cross van shuttles incessantly back and forth: “it transports the gas that will kill these people”. The story progresses from grimness to horror with the disposal of the corpses of the infants who have died on the train, the jocular bestiality of the SS officers, the callousness of the commando workers and the moral collapse of some of the victims, all recounted in a style which ranges from the sardonic (when observing the Germans and those executing their orders) to the matter of fact (when recounting individual, discrete cruelties), yet does not exclude the lyrical: a beautiful young girl with “a wise, mature look in her eyes” rejects the possibility of being saved at the initial selection (which separates those chosen for the camp from those for the gas) and accepts her fate with proud contempt. As the truck departs, the narrator is afforded a last glimpse of her blonde hair flying in the breeze.

Milosz is perhaps a little hasty in identifying “Tadek”, the narrator of many of these stories and a tough, cunning and morally agile character, with their author. And this is a little surprising given what he later came to learn about Borowski: “The truth about his behavior in Auschwitz, according to his fellow-prisoners, is utterly different from what his stories would lead one to suppose; he acted heroically and was a model of comradeship.” The psychological insight encapsulated in the title of the chapter of The Captive Mind in which he discusses Borowski, “Beta, The Disappointed Lover”, does, however, seem broadly persuasive: “Beta [Borowski] is a nihilist in his stories, but by that I do not mean that he is amoral. On the contrary, his nihilism results from an ethical passion, from disappointed love of the world and of humanity.”

Postal Indiscretions, Tadeusz Drewnowski’s collection of Borowski’s correspondence from 1943 to 1951, when he committed suicide(1), forms a useful complement for scholars to his already published written work, literary in its early phase, journalistic and propagandistic later on. It may also provide some kind of qualification of Milosz’s view of him as a man consumed by hatred. This is certainly not the picture that emerges from his correspondence with friends, where he is warm, humorous, compassionate and concerned. Not that this necessarily negates Milosz’s judgment, for it is quite possible, particularly among those bitten by the political bug, to be a fine human being in private and in public an unembarrassed apologist of “the necessary murder” of countless numbers of unknown people. Drewnowski’s collection, it must be said, does not quite live up to its title: there are not as many indiscretions as one might wish in this correspondence and its appeal will be largely to specialists in modern Polish literature. Curiously, Drewnowski’s biography of Borowski, published in 1972, and for which one might have thought there would have been a wider readership, has yet to be translated into English.

Both Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel rejected the notion that they had been spared death so that they might bear witness, though both believed that having been spared death it was incumbent on them to write of their experiences. Levi indeed embraced or accepted a pedagogical role, beyond the framework of his writings, speaking to groups of adults and schoolchildren and engaging in a long, patient and often painful correspondence with German readers of his books. He, and other memoirists and novelists of the Holocaust like Wiesel and the Hungarian Imre Kertesz, have also written and spoken on many occasions on “the problem of Auschwitz” and how, in Kertesz’s words, literature written by survivors might “serve a useful purpose in the future”.

From the vantage point of the present, when the Holocaust is almost certainly (in western Europe and America at least) the most widely known fact of twentieth century history and this seems both natural and right, it is perhaps difficult to realise that this was not always so, for the immediate postwar generation proved to be, like Levi’s companion on the Milan-Turin express, somewhat hard of hearing, though without that chance listener’s desire to hear. We have already related Levi’s difficulties in having If This is a Man published; Elie Wiesel has also written of the problems he encountered in placing the manuscript that became Night. First composed in Yiddish as And the World Stayed Silent and later translated into French and English, it was rejected by all the major Parisian and American publishers (in spite of the championship of François Mauriac) before eventually being issued by the small but prestigious house Les Éditions de Minuit. Despite favourable reviews, La Nuit/Night sold badly. Even in those quarters where one might expect the most interest, this was not always in evidence: if one rabbi mentioned it in his sermons, Wiesel has written, there would always be another who would ask “What is the good in overwhelming children with the sadness of the past?” By the mid-1950s he was beginning to despair. In a Yiddish version from those years the book concluded:

And now, ten years after Buchenwald, I see that the world has forgotten. Germany is a sovereign state. The German army has been revived. Ilse Koch, the sadist of Buchenwald, has children and is happy(2). War criminals are strolling round the streets of Hamburg and Munich. The past has been wiped clean, consigned to forgetfulness.

With the publication over the last twenty or thirty years of hundreds of books, scores of films (of varying degrees of merit) and several television documentary series about the Holocaust, this era of forgetfulness now seems a world away. And perhaps the biggest change has come in Germany itself. For many Germans of the war generation the price which had to be exacted for their “mistakes” had been paid by the Nuremberg trials, the “denazification” of some areas of public life, the loss of the eastern territories and the chaos and poverty of the immediate postwar years. With the onset of the Cold War, Germany was enrolled in the camp of the free world and the tasks of retribution and cleansing more or less abandoned. During the 1950s there was little or no appetite to remember the war and its horrors and crimes. The generation which grew to adulthood in the more prosperous Germany of the 1960s and 1970s however, and which has dominated public life since, saw things very differently. The youth rebellion of the late 1960s has been read by the sociologist Norbert Elias as a “purification ritual for the sins of the fathers”. During these years so much noise was made, so many unwelcome questions asked by sons and daughters of their fathers, that the Bavarian conservative leader Franz Josef Strauss, in 1969, was provoked into a response which, however lacking in logical coherence, may well have expressed the feelings of many of his older constituents: “A people who have delivered such economic achievements have the right not to hear about Auschwitz any longer.” But Strauss was baying against an unstoppable tide. The radicals of the 1960s did not stop at protest, at bad manners towards their parents; they (or the best of them) later embarked on a thoroughgoing “march through the institutions”, which has transformed Germany into the European country which today is most aware of and most protected against the threat of any resurgence of violent right-wing nationalism.

Imre Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz from his native Budapest at the age of fourteen. In the last chapter of his partially autobiographical novel Fateless, the young protagonist, György Köves, returns to Budapest after being freed from Buchenwald. On his way home he meets in the tram a journalist “in a democratic newspaper” who wishes to use him as a source for an article, or several articles, on the camps and their meaning – a meaning which he seems to have already largely worked out to his own satisfaction. Though György finds his interlocutor sympathetic and the meeting a pleasant one, their dialogue is not easy: for the journalist conceives of this experience which interests him but which he has not personally shared in terms of readymade and convenient concepts such as “horror” and “hell” while it has not yet occurred to György that what has happened to him is something he should try to understand. When, in the final page of the novel, he begins to think about what his future might hold, he is confronted by the likelihood that, in spite of what has happened to him in the past, what awaits him in the future, “like an unavoidable trap”, might well be happiness: “For there also, among the chimneys, in the spaces in between the suffering, there was something which was like happiness. Everyone wants to ask me questions about the trials, the “horrors”: yet for me, it is perhaps that sentiment that will remain the most memorable. Yes, it’s of that, of happiness in the concentration camps, that I must speak the next time I am asked. If I am ever asked. And if I have not forgotten myself.”

In the opening line of “Dello scrivere oscuro” (On Obscure Writing), an essay written for the Turin newspaper La Stampa in 1976 and reprinted in the collection Other People’s Trades, Primo Levi wrote: “One should never impose limits or rules on creative writing.” And though he proceeded in the essay that followed to do precisely that, the stricture stands, and is perhaps particularly apposite to writing about the Holocaust. Levi’s free-ranging, humanist works of exploration and analysis, Wiesel’s spare and sombre testament on the death of his people, of his father and of the Jewish God, Kertesz’s percolation of the camp experience through the sharp but unformed mind of an adolescent, Wander’s deeply felt sentiment and Borowski’s brutal truths constitute various responses through art to one historical experience, an experience each of them lived through personally and, to varying degrees, “survived”. The poet Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew of German culture and also a camp survivor, wrote: “There is nothing on earth that can prevent a poet from writing, not even the fact that he is Jewish and German is the language of his poems.”

This of course flies in the face of Theodor Adorno’s famous edict that to continue writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric(3). The remark is not only pompous but pointless: not just writers, but people in general, are capable of remaining defiantly elastic and full of possibility no matter what is done to them (Imre Kertesz spent part of the 1950s writing musical comedies). We cannot and will not stop people writing or making fictions about the Holocaust – even though in some cases we might wish to. Primo Levi strongly disliked Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter, which unites a camp survivor and her SS torturer by chance in 1950s Vienna and places them in an intense sexual relationship. Levi found the film “beautiful and false”; nor was he impressed by the vacuous babble Cavani offered when asked about its meaning: “We are all victims and murderers … in every environment, in every relationship, there is a victim-executioner dynamic more or less clearly expressed and generally lived on an unconscious level.” “I do not know,” Levi responded, “and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed, not only in Germany, and still exist, retired or on active duty, and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation …” We should perhaps be grateful that Levi did not live to see the release of Roberto Benigni’s well-received death camp comedy Life Is Beautiful.

It is arguable that meretricious art (or non-art) cheapens the memory and meaning of the Holocaust, and it is also arguable that we are coming close to a point when little more of any real value will be written on the subject, though its exploitation for commercial or (geo)political purposes will scarcely stop. But if we have nothing new, we will still have the work of those like Wander, Borowski, Wiesel and Kertesz, who experienced this moral zero point of the twentieth century and who later told their stories for the most obvious, and yet most valid reasons, that we should remember the dead and that we should do whatever is in our power to ensure that such things do not happen again. Above all we will always have Primo Levi, that calm and luminous mind “guided by reason and civility” whose books and essays, in an ideally ordered life, might profitably be read every day.

1. The suicides of various literary camp survivors, among whom we might include Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Paul Celan and the Austrian writer Jean Améry (Hans Mayer), have been much discussed and have often been linked to the phenomenon of “survivor guilt”. Ian Thomson, however, argues against any easy acceptance of this theory in the case of Levi, pointing out that he suffered increasingly in later life from clinical depression, combined with physical ill health and intractable family troubles. In Borowski’s case it is also impossible to be certain of the reasons for his decision, but it may well have had less to do with his Auschwitz experiences and more to do with relationship difficulties, concern about the work he was being asked to do and a growing realisation that the faith he had placed in communism was misplaced.

2. Ilse Koch was found guilty of atrocities at Buchenwald by an American court in 1947. After serving only two years of a life sentence she was pardoned by the American military governor, General Lucius D Clay. She was rearrested in 1949 and tried before a German court. In 1951 she was sentenced to life imprisonment for multiple counts of incitement to murder. She committed suicide in prison in 1967.

3. Adorno later partially qualified this statement, writing that: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream ... hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.”


Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.

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