The shame of the past we share and try to forget

The shame of the past we share and try to forget

In my last post I spoke of how I had not been able to get a scene in Roy Andersson’s latest film out of my head. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a party of pith-helmeted British soldiers herd shackled and fearful African men, women and children into a giant rotating drum before setting alight a fire beneath it. As the agonised movements of those incarcerated turn the terrible machine, their cries are turned into haunted music for the edification of an elegantly-dressed crowd of wealthy folk watching the scene from the terrace of a nearby mansion as waiters pass among them serving champagne. Continue reading “The shame of the past we share and try to forget”

Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk

Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk

Germans live with history, Berliners especially so.  The city is dense with memorials and museums, each of which documents or remembers an aspect of the country’s fractured past. In the previous post I wrote about three examples of the memorialization of the Holocaust in Berlin. In one short walk in the centre of the city the visitor will encounter several more.

It is true, of course, that we are all, of whatever nationality, surrounded by buildings, monuments and memorials that represent our past, but as Neil MacGregor observed in Germany: Memories of a Nation, ‘German monuments are not like those in other lands. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame’.

As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe 2
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

I took this photograph standing in the midst of the 2,700 concrete stelae that form the memorial, extending over 19,000 square metres. (Imagine an area outside the Houses of Parliament that filled the area of  Westminster Abbey and its grounds). Beyond the Memorial stand the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Together, these monuments speak of modern Germany’s unique attempt to wrestle with its historical inheritance and its complex and changing memories.

After World War II, in a divided Germany, memorialization
of the Holocaust was also divided into two narratives – that of the communist GDR which focused on commemorating German victim-hood and fascist persecution of the Communists, while in West German responses to the Nazi era shifted from repression of the memory to acknowledgement. During the 1960s the student movement began to challenge the silence about the Nazi era and expose the continuities between Nazi and postwar Germany in terms of those occupying public posts.

Even so, student radicals tended to present the Nazis as the perpetrators, rather than the general German population: they had begun to publicly
acknowledge that crimes had been committed, yet were still hesitant to assume a wider personal responsibility.  It was only in the 1980s that Germans came to acknowledge a general civic and personal guilt for the Holocaust.

Collectively, Germans have faced an enormous challenge in deciding to memorialise the Holocaust: how can the nation that perpetrated the largest and most systematic mass murder in modern history a mere sixty years ago honour the dead, and at the same time publicly assume the burden of guilt?

In the last quarter-century, Germans have struggled with the problem of how to memorialize the evils of the Nazi period. What form should a memorial take which will evidence the weight of the burden of history, and demonstrate the deep remorse for crimes which today’s Germans did not themselves commit but by which they feel tainted, and through which they are often viewed by the rest of humanity?

The then-President of Germany, Roman Herzog, perhaps best  summed up the purpose of such memorialization in a speech in 1996:

Remembrance gives us strength, since it helps to keep us from going astray. … It is our collective responsibility to keep the memory alive in order to overcome evil and to understand the precious nature of democracy and human rights.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe 4
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Less than a ten minute stroll from the steel and glass towers of resurgent Potsdamer Platz, at the intersection with Hannah-Arendt Strasse, the ambling visitor encounters an enormous field of 2,711 gray concrete blocks of varying heights spread over nearly 5 acres of prime city centre land. Unnamed and with no explanatory signs, this is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe 1
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe on Hannah Arendt Strasse

A visitor who was unaware of the existence of such a monument might remain bewildered about its purpose and meaning, especially given its non-representational character. However, I imagine that most people arriving at the site will know what they are looking at. How each individual visitor interprets the structure is an open question. The complete abstraction of the work, and its lack of narrative (no pictures, no words) mean that the visitor is forced to think and reflect for themselves.

As you penetrate deeper into the field of stelae the experience at first suggests a maze, one’s sense of disorientation increased by the unevenly sloping passageways between the blocks, the way the stelae lean slightly, and their uneven height. There are moments when you find your view out towards the city skyline blocked, or feel a sense of being completely overwhelmed by the columns rising above your head.

Fleetingly, the idea that the stelae represent headstones in a graveyard passes through the visitor’s mind, though there are no names engraved on the blocks. Then the repetitive, grid-like nature of the layout invites thoughts of the rigid discipline and bureaucratic order that implemented the horrifyingly efficient mechanised process of extermination.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe 5
The repetitive, grid-like nature of the layout

A recurrent strand in criticism of the Memorial has focussed on the difficulty in experiencing it as a sacred space: children play hide and seek in the narrow passageways, tourists sit on the lower stelae as if they are park benches, teenagers take selfies. At first, this seemed wrong. Then I thought that, perhaps, this suggests one of the Holocaust’s most tragic lessons: that we have the ability to carry on with our daily lives, even in a climate of hatred and repression, while others suffer and lives are destroyed.

The Memorial was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, and opened on May 10, 2005 with a dedication ceremony that was broadcast live on national German television. Eisenman has said that the abstract nature of the Memorial represents his rejection of any tendency to sentimentalize the Holocaust: ‘I don’t want people to weep and then walk away with a clear conscience.’ In a text about the project he wrote:

The enormity and horror of the Holocaust are such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate. […]

In this monument there is no goal, no end, no working one’s way in or out. The duration of an individual’s experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding is impossible. […]

Personally, my overwhelming feeling as I left the site concerned its scale and location. Is there any other capital city where such a huge site in the centre and just a few hundred yards away from the nation’s assembly and ministerial quarter has been set aside for a national admission of guilt and responsibility?

What makes the location even more significant is that this was the administrative locus of Hitler’s killing machine. His chancellery building, designed by Albert Speer and since demolished, was a few hundred yards away just to the south; his bunker lies beneath a nearby car park. During the construction of the Memorial, construction workers discovered  a World War II bunker that was built for the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Later, this land was part of the death strip when the Wall divided Berlin.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe 3
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Though there are no signs or information boards – nothing to explain the meaning of the sea of grey concrete blocks – there is an underground information centre (which we did not visit as it appeared to be closed off by temporary fencing). The main approach in the centre is, apparently, to attempt to personalize the inconceivable suffering of the victims: because only through personalization, state the organisers, can the ‘anonymity of the victims’ be overcome.

In one part, the fate of individual families are presented with great care; in another the deportation routes across Europe are shown. Most significantly, in the Room of Names, the names of individual victims appear on the walls while biographical details are heard constantly  through loudspeakers. For this, in a German-Israeli collaboration, for the first time, the Israeli memorial, Yad Vashem, opened its database in which the names of all the Holocaust victims have been collected since 1954.

It’s interesting that, in its title, the Memorial does not speak of Holocaust or Shoah. By using the word ‘murdered’, the title clearly states what occurred:  Jews from all over Europe were murdered and this is a memorial to them. The crime is named so that Germans – and all of us – will remember what
happened. You can’t hide behind the term, ‘murdered’: it’s too overt, too

James Young, an expert on the articulation of Holocaust memory in art and memorials, was the only non-German and the only Jew to serve on the commission to select the design for the memorial. He writes:

Rather than prescribing a form … we described a concept of memorialization that took into account: a clear definition of the Holocaust and its significance; Nazi Germany’s role as perpetrator; current reunified Germany’s role as rememberer; the contemporary generation’s relationship to Holocaust memory; and the aesthetic debate swirling around the memorial itself.

Young continued:

Any conception of the Holocaust that reduces it to the horror of destruction alone ignores the stupendous loss and void left behind. The tragedy of the Holocaust is not merely that people died so terribly but that so much was irreplaceably lost. An appropriate memorial design will acknowledge the void left behind and not concentrate on the memory of terror and destruction alone. What was lost needs to be remembered here as much as how it was lost.

It is true that, from any vantage point outside the Memorial what you see is a gigantic void at the heart of a great city.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial seen from above (photo:

After viewing the Memorial there is a place nearby where, if you wish, you can sit and reflect on its meaning. The Room of Silence (Raume der Stille) at the Brandenburg Gate.

The Room of Silence
The Room of Silence with Ritta Hager’s wall-hanging

The room is modelled on a similar room which Dag Hammarskjöld  commissioned in 1954 for the United Nations building in New York an which is still in use. The Room of Silence in the Brandenburg Gate was the result of an initiative by the East Berlin peace movement in the then still-divided city in December 1988 which was supported by people of various faiths and cultural backgrounds. After German reunification in 1990 a small action group was formed with the aim of creating a Room of Silence in a suitable building in the centre of Berlin near the former frontier between opposing military forces and hostile ideologies. It opened in October 1994.

The room’s decoration is neutral and simple, avoiding any religious, political or ideological symbolism. Apart from seats and cushions, the only adornment is a woven tapestry made for this room by the Hungarian artist Ritta Hager, abstractly symbolizing light penetrating darkness.

Kollwitz Pieta 1
Kathe Kollwitz’s ‘Mother with her Dead Son’ in the Neue Wache

From the Brandenburg Gate, a fifteen minute stroll along Unter den Linden brings you to the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse), designed in 1816 designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel as a memorial to those who had fallen in the Napoleonic wars. But, for a century until the end of the monarchy in 1918, it remained a symbol of Prussian military might. Subsequently it has gone through several incarnations as an anti-militarist memorial. In 1930 it became a memorial for the fallen of World War 1. Damaged during the Second World War, in the late 1950s it was reconstructed by the GDR as a memorial to the victims of Fascism and Militarism.

After the unification, in 1993, it was transformed again into the main official Federal memorial site for the ‘victims of war and tyranny’. In the centre of the memorial space there stands the large sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz,  ‘Mother with her Dead Son’. Every time that I encounter this sculpture I am deeply moved.

Gallery: The Neue Wache and Kollwitz’s ‘Mother with her Dead Son’

After the calm and reflection of the last two stops on this central Berlin walk, head south – across the Bebelplatz where the books were burned on 10 May 1933 (and where Micha Ullman’s memorial consists of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of enough empty bookshelves to hold the total of 20,000 books burnt here), through the lovely and miraculously undamaged 18th century Gendarmenmarkt square, on down Friedrichstrasse past Checkpoint Charlie, before turning into Niederkirchnerstrasse.

Bebelplatz Night of Shame Monument
Micha Ullman’s Night of Shame Monument in Bebelplatz

Here you will find perhaps the city’s most unflinching documentation of Nazi persecution and terror, the Topography of Terrors. Between 1933 and 1945, the central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror – the headquarters of the Nazi SS, Gestapo and, during the Second World War, the Reich Security Main Office – were located here. Once a place of death and terror, it is now quiet and stilled, despite the crowds which constantly shuffle slowly along, reading the information panels erected alongside the basement ruins of the Nazi buildings.

The Topography of Terrors
The Topography of Terrors

Opened by volunteers as a temporary exhibit in 1987 on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th anniversary, after the Wall fell the site was turned into a memorial and museum. Initially intended to remain for a year, the exhibition was extended indefinitely, remaining in the open air but protected from the elements by a canopy. The cellars of the Gestapo headquarters at 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed, were excavated and an exhibition detailing the history of repression under the Nazis displayed alongside.

The Gestapo cellars at the Topography of Terrors

The Gestapo cellars at the Topography of Terrors
The Gestapo cellars at the Topography of Terrors

Since I was last here in 1999, the Topography has undergone considerable development: the extent of the exhibition has grown and the quality of display panels has been upgraded. In addition a permanent Documentation Centre has been built on land opposite the Martin Gropius Building.  In a sense, this remains another void at the heart of the city centre: a whole block surrounding the grey steel structure of the Documentation Centre where nothing grows from the gravelled area that extends as far as the eye can see. This is also one of the few remaining places where a significant length of the Berlin Wall still remains.

The Topography of Terrors 2

The Wall at the Topography of Terror
The Wall at the Topography of Terror

According to the official website, more than a million people visited the Topography of Terror in 2014, making it one of the most frequently visited places of remembrance in Berlin. On the day we visited it was very crowded, but I was struck by the total silence that prevailed as people studied the information panels which document every aspect of Nazi repression.

Jewish Museum Berlin exterior 3
The Jewish Museum in Berlin

Finally, after another short walk, we arrived at the Jewish Museum. When I came here in 1999 it was an empty shell, waiting for the internal exhibition spaces to be filled. Back then I could only take in the outside of the building; entering it now my perception of its design as a brilliant architectural response to the purpose and contents of the building.

Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the museum opened to the
public in 2001. It attempts to catalogue two millennia of Jewish history
in Germany. Libeskind based his design for the museum on the fundamental tension of the massive absence created by the Nazi state’s attempt to eradicate that Jewish history in the Holocaust: an enormous void slices through the entire building, symbolizing the discontinuity of German Jewish history and the fate of Berlin’s Jews, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.

Libeskind explains that the design was based on three conceptions:

First, the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin, second, the necessity to integrate physically and spiritually the meaning of the Holocaust into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin. Third, that only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure and void of Jewish life in Berlin, can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future.

The museum consists of two buildings – the visitor enters via an adjacent Baroque building, built in 1736, that originally housed the Prussian chamber court and later the City Museum, before descending to an underground passage that links two buildings which have no visible connection above ground.

Once in the Libeskind building, the visitor encounters three intersecting, slanting corridors, called ‘Axes’, which symbolize three aspects of Jewish life in Germany – a continuous presence in German history, emigration from Germany, and extermination in the Holocaust.

Jewish Museum Berlin axes
The Jewish Museum in Berlin: the Axis of the Holocaust

Seen from the air, Libeskind’s building is shaped like a deconstructed Star of David. Inside, the visitor constantly encounters strange angles, dead ends and voids – deep, empty spaces that slice through the entire building. The exhibition galleries are spacious but so irregular in shape and cut through
by enclosed voids and concrete trusses, that you can never be sure where you are, or how to reach the exit. Libeskind’s intention in creating these spaces was to represent ‘that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes’.

Jewish Museum Berlin diagonals
The Jewish Museum: angles and voids

Most disturbing of all is the Holocaust Tower, entered by heaving on a heavy metallic door which clangs loudly each time a visitor passes through. Inside, you find yourself enclosed in a claustrophobic, strangely-angled concrete shaft.  You stand in a darkness that is complete, relieved only by a thin slit at the very top of the shaft that lets in a small amount of light that shimmers with the movement of leaves on trees outside. Life flickers, distant and unreachable. It’s an intense and unsettling experience.

Jewish Museum Berlin Holocaust Tower
The Holocaust Tower in the Jewish Museum

The museum’s permanent exhibition documents two millenia of Jewish presence in the German lands. The exhibition begins with displays on medieval settlements along the Rhine, in particular in Speyer, Worms and Mayence – three cities where Jewish life flourished in a world of thought and
scholarship. The three communities formed a unit called the Shum, their name derived from their Hebrew initials. The Shum cities led the development of Jewish life among the Ashkenazi, rivalling southern Spain,
the older great centre of Jewish culture in Europe.

For many centuries, Germany treated its Jewish population with more tolerance than most Western European countries. However, the exhibition documents the repeated waves of anti-Semitism that swept the German lands, and the discrimination experienced by Jews.

One display documents the intellectual impact of the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who made a considerable contribution to breaking down barriers between Jewish and European cultures.  Unusually, he wrote in German and was read by Christians. Mendelssohn argued for the tolerance of different religions, for a Judaism based on human reason, and for its engagement with wider non-Jewish society. (On Grosse Hamburger Strasse, on the site of Berlin’s old Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Gestapo in 1943, is a peaceful garden containing just one grave – that of Moses Mendelssohn.)

When Hitler came to power in 1933 there were over 160,000 Jews living in Berlin. After documenting the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis and the systematic elimination of the social and economic rights of Germany’s Jews, the exhibition continues by examining the impact of emigration and extermination on the Jews of Germany. By 1941 much of the city was closed off to Jews and they had to wear the yellow star. Between 1941 and 1943 virtually all Berlin’s Jews were deported to camps throughout Europe, and the city was declared ‘judenrein’.

By 1945 only about 8,000 Jews remained in Berlin – those who had been in hiding, or married to non-Jews. Though many emigrated, some stayed, and the community was bolstered by an influx of refugees from eastern Europe. The exhibition  concludes on a positive note with the reflections of Jews who grew up in Germany describing their childhood and youth after 1945. A new chapter of Jewish life in Germany had begun. Today, there are over 30,000 Jews living in Berlin. As Neil MacGregor observed in Germany: Memories of a Nation:

Seventy years after the application of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’, hundreds of thousands of Jews have chosen to leave their liberated Eastern European homes and settle in the country that once tried to exterminate them.

Leaving the museum, we wandered between the stelae of the adjacent Garden of Exile and Emigration. 49 columns filled with earth are arranged in rows traversed by uneven pathways. The stelae are built on sloping land and rise at an angle, leading to a sense of disorientation similar to that felt inside the museum building. Out of each column grows an Oleaster, an Olive Willow, perhaps symbolizing rebirth. The experience of walking in this structure is comparable to that of being in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but though the Garden of Exile and Emigration is more modest, I think I found it more effective.

Gallery: The Garden of Exile and Emigration


In his book comprising snapshots from Berlin’s rich and varied history, Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory Maclean writes:

In a courageous, humane and moving manner, modern Germany is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis. This painful process is evident in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial [and] in the Jewish Museum. […] At the heart of this process is a Freudian idea that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to light. The insistence on memory is anciently Jewish, and now Western: the conviction that for the psychic health of a society – as well as an individual – past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing.

See also


Stumbling over the past in Berlin

Stumbling over the past in Berlin

Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east.

The Stolpersteine at 42 Fasanenstrasse
The stolpersteine at 42 Fasanenstrasse

These small brass memorials are called stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and there are now more than 5000 of them in Berlin (plus another 38,000 in 800 towns and cities across  Europe), each one commemorating a victim of the Holocaust: whether Jew or Roma, dissident or homosexual, an individual consigned by the Nazis to prison, concentration camp or extermination camp, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.

Stolpersteine are the creation of the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, their name recalling the old custom in Germany for non-Jews to say, when they stumbled over a protruding stone, ‘There must be a Jew buried here’.  The first fifty stolpersteine in Berlin were laid by Demnig without permission from the local authorities, but now there are initiatives in every Berlin neighbourhood – sometimes affiliated to museums, community groups or local churches – which organise the laying of stolpersteine, largely on a voluntary basis. There are many Holocaust memorials in Berlin, but for me the many stolpersteine encountered even during our brief stay in the city were the most effective in challenging even the casual passer-by to pause and reflect on the circumstances that led to 56,000 Berlin Jews being deported and killed between 1941 and 1945.

Deportation of Jews from Hanau to the Theresienstadt ghetto
Deportation of Jews from Hanau to the Theresienstadt ghetto

The Nazi deportations began late on the night of 18 October 1941 when groups of Gestapo agents spread out over Berlin and began pounding on the doors of Jewish homes yelling out that they were ‘hoarding goods’. Jews were torn from their daily lives, permitted to pack one small bag before being marched through the streets to collection centres – then deported to ghettos and killing centres in eastern Europe and concentration camps, including Theresienstadt and, later, Auschwitz.

42 Fasenstrasse
42 Fasenstrasse

After the Nazis came to power in 1933 a succession of ever more repressive laws restricted what work Jews could do, who they could meet and where they could go. Most Berlin Jews were fully integrated into German society and many hardly considered themselves to be Jewish at all – not practising the Jewish religion at all or being converts to Christianity – but this made no difference in the implementation of Nazi racial laws.

Stolpersteine for Ernst and Hans Erlich
Stolpersteine for Ernst and Hans Erlich at 42 Fasenstrasse



The Erlich brothers – Ernst, 41, and Hans, 37, were the first residents of the house at 42 Fasenstrasse to be deported. Like many of those rounded up in the first few months of the deportations they were transported to one of the ghettos or killing centres in the east. For Ernst and Hans, their destination was death in the Warsaw ghetto.

Stolpersteine for Markus and Lucie Cohn
Stolpersteine for Markus and Lucie Cohn at 42 Fasenstrasse



Three months later they came for Lucie Cohn and her husband Markus. Lucie was 55 and had lived in Berlin all her life. A few blocks away, outside 120 Kantsrasse, is a stumbling block for Lucie Cohn’s sister Erna Ewer.

Markus Cohn was a senior manager at Carl Cohn & Co Shoe Wholesale Company in Rosenstrasse in Berlin city centre. The company was owned by his brother Carl. It was liquidated in 1937 under the Nuremberg laws.

On 17 August 1942 Lucie Cohn and her husband were among the 1002 people crammed on the train which left platform 17 of the Grunewald railway station, bound for the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. They were both murdered a few months later in Auschwitz.

Stolperstein for Meta Graupner at 42 Fasenstrasse
Stolperstein for Meta Graupner at 42 Fasenstrasse


According to asset declarations from 1942, the 5½-roomed apartment at 42 Fasanenstrasse was home to the Cohn couple and four lodgers – Dr. Arthur Kallmann, Rosalie Okun and Martha Hirsch, and Meta Gräupner. At present, only Meta Gräupner is remembered with a stolperstein, just one of more than 25,000 Jews – men, women and children –  who were deported from the German Reich to the occupied territories of the Soviet Union in the east. Meta Gräupner was deported on 15 August 1942 to Riga and murdered there three days later.

During the previous winter the ghetto in Riga had already been cleared in actions during which some 26,500 Latvian Jews were murdered in the woods outside the city by members of the SS and the police, as well as Latvian volunteers. As further transports arrived from the Reich, those regarded as unfit for work in the ghetto suffered the same fate. On 18 August 1942,  Meta Gräupner was probably among those transported to the site of mass graves in the woods of Bikerniek and executed.

Stolpersteine for Meta Brauer and Marianne Rothenberg
Stolpersteine for Meta Brauer and Marianne Rothenberg at 42 Fasenstrasse


Meta Brauer was born on 24 April 1894 in Breslau (now Polish Wroclaw). Her parents were Siegfried Brauer Brauer and Pauline, born Silbermann. After elementary school in Breslau, she trained as a milliner in industrial school before working for the Hugo Kohn fashion goods and clothing store. In 1910 she moved to Berlin and worked as a shop assistant. According to her brother Kurt, having achieved a well-established position and good income, Meta lived in a well furnished two-bedroom apartment, had an elegant wardrobe and fine jewellery.

In 1941 Meta was forced by the anti-Semitic laws to leave her job and her apartment and move in as a lodger at 42 Fasanenstrasse. Her last job – probably as a forced labourer – was with the company Hugo Prince in Spandau. On 9 December 1942, Meta Brauer was among about 1,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz, of whom 898 were murdered in the gas chambers.

42 Fasenstrasse hallway
The hallway at 42 Fasenstrasse


The members of the Jewish population in Berlin had no idea of the fate which awaited them when they learnt of their imminent deportation to the East. They were led to believe that they were going to the newly-occupied eastern territories to populate and reconstruct those areas. They would have known, however, that Regulation 11 of the Reich Citizenship Law stipulated that a Jew ‘leaving the Reich’ would lose their nationality and their property. Guidelines stipulated that those selected for deportation could pack only absolute necessities. Moreover, the Jews themselves were required to pay for their deportation to death.

11 NOVEMBER 1942

Hundreds of Jews committed suicide rather than submit to the deportations. Aged 84, Auguste Zweig of 42 Fasenstrasse was one of those. In such cases the stolpersteine records the person’s departure from this life as ‘flight unto death’.

Fasenstrasse Berlin
Fasenstrasse, Berlin

Marianne Cohn was born to a left-wing intellectual family of Jewish origin in Mannheim in 1922. Her family went to exile in Spain in 1934 and settled in France in 1938. When World War II began, her parents were detained at a concentration camp, while Marianne and her sister were sent to a farm. Marianne joined the Resistance and actively took part in the clandestine transfer to Jewish children to territories not under German control. She was arrested in May 1944, as she was driving 28 children to the Swiss border. Marianne was tortured in prison and then killed. She was 22 years old. She wrote this poem, ‘I Shall Betray Tomorrow’, before her death in July 1944:

I shall betray tomorrow, not today.
Today, pull out my fingernails,
I shall not betray.
You do not know the limits of my courage,
I, I do.
You are five hands, harsh and full of rings,
Wearing hob-nailed boots.
I shall betray tomorrow, not today.
I need the night to make up my mind.
I need at least one night,
To disown, to abjure, to betray.
To disown my friends,
To abjure bread and wine,
To betray life,
To die.
I shall betray tomorrow, not today.
The file is under the window-pane.
The file is not for the window-bars,
The file is not for the executioner,
The file is for my own wrists.
Today, I have nothing to say,
I shall betray tomorrow.

After each Gestapo raid on 42 Fasenstrasse, the door of a now-empty apartment would be sealed with Gestapo stamps (an eagle gripping a swastika).  In her magisterial and definitive history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis, Alexander Richie writes:

Howard Smith remembered catching a glimpse of the small apartment next to his which had belonged to a pair of old ladies who were taken away that night.  Two little china cups stood on the table in the middle of the room, still half full of tea.

Alexandra Richie continues:

The frightened and lonely people had been betrayed by the city in which they had lived for centuries. Many Berliners turned away as the columns of Jews walked quietly to the stations or were loaded onto trucks late in the evening. […]

With the residents gone the Nazis would return to the deserted flats, break the seals and hold public auctions of for the sparse goods.

42 Fasenstrasse hallway 2
The hallway at 42 Fasenstrasse

Fasenstrasse, just around the corner from our hotel, is now home to the Kathe Kollwitz Museum at number 24 (more about that in another post). The hotel is on Lietzenburger Strasse, where several buildings now have stolpersteine memorials placed on the pavement outside. One of them – at number 72 – I found particularly interesting.

Stolpersteine at 72 Lietzenburger Strasse for Maria Terwiel and Helmut Himpel
The stolpersteine at 72 Lietzenburger Strasse for Maria Terwiel and Helmut Himpel



Maria Terwiel and Helmut Himpel were resistance fighters against Nazi tyranny. They belonged to a resistance group that became known (erroneously) as the Red Orchestra. Their struggle against the Nazi regime took a variety of forms: they helped victims of persecution, wrote and duplicated pamphlets criticizing the regime (like the White Rose group to which Hans and Sophie Scholl belonged), and established links to other resistance groups in Berlin and Hamburg, as well as representatives of the American and Soviet diplomatic corps. Following their arrest, both were beheaded in Plötzensee prison.

72 Lietzenburger Strasse
72 Lietzenburger Strasse

Maria Terwiel’s father was a Catholic and Social Democrat.  Rosa, her mother, was Jewish. Like her father, Maria wanted to become a lawyer and began studying law in Freiburg before continuing in Munich. In 1935 she was forced to abandon her studies because, under the Nuremberg racial laws she was designated a ‘half-Jew’ and would therefore have no prospect of working as a lawyer. Until 1942 she worked as a secretary in a German-Swiss textile company in Berlin.

During her studies in Freiburg she had fallen in love with a dental student, Helmut Himpel.  The pair were engaged and lived together after moving to Berlin, where Himpel opened a practice. They were forbidden to marry because of their Jewish ancestry.

Maria Terwiel was a Catholic, while Helmut  was an evangelical Christian. They both joined the Rote Kapelle resistance group in 1941 after reading the sermons of the bishop of Münster Clemens August von Galen which preached against the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme under which those considered ‘life unworthy of life’ – children or adults with psychiatric, neurological, or physical disabilities – were murdered in order to remove those the Nazis regarded as a financial burden on German society, part of the policy of ‘racial hygiene’.

The couple helped distribute pamphlets containing extracts from the bishop’s sermons and calling for an end to the euthanasia programme. Soon they were helping Jews in hiding by providing them with identification and ration cards, writing and distributing illegal handbills and putting up anti-Nazi posters.

Maria Terwiel
Maria Terwiel

After her arrest by Gestapo officers at the apartment at 72 Lietzenburger Strasse on 17 September 1942, Maria Terwiel was sentenced to death for treason on 26 January 1943 by the Reich Military Tribunal. She was beheaded by guillotine at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin on 5 August 1943. She was just 33 years old.

Helmut Himpel
Helmut Himpel

Helmut Himpel was born on September 14, 1907 in Schönau im Schwarzwald, and studied dentistry in Freiburg and Munich. While a student he met Maria Terwiel. In 1937 the couple moved to Berlin where Himpel opened a dental practice. He had many prominent clients as patients, among others the actor Heinz Rühmann, but he also
secretly treated free Jewish patients for free, sometimes in their homes so that they were not required to walk the streets wearing the yellow star.

In 1941 Helmut and Maria came in contact with the resistance group organised by the Luftwaffe officer, Harro Schulze-Boysen, which would later be labelled ‘the Red Orchestra’ by the Gestapo. From 1935, Schulze-Boysen gathered around himself a circle of left-leaning anti-fascists, including artists, pacifists, and Communists, dedicated to publishing anti-fascist writings.

Both Helmut and Maria took part in group actions, particularly in the distribution of leaflets and pamphlets – such as Distress about Germany’s future runs throughout the land which denounced the ‘culture of lies’ which the Nazis had foisted upon the German people:

Minister Goebbels strives in vain to throw more sand in our eyes … But no-one can deny that our situation worsens from month to month. … No matter what lies the High Command puts out, the number of war victims is rising into the millions. … The struggle leads to new fronts and new mass graves.

The pamphlet urged the people of Germany to heed the warnings of the Catholic bishop of Munster and the Lutheran bishop of Wurttenberg that Hitler was going down to defeat. ‘Write to soldiers at the front’, urged the pamphlet’s authors; ‘Let them know what is going on at home. Tell them that Germans are no longer willing to submit to the yoke of the Nazi party bosses. … Let the SS know that the people abhor their murders and their betrayal from their deepest souls.’

Drafted by Harro Schulze-Boysen and two other group members, the pamphlet was reproduced by Maria on her typewriter, while Helmut ran off around 500 copies on a duplicator.  The pamphlet was mailed out to an extraordinary range of influential figures, including anti-Nazi religious leaders, Hitler’s half-brother Alois, and Johannes Popitz, former finance minister and a conservative anti-Nazi.  Even more strking was the inclusion on the circulation list of Roland Freisler, the bloodthirsty state secretary for the Ministry of Justice who had just returned from the Wannsee conference on the ‘final solution’. Most of the recipients declined to circulate the pamphlet as requested, and immediately sent them on to the Gestapo. (Anyone who has read Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin will recognise the scenario.)

In early 1942, the Red Orchestra intensified its pamphlet campaign, extended its support to victims of persecution and strengthened its contacts with forced labourers. The group became increasingly open in its activities, leading to controversy within the group about the risks involved.

On the night of 17 May 1942, hundreds of leaflets were posted on walls and buildings across Berlin protesting a Nazi propaganda exhibition, ‘The Soviet Paradise’. Two members, Liane Berkowitz and Otto Gollnow posted roughly 100 leaflets in the vicinity of the Kurfürstendamm and Uhlandstrasse while pretending to be lovers.

But, in the summer of 1942 the resistance network around Schulze-Boysen was discovered. The Gestapo labelled the group as the ‘Red Orchestra’ (Rote Kapelle) in its investigations and sought to present them as a Soviet espionage organization. This misrepresentation of their motivations and goals continued to distort German public opinion of the group, even after the war.

In late 1942, the Reich Military Court pronounced the first death sentences in connection with the Red Orchestra, including those imposed on Helmut Himpel and Maria Terwiel. In total, more than fifty of the group’s members were murdered. Helmut Himpel was beheaded at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin on 13 May 1943.

The military judge in the trial of the ‘Red Orchestra’ members was Manfred Roeder, regarded by Hitler and Göring as one of the hardest and most loyal military judges.  He shared responsibility for the dozens of death sentences handed down by the Reich court martial to Red Orchestra members. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, there were attempts by survivors, family and the US Army to investigate the prosecutions of Red Orchestra members and others, but Roeder was never convicted of any malfeasance or crime. Instead, Roeder was a visible and active member of the CDU, serving in a number of capacities, including deputy mayor of his town.

Karol Broniatowski's memorial at Grunewald station
Karol Broniatowski’s memorial at Grunewald station

Most of the residents of 42 Fasenstrasse would have been deported on transports that left the suburban railway station at Grunewald, on the edge of the lovely and extensive forest that lies on the western edge of Berlin. One day, after an hour’s walk through the forest, we emerging into the wealthy streets of opulent villas that surround the station. It was here, on platform 17, that Jews would be herded into freight cars to be deported east. Today the old platform from which the deportation trains left has been turned into one of the most important and moving memorials to the Holocaust.

On the way to Gleis 17 we passed the memorial commissioned by the state of Berlin and created by Polish artist Karol Broniatowski. It’s a huge concrete block from which human silhouettes have been hollowed out to represent the journey to the platform for deportation – and the lives that disappeared from the city.

Grunewald Gleis 17
The Gleis 17 memorial at Grunewald

In 1933 the Jewish population of Berlin was about 160,000. Berlin’s Jewish community was the largest in Germany, comprising more than 32 percent of all Jews in the country. By 1939 Joseph Goebbels was expressing his longing to rid Berlin of Jews and make the city ‘Judenfrei’. ‘These aren’t human beings, they’re animals … one must operate here, and radically’, he wrote.

Gleis 17 memorial: the first deportation
Gleis 17 memorial: the first deportation

The first deportation of Jews from Berlin took place on 18 October 1941, when 1251 Jews were transported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland. By January 1942, about 10,000 Jews had been deported from Berlin to ghettos in eastern Europe, mainly Lodz, Riga, Minsk, and Kovno. Elderly Jews from Berlin were deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and 1943. Beginning in 1942, Jews were deported from Berlin directly to the extermination centres, primarily to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In total, more than 60,000 Jews were deported from Berlin: almost all of them were murdered.

Grunewald Gleis 17
The Gleis 17 memorial at Grunewald

For many years, both the Bundesbahn in West Germany and the Reichsbahn in East Germany were unwilling to confront the role played by Deutsche Reichsbahn in the Nazi crimes against humanity. In 1985, when celebrating that 150th anniversary of the railway in Germany, the management boards of the railways in both West and East Germany still found it difficult to even mention this chapter of railway history.

But by the time the reunified railways were merged to form Deutsche Bahn attitudes had changed. As Deutsche Bahn admits on the company website:

No business company can whitewash its history or choose which events in its past it wishes to remember. To keep the memory of the victims of National Socialism alive, the management board decided to erect one central memorial at Grunewald station on behalf of Deutsche Bahn AG, commemorating the deportation transports handled by Deutsche Reichsbahn during the years of the Nazi regime.

A competition for the memorial was organised and the winning design came from the architect team of Hirsch, Lorch and Wandel.  Inaugurated in 1998, the memorial is composed of 186 cast steel objects arranged in chronological order and set in the ballast next to the platform edge. Each object states the date of a transport, the number of deportees, the point of departure in Berlin and the destination. The vegetation that has developed at Platform 17 over the years has been left to grow between the rails and now forms an integral part of the memorial as a symbol that no more trains will ever depart from this platform.

Grunewald Gleis 17
The Gleis 17 memorial at Grunewald

I was overwhelmed by this place. I walked the length of the two platforms that surround the single track, studying each steel plate that records every one of the transports that left here. I was particularly disturbed by the last plate, recording the final deportation of 18 Jews that took place on 27 March 1945; by that time US and British forces had crossed the Rhine, and the Red Army was advancing across Poland. A month later Berlin would be completely encircled.

Grunewald memorial the final deportation
Grunewald memorial: the final deportation

‘There Is a Last, Solitary Coach’ was written by David Vogel, a Russian-born Hebrew poet, novelist and diarist who fled to south-eastern France at the outbreak of World War 2. There, in 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Drancy transit camp from where he was deported. Four days later he was murdered in Auschwitz.

There is a last, solitary coach about to leave.
Let us get in and go,
For it won’t wait.

I have seen young girls going softly
With sad faces
That looked ashamed and sorry
Like purple sunsets.

And chubby, pink children
Who went simply
Because they were called.

And I’ve seen men
Who stepped proud and straight through the world’s streets,
Whose large eyes went ranging
Far and wide,
They too got in calmly
And left.

And we are the last.
Day is declining.
The last, solitary coach is about to leave.
Let us too get in quietly
And go,
For it won’t wait.

In November 2011, the Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec brought 320 birches from the area around the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau to Berlin, to ‘work against forgetting’. The trees are spread over the
whole city, including this small stand outside Grunewald station.

Birch trees from Auschwitz
Birch trees from Auschwitz

From Grunewald station we rode the S-bahn two stops to Wannsee where we hopped on a bus to Am Grossen, a lane bordered by elegant villas with lawns and gardens that stretch down to the shore of the lake. Here, at number 56, stands the villa where the plans for the ‘Final Solution’ were discussed – and methodically recorded.

Wannsee Conference house
The Wannsee Conference house

Wandering through the stately rooms of the villa, strolling in the garden through beds of beautiful flowers, or watching the yachts sailing past on the calm water of the lake, there could be no greater contrast between the idyllic setting and the terrible plans conceived there.

The rose garden of the Wansee Conference House
The rose garden of the Wansee Conference House

It is difficult to imagined the SS thugs strolling in the same garden, or – in the conference room itself that overlooks the rose garden – discussing how to murder men, women and children in the most efficient manner.

Wansee Conference House lawns
The Wansee Conference House lawns

At noon on 20 January 1942, a meeting of approximately 90 minutes took place in the dining room of the villa which served as a guesthouse for officers of the SD, the Nazi security service. Under the direction of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heidrich, arrangements for the organised deportation and murder of Jews in the occupied areas of Europe were agreed. Although the Nazi leadership were agreed on eliminating Jews not just from Germany but also occupied Europe, they were not exactly clear on what should be done with them. The purpose of the meeting was to sort out this vexatious problem.

The dining room where the conference took place
The dining room where the conference took place

The meeting was attended by representatives of the SS, the Nazi Party and various Reich ministries, and convened by Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD. The subject of the meeting was the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Heydrich’s aim was to involve key ministries and party departments in the preparations for the murder of the European Jews.

The minutes of the meeting
The protocol of the meeting, drawn up by Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann, Head of the section for ‘Jewish affairs’ within the Gestapo, summed up the results of the meeting in a protocol. According to this document, Heydrich told those present that the deportation of all European Jews to Eastern Europe had begun on the basis of ‘prior authorisation’ given by Hitler. He stressed that he alone had ‘overall control for organising the Final Solution of the Jewish Question’, irrespective of geographical boundaries. There was disagreement on whether to include so-called Mischlinge (persons with Christian and Jewish parents or grandparents) and Jewish partners in ‘mixed marriages’ in the deportations.

Wansee House elegance
Wansee Conference House elegance

In 1992, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the villa was opened as a permanent memorial site housing an exhibition – which extends through all the ground floor rooms of the house – documenting the history of anti-semitism in Germany, the role played by the various Nazi organizations in the Holocaust, the decisions made by the Wannsee Conference, the deportations and the process of extermination in the death camps.

On the Slow Travel Berlin blog, Robin Oomkes has catalogued the struggle to preserve the Wansee villa as a permanent memorial to the Holocaust. He observes that since 1992:

The nation has dealt with the horrors and wounds of its darker past in such a sensitive yet unflinching way that it has become a role model for other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflicts.

The deportation of Jews from Würzburg, 25th of April 1942
The deportation of Jews from Würzburg, 25 April 1942

See also

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, where her father was a physicist and philosopher, and her mother an Arabic translator. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. She is also an opera director, and still lives in Berlin. Erpenbeck’s grandparents both lived in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After 1945 they became important cultural figures in the socialist East Germany. They are figures which suggest that there is much that is drawn from her own family’s history in these two books.

End of Days cover

The central character in The End of Days is a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five alternate lives, each separated by an intermezzo, Erpenbeck imagines the different courses the woman’s life might have taken, and how the impact of those different lives might have had on others around her. It’s a bit like one of those old silent films in which the pratfallen clown rises up to live another day.

The scope is ambitious: from the provincial borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian empire to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. Published in Germany in 2012 and now available in a careful English translation by Susan Bernofsky, the novel takes its German title from the saying Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend, meaning: ‘It isn’t over until the end of all days.’

The protagonist seems to have died in the first sentence:

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.

The child being  buried is an eight-month-old Jewish girl in a small Galician town around the year 1900. The child’s mother stands by the grave and, as each handful of dirt is thrown in, mourns the death of the girl, wife, and old woman her daughter might have become:

She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.

After the child’s death, certain events unfold: the baby’s goy father emigrates to America; the mother learns that her own father was killed in a pogrom; the family is torn apart. But Erpenbeck is less interested in what happens than in what might have been: the possibilities foreclosed by, but seemingly coexisting with, the child’s death. The other night I watched an Horizon documentary about the concept of multiverses: Erpenbeck’s story has that sort of flavour. Each of the intermezzos which punctuate the narrative enable Erpenbeck to shift gear and imagine how things might turned out differently in one of these parallel universes.

It’s certainly a clever way for Erpenbeck to extend the lifetime of her protagonist from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to an old people’s home in 1990s Berlin. Her heroine meets death several times: as a fragile infant sickening in a freezing winter to a fall downstairs that kills an eminent Communist writer in 1960s East Berlin. Each time she dodges death, enabling the writer to refashion her history: each sidestepped fate opens the door to another kind of destiny.

Each intermezzo and subsequent ‘book’ introduces a new twist. What if, for example, the teenage protagonist is heartbroken by being rejected in love and induces a virtual stranger to kill her in a suicide pact? But what if that doesn’t happen and instead she becomes a writer and a Communist who settles in Moscow with her husband? What if doesn’t die in the Stalinist purges and labour camps but goes on to be a celebrated writer who wins the Goethe Prize?

Well, I’m always ready for a novel that embraces the sweep of Europe’s 20th century, and I don’t mind a good helping of modernist allusion. But, I have to say that I found this one uneven and ultimately unconvincing (the section set in the Soviet Union, in which Erpenbeck’s leaden prose aims to emulate the doublespeak of Stalinism is a particular slog).

Although there are many effective passages, overall I found Erpenbeck’s prose mannered with its deliberate distancing in which names are rarely used and identities muddied with characters often identified only in terms of their relation to others (‘daughter of’, ‘mother of’, ‘son of’, etc).

And then there’s the question of what it all meant – all these alternative lives? The cruelty of fate? The randomness with which a person’s life can intersect with history? This might be unfair, but at the end I felt it was like the great-grandmother in the story who sings a song about a man who makes a coat out of a piece of cloth, and when that is tattered makes a vest, and on and on, until he makes a button, ‘and a nothing at all out of the button, and in the end he makes this song out of nothing at all.’

At the end of the novel, after her heroine has endured death four times and lived through Europe’s 20th century turmoil in four cities, Erpenbeck finally grants her a name as she introduces us to the frail nonagenarian Frau Hoffmann in a Viennese nursing home. Her son Sasha, travels to Vienna where he enters an antiques store to buy his mother a present. Unwittingly, as he browses, he handles the very same edition of the Complete Works of Goethe that once belonged to his mother. He takes a fancy to them, but decides not to buy them.

You know, she says, I am afraid that everything will be lost – that the trace will be lost.

What trace? her son asks.

I don’t know any more: from where or to where?

The scene in the nursing home that follows is masterful, as the son sits by  his dying mother contemplating the journey into – where? what? – upon she is about to embark:

Never has he known as little as he does now. The only thing he knows is that his not-knowing is as deep as a river on whose distant shore there must be a very different world than the one he lives in.

This moment seems to echo the epigraph from WG Sebald’s Austerlitz with which Erpenbeck prefaced the novel, which itself echoed Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film concerned with the workings of memory, Last Year at Marienbad:

We left here for Marienbad only last summer.
And now – where will be going now?

What follows, in the closing passage of The End of Days, is the best piece of writing in the whole book:

In this land to which his mother is crossing over, no longer able to understand anything she once understood, she will no longer need any words, this much he understands. For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim-that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now-and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowed within the earth: the springs, the roots, and the dead; the cry of the cuckoo of to one side would be just as real as the stones crunching beneath the sole of his shoe, as the coolness of the evening and the light falling through the leaves to the ground before him, as his hand that he is using to stroke his mother’s back, feeling her bones beneath her thin, old skin, bones that will soon be laid bare-briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it would feel like if the audible and the inaudible, things distant and near, the inner and outer, the dead and the living were simultaneously there, nothing would be above anything else, and this moment when everything was simultaneously there would last forever. But because he is a human being – a middle-aged man, with a wife, two children, a profession-because he still has some time ahead of him, time during which he can look up something he doesn’t know in an encyclopedia or ask one of his colleagues, this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it arrived. He’ll be prevented from seeing this other world with the eyes of his mother for a good earthly time, by the absence of the most crucial thing: the going away.

In a Guardian profile of Jenny Erpenbeck, Philip Oltermann made this interesting observation about this scene, noting an aspect of the book that had completely passed me by:

While The End of Days starts out as a portrait of a personality, it is, by the end, also a book about something much bigger: the disappearance of the faiths that help us to make sense of death. When the woman dies as a baby, her Jewish parents cover the mirrors, open the windows and sit with their silent grief for seven days. Even in socialist East Germany there are still rituals: the guards dip their flags in tribute at her state funeral, there is an elevated cushion presenting her medals. But when she dies for the final time, her son can only react to her death with despair: “As his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.”

Erpenbeck Visitation cover

Earlier, in the Spring, I had read Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation, published in English in 2011. The central character of that book was a house, one which had witnessed, in microcosm, the complicated history of East Germany in the previous hundred years – and even beyond, through geological time.

From prehistoric times through to the Third Reich and the collapse of the GDR, a Brandenburg country estate and the mansion built on it witnesses the growth and death of systems, the rise and fall of dynasties. The elliptical narrative traces the lives those who live in the house which is throughout a sort of silent observer of the waves of human activity in the 20th century that lap at its gates.

In an interview with Quarterly Conversation, Jenny Erpenbeck explained that the house actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg, a summerhouse that belonged to her grandparents, where she spent holidays for eight weeks every year:

It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.

The book features a mosaic of characters (as in The End of Days, few are given names) who all have connections to the property. Their stories are told in a dreamy, ethereal style, interwoven with glimpses of the seasonal labours of estate gardener:

After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time.

Although her prose is generally distancing, Erpenbeck embeds vivid descriptions of terrible events. In the chapter entitled ‘The Cloth Manufacturer’, she takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the neighbours of the architect who owns the estate and he is a complicit bystander. The fate of the grandparents in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence:

Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before.

Later, the architect is also forced to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war East German authorities. Closing up the house,

He buries his pewter pitchers among the roots of the big oak tree, the Meissen under a bushy fir, and the silver in the rose-bed right next to the house. Rest in peace. He knows that two hours from now he’ll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed with dirt.

This is the sort of book I expected that I would really appreciate. But, in all honesty, it left me unmoved: an exercise in style, it seemed to me, rather than a real engagement with its characters or the events that affect them.

Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word

Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word

When the death of Gunter Grass was announced recently, among the obituaries and appreciations I read were words of praise for his infamous memoir, Peeling the Onion, first published in Germany in 2006.  I remember reading a few reviews when the English translation came out a year later, and being put off. Probably, I read Michael Hoffman’s ill-tempered review in the Guardian which dismissed it as ‘a long and miserably bad book’

Not unnaturally, the reviews focussed on Grass’s revelation, undeniably decades too late, that when in the autumn of 1944, at the age of sixteen, he was drafted into the armed forces, he had been assigned to a unit of the Waffen-SS.  Worse, he had ‘carefully incubated his particular shame for 60 years, all the while encouraging others to talk about theirs’ (Hoffman again).

Now, though, I decided to give Peeling the Onion another chance. I’m very glad I did. It is an extraordinary and riveting memoir, in which Grass tells many more stories than the one about the sixteen year-old kid and the Waffen SS. Here are vividly-recounted memories of a bookish lad, his mind animated by German heroes and legends, caught up in the confusion and terror of the Red Army onslaught, dreaming of art as the Third Reich collapses around him. Later, there are flickering memories of hunger in POW camps, and life amidst the ruins of Germany’s bombed-out cities. We catch glimpses of a youth surviving the hard post-war years by working the black market and doing hard graft hard down a potash mine and as a cemetery stonemason, before slowly establishing himself as an art student, jazz musician, sculptor, poet, and finally novelist.

Grass returns constantly to the three hungers he experienced in those years – for food, sex, and art. They were the appetites that drove him, and his narrative is stuffed with hearty, lyrical  and lubricious passages that celebrate Grass’s love of preparing, eating and sharing food – the more meat, globules of fat, and peasant origins there are, so much the better – and for more flesh in the form of sex, plenty of it, with innumerable women.

Grass is nothing if not critical of his younger self (of whom he often speaks in the third person); he portrays himself as an unthinking person, unconcerned with politics, essentially selfish, self-centred, egotistical, and unheeding of the love and sacrifice of others, particularly his parents and his sister.

At the same time, Peeling the Onion is a meditation on memory and its fragmentary and unreliable nature.

Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.

Indeed, there are times when the reader can never be sure that Grass is a reliable narrator.  He admits that:

Something flagrantly significant could be missing.

And sometimes he mixes up his younger self with his greatest creation:

It was Oskar who compelled me to haunt the misty corners of my early years.  He gave me leave to put everything which laid claim to truth between question marks. Oskar laughs at my porous memory. For him, as is plain for all to read, the onion performs a different function, has a different meaning.

Like memory, Grass suggests, onions have many layers, they can both feed us and make us weep.  Grass returns to the onion metaphor time after time, and the book is illustrated by his own lithographs of an onion being progressively peeled, layer by layer.

Guter Grass, Onion

But none of these things are the reason why most people read the book – and eviscerated Grass for it – in 2006/7. What angered and shocked people then was his late revelation that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. He was attacked by critics who said that Grass would never have won the Nobel Prize for Literature had this been known, and there were calls on him to give it back. He was denounced by Joachim Fest, the leading German historian of Nazism.

Above all, Grass was accused of hypocrisy. Here was a man who had repeatedly attacked politicians of the Federal Republic such as Kurt Kiesinger, the former Nazi who in the post-war years rose in the Christian Democratic Union to became West German Chancellor in 1966. Along with Heinrich Boll, Grass had written an open letter urging Kiesinger not to accept the chancellorship. As Timothy Garton-Ash expressed it in his 2007 essay in the New York Review of Books:

For more than forty years, ever since he became a famous writer, Günter Grass has been one of the literary world’s most inveterate stone-throwers. […] He has set himself up as a political and moral authority, and delivered harsh judgements. His language has often been intemperate.

It was this that provoked the outrage over the book’s core revelation: ‘not at the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS as a teenager but at the way he has dealt with that fact since’, as Timothy Garton-Ash succinctly put it.

No, his war record is not the cause for outrage. Thousands of young Germans shared the same fate. Many died as a result. The offence is that he should for so many years have made it his stock-in-trade to denounce post-war West Germans’ failure to face up to the Nazi past, while himself so spectacularly failing to come clean about the full extent of his own Nazi past.

Worse still, in retrospect, was his denunciation of the joint visit by Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl to a cemetery in Bitburg in 1985 where forty-nine Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. Most were less that twenty-five years old. Günter Grass could have been one of them. As Garton-Ash says:

To denounce the Bitburg visit without acknowledging that he himself had served in the Waffen-SS was an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, doublethink, and recklessness.

Why Grass remained silent for so long when few would have assigned any modicum of guilt to his involvement we will never know. In Peeling the Onion, he offers this explanation:

For decades, I refused to acknowledge to myself the word and the double letters. What I accepted with the stupid pride of my youth, I wanted to cover up after the war, out of a growing sense of shame. But the burden remained and no one could lighten it. True, during my training as a tank gunner…nothing was to be heard of those war crimes that later came to light, but that claim of ignorance could not obscure the insight that I had been part of a system which had planned, organized and executed the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could be absolved of active complicity, there remained a residue, until today, of what is all too commonly called shared responsibility. I will certainly have to live with it for the rest of my life.

And why, finally, did he decide to come clean? ‘I want to have the last word’, he writes.

German novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Guenter Grass smokes his pipe during a meeting in Gdansk

Grass does not begin with his time in the Waffen-SS, but several years earlier, evoking his childhood in Danzig, then a a semi-autonomous city-state within Poland mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans. His mother’s cousin, Uncle Franz, was a postman who took part in the defence of the Danzig Polish Post Office after the German invasion in 1939.  He had been summarily executed by the Germans, a fact ‘no longer mentioned’ in the family.  His name was ‘passed over in silence, as if he had never existed, as if everything connected with him and his family were unspeakable’. This is only one instance of events and disappearances which were, Grass writes, unquestioned by him, a boy who was now a teenager:

Nor did I, even though my childhood had ended with the onset of war, ask any insistent questions. Or was it because I was no longer a child that I dared not ask?


Then there is the school-friend who let slip that his father listened to British radio. He suddenly disappears from  school.


Grass writes how, decades later, he learned that the boy’s father had been a Social Democrat MP, had opposed the Nazis, and then, in 1940, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sutthof concentration camp (two villages away from the country house used by Gunter’s school for excursions – think Liverpool and Colomendy).  Soon after, his school-friend’s mother committed suicide, while his father was eventually released to serve in penal battalion, clearing mines on the Russian front.  In March 1945, he marched in with the victors, found what remained of his family, settled in Soviet zone, founded a local Social Democratic association which, soon after, was forcibly amalgamated into the Communist Party. Harassed and threatened with arrest, his son – Gunter’s school-friend – meanwhile made a career serving the regime until the Wall came down, at which point he was ‘evaluated’ and ‘reduced to a cipher’.

Such had been the fate of many who were accused of falsifying their biographies and who knew what in their actual biographies needed to be false.

Gunter Grass recalls incidents from his youth: ‘atrocious deeds were being done. Violence in broad daylight’. Soon after his eleventh birthday, on the morning after Kristallnacht, synagogues in Danzig were aflame, Jewish merchants’ windows were shattered. The young boy was a curious spectator:

I watched as the small Langfhur synagogue not far from my school was plundered, pillaged and set on fire by a horde of SA men.

Aged ten, Grass had voluntarily joined the Jungvolk, an organisation that fed into the Hitler Youth, attracted by the promise of a uniform, overnight hikes, camp-fires on the beach, and camaraderie:

No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour.

Gunter’s parents ran a grocery store and allowed their customers credit. The young boy proved particularly adept as a debt collector, knocking on doors on Friday evenings after customers had been paid. The child was so good at collecting debts, the man in his sixties muses, but proved to be such a failure when it came to admitting guilt:

One word evokes the other: Schulden, Schuld, debts, guilt. Two words so close and so deeply rooted in the soil of the German language. But while debts can be mitigated by instalment payments, […] guilt – whether proven, presumed, or concealed – remains, ticking on and on. […] There it is, as the onion sheds skin after skin, permanently inscribed on the youngest skins. […] The brief inscription meant for me reads: I kept silent.

There was the Latin teacher at his school who suddenly was no longer there. Grass admits, ‘I asked no questions even though the moment he was gone the word ‘Stutthof‘ was on everyone’s lips by way of warning.’


When he was around sixteen he served as a Luftwaffe auxiliary, something that was ‘not voluntary, though we experienced it as a liberation from our school routine’.  On the parade ground, all the teenage boys were imbued with a sense of national pride, keen to toe the line – but with one exception:

The exception was a lanky boy who was so blond and blue-eyed and whose profile revealed a skull so elongated that the likes of him could be found only in propaganda promoting the Nordic race. Chin, mouth, nose, forehead – each was the epitome of ‘racial purity’ at a stroke. He was a Siegfried, a Baldur, and like Baldur, the Teutonic god of light, he shone brighter than the day. He was untainted: no trace of a wart on neck or temple. He neither lisped nor stuttered when ordered to report. No one could beat him in long-distance running, no one could match his daring when leaping over musty ditches or his agility when clambering over a wall. He could do fifty knee bends without getting tired. He was born to break records. There was nothing, no flaw, to sully the picture. But what made him an exception was that he – whose name, first and last, eludes my
memory – was an insubordinate.

He refused to take part in rifle drill; worse still, he refused to take butt or barrel in hand; and, worst of all, when our  dead-earnest drill instructor pressed the carbine on him, he would drop it. Which made him or his fingers criminal.

The boy was punished by being given the revolting task of emptying the latrine, filling a bucket to the brim from the pit the boys shat into and carting it off, only to refuse to wield the weapon once again.

At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. We actually liked the fellow, this oddball, this knuckle-head: ‘Take it! Just hold it!’

His response ran to a scant few words, which soon made the rounds in the form of a whispered quote.  But when they took to punishing us on his account and tormented us in the hot sun until we collapsed, we all began to hate him.

The boys beat him and piss on his bed, but ‘he swallowed his humiliation and delivered his by then famous phrase at the next opportunity.’

I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, which had now reached even those in command, but I remember the questions his superiors, all the way up to the commanding officer, asked him and we plagued him with: ‘Why are you doing this, Labour Serviceman?’ ‘What makes you do it, you idiot?’

His unvarying reply became a catchword that has never left me: ‘We don’t do that.’

He stuck to the plural. In a voice neither loud nor soft, yet sonorous, a voice that carried well, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. It was as though he had if not an army then at least a goodly battalion of imaginary insubordinates lined up behind him ready to repeat the phrase after him. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat.

When asked what he meant, he repeated the indefinite ‘that’ and refused to call the object he would not take in his hands by its name.

His behaviour transformed us. From day to day what had seemed solid crumbled. Our hatred was mixed first with amazement, then with admiration expressed in questions like ‘How long can that idiot keep it up?’ ‘What makes him so hard-nosed?’

In the end this morning ritual was cut off by his arrest. Someone would say, ‘He must be a Jehovah’s Witness.’ But the blond, blue-eyed boy with the racially pure profile had never referred to the Bible or Jehovah or any other almighty; he had said simply, ‘Wedontdothat.’

One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone – transferred, it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as proven unfit for service; no, we whispered, ‘He has long been ripe for the concentration camp.’

The months pass. The news is of the Hitler assassination attempt, the beginnings of collapse on the Russian, British and American forces landing on the Atlantic coast. Waiting to be called up, Gunter reads All Quiet on the Western Front, found in an uncle’s bookcase. Grass assumes his uncle had no idea that Remarque’s novel was banned and burned by the Nazis. Did reading the novel have any effect on him as a teenager?

To this day the delayed effect is with me – the way one pair of boots keeps changing owners who one after the other give up the ghost.

But Grass is also reminded of ‘how little I understood as a youth and how limited an effect literature may have.  A sobering thought.’

Then, in September 1944 at the age of 17, in the last months of the war, Grass – who had been trying to get into the navy as a U-boat crewman – was drafted into a new Waffen SS division. He did not choose the SS, but neither did he try to avoid it; for him, the Waffen SS was no more than a glamorous fighting force with exciting weapons. He was assigned to the Frundsberg Division, a thrown-together formation largely manned by half-trained boys and Luftwaffe ground crews that fell apart as the Red Army burst across the Oder in its final offensive.

 Gunter Grass's  American prisoner of war document records him has as a member of the Waffen SS

Gunter Grass’s  American prisoner of war document records him has as a member of the Waffen SS

Probing the layers of the onion, Grass asks himself sixty years later, what his younger self felt when assigned to Waffen SS:

The question is: Was I frightened by what was obvious then in the recruitment office as I am terrified now by the double S, even as I write this more than sixty years later?

The onion skin reveals little:

There is nothing carved in the onion skin that can be read as a sign of shock, let alone horror.  I more likely viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up.

As for Von Frunsberg, after whom the SS division was named, he had been leader of the Swabian League in the Peasant Wars of the 16th century, someone, Grass admits, who to his younger self ‘stood for freedom, liberation’.


He confesses that, yes, as a seventeen-year-old he was a member of the SS. That, yes, along with most Germans, he happily supported Hitler. That, though he knew the Jews were being deported from Danzig, he never wondered where they were going. His greatest regret as he looks back at a complacent young man growing up in Nazi Germany is that he never asked any questions about anything. And then:

For decades I refused to admit to the word, and to the double letters. What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame.

In his defence he argues that during training, there was never any mention of the war crimes that later came to light:

But the ignorance I claim could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called to this day has not been lifted, something all too fluently called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.

Gunter Grass as a soldier
Gunter Grass: his own portrayal of himself as a soldier

What follows after these admissions is a brilliant evocation of scenes that the teenage Grass witnessed when his unit was taken to the collapsing front in Lower Silesia, passing through a burning Dresden:

Soldiers young and old, in Wermacht uniforms.  Hanging from trees still bare along the road, from linden trees in the marketplaces.  With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. […]

Off to the side I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong.  One has a cow hitched to his plough,  Crows following the plough.

Then I see more refugees, filling the streets in long processions: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; i see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles.  An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs hoping to survive the war.

His first encounter with the enemy comes with a ‘Stalin Organ’ rocket attack that leaves bodies strewn everywhere. Soon he is stranded behind enemy lines, in woods with Russians close by. Twigs crack underfoot – someone is nearby; a figure approaches and, terrified, the young Grass sings a German melody which is answered in kind.  Grass the memoirist can now only identify the man who appeared, the man who became his guardian angel, who led him out of the woods, over the fields and across the Russian front line, as ‘the lance corporal’.  He had fought with the Polish campaign, in France and Greece, and as far afield as the Crimea.

The lance corporal is his saviour, but then, in a Soviet tank attack, the lance corporal’s legs are ripped to bits. The last sight young Gunter has of him is of him being wheeled past from a battlefield operating room, his eyes wide open, amazed and unbelieving – a legless torso.

Soon the Fuhrer is no more and Grass, having been transferred to a military hospital in Marienbad finds himself, a seventeen-year-old priapic youth, under the care of Finnish nurses. Hungry for sex, he is even more hungry for nourishment.

Finally freed from the American POW camp at Bad Aibling, a displaced person in the British Occupied Zone, Grass found his first officially-registered residence as a free man in Cologne, ‘a pile of debris with an occasional miraculously-surviving street sign stuck to what was left of a façade, or hung on a pole sticking out of the rubble, which was also sprouting lush patches of dandelions about to blossom.’ He scavenges ‘like a stray dog for food, a place to sleep, and – driven by that other hunger – skin on skin contact’.

An encounter in the station waiting-room leads him to Hanover and his first job of work after the war is over: an encounter with ‘the eternal lance-corporal in his dyed Wermacht uniform’, his wooden leg stretched out in front of him, smoking a pipe filled with ‘an indefinable substance only distantly related to tobacco’.

He looked as if he had survived not only the most recent war but also the Thirty Years’ War and Seven Years’ War: he was timeless.

The veteran suggests Hanover where there is work underground in the potash mines. There, Gunter finds work as a coupler boy, hooking up dumper wagons laden with potash to form underground trains.  It is there in the mine that, for the first time by his own account, he entered the world of politics, albeit still only as a teenage observer.  During breaks in the intensive work routine caused by regular power cuts, the older men would sit and argue politics – the Communists, the Nazi nostalgists, and the Social-Democrats:

Even though I had trouble making sense of the issues that infuriated them so, I realized, coupler boy and idiot on the fringe, that when push came to shove the Communists inevitably teamed up with the Nazis to shout down the Social Democrat remainder.

One Sunday morning Gunter’s locomotive driver took him into Hanover to hear the head of the Social Democratic Party, Kurt Schumacher, speak to an open-air audience of then thousand (mull over that number for a minute).

No he didn’t speak, he screamed, the way all politicians … screamed. And yet the future Social Democrat and unflinching supporter of ontheonehandandontheother took to heart some of the words that the frail figure with the empty, fluttering sleeve thundered down to his ten thousand adherents in the blazing sun.

Later, of course, Grass would be a supporter and speech-writer for Willy Brandt and his ‘policy of small steps’, and in The Diary of a Snail would prescribe ‘crawling shoes for the ills of progress. The snail’s track, not the fast track.  A long road paved with cobblestones of doubt.’

Aside from politics there is the memory of a remarkable wedding celebration when one of his potash mine barrack mates, a Polack German from Upper Silesia, gets married to a wartime widow from the nearby village.  After a boisterous celebration in the war widow’s one room, during which there’s an inordinate amount of drinking, the groom, the witnesses and the bride – all four of them – end the evening by tumbling into the marriage bed:

What transpired then is among so much flesh no onion skin wished or wishes to recall.  The bride, perhaps, is the only one who knew, felt, or sensed what did or did not happen during the rest of the night and with whom definitely, with whom probably or definitely not, and with whom many times over.

By the time we awoke the next morning, no, it was closer to noon, the blonde newlywed had laid the table for breakfast.  The room smelled of fried eggs and crisp bacon.  She was smiling her blonde smile, beaming it at her husband and the two coupler boys, all three of whom were staring past one another into space, hardly speaking, and when one did, it was about the next, the late shift.

Peeling away the onion layers reveals to Grass moments of happiness, though the late 1940s and early 1950s are remembered also as years of having little and struggling to establish a place for himself in the world. And woven through his memoir are painful memories his parents and his sister. Having finally discovered that his parents and his sister survived the war, he visits them, now refugees in the western sector:

Mother had refused to see her son be packed off to Berlin and, as she believed, to his death. Now Fate had brought us back together. We embraced, compulsively, over and over. Wordlessly, or with meaningless phrases. Too much, more than could be put into words, had happened in the course of a time that had no beginning and could have no end. Some things came up later, others were too horrible for words. The repeated violence done to my mother had muted her. She was old now and ailing. Little of her liveliness and wicked tongue remained. And was that shell of a man my father? He who set such great store by dignity and self-possession.
Only my sister seemed unharmed by what had happened. She seemed almost too mature, looking up at me, her ‘big brother’, with bright, inquisitive eyes.

It was not until then that I began to see what had not been sufficiently clear during the last years of the war, in the hospital, in the POW camps, and in my desultory, ambulatory freedom, when my only concern had been myself and my dual hunger. Everything was different, everything altered by loss. No one was unscathed. Not only houses had been reduced to ruins. In hindsight the crimes coming to light with peace, the flip side of war, were making victims out of perpetrators.

The people standing before me had been expelled from their homeland as individuals, but among millions they were of mere statistical value. I embraced survivors who, as the saying went,  had got off with a scare. They went on with their existence somehow, but . . .

We knew nothing about one another. ‘Our boy is back!’ my father cried out to the people getting off the bus or getting on the bus to Bergheim. But I  was no longer the boy he had seen off at Danzig Central Station, when all the churches of a city built for all eternity tolled their bells in farewell.


Not once during the few years she had left did my mother ever so much as drop a hint or utter a word that might indicate what had gone on in the empty shop, in the basement, or in the apartment, nothing that might indicate where and how often she had been raped by Russian soldiers.  It was not until after she died that I learned – and then only indirectly from my sister – that to protect her daughter she had offered herself to them.  There were no words.


Nor could I bear to come out with things long lurking within me: the questions I had failed to ask . . . my petrified faith . . . the Hitler Youth campfires . . . my desire to die a hero’s death like Lieutenant-Commander Prien of the submarines – and as a volunteer . . . the Labour Serviceman we called Wedontdothat . . . how Fate had saved the Fiihrer . . . the Waffen SS oath of allegiance in the jangling cold: ‘If Others Prove Untrue, Yet We Shall Steadfast Be’ … And the Stalin organ and all the deaths it caused, mostly among the young and unprepared like me . . . the song I sang out of terror in the woods until an answer came . . . the lance corporal who saved me but lost both legs to a Russian grenade while I was spared . . . my belief in the final victory to the bitter end . . . the lightly wounded soldier’s feverish dreams of a girl with black plaits . . . the gnawing hunger . . . a game of dice … the disbelief at the pictures of Bergen-Belsen, at the piles of corpses – look at them, go ahead look at them, don’t turn away, just because – to put it mildly – it is beyond description …

No, I didn’t look back.

There’s something else here in these passages which relates, beyond Grass’s own silence about his youthful acceptance of the Nazi regime and his membership of the Waffen SS, to the wider silence in Germany that, for decades, surrounded the experience of Germans as victims. I remember it was touched on by Neil MacGregor in an episode of his radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, when he spoke of how the huge numbers of victims killed in the bombing of German cities, the fate of the millions of Germans (like Grass’s parents) expelled from Eastern Europe, and the sufferings experienced by German women during the Red Army advance in 1945 were, until recently, matters preferred to be forgotten, uncommemorated.  MacGregor spoke of the awkward question:

When a state has done so much wrong, how are we to respond to the suffering its citizens endure as a result?

MacGregor quoted the words of Andreas Kossert, a historian of the post-war expulsions:

Now, seventy years after the end of the war, almost every family in Germany is affected by it.  But it is only gradually becoming a topic of collective memory in Germany, because until very recently the issue was associated with a right-wing, revisionist position, or that was the general perception.  In many families there was total silence and not a word about the loss, the mourning of parents or grandparents.  But all of a sudden it’s now entering the centre of society.

Peeling the Onion cover

Now the young man seeks to assuage the third hunger – the hunger for art:

The need to make an image for myself of everything standing still or in motion and thus of every object that throws a shadow and even of the invisible … the desire to conquer all with images was insatiable.

In Dusseldorf he becomes an art student, following an apprenticeship as a stonemason in the cemetery workshop of a master stonecutter. At this time he lives in a spartan dormitory in a local establishment run by Franciscan monks. Weekends, though, are spent in the dance joints of Dusseldorf Old Town – it was ‘a dance-crazy time’:

We, the defeated, couldn’t get enough of the twelve-bar liberation offered by our transatlantic victors. ‘Don’t Fence Me In …’

We needed to celebrate our survival and forget the chance scenes staged by war.  What was shameful or horrific we left to lurk below the surface.  The past, and the hills rising above its mass graves, were levelled on Saturdays and Sundays to the dance floor.

While a student of sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy, Günter joins a jazz trio, playing washboard in the Csikos, a Hungarian gypsy restaurant in the heart of Düsseldorf’s Old Town (re-imagined by Grass in the third part of The Tin Drum  as the Onion Cellar where, for a fee, guests could overcome postwar society’s ‘inability to mourn’ with the aid of onions, knives and chopping boards, and cry your eyes out.

Which leads me to conclude that of all the products of the soil the onion is the best suited to literature.  Whether it unwraps the memory skin by skin or moistens dried-up tear ducts and causes tears to flow, it is a valid metaphor, and as far as the Onion Cellar was concerned, it was good for business.

Are we to believe that one night they had a famous late-night visitor who, ‘shiny brass trumpet raised to his lips’ joins them in a jam session: Satchmo?

In the summer, he hitch-hikes south to Tuscany and Rome, the Uffizi, Titian and Botticelli. He sleeps in youth hostels and monasteries, under olive trees and in vineyards; meets girls from Sweden, Canada and Scotland; eats cheap pasta and bread soup with globules of fat floating in it; drinks wine from jugs proffered by nuns. Every day is a gift.

On the way home he makes a detour to visit an actress friend in her family home in Switzerland.  There, with the family gathered around the table, there occurs a moment of great future significance:

The son of my friend’s sister entered the smoke-filled room with a toy drum hanging from his neck and struck the round sheet of tin with wooden sticks.  Twice to the right, once to the left.  Disregarding the grown-ups, he crossed the room and repeatedly circled the table, drumming his drum.  He was not to be deterred by bribes of chocolate or silly distractions and seemed to be looking through everyone and everything.  Then all at once he turned on his heel and retraced his steps out of the room.

It was a scene that left its mark, a picture that stayed with me.  But it would be a long time before the bolt slid open, the flood of images was released and with the images, words I had been saving since childhood.

David Bennent as the boy Oskar in the 1979 film adaptation of The Tin Drum
David Bennent as the boy Oskar in the 1979 film adaptation of The Tin Drum

By 1953, Grass is living Berlin, a student at the School of Fine Arts, meeting his first wife Anna, and standing at the edge of Potsdamer Platz in the middle of June watching workers in East Berlin hurl rocks at Soviet tanks. (Twelve years later he would write a play, The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising, in which a caricatured Bertolt Brecht rehearses an adaptation of Coriolanus during those June days when throwing stones at tanks could succeed only in the imagination.)

Grass writes movingly of his sister, who quickly discovers that life as a novitiate nun in a convent near Aachen is not what she thought it would be – ‘punishments for the slightest infraction of the rules, and everything was a sin’. He writes, too, of his mother, dying of cancer. He manages to rescue his sister, but his mother is beyond help.  She dies in hospital in Cologne, with Gunter promising that when she is better they will both go to the beautiful south where the lemons bloom:

She, out of whom I crawled screaming one Sunday – ‘Sunday’s child, that’s what you are,’ she liked to tell me; she, whose lap I still sat in at the age of fourteen, a mamas boy who clung to his complex; she, for whom I promised, evoked, and painted riches, fame, and the south, her Promised Land; she, who taught me to collect her customers’ debts in small increments – ‘Knock on a Friday, when there’s still something left of their pay’; […] she, who refused to come to the  station when I, silly boy, volunteered for the army – ‘They’re sending you to your death’; she, who said not a word when I asked her in the train from Cologne to Hamburg what had happened to her when the Russians arrived with such force – ‘Bad things should be forgotten’; she […] whose fingers played languorous piano pieces and who put books she didn’t read on the shelf for me; […] she, who believed in me, her Sunday’s child, and so always opened the Academy’s end~of-year report to the same page; she, who gave me, her darling boy, everything and received little; she, who is my vale of joy and my vale of tears and who, when I wrote before and write now, looks over my shoulder even after death and says ‘Cross that out; it’s ugly’, but I rarely listened to her and when I did it was too late; she, who was born in pain and died in pain, set me free to write and write; she, whom I would so like to kiss awake on paper still-white, so she could travel with me, only me, and see beauty, only beauty, and finally say, ‘That I should live to see such beauty …’; she, my mother, died on January 24, 1954.

Though I did not weep until later. Much later.

From his childhood days, we learn, Grass the writer was first and foremost a poet, scribbling down poems even in the days of war, and continuing to write verse after the war is over. We learn that he has always typed on an Olivetti typewriter, standing at a lectern-style desk.  It is as a poet that is qualities as a writer are first recognised, and it is to the members of Group 47, a Berlin poets’ circle, that to great acclaim he first reads chapters of The Tin Drum.

The memoir closes with Grass’s first marriage, and with him writing and completing The Tin Drum:

The time has come to close the drawers, turn the pictures to the wall, erase the tapes, and bury the snapshots, in which one after the other I look older and older. The junk room full of archived manuscripts and accumulated prizes must be sealed. Everything left over after word making, the unused grist, the dust-laden glory, the obsolescent disputes must be removed from view, so as to focus, with memory now unburdened, on the young man who around the year 1955, wearing a beret, then a cap, is trying to form a first sentence out of as few words as possible.

Overcome any distaste you may feel about its controversial revelation, and what you will discover here is a beautiful book: poetic, heartfelt and possibly unreliable in parts (as the memory can be), but offering a vivid account of the circumstances that turned Gunter Grass from an obedient SS soldier into one of the great German of the last half-century. He achieves this by doing what he has always done, beginning with The Tin Drum: pulling back the covers to reveal what lies hidden in the dark of forgetfulness (whether willed or not). He does it in a voice that is alternately uproarious, grieving, salacious, sacrilegious, haunted, and finally, unforgettable.

And from then on I lived from page to page and between book and book, my inner world still rich in characters.  But to tell all of that, I have neither the onions, nor the desire.

Onion last

Grass decorates the each chapter with a drawing of an onion being progressively peeled. In the last drawing, the onion has been fully stripped down, and is just a pile of scattered layers, revealing an emptiness at its heart. Is Grass telling us something?

See also

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Two very different representations of the Holocaust seen in the last 48 hours are the subject of this post. The first is the stage adaptation by Children’s Touring Partnership of  Irish novelist John Boyne’s ‘fable’ for younger readers, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, set in Auschwitzthe second a documentary film, Night Will Fall, about the army photographers who filmed the horrific scenes revealed when British forces entered the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

Over one million children under the age of sixteen died in the Holocaust. At death camps like Auschwitz children under 14 were usually murdered in the gas chambers within an hour of arrival.

Those arriving at Auschwitz would join the notorious queue for the ‘separation platform’: older women and mothers with young children directed to the left, those aged over 14 and deemed ‘fit’ for work to the right. To survive, it was essential to end up on the right. Prisoners who knew the fate that lay ahead on the left whispered warnings: ‘Don’t say you are too young, don’t say you are ill – say you are able to work. Don’t say you belong together, that you are mother and child.’

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
– Elie Wiesel, Night

Auschwitz: the Selection

Those Jews selected for work were sent to a separate building for registration. Prisoners would be registered, before undressing, placing their clothes on a hook, together with their shoes. They would then be tattooed with a registration number, shaved of all body hair, disinfected and forced through showers that were either extremely cold or painfully hot. Once showered, prisoners were given the infamous striped pyjamas, hat and a pair of wooden clogs. They were marched to the blocks to begin their life within the camp.

Lucie Adelsberger, a paediatrician and Auschwitz survivor, described the life of the children who survived the selection in her memoir, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story:

Like the adults, the kids were only a mere bag of bones, without muscles or fat, and the thin skin like parchment scrubbed through and through beyond the hard bones of the skeleton and ignited itself to ulcerated wounds. Abscesses covered the underfed body from the top to the bottom and thus deprived it from the last rest of energy.

According to Adelsberger, ‘the problem for us in Auschwitz was not whether selection, but when and how … no Jewish prisoner reckoned on ever leaving Auschwitz alive’. Many of the children who had been selected to live were subject to the experiments of the notorious Josef Mengele, who would inflict incredible suffering on Jewish children, Gypsy children and many others. His ‘patients’ were put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death, and exposed to various other traumas.

Survivors of Mengele's experiments
Survivors of Mengele’s experiments on children at Auschwitz

The Holocaust is now regarded as a defining historical event – one whose meaning, could we but fathom it, might provide offers a key to understanding history and what humanity is capable of. At the same time, it is a subject deeply resistant to the imagination. For Elie Wiesel, a novel about Auschwitz was either not a novel or not about Auschwitz.

Theodor Adorno’s 1949 statement -‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ – is often advanced in support of the argument that it is impossible to represent the Holocaust (though he did later write that ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream’). Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi was firm in his belief in the necessity to tell the story of those consumed in the Holocaust, because, for the Nazis ‘it did not matter that they might die along the way, what really mattered was that they should not tell their story’.

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection … so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us.  The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as an alarm-signal.
Primo Levi, Preface, If This Is A Man

Today, it is generally accepted that representing the Holocaust by means of survivor testimonies is a positive and desirable (with trusts and charities set up specifically to preserve and re-tell those stories). There is still considerable debate, however, about whether this dark period of history can be respectfully represented in fiction. Primo Levi was himself uncertain that the more bestial aspects of the Holocaust could be a fit subject for fiction: ‘Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man’. He thought that only those who had survived Auschwitz had the right to the hell they had experienced, though in The Drowned and the Saved, he even questioned whether they were fit to do so, since those who had fathomed the depths of human degradation did not come back to tell the tale.

So how should we judge the presumption of Irish novelist John Boyne whose ‘fable’ for younger readers about the unlikely friendship between the nine-year-old son of a German concentration camp commandant and one of its young Polish Jewish prisoners has sold more than six million copies around the world since it was published in 2006?  Turned into a film in 2008, Boyne’s fable has reached an even wider audience.

And, as Damon Fairclough notes in this review of the play, Boyne’s novel has since become a favourite text in schools ‘not only because it tells a powerful story about two children – two lads from different worlds who become pals – but also because it acts as a gateway into the most shattering event in human history.’

Now there is a new touring stage adaptation from the Children’s Touring Partnership. Last night I went to see it at the Liverpool Playhouse with my daughter who teaches at a local primary school.

The story, concerns nine year-old Bruno, the son of a commandant at Auschwitz, who, naturally enough perhaps, knows little about the Nazis (other than their leader is ‘the Fury’) or of the persecution of the Jews (though he is being taught to despise them as inferior beings).

All he knows is that he has been uprooted from his home and friends in Berlin to live with his sister and mother in ‘Outwith’, in the house attached to his father’s new place of work. In this desolate place there is nothing to do and no one to play with. That is – until he meets Shmuel, a boy who lives in a strange place on the other side of a barbed-wire fence and who, like the other people there, wears striped pyjamas.

Neither of us had read the book on which the play is based. It’s almost certain that a play of less than 90 minutes will have lost something in translation, and that it would need good acting and effective staging in order for the audience to suspend disbelief and accept as a ‘fable’ this story of an unlikely friendship between two boys, forged in the most grotesque of surroundings.

In her review for the Liverpool Echo, Catherine Jones began by noting that it ‘asks its audience to take the kind of giant leap of imagination which storytelling, after all, thrives on’. But, she then continued with a withering criticism of ‘a simplistic story’ in which the young Jewish lad, Shmuel has not only evaded immediate end death in a gas chamber that faced most children on arrival at Auschwitz, but somehow has the freedom to loiter near a fence (strangely not electrified), where he encounters a bored Bruno who is looking for a playmate.

Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno and Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno and Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Sarah and I differed in our view of the play, but we both agreed about the quality of the acting and production.  The two leading child actors (Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno, Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel) are both nine years old and acquitted themselves very well. Director Joe Murphy sets the action on a largely bare stage that rotates at certain key points to emphasise movement, such as when Bruno, playing at explorers, dashes through the woods and encounters the fence – and Shmuel. The short scenes are introduced by typeset captions projected onto the bare timber wall that forms the back of the stage.

Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel will take him from innocence to revelation. His exploring will end in what is described in the final projected caption as his ‘big adventure’, when he will be consumed by the terrible process that is beyond his understanding.

In the end, Bruno and Shumel devise a plan to play together. Shumel gets Bruno a pair of ‘striped pyjamas’, Bruno gets a spade and digs his way to the other side. Inside the camp, the boys are caught in a selection. Bruno’s mother notices he is missing from home and a search party sets out to look for him – but it is too late. Bruno and Shumel have been taken to the gas chamber.

Dominic Cavendish gave the production a scathing review in the Telegraph, in which he wrote that it is ‘distressing for all the wrong reasons. … about as bogus as it’s possible to get without becoming a grotesque travesty…. fanciful dreck masquerading as an oblique history lesson’.

But others have argued that Bruno’s innocent acceptance of Shmuel as a human being, just like him, who deserves his friendship, compassion and help, makes Boyne’s tale acceptable, even moving. While everyone else fails to looks beyond their prejudices, Bruno reaches out to the boy he has been told is sub-human and his enemy. He sees Shmuel as no different to himself. He also recognises that their house-servant Pavel, a camp prisoner and former doctor who treats his injuries after he has fallen from a swing, is a good man, not vermin, as his father and tutor tell him.

Auschwitz survivor Eva Neumann made this comment on the film version, quoted on the Film Education website:

The only message I can tell you is that if you are a child and you’ve got no prejudices about nations and enemies – and these children in the film were not told, one was suffering and the other one wasn’t but they didn’t know, they were innocent – and it just shows that children are innocent. …They show us, these two kids, that friendship and human feelings which have not been spoilt by the outside world, is very very important.

In an interview John Boyne has justified his approach in similar terms:

For me, a 34-year-old Irish writer, it seemed, the only respectful way to approach the subject was through innocence. Through a fable told from the point of view of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors of the thing he was caught up in. I believe that this naivety is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that period.

Personally, I can only see any notion of innocence in this context as symbolic. Bruno is only a year away from being enlisted (for certain, given his father’s position) in the junior branch of the Hitler Youth, the Deutsches Jungvolk, for boys aged 10 to 14.  (In the second half of the play, it would appear that his sister Gretel has joined the parallel organisation, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls.) Mandatory membership of these organisations for all young Germans after 1936 was probably one of the most significant ways in which Nazi ideology maintained its grip, though in making that statement I am aware that some might have resisted mentally – as did for instance, Hans Scholl, the brother of Sophie Scholl and one of the leading figures of the anti-Nazi resistance movement, White Rose, who was at the same time a member of the Hitler Youth.

There’s another aspect of Boyne’s fable that is worrisome to me: when the German boy dies along with his Jewish friend, it can seem as if the real tragedy is not the murder of more than a million Jews in the camp, but the unfortunate murder of one boy who doesn’t belong in the camp and who doesn’t ‘deserve’ to die.

Where John Boyne’s tale fits into the evolving narrative of Holocaust representation in literature is as an example of the modern tendency to try to find a message of hope there – to extrapolate from the horror an affirmation of humanistic values. This is commendable – essential, even. But there is an alternative perspective, summed up in Elie Wiesel’s chilling words from A Plea for the Dead:

In truth, Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God’s name. At Auschwitz the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their own importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad.

Many hold to the view that Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary, Shoah is the only suitable representation of the Holocaust to be captured on film because it refuses to represent that which cannot be represented. The documentary features only location shots of concentration camp sites in the present day and interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators.

In his essay Who Owns Auschwitz? the Hungarian Imre Kertész, who was deported at the age of 14 with other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and whose best-known work, Fatelessness, describes the experience of a young boy in Auschwitz, once wrote in an essay how, over time, depiction of the Holocaust had become stylized to ‘nearly unbearable dimensions’. Even the term ‘Holocaust’ had become a stylization, “an affected abstraction from more brutal-sounding terms like ‘extermination camp’ or ‘Final Solution’.” As more and more is written about the Holocaust, he argued, its reality – the reality of human extermination – increasingly slips away, out of the realm of the imaginable:

The concentration camp is imaginable only and exclusively as literature, never as reality. … More and more, the Holocaust is stolen from its guardians and made into cheap consumer goods. Or else it is institutionalized, and around it is built a moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language.

Life Is Beautiful
Life Is Beautiful

But, perhaps surprisingly, in that essay Kertész offered a film to challenge that position – one close in conception to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, though far superior in my view. Life is Beautiful, the film directed by the Italian actor and comedian Roberto Benigni, whose father survived three years of internment in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, also views a concentration camp through the eyes of a child. On its release Benigni was strongly criticised for situating his concentration camp story within a fantasy or fairytale that, critics argued, disrespected the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors, simply to provide its audience with escapist pleasure.

More than with any other historical event, we tend to judge representations of the Holocaust by their ‘accuracy’.  In this sense, both John Boyne’s text and Benigni’s film are problematic. If we regard these works as designed to help a younger generation learn from the past then their accuracy would need to be questioned. Most crucially, in light of the fact that generally children under 14 years of age were killed as soon as they arrived at a concentration camp.

But, Kertész proposed – in an argument that could be applied also to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – that the soul of Life is Beautiful is authentic because ‘it moves us with the power of the oldest kind of magic, the magic of fairy tales’:

At first sight, this fairy tale looks pretty awkward on paper. Guido deceives his four-year-old son Giosue into thinking that Auschwitz is just a game. Participants in the game receive points for successfully overcoming difficulties, and the winner will receive a ‘real tank’. But does not this device of the ‘game’ correspond in an essential way to the lived reality of Auschwitz? One could smell the stench of burning human flesh, but still did not want to believe that all of this could be true. One would rather find some notion that might tempt one to survive, and a ‘real tank’ is, for a child, precisely this kind of seductive promise. […]

At the end, the boy sees his ‘prize’ rolling toward him – the ‘real tank’. But here, sadness over the ruined ‘game’ overwhelms the story. We now understand that, somewhere else, the ‘game’ would be called civilization, humanity, freedom – everything that humans ever regarded as valuable. And when the boy, reunited with his mother and suspended in her arms, cries out ‘we won!’ his words come to resemble, through the power of this moment, an elegy shot through with grief.

Children at Auschwitz liberation by photographed by Russian soldiers
Children at the liberation of Auschwitz photographed by Russian soldiers

Astonishingly, there was, for a short time only, one group of young children in Auschwitz who lived with their parents in the ‘Family Camp‘ established by the Nazis in September 1943 with an initial consignment of five thousand prisoners deported from the Terezín ghetto.  Unlike previous transports, they received unusual privileges: on arriving at the camp they did not undergo the usual selections, and families were not divided. In December 1943 and May 1944, more transports from Terezín brought a further 12,500 prisoners.

One of those children was Otto Dov Kulka, who was ten when he arrived at Auschwitz. Two years ago, aged 80, Kulka finally set down his memories of that time in a remarkable Holocaust memoir, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, that has been compared to the work of Primo Levi.

Incredibly, in the Family Camp children attended a rudimentary school, plays and concerts were performed by the children, usually attended by high-ranking SS, among them Dr Josef Mengele. Like Bruno in Boyne’s tale, ten year old Kulka was a curious child: there’s a terrifying account in his memoir of what happened when he decided to find out whether the barbed wire of the fence was ‘really electrified’, and dared himself to touch it. (He still bears the scars.)

Only later did Kulka learn that the Family Camp had been intended by Eichmann to deceive inspectors International Red Cross who were expected. Its inmate’s reprieve was only temporary: in the summer of 1944, with the Russians advancing ever closer, the Auschwitz Family Camp with its ‘children’s block’ was liquidated. Kulka survived by a fluke. Later he was forced on the long winter death march out of the camp ahead of the advancing Russians. His father survived the camp, but his mother died during the evacuation.

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death begins with Kulka describing his return to Auschwitz in 1978:

Travelling in the opposite direction on the road that led me, on 18 January 1945, and on the days that followed, out of that complex about which I was certain, about which we were all certain, that it was a complex no one ever came out of.

He enters the camp complex:

I walked along the track, between the tracks, where grass now grew, through that gate, for the second time –but that day on foot, under my own steam. I went to a place where I was sure of my way. It was one of the camps that should have been there, but in place of the camp, stretching from horizon to horizon, were rows –forests –of brick chimneys that were left from the barracks that had been dismantled and had disappeared, and tottering concrete pillars, each leaning in a different direction, and rusting shreds of barbed wire on this side and on that side –some lay still, others crept in the damp grass –the damp wet grass –from horizon to horizon. And the silence. An overwhelming silence. Not even the sound of a bird was heard there. There was muteness there, and emptiness there. There was astonishment that these landscapes –which had been so densely crowded with people, like ants, with armies of slaves, with rows of people making their way along the paths –were silent. Were deserted. But everything was there: there was that forest of concrete pillars –one could almost see them proud and erect, with those taut steel wires, as on the day we entered, at night –as in that night illuminated with a pageant of lights passing over our faces at the slow entry of the train to that ‘corridor of lights, to the Metropolis of Death’.

Ruins of part of the electric fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Ruins of part of the electric fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau

He recounts a recurring dream:

That night dream always brings me back to the same immutable law by which I end up back inside the crematorium and, by some roundabout way, through canals of dark water, through trenches and hidden openings, I dig beneath the barbed wire and reach freedom and board a train, and at one desolate station at night a loudspeaker calls my name, and I am returned to the place I am bound to reach: the crematorium. And however much I know that I must be caught, I always know, too, that I must be spared. It’s a kind of circle, a cycle of Tantalus or Sisyphus, or of whatever myth we choose to invoke that is germane here, which returns in an endless vicious circle to the same place. I decided to descend those stairs. I knew I first had to ascend that broken wave of the roof. I climbed onto it and crossed its entire length, waited there for however long I waited, and finally descended the stairs that led down. I descended stair by stair, in the place where all those whose names and images I remembered had descended, and all those –myriads upon myriads –whom I had seen being swallowed up in endless rows into the crematoria and afterwards I imagined how they rose in fire and flames into the illuminated night sky above the chimneys.

Transport to Auschwitz
Transport to Auschwitz

Later he describes the great mystery of their arrival at Auschwitz – the miracle of there being no selection, ‘a miracle whose meaning no one understood’:

On that ramp, on that railway station platform onto which we stepped, every transport of deportees was received at Auschwitz with the same well-known procedure –the selection –after which most of the new arrivals were sent to the gas chambers and the minority, those who were fit for work, were sent, after disinfection and a change of clothes into prisoner’s garb, to one of the labour camps inside Auschwitz. In our case, we were all sent to one camp, our heads were not shaved, we were allowed to keep our own clothes, and the veteran inmates who visited the camp explained to us that this was a great mystery, which none of them could fathom.

Kulka speaks of his rudimentary education in the Family Camp – ‘in which I encountered history for the first time, music almost for the first time, and also death’ – an education which also embraced:

… the skeletons, and also the selections, which we saw from afar, and we knew; and also those images which preoccupied me, disturbed me, but were part of the day-to-day reality: the images, particularly toward evening, as dark descended slowly across the skies of Poland, when we watched the crematoria burning with a quiet constant fire, and the flames a few metres high rising above the red-brick chimneys of the crematoria, and the smoke billowing and rising above the flames, and the riddle that engaged us, me especially: how does it happen that the living, who enter in their masses in long columns and are swallowed into these structures made of sloping roofs and red bricks, are transformed into flames, into light and smoke, then disappear and fade into those darkening skies? In the star-strewn night sky, too, the fire continues to burn, quietly. That belonged to everyday life.

In one episode Kulka speaks of ‘the terrible absurdity’ of playing in the children’s orchestra, of playing

… that song of praise to joy and to the brotherhood of man, Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony … opposite the crematoria of Auschwitz, a few hundred metres from the place of execution, where the greatest conflagration ever experienced by that same mankind that was being sung about was going on at the very moment we were talking and in all the months we were there.

There is a striking passage in which he describes an image of the summer that he spent as a child in Auschwitz, an image that persists in his memory, part of ‘a private mythology which I am conscious of, a mythology that I forged’:

Another leap in time, to a different landscape and different colours. The colour is blue: clear blue skies of summer. Silver-coloured toy aeroplanes carrying greetings from distant worlds pass slowly across the azure skies while around them explode what look like white bubbles. The aeroplanes pass by and the skies remain blue and lovely, and far off, far off on that clear summer day, distant blue hills as though not of this world make their presence felt. That was the Auschwitz of that eleven-year-old boy. And when this boy, the one who is now recording this, asks himself –and he asks himself many times –what the most beautiful experience in your childhood landscapes was, where you escape to in pursuit of the beauty and the innocence of your childhood landscapes, the answer is: to those blue skies and silver aeroplanes, those toys, and the quiet and tranquillity that seemed to exist all around; because I took in nothing but that beauty and those colours, and so they have remained imprinted in my memory….

There is almost no return to that Metropolis, with its sombre colours, with the sense of the immutable law that encloses all its beings within confines of allotted time and of death; that is, there is almost no sense of a return to that world without a sense of return to those wonderful colours, to that tranquil, magical and beckoning experience of those blue skies of the summer of 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau….

The colour is the colour of childhood, a colour of innocence, a colour of beauty. And this too is an immutable law from which there is no escape. There is no escape from beauty, from the sense of beauty at the height and in the midst of the Great Death which governs all.

There’s a crucial passage in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (at least in relation to the present discussion) in which Kulka asks himself: Is something wrong with me? This is with reference to the fact that he has read none of the books, seen none of the films (not even Shoah), or any of the dramas that seek to understand or present the experience of Auschwitz. He feels only alienation:

And everyone reads these books –they sell thousands of copies –so they obviously speak in a uniform language to all those myriad readers. Yet I cannot find in them what they seek to convey! It’s a completely different world! The only response I feel able to express is alienation; all that is authentic is the authenticity of the alienation. Therefore I ask: in what am I different? Something is wrong with me!

He finds an answer in Kafka’s story of the man standing before the Gate of the Law:

This man who stands before the Gate of the Law actually asks the same question – and it is one of the last questions he asks, driven by his insatiable curiosity, as the gatekeeper jests. He asks: ‘Tell me, after all this is the Gate of the Law, and the Gate of the Law is open to everyone.’ To which the gatekeeper says: ‘Yes, that is so.’ Then the man says (if I remember the text correctly): ‘Yet in all the years I have been sitting here no one has entered the gate.’ And the gatekeeper nods his head and says: ‘Indeed.’ The man asks him to explain this puzzling fact, and the gatekeeper does him this one last mercy and says: ‘This gate is open only for you, it exists only for you, and now I am going to close it.’

For Otto Kulka, Kafka’s story provides the key:

Everything I have recorded here – all these landscapes, this whole private mythology, this Metropolis, Auschwitz –this Auschwitz that was recorded here, which speaks here from my words, is the only entrance and exit –an exit, perhaps, or a closing – the only one that exists for me alone. […]

This is the only meaning I can find for the puzzle of the occupation of my present with that past, which I experience constantly, in which I create constantly, to which I escape constantly, in which I create landscapes intermixed with scenes of childhood reality and time and of the onlooker, of the big boy looking with puzzlement at all this, and who, before it is shut – before that gate is shut – asks these questions and, at least to this mystifying matter, seems to have found an answer at last.

Children at the liberation of Auschwitz
Children at the liberation of Auschwitz

The previous evening, in anticipation of seeing The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, I sat down to watch the recording I had made of Holocaust: Night Will Fall, a documentary shown on Channel 4 to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in January.

André Singer’s documentary is a film about a film that was never completed – or shown. It tells of the experiences of the British soldiers who were the first to reach the major Nazi concentration camps in western Germany in the spring of 1945, and the armed forces camera crews who filmed the almost unbelievable scenes they encountered there.

‘It’s hard to imagine for a normal human being,’ says Sergeant Benjamin Ferencz about his arrival at Buchenwald. ‘I had peered into hell.’ Then he breaks down, an old man weeping at appalling memories. ‘It’s not something you quickly forget. It’s a little hard for me to describe.’

Night Will Fall poster

Holocaust: Night Will Fall is about the making of a planned British government documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.  Working for the Ministry of Information and making use of British, Soviet and American footage, Sidney Bernstein (later founder of Granada Television) aimed to create a documentary that would provide lasting, undeniable evidence of the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes. He gathered a wealth of British talent to work on the film: his friend Alfred Hitchcock had an advisory editorial role, a young Richard Crossman wrote the script, and the film was edited by Stewart McAllister, who had collaborated with Humphrey Jennings on celebrated wartime documentaries for for the Crown Film Unit.

Night Will Fall Sgt Oakes and Sgt Lawrie of the Army Film and Photographic Unit
Night Will Fall: Sgt Oakes and Sgt Lawrie of the Army Film and Photographic Unit

Bergen-Belsen was the first concentration camp to be liberated by the British forces in 1945. Little was known by the Allied forces at that stage about the extent, or even existence of such camps. The Russians had liberated camps in Poland in late 1944, but their information had been considered unreliable and propagandist by British military intelligence, and thus dismissed.

Holocaust Night Will Fall
A scene from Holocaust: Night Will Fall

So the forces personnel entering the camp were not prepared for what they encountered. The footage captured by the army camera crews is horrifying to watch. The camera is unflinching in its steady observation of filth and death, the mountains of corpses in varying degrees of decay.  A review of the film on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website makes this point:

Watching the slow, clear images of multitudes of mutilated corpses on a cinema screen is nauseating. The victims are dehumanised and are denied dignity in death – the reason that HMDT never reproduces photographs or film of the dead bodies of people killed in genocide. Yet this graphic rawness was necessary to fulfil the film’s function. The cameramen were instructed to film everything they saw, to show that it happened, to ensure nobody could deny it happened, and ‘to provide a lesson for all mankind’.

In instructing his cameramen what and how to film, Bernstein compiled an archive of footage which not only revealed the scale of the atrocities that had been committed, but also contextualised it, helping to piece together the role that German soldiers and citizens had played.

Hitchcock’s input was crucial in this respect, helping to build the context and complicity of the German people by demonstrating how close German towns and settlements were to the camps.  He also recommended the use of long panning shots to undercut any suggestions that the footage had been manipulated.

Fritz Klein, the Nazi physician later hanged for his role in atrocities at Bergen-Belsen
Fritz Klein, the Nazi physician later hanged for his role in atrocities at Bergen-Belsen

The film shows German SS officers forced to watch as thousands, of emaciated bodies are bulldozed into mass graves, while captured German soldiers perform the most unpleasant jobs, such as carrying bodies to the graves.

Unusually, the film shows survivors recovering once they had been liberated, were being fed, and receiving medical attention. Attention is paid to the psychological aspects of recovery – there is a sequence which describes how survivors, especially the women – demanded proper clothes, and the impact of their receiving recycled garments from the camp stores.

Night Will Fall is also about the process and politics of making the orginal film: despite Alfred Hitchcock’s editorial involvement, German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey was never released due to changes in the political climate. It was quietly shelved following disagreements between the British and the American governments regarding the nature of the film. The pressing realities of the Cold War, and the need to build West Germany up as a bulwark against communism, quickly sapped the desire of the Allies to continue forcing the German people to confront the crimes of their regime.

The 1945 film footage languished in the archives of the Imperial War Museum for six decades as an unfinished rough cut. Then, in 2005, the IWM began work on the restoration and completion of the film, using the original shotlist and script to finish the editing from the existing rushes. It’s unclear, however, whether German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey will be given cinema or DVD release.

The title of André Singer’s film is derived from the last line of narration in the 1945 documentary: ‘Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.’

Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.
― Primo Levi, If This Is a Man

See also

Auschwitz: there was no why there

Auschwitz: there was no why there

In his memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi recalled his first adjustments to the Auschwitz regime with a sort of wry irony, telling how he asked a prisoner already experienced in the ways of the camp whether the guards would give them back their toothbrushes. Contemptuously, the prisoner replies: ‘You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney’. When Levi, thirsty, breaks off an icicle, it is brutally snatched away by a guard who, on being asked ‘Why?’ replies, ‘There is no why here’. Continue reading “Auschwitz: there was no why there”