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Can it be described?

Where was God in the Holocaust? This question confounds even learned rabbis, so let’s not linger there.

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

A Thousand Darknesses Ruth Franklin

OUP, pp.256, 18.99

Treblinka Chil Rajchman, translated by Solon Bienfield

Maclehose Press, pp.183, 16.99

Where was God in the Holocaust? This question confounds even learned rabbis, so let’s not linger there.

Where was God in the Holocaust? This question confounds even learned rabbis, so let’s not linger there. Was there a Holocaust? Until I began preparing this notice I had never looked into the claims of Holocaust deniers. What I found was a volume of assertions that the Holocaust never happened that might make Hitler and David Irving blanch. Very difficult in a different way is how to write about one of the greatest crimes ever and still tell the truth. Can an author who witnessed terrible things write about them while adhering to truth or fact?

Here’s a tough example. The Nobel peace prize-winner Elie Wiesel’s Night is for many the only Holocaust book they will ever read. Although the central character is called Eleazer he is really Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. Published in 1956, the book, in its original Yiddish form called And The World Was Silent, ran to over 800 pages in manuscript, and few read it. Two years later appeared Wiesel’s redacted and rewritten French version, La Nuit, and soon there- after, translated into English without much hope of success, came Night.

That version still attracts a huge readership. Here is what Ruth Franklin calls the book’s ‘central episode’. In the original Yiddish version Wiesel described the 35-minute strangulation by hanging of an angelic boy. A watching man asks, ‘Where is God?’, and the narrator silently answers:

‘Where is God? Here he is, hanging on the gallows’. That evening the soup had no taste. We hid it away for the next day.

In the English version of La Nuit, following Wiesel’s rewriting, a man watching the boy’s slow death asks, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’

And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where — hanging from this gallows.’ That evening the soup tasted of corpses.

As Franklin notes, in the second version Wiesel has added the ‘literary trope’, a soup made of corpses. Both scenes, she says, ‘are highly stylised, so constructed to maximise every bit of shock value.’ She asserts, too, that the substitution of a soup tasting of corpses ‘becomes more believable than an unembellished version’.

Does it? Do you care? Franklin discusses how much can ‘literature’ or ‘literary style’ be trusted or praised when reading about the most awful subjects without knowing if the truth has been left behind. (She also discusses distortions and outright frauds, which is interesting but loses the central thread.)

Dismissing most books about the Holocaust, Wiesel contended that

Auschwitz is something else … just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz … Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge.

Franklin notes that Night ‘deviates from the pure facts of its account for the sake of literary impact’ but argues: ‘There can be no doubt that the act of trying to put Night under the fact-checker’s lens smacks of indecency.’

What is ‘pure fact?’ Chil Rajchman gets close. Treblinka is his spare memoir of ten months in a place devoted exclusively to execution, where perhaps 800,000 people were murdered. Auschwitz began as a concentration camp that turned to extermination as defeat loomed for Germany; from its beginnings, Treblinka was devoted exclusively to extermination. The author survived, after his younger sister was gassed, by helping in many aspects of the mass murder such as cutting the hair of women about to be gassed, and extracting the gold teeth of the just-gassed. (Some people, Franklin writes, contend that only good people, who helped others, died, and to survive meant you were a lesser being. Spectator readers can ask themselves what they would have done.) Chil Rajchman escaped during a brief and largely unsuccessful uprising and killing of guards, was on the run for months, and in Warsaw wrote this memoir.

It is as ‘unliterary’ as language can be, dry and concise. As Samuel Moyn notes in his insightful introduction, ‘Treblinka is bleak and discomfiting, not redemptive and uplifting.’ The events are enough. The author is cutting a woman’s hair. (No one knows what happened to the tons of hair collected in the camps.) She has minutes to live:

She takes my hand and wants to kiss me: ‘I beg you, tell me, what do they do with us. Is this already the end?’ She weeps and begs me to tell her if it is a difficult death, if it takes long, if people are gassed or electrocuted. I do not reply. She will not leave me alone, because she knows that in any case she is lost. I cannot tell the truth and calm her. The whole conversation lasts a few seconds. I turn away because I cannot look her in the eye.

A young girl shouts at the other women: ‘What is the matter with you? You ought to be ashamed. For whom are you crying? You should be laughing. Let our enemies see that we do not go to our deaths as cowards. The murderers enjoy our weeping!’ The murderers look around. They become even wilder and the girl laughs in their faces until she leaves.

I quail before such passages and find them nearly unendurable to record.

The Russian Vasily Grossman, one of the first to enter Treblinka in 1944, and an incomparable chronicler of the war, first at Stalingrad and then with the Red Army across Europe as Germany collapsed, describes the place he saw months after Rajchman had escaped: ‘This was the site of the SS’s main killing ground, which surpassed Sobibor, Maidanek, Belzec and Auschwitz.’ (He greatly underestimates the dead at Auschwitz.) The architects intended that ‘Not a single person was to leave [Treblinka] alive.’ Rajchman describes the ‘murderers’ — he never says Germans or guards — laughing, joking, and teasing their victims just before they died. Grossman writes:

What is appalling is that creatures who should have been isolated and studied as psychiatric phenomena were allowed to live active lives, to be active citizens of a particular state.

He acknowledges that writing about Treblinka has been hard:

‘Why write about it, then?,’ some may ask. It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader’s civic duty to learn this truth.

I can barely stand it.

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