We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998)

‘Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.’
Eighth of the Hutu Ten Commandments published by Hutu Power propagandist Hassan Ngeze in 1990 (page 88)

Disappointment

Simon’s law of book-buying states that the more you spend on a book, the more likely you are to be disappointed. Nothing has brought me as much pleasure as picking up a copy of my childhood favourite, The Town That Went South by Clive King, for 30p in a National Trust second-hand bookshop a few years ago. By contrast, I paid full whack to buy We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and almost immediately took against it.

The shiny cover of the Picador paperback somehow belies the fact that it was published in 1998 and so is nearly a quarter of a century old.

Next, the introduction by Old Etonian and Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart is reasonable enough but offers no insights or ideas. In fact it opens with disappointing stupidity. His very first sentence is: ‘Is genocide a suitable subject for literature?’ to which the obvious answer is, ‘Yes, everything is a suitable subject for literature’. More specifically, ‘Yes – have you not heard of Holocaust literature?’ Literature about the killing fields of Cambodia, about the Armenian genocide, and so on? So it’s a non-question asked for purely rhetorical effect.

And finally, Gourevitch’s book itself is also disappointing because, although it contains a lot of good quality history of the background and buildup to the genocide, of the events of the genocide itself, and then a detailed account of the aftermath up until late 1998 when he completed his text, and although it contains interviews with a phenomenally large number of representative figures – it is continually interrupted by Gourevitch’s own meditations on the nature of genocide, what we should feel about genocide, whether we can write about genocide, the difficulty of imagining genocide and so on, which are uniformly poor quality, entry-level, GCSE-level. Trite ideas padded out with lame and obvious quotes. It is a big disappointment. Gourevitch may be a terrific reporter but he’s no intellectual.

The tone is set in the puzzling first chapter where Gourevitch retails a conversation he had with a pygmy (one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region now known as Rwanda, who were swamped by later Bantu incomers and now make up about 1% of the population). This conversation delivers the  thumpingly banal message that humanity is one and needs to be united in its struggle against nature. This is the ‘insight’ message Gourevitch chooses to open his long book about the Rwandan genocide with, i.e. not very insightful at all, certainly not worth paying £10 for.

With a sinking feeling, I realised within a few pages that this book was not going to offer much insight into politics or human nature. In fact, in the passages where he tries to ‘think’ about the genocide, Gourevitch’s banal meanderings tend to blanket and dull the impact of the horrifying facts he sets down so powerfully in the factual passages.

The second disappointment is that a major part of the book’s USP is that it contains interviews and conversations Gourevitch had with scores of Rwandans from all parts of the country, from all classes and professions, Hutus and Tutsis, which go to create an impressive mosaic, like the walls of photos I’ve seen in some art installations, hundreds of photos of ordinary people caught up in a nightmare. Hence the book’s sub-title, Stories from Rwanda.

But I’m sad to report that these stories, also, partake of the general disappointment because they, also, are often surprisingly dull and banal. Obviously, many of the interviewees describe horrifying scenes: they describe entire lives lived in the shadow of the ethnic conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations, they describe the repeated crises in the 1960s and 70s, when small-scale pogroms, massacres and localised ethnic cleansing broke out for one reason or another; then they describe the atmosphere of fear created by the RPF invasion of 1990 and the emergence of really vitriolic Hutu supremacism, the advent of magazines and radio stations calling for the complete extermination of the Tutsis; and then describe gathering round their radios to listen to the dreadful news that the moderate Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down as it came into land at Kigali airport and the terrible sense of doom most of them felt.

And then, of course, Gourevitch includes eye-witness account of going into hiding, being arrested, trying desperately to contact family members, watching people being shot, hacked to death with machetes, driving through smoking villages, coming across streets full of bodies, terror and despair.

The content of these stories is, of course, gripping and horrifying. But the style is uniformly flat. They all sound the same, they all speak very simply. Either that’s because all Rwandans sound the same, very simple and flat. Or because all Rwandans are dull and boring. Or maybe because every interview had to be carried out through an interpreter, since most Rwandans speak French, and French has less lexical variety than English and that’s why everyone comes out sounding the same. Or maybe it’s because all the testimony has been first translated, and then put through Gourevitch’s own style machine. All the interviews are made up of suspiciously complete sentences. There are no hesitations or repetitions or stumblings. All Gourevitch’s interviewees speak in perfect and grammatically correct sentences. They all sound the same and they all sound boring.

He even manages to make Paul Kagame sound boring, which is quite a feat. Paul Kagame was born and raised a Rwandan exile in Uganda. He volunteered to join the Ugandan army, rose quickly through the ranks, studied military theory, was a senior officer in the rebel force which helped Yoweri Museveni overthrow the Ugandan dictator Milton Obote. Kagame then went on to become a co-founder and eventually leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which invaded north Rwanda in 1990 and fought the Rwandan army to a ceasefire in 1993. Kagame was still working through implementation the peace accords he signed with the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana in August 1993, when the latter’s plane was blown out of the sky in April 1994. This was the trigger for Hutu Power extremists in the government to launch their genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, so Kagame immediately resumed the RPF incursion into Rwanda, quickly seizing large parts of the country, taking the capital Kigali on 4 July 1994, then pushing west to conquer almost the entire country and putting an end to the genocide by 17 July 1994.

Kagame then took up the twin roles of vice-president and defence minister in the post-genocide government, but everyone knew he was the real power in Rwanda, which he has gone on to lead down to the present day, 2021, when he is still serving as president.

Kagame is described by analysts as a military leader of ‘genius’ for turning the RPF from a ragtag of half-armed volunteers into a highly disciplined and effective military force (p.218). And then, after all this, he went on to be the military and strategic brains behind the alliance of armies, the AFDL, which invaded east Zaire in 1997 to close the Hutu refugee camps where Hutu Power génocidaires had been regrouping and preparing for genocide part two. This was the incursion which led to the AFDL marching all the way to Kinshasa and overthrowing Zairean dictator Joseph Mobutu.

In other words, Kagame is one of the most fascinating characters of the late 20th/early 21st centuries and Gourevitch has had the privilege of interviewing him not once but on numerous occasions. And yet, in Gourevitch’s hands, this is what Kagame sounds like:

“I have wanted to be original about my own thinking, especially in regard to my own situation here. Not that I don’t realise that there are other people out there to admire, but it is just not my habit to admire anybody. Even if something has worked, I think there are many other things that could work also. If there’s anything else that has worked, I would certainly pick a bit from that. But if there could be another way of having things work, I would like to discover that. If I could have some original way of thinking, that would be OK for me.” (quoted on page 213)

Pretty dull, eh. It’s far too harsh to say that Gourevitch is a lightweight and he makes everyone he interviews sound like a lightweight, but that thought did cross my mind during more than one of the duller interviews in the book.

He’s spoken to literally hundreds of people, including many key players and all kinds of experts and aid and UN officials and yet…hardly any of them say anything interesting. Only towards the end did some of the Rwandan officials complaining about the utter ineffectualness of the international community make an impression.

A literary account, alas

Gourevitch is a longtime staff writer for New Yorker magazine and a former editor of The Paris Review. He knew nothing about Rwanda or African politics before he watched the shocking images on the TV news as the Rwanda genocide broke in spring 1994. Fascinated and appalled he realised he had to find out more (or realised this was a terrific opportunity for an ambitious journalist looking for a subject for a book).

So Gourevitch began visiting Rwanda in 1995 (p.7) and over the next two years made nine trips to the country and to its neighbours (Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania) to report on the genocide and its aftermath. He made 6 trips lasting a total of 9 months (p.185). During that time he interviewed hundreds of people from Rwanda and the neighbouring countries and the book contains an impressive number of first-hand, eye-witness testimony from many, many Tutsi survivors, as well as more confrontational interviews with men accused of complicity or of organising particular local massacres.

Possibly his lack of background in African affairs partly explains the air of hopeless bewilderment he exudes right from the start. In the opening sections of the book Gourevitch goes heavy on his inability to imagine the events, on the importance of imagination in our lives, his interest in how people imagine their identities, on the importance of the narratives which shape their lives. In other words, he brings a heavily literary slant to his huge and complicated subject.

On the first page of his text he mentions Charles Dickens, on page 3 he is citing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there are epigraphs from George Eliot and John Milton. Directly after that limp quote from Kagame which I cite above, Gourevitch says it reminds him of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writing on love and art (p.213).

Oh dear. It is going to be literary journalism, the worst sort, the type of journalism which spends a lot of its energy emphasising the author’s own sensitivity, which foregrounds his own emotional responses, to the subject matter, rather than doing a journalist’s job which is to get on and tell you what happened and let interviewees tell their own stories, preferably without a load of editorialising about how you everything you find out about the horrors makes you feel. In the showbiz world of American journalism, ruined by the egotistical displays of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, it is acceptable to put the author and his responses at the centre of the story, but I wanted a history, I wanted to know the facts, not reiterations of how a pampered New York journalist was appalled to discover how brutal life  is in much of Africa and how thoughtlessly cruel human beings can be.

His factual sections are sensational but when he stops to reflect on it all, Gourevitch writes quite a lot of stupid things. When he writes that ‘Power is terribly complex’ on page 78 I suddenly realised I was dealing with an idiot. My daughter learned more about political, social and cultural power in her GCSE Sociology course than Gourevitch displays in this entire book. All the ‘reflection’ in the book displays a disappointingly low knowledge of political theory, knowledge of international relations, or philosophy about human nature.

And I was irritated by his casual assumption that the ‘we’ he continually refers to are all white, liberal, college-educated, East Coast readers of New Yorker magazine, that ‘we’ all share his over-developed moral scruples and his severely under-developed sense of world affairs, geopolitics, African history and politics. Right at the beginning he tries to implicate the reader in his sensitive moral scruples:

I presume that you are reading this because you want a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. (p.19)

Well, er, no. I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Rwandan genocide in the same way that I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Holocaust, or the Second World War, or the First World War, the Somme, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Civil War, the Tapei Rebellion, the rape of Nanking, the Gulag Archipelago, the Russian Civil War, the Ukraine famine, the Partition of India, Islamic State, the Crusades, the decimation of the Incas and Aztecs, the violent rise of Islam, the blood-soaked fall of Byzantium, the life and massacres of Genghiz Khan. I could go on…

I am reading this book because I want to be better informed about human history which, as anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of the subject knows, amounts to an unrelenting series of wars, massacres, genocides and bloodbaths. I’m kind of used to it.

So, no, I am not in the slightest disturbed by my curiosity to want to understand a recent historical event better. Seems perfectly normal to me, and most of the history books I read include passages where historians say the public in general ought to be more aware of history. In addition, many progressive historians and commentators tell us we need to get out of our Eurocentric frame of reference and understand more about the wider world and places beyond London or Paris. So that’s why I’m reading a book about Africa, and about one of the most striking events in post-war African history.

Gourevitch’s comment betrays a basic…what…dimness, obtuseness, ignorance…about the entire subject of History and why people would want to study it, which is to find out what happened, to try and understand why it happened, in order to better understand the forces at work in the world around us, now, in the present.

The facts

The book consists of three elements:

  1. Gourevitch’s self-consciously literary fretting over the power of imagination and the importance of narrative and the centrality of stories and the difficulties of human identity and a familiar checklist of progressive, liberal arts issues
  2. interviews with scores of Rwandans, UN officials, foreign doctors and aid workers, politicians and so on, giving often harrowing descriptions of their experiences or clarifying the political situation in Kigali, in the UN, in the aid camps in Zaire
  3. actual historical facts

When he sticks to the facts, Gourevitch is very good indeed. Suddenly, about a third of the way into the book, after the kind of maundering speculation I’ve been slagging off, it changes tone dramatically and becomes a riveting account of the early history of the country, a description of the colonial era when the Belgians divided the two ethnic groups of Hutu and Tutsi the better to control them, and how this ethnic division, once created, went on to dog the Rwanda, which won independence in 1962 but continued to suffer repeated outbreaks of ethnic violence, pogroms and massacres (the massacres of 59, of 61, of 63, and so on).

In what follows I extract the facts Gourevitch gives and supplement them from other sources to try and create a comprehensive and useful timeline.

Rwandan history

In 1994 Rwanda had a population of about 7 million. Relatively small, it was the most densely populated country in Africa. About 85% of the population were Hutus, 14% Tutsis and 1% pygmies known at the Twa.

Rwanda is divided into five provinces: Kigali, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western.

Because they were illiterate, no Rwandans before the arrival of Europeans had ever written anything down. Therefore, their prehistory relies entirely on unreliable oral traditions and speculation. Modern archaeology tentatively suggests that the hilly region was inhabited by pygmies as long ago as 8,000 BC, before it was slowly infiltrated from 700 AD by Bantu tribes from West Africa who went on to form the Hutus, and by ‘Nilotic’ ethnic groups from the north who were ancestors of the Tutsi (p.49). Maybe.

Hutus and Tutsis

For centuries before Europeans arrived, the Tutsis were nomadic cattle rearers, which made them wealthier than the Hutu majority who were mostly static farmers; the ruler of Rwanda was a Tutsi and the aristocratic Tutsis looked down on the peasant Hutus.

The regime was essentially feudal: Tutsis were aristocrats; Hutus were vassals. (p.49)

Although there’s a racial stereotype that the Hutus are full-on ‘negroid’ African in appearance while the Tutsis have narrow faces, with narrow noses and thin lips, in reality scores of generations of interbreeding meant the majority of the population didn’t conform to these stereotypes and very often Rwandans couldn’t tell which groups each other belonged to (p.50). Plenty of the Rwandans Gourevitch talks to tell him they pass for one ethnic group when they in fact belong to another. In other words, it wasn’t such a starkly obvious divide as between blacks and whites. Many Hutus and Tutsis are indistinguishable.

Tutsi ruler Kigeli Rwabugiri reigned from 1853 to 1895 and expanded the kingdom to its greatest extent. He oversaw a society which was regimented and hierarchical, with layers of military, political and civil chiefs and governors, priests, tax collectors, sub-chiefs, deputy governors and so on (p.49). Divisions between Hutu and Tutsi were hardened, with the former obliged to perform forced labour for the latter.

When the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 carved up Africa between the European imperial nations, Rwanda was handed to the Germans because they had explored the region, had missionaries on the ground, and nobody else wanted it (p.55). After Germany lost the Great War, Rwanda was combined with the neighbouring nation of Burundi and handed by the victorious allies over to Belgium, because they abut the huge Belgian Congo to the west. Belgium ran Rwanda from 1918 to 1962.

The Belgians hardened the ethnic division in the country by compelling every citizen to state on their identity papers which group they belonged to. This had the effect of crystallising a racial divide which had been far more fluid and flexible before.

The Hutu revolution

Throughout the century Hutu resentment at their inferior status simmered. With the advent of an educated class it found expression. In 1957 nine Hutu intellectuals published a Hutu Manifesto. Its full title was ‘Note on the social aspect of the native racial problem in Rwanda’ and it was ten pages long. The manifesto called for a ‘double liberation’ of the Hutu people, from the colonial oppression of the Belgians, and then from the racial oppression of the Tutsis. The manifesto called for the political disenfranchisement of the Tutsi, banning intermarriage between the two groups, and banning the Tutsi from military service.

1959 Hutu political leaders backed by elements in the Belgian administration overthrew the Tutsi monarchy (which had continued to exist throughout the colonial period) and replaced it with a republic. Violence against Tutsis spread across the country and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. (When many of these exiles returned with the triumph of the RPF government in 1994, they were referred to as ’59ers’.)

Independence 1962

Rwanda was separated from Burundi and the two countries gained independence on 1 July 1962. Tutsi militias raised among exiles, especially in neighbouring Uganda, staged occasional raids into Rwanda, which always led to reprisals by the Hutu government. In December 1963 a Tutsi raid led to Hutu reprisals in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred, in what one journalist called a genocide and Bertrand Russell declared was the worst massacre since the Holocaust. (This Russell quote crops up in Fergal Keane’s book on the genocide; it’s obviously one of those quotable quotes you get extra marks for in your GCSE essay.)

More than 336,000 Tutsi left Rwanda in 1964 to escape the Hutu purges. In 1972 Tutsi school students across the country were attacked, beaten, their houses torched. So large-scale massacres and pogroms came in waves.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burundi, it was the Tutsis who were in charge and in 1973 embarked on a pogrom of Hutus. As many as 100,000 were killed and a further 200,000 Hutus fled as exiles into Rwanda, where every one of their stories fed the fuel of anti-Tutsi anger.

The 1973 influx of Hutu refugees inspired the Rwandan president Grégoire Kayibanda to order his army chief of staff, Juvénal Habyarimana, to set up ‘committees of public safety’, which promptly set about massacring Tutsis. On this occasion the victims were ‘only’ in the hundreds, but as many 100,000 Tutsis fled abroad.

To summarise, Rwanda and Burundi have a long record of attack and counter-attack, profound ethnic antagonism and ethnic cleansing of the two groups which dated back before independence and flared up on an almost annual basis, with the Tutsi almost always being victimised, massacred, and fleeing the country in tens of thousands. The 1994 genocide was generations in the making.

Habyarimana’s coup 1973

In 1973 Rwanda’s army chief of staff, Hutu nationalist Juvénal Habyarimana, carried out a coup, overthrowing president Kayibanda and declaring himself president of independent Rwanda. Under his rule Rwanda became a totalitarian, one-party state in which every citizen was compelled to be a member of his MRND party and was required to chant and dance in adulation of the president at mass pageants (p.75). Habyarimana was to remain dictator of Rwanda for 21 years, kept in place by lavish aid from Western nations and in particular from his most loyal Western supporter, France. Naturellement.

Gourevitch makes the point that during the 1980s and 90s France channeled huge amounts of armaments to the Hutu government, up to and through the actual genocide; that French advisers helped the government at all levels; that French president Francois Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe was an arms dealer who made a packet from the trade (p.89).

In 1986 the global price of Rwanda’s main exports, coffee and tea, collapsed, and real hardship for the majority of the population added to simmering Hutu disaffection. The racist, supremacist policies of Hutu Power spread like a virus, popularising the insulting term inyenzi or cockroaches for Tutsis.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) The Tutsis in Uganda

But so did the Tutsi fightback. It is important to understand the role played by Ugandan politics. In 1979 Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). (It was initially known as the Rwandan Refugees Welfare Association and then, from 1980, as the Rwandan Alliance for National Unity (RANU)). It was formed in response to the persecution of Tutsi refugees by the regime of Ugandan president Milton Obote. Obote accused the Rwandans of collaboration with his predecessor, Idi Amin.

Tutsi refugees Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame had joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebel Front for National Salvation (FRONASA). Museveni had fought alongside Obote to defeat Amin in 1979 but withdrew from the government following Obote’s disputed victory in the 1980 general election.

With Rwigyema and Kagame, Museveni formed a new rebel army, the National Resistance Army (NRA). Their campaign to overthrow Obote’s government became known as the Ugandan Bush War.

Obote remained hostile to Rwandan refugees throughout his presidency and in 1981 forced RANU into exile in Kenya. In 1982 he encouraged local councils to force Rwandan refugees out of ordinary civil life and into refugee camps. When Rwandans attempted to cross the border back into Rwanda, the Habyarimana regime confined them to isolated refugee camps and closed the border to prevent further migration.

You can see why many Tutsi exiles found themselves in an impossible position and it explains why so many joined up with Museveni’s NRA with the aim of overthrowing Obote and restoring their rights within Uganda.

In 1986 the NRA captured Kampala with a force of 14,000 soldiers which included 500 Rwandans, some of them senior officers, among them Kagame and Rwigyema. Museveni was grateful for their support and relaxed all Obote’s laws discriminating against Rwandans.

But you can also see why their success in the Bush War led soldiers like Rwigyema and Kagame to  think they might launch a similar military attack against the consider an attack against Rwanda, with the aim of overthrowing the dictatorial Habyarimana regime, installing a moderate government and so allowing the Rwandan refugees inside Uganda to return home. And you can see why the new man they’d helped to power in Uganda, Museveni, would support such a move.

The Rwandan civil war 1990 to 1994

At its 1987 convention RANU renamed itself the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). After a small-scale incursion was repelled in 1989, a cohort of Tutsi soldiers within the Ugandan army deserted, along with uniforms, arms and ammunition and invaded north Rwanda in 1990. It was the right year, as the Cold War came to an end and Western powers abruptly ceased their support for African dictators like Mobutu of Zaire and Habyarimana of Rwanda and force them to instal multi-party democracies.

The RPF incursion developed into the Rwandan Civil War. (To give a sense of the relatively small scale of all this, the original Tutsi incursion numbered some 2,500 soldiers who effectively went AWOL from the Ugandan army, accompanied by some 800 civilians such as doctors and nurses.) The RPF were defeated and repelled by the Rwandan Army (bolstered by French troops flown in to prop up another notorious African dictator) and withdrew to the Virunga mountains where Paul Kagame, establishing himself as its paramount leader, led a very effective regrouping and reorganisation. He attracted funds and exiles, he imposed strict military discipline and turned the RPF into an impressive fighting machine. In 1991 they emerged from the mountains to conduct an effective guerrilla campaign, hitting military targets across the north.

Throughout this period Hutu Power stepped up their propaganda that the Tutsis were parasites on decent hard-working Hutus, exacerbated by the war which Hutus blamed on Tutsi invaders. The circle around Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, set up a propaganda magazine, Akura, edited by Hassan Ngeze, who developed into the Dr Goebbels of the regime and in December 1990 published a Hutu Ten Commandments mandating Hutu supremacy in all aspects of Rwandan life (p.87).

Propaganda claimed the Tutsis were an alien people, were not Christians, were fighting to gain dictatorial control of Rwanda, restore the old monarchy and reduce the Hutu majority to slaves. In 1992 Hutu Power ideologue Leon Mugesera made a much-reported and chilling speech calling on Hutus to send the Tutsis back to Ethiopia by river i.e. as corpses down the river Nyabarongo (pages 53 and 96). And throughout the war Radio Rwanda broadcast anti-Tutsi hate and there were sporadic anti-Tutsi pogroms around the country, in which thousands were murdered.

The RPF invasion ratcheted up the very anti-Tutsi hate they were set up to counter.

Fragile peace 1993

By 1992 Habyarimana had been forced to accept a measure of multi-party politics and had included politicians not members of his party in the cabinet. It was these opposition politicians who met with the RPF leadership and negotiated a ceasefire in July 1992, leading to face-to-face peace negotiations.

It’s vital to realise that the hardline Hutus, often referred to as the akazu (p.81) and linked with the extended family of the president’s wife, disapproved of Habyarimana’s willingness to compromise and negotiate. They began setting up parallel hard-line Hutu structures within the organs of state, the civil service, the media and the army. Historian Gérard Prunier names late 1992 as the time when the idea of a genocidal ‘final solution’ to kill every Tutsi in Rwanda was first floated among this group. It was led, ironically enough, by one of the new parties encouraged to form by Western pressure to set up a proper democracy, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR).

When Habyarimana signed a treaty with the RPF in early 1993 promising a transition to a genuine pluralist democracy in which Tutsi rights would be respected the CDR refused to sign, organised nationwide protests and encourage anti-Tutsi violence in which hundreds were murdered. In response the RPF resumed hostilities, this time defeating the Rwandan army which hadn’t been paid due to the country’s deteriorating economy.

Ever-faithful France sent troops to bolster the Rwandan army. The numbers are tiny. Just the arrival of 400 well disciplined and trained French troops was enough to halt the RPF advance. Nonetheless the RPF came within striking distance of Kigali but Kagali overruled his senior officers and refused to take the capital, shrewdly pointing out that it would alienate his foreign backers and the Hutu population. Instead he declared a ceasefire and called for more negotiations.

On the Hutu side, factions arose in all the parties which allied themselves with what became known as Hutu Power. Each party split into a moderate faction which believed in some amount of political negotiation, and a ‘Power’ faction, which rejected compromise and stood for total Hutu supremacy (p.97). Youth militia wings of each of the parties emerged, including the Interahamwe meaning ‘those who attack together’, who had their origin in football supporters clubs (p.93).

Habyarimana began to realise that the Hutu Power militants were more his enemy than the RPF. After prolonged haggling over the make-up of the post-war Rwandan army, a formal peace treaty was signed on 4 August 1993 (p.99). A transitional government was to be set up with members from all the main parties. UN troops were flown in to supervise the treaty, while Hutu Power authorities began to plan a genocide. Four days after the signing a new radio station set up by the akazu, Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines, began broadcasting genocidal propaganda (p.99).

The general situation was not helped at all when president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, who had been elected in June as the country’s first ever Hutu president, was assassinated by extremist Tutsi army officers in October 1993, leading to a Hutu uprising and a violent crackdown by the Tutsi army which left around 50,000 dead (p.101). The assassination reinforced the notion among Rwandan Hutus that the Tutsi  presented a permanent threat and that there could be no peace, not real long-lasting peace, until they were completely eliminated. This very fragile ‘peace’ lasted from August 1993 till April 1994.

Trigger for the genocide 1994

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying president Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, killing everyone on board. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF. The Hutu Power wing of the army, led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, assassinated the next in line to civilian authority, the (Hutu) Prime Minister,  Agathe Uwilingiyimana, along with ten Belgian UN soldiers charged with her protection (who were tortured first, p.114), and immediately started to implement the campaign of slaughter which they had been developing for years. It was to be a ‘final solution’ to the Tutsi problem.

The RPF claims that Hutu extremists themselves murdered their own president because he was engaged in negotiations with the Tutsis i.e. was a moderate Hutu and seen by a ‘sellout’ by the extremists on his own side.

The very next day, 7 April, as systematic killings across the country began, Kagame warned he was abandoning the treaty and the RPF broke out of its base in the north, attacking into Rwanda in three directions. So the genocide took place against the backdrop of renewed invasion and war. The RPF slowly seized territory in the east, heading south. UN troops were stationed in the demilitarised zone in the north but were ordered to withdraw to their camps to avoid getting involved in the fighting.

You can see why the renewal of war incited the Hutu Power advocates to carry out the genocide with feverish haste, ordering their followers at local level to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible before either the RPF won or the international community stepped in. For Hutu Power, it was a race against the clock.

The genocide – 100 days in 1994

Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Three key facts to grasp are that:

1. The Hutu Power extremists had been preparing for this day for years, had drawn up lists of every Tutsis in the country with names and addresses, had assigned local Hutu leaders to direct and manage the slaughter, and had plans to take over state radio The Hutu extremists set up a radio station, RTLM, and newspapers which circulated hate propaganda, urging people to ‘weed out the inyenzi‘, to broadcast messages of hate. In other words, it was all extremely well planned. The identity cards which every Rwandan had been obliged by law to carry ever since the Belgians introduced them in 1931 (p.56) now became death warrants for any Tutsi stopped by police, militias, at road blocks, in the street, stopped search identified and hacked to death with a machete.

2. Second thing is that Rwanda was unique in tropical African countries in having been, from before Europeans arrived, a highly hierarchical country, organised like a pyramid from each district up to the top of government. Habyarimana’s governing party, the MRND, had a youth wing called the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter, but they operated within a highly organised society. It was a very well-organised genocide.

3. French troops, fighting on the side of the Rwandan army, freed up resources which Colonel Théoneste Bagosora could redirect to speeding up the genocide (p.90). On the nights of 16 and 18 June French arms shipments were flown into Goma in Zaire and then ferried across the border to support the genocidal Hutu Power regime (p.155). Gourevitch writes of:

The French political and military establishment’s…blatant complicity in the preparation and implementation of the butchery. (p.155)

I was amused to read that as the RPF closed in a French military plane whisked Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, the central figure in the networks of Hutu Power, the leading figure in the azaku, to safety back in the homeland of liberty, equality and fraternity. Vive la France!

Number killed

At least 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in just 100 days, making it the fastest mass killing in human history. People were slaughtered at a faster rate than even during the Holocaust. Some Tutsis, commentators and historians put the figure higher at 1 million, for example a Red Cross report published soon afterwards.

What’s Somalia got to do with it?

Six months before the genocide broke out American troops had carried out Operation Gothic Serpent, an attempt to take on the evil warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid.,who ruled Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, which led to the so-called Battle of Mogadishu on 3 and 4 October 1993 during which a black hawk helicopter was shot down and 19 American soldiers were killed and 73 wounded. Not just that. The American corpses were paraded through the streets, and filmed and the video footage beamed around the world. The world’s only superpower was humiliated.

This explains why, when trouble broke out in another faraway African state, the administration of President Bill Clinton desperately tried to ignore it, then downplay it. Gourevitch quotes the press conferences given while the genocide was being carried out in which the poor press secretary tried to explain the administration’s position that ‘genocidal acts’ were taking place but these didn’t amount to an actual genocide. Why the hair-splitting? Because if the Americans conceded it was a genocide, then they would be legally obliged under the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene. And Clinton refused under any circumstances to risk another Black Hawk Down humiliation. And therefore officials at every level of the administration were under strict orders never to use the g word.

A bit too neatly Gourevitch says that in May, as the genocide was in full swing, he was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which happened to have been opened by President Bill Clinton who made a speech repeating the museum’s motto Never Again. But not only did it happen again, and the American government was the number one reason that the West, the international community and the United Nations did not do more to stop it (as explained in detail on pages 151 to 154). Disgusting.

French involvement and guilt

By June the RPF, attracting more and more Tutsi recruits, controlled the east of Rwanda, had surrounded the key cities including Kigali. In the same month France launched Opération Turquoise in the west of the country, entering from bases in the Zairian cities of Goma and Bukavu and eventually controlling the western fifth of Rwanda in order to create a safe haven for refugees. The fact that many of these refugees were Hutus, fleeing the advancing RPF army, and included many Hutu Power administrators and officials, has led to claims ever since that the French in effect protected those responsible for the genocide.

From the moment they arrived, and wherever they went, the French forces supported and preserved the same local political leaders who had presided over the genocide. (p.158)

Throughout the genocide French military spokesman argued that it was a ‘two-way’ genocide, both sides were as bad as each other and sneeringly referred to the RPF as the Khmer Rouge. The French had many motivations. 1. To maintain hegemony over the widest possible area of francophonie. 2. To maintain its credibility with the other African dictators it supported. Hatred of the English. Hard though it is to believe, the French government opposed the RPF because they originated in English-speaking Uganda. French culture must be preserved even at the cost of supporting the largest genocide since the Holocaust. This was recognised as a factor in France’s support for mass murder by as senior figure as Paul Kagame:

‘If they wanted people here to speak French, they shouldn’t have helped to kill people here who spoke French.’ (p.160)

The permanent grievance of the history’s losers.

The signal achievement of [France’s] Opération Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire. (p.161)

Scum. cf p.289 and p.325.

End of the genocide July 1994

By late June the RPF had surrounded Kigali and took the capital on 4 July, followed on 18 July by the major towns of the north-west, forcing the interim government into Zaire. The RPF victory ended the genocide as well as the civil war. By the end of July 1994 Kagame’s forces held the whole of Rwanda except for the Turquoise zone in the south-west.

The international community, the UN troops on the ground and the French had done fuck-all to halt the worst genocide since the Second World War. (To be fair, Canadian General Roméo Dallaire sent his superiors in New York advance warnings he had learned from high-placed Hutu dissidents that a really huge massacre was being planned. When they ignored his warnings and actively reduced the UN presence on the ground, he and his reduced forces were at least able to provide refuge for thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu at its headquarters in Amahoro Stadium, at other secure UN sites, and assisted with the evacuation of foreign nationals.)

Instead the genocide ended solely as a result of the military intervention of Paul Kagame’s RPF (p.143). (Mind you, you could make the case that the genocide only came about because of the sequence of events following the RPF’s initial invasion of 1990, designed to overthrow the ‘legitimate’ Hutu government. Academics, commentators and advocates of all sides can spend the rest of time assigning blame.)

Map showing the advance of the RPF during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (source: Wikipedia)

Aftermath – flight of the Hutus

As the RPF closed in the Hutu extremists prepared not just to flee the country, but used state radio and local authorities to terrify the Hutu population into believing they too, in their turn, would be slaughtered by vengeful Tutsis. Which explains why some two million Hutu peasants took to the road and fled west into Zaire, eventually setting up huge refugee camps as big as cities.

And indeed the RPF were accused of themselves killing thousands of Hutu civilians as they took power, and of pursuing and Hutus across the border in Zaire as they tracked down members of the notorious Interahamwe. The RPF denies this was intentional but Gourevitch has Kagame admitting certain rogue elements in his army may have carried out illegal revenge attacks. He tried to restrain them, some were tried and imprisoned, but there’s a limit to his control.

But the bigger story, which Gourevitch dwells on at length, was the creation of vast Hutu refugee camps which became cities in their own right, homes to countless businesses, run with fear and intimidation by Hutu Power administrators, and funded and supported by the international community and hundreds of well-meaning aid agencies.

Ethnic cleansing in East Congo 1995 to 1996

The resulting situation in eastern Congo became chaotic with Rwandan Tutsis tracking down and massacring Hutus, and Hutu extremists regrouping in the vast refugee camps helped by Western governments and aid agencies a) launching cross-border raids back into Rwanda to murder survivors and kill witnesses and b) embarking on their own campaigns of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Tutsis who had lived in Zaire for generations, specifically in the area of Kivu around the Zairean town of Goma.

In other words, intense Hutu-Tutsi animosity, spilling over into massacres and ethnic cleansing continued for years after the genocide itself was ended by the invading RPF.

First Congo War 1996 to 1997

Gourevitch spells out how the genocide was a gift from God for Congo dictator Seko Sese Mobutu (p.281). The old bastard had been unceremoniously dumped by his Western supporters when the Cold War ended in 1990 and had gone through a lean time manipulating a succession of fig-leaf ‘democratic’ governments while he slowly lost control of the lucrative mining industries which had kept his kleptocratic state alive, inflation soared to 9,000 per cent, the economy collapsed.

But with the advent of nearly two million refugees in the far east of his country in 1994, Mobutu was suddenly the man the international community and countless aid agencies had to go through to help them and he proved a willing participant, seeing as he got to cream off significant percentages of the money passing through his capital and its crooked banks. Leading the charge was, of course, the dictator’s most loyal Western friend and the most avid supporter of the genocidal Hutus, France.

France, ever eager to bail out Hutu Power, broke ranks with the rest of what in Cold War parlance used to be called the ‘Free World’ and unilaterally restored aid to Zaire – which meant, of course, to Mobutu who shovelled the money directly into his Swiss bank accounts. (p.281)

Throughout the spring of 1996 Hutu Power militias based in the refugee camps funded by the West continued a campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of North Kivu of its native Zairean Tutsi population, Gourevitch tours the area after such cleansing, travelling through miles of devastation, meeting terrified refugees. The RPF Rwandan government demanded something be done to protect the Tutsis. Zaire protested no such cleansing was going on. The international community did precisely nothing (p.289).

Eventually Kagame was forced to consider direct military intervention into eastern Zaire where the camps were located. His ally Museveni had introduced Kagame to Zairean revolutionary and guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. They began recruiting troops and creating networks of like-minded soldiers, militias and exiles which coalesced into the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation or AFDL.

Since North Kivu had been largely ethnically cleansed of Tutsis, Kagam predicted the Hutu Power militias would next turn on the 300,000 or so Tutsis living in South Kivu, known as the Banyamulenge after the town they were meant to have immigrated from back in the seventeenth century.

In September 1996 Hutu militias began attacking the Banyamulenge, burning houses, assassinating key officials, executing people in the street. They were fully supported by Mobutu’s army and media, who blamed the Tutsis victims for every atrocity. This was the same pattern and rhetoric which had led to the genocide. Tutsis fought back and were aided by Rwandan soldiers infiltrated into the area (p.295).

When the local Zairean governor declared that the entire Banyamulenge population had one week to vacate their homes and leave the territory, it was precisely the kind of categorical provocation Kagame had been waiting for. He immediately ordered the advance of the amalgamated forces which he, Museveni and Kabila had created into South Kivu. He tells Gourevitch he had three aims:

  1. protect the Banyamulenge Tutsis, arm them, empower them to fight and protect themselves
  2. to dismantle the notorious refugee camps and get their Hutu occupants to return to Rwanda where they would be treated decently
  3. to ‘change the situation in Zaire’ i.e. remove Mobutu as an active supporter of genocidal Hutu Power and replace him with a modern, neutral figure

The AFDL advance was as disciplined and effective as the RWP invasion of Rwanda 2 years earlier. It had the decisive effect of breaking the grip of Hutu Power on the camps and forcing an estimated 700,000 refugees to abandon the camps and trek the 20 or 30 miles back across the border into peaceful Rwanda, and return to their communities. Obviously, there were all kinds of problems with this enormous reintegration into such a densely populated country and with so many divisive memories, but the wholesale massacre of Hutu refugees which the Hutu Power ideologues had terrified the refugees with never happened.

But to the wider world’s surprise the invading AFDL didn’t just invade the Hutu camps, tracking down Hutu Power exponents, freeing the majority of the Hutu refugees into returning to Rwanda – they then declared their intention of marching on Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, approximately two and a half thousand miles west.

Fall of Mobutu May 1997

It took the AFDL a long seven months to get there, more a tribute to the shocking state of Zaire’s roads and infrastructure than to any opposition put up by the rubbish Zaire army, the FAZ (which Gourevitch describes as ‘Mobutu’s famously cowardly army’, p.256).

As Kabila’s troops approached the capital, president Nelson Mandela of South Africa flew in to try and broker a deal, but failed. Mobutu wanted to stay on the scene, if only as a figurehead president, while Kabila, leading the winning army, wanted all or nothing. Mobutu, his family and cronies fled, Kabila’s troops entered Kinshasa and on 30 May 1997 Kabila was sworn in as president. Next day Kabile changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was to be president until his assassination in 2001.

The Second Congo War 1998 to 2003

Kabila turned against his own backers, responding to the Congo public’s dislike of the occupying army of Rwandans and Ugandans and summarily expelling them all in 1998. Bad move. Rwanda and Uganda again collaborated in putting together an invasion force, this time with the aim of overthrowing Kabila and installing a more compliant president. However, the conflict ended up roping six other African nations into the fighting which degenerated into chaos.

The conflict dragged on till 2003 by which time an estimated five million people had died as a result of the conflict. Some armed groups remain active in the areas near Rwanda’s border right up till the present day, 2021.

The post-genocide period

The last hundred pages of this 350-page book cover the period after the genocide. Gourevitch describes the surprising number of Tutsis who returned from exile all over the place, not just the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Tanzania, but Europe and America, once it was clear that a democratic, mixed ethnicity and peaceful government was in place. And the inevitable tensions this led to between those who’d lived through the horror and seen family and loved ones literally hacked to death before their eyes, and returnees from abroad who moved into the many empty houses, tidied up the mess left by the departing Hutus, had barbecues, laughed and joked as if nothing had happened. Many of the survivors Gourevitch interviews find this difficult to cope with (pages 229 to 241).

He covers the massacre of Hutu refugees at the Kibeho refugee camp. He visits post-genocide prisons packed with Hutus who are strangely passive. Considering that high-profile Hutus were being assassinated on the outside, many of them were relieved to be in the relative safety of prison, regularly visited by international aid workers and monitors. He describes in detail the paradox of Hutu Power genocidaires being protected and funded by western aid agencies, at the complete inability of the international community, yet again, to intervene to stop their attacks into Rwanda and their ethnic cleansing of North Kivu and, yet again, the only thing to stop it being a military invasion organised by Paul Kagame, this time in the shape of the coalition AFDL.

At this kind of thing – specific settings and the issues arising from them – Gourevitch excels and his book will remain a valuable record and testimony to the tense, disorientated spirit of the period after the genocide and before the second Congo war of 1998, the one which degenerated into the Great War of Africa. Gourevitch thought he was covering an event which had finished but ended up recording a moment in the continual, ongoing flux of human events, the edgy post-genocide moment which has itself become part of history.

Stupid remarks

Gourevitch peppers the books with remarks which are, presumably, intended to be insightful, but as someone who did a history GCSE, A-level, history-based degree and has spent my life reading history books and attending history exhibitions, I found disappointingly obvious and trite.

Colonisation is violence and there are many ways to carry out that violence. (p.55)

Every war is unconventional after its own fashion. (p.82)

They sound good, don’t they, they create a good literary, rhetorical effect, they sound profound, but a moment’s reflection tells you they are trite or untrue. He operates on a very superficial level. When he quotes Lord Acton’s hoary dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as if it was a useful contribution to the debate about the genocide, you realise you are dealing with a child. He quotes Stalin’s alleged saying that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, as if it’s a dazzling new discovery (p.201). Disappointing.

Worst of all, Gourevitch develops a theory of human nature based on his literary feelings, on the premise that the most important thing about human nature is the power of the imagination. Instead of seeing things in political terms, he again and again reverts to modish blah about narratives and stories and identity and returns again and again to the importance of imagination, narrative and stories. He is more indebted to Coleridge than Clausewitz. John Milton, Charles Dickens, Rilke, George Eliot, these are his terms terms of reference. It is thin stuff and wholly inappropriate to the subject matter.

He keeps writing things I profoundly disagree with.

We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us… (p.71)

(Note the prissy, attention-drawing use of commas, a rhetorical flourish to make the sentence sound more considered and profound.) I am a Darwinian materialist so I simply disagree. I would counter-suggest that we are, each of us, (sic) not at all functions of how we imagine ourselves, but functions of how our bodies work, products of our biology, of the complex interaction between our genetic inheritance and the myriad biochemical signals the environment we find ourselves in sends us or triggers in our bodies.

If I am starving to death in one of the world’s countless famines or dying of cancer or stroke or heart attack or delirious with malaria it doesn’t really matter what my imagination or anyone else’s imaginations are doing. I am a function, first and foremost, of my biology, all else is secondary.

He writes that the most basic function of power is to coerce us into its narratives. This reads to me like the modish bullshit of the English graduate. The whole approach reeks of the trend across all the humanities and high brow journalism to invoke the magic words ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ as if they explain everything about human nature and politics, but they don’t. If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do something or die, complex theories of meta-narrative and Coleridgean distinctions between imagination and fancy become irrelevant. When he writes:

I felt tempted, at times, to think of Rwanda after the genocide as an impossible country. (p.224)

I felt tempted to throw the book out the window. This is high-sounding bullshit. What does it even mean? A country is a country is a country, borders on a map, enforced by border police, with a government and administration and laws and a currency. Russia continues to exist after its century of Soviet tyranny, Germany is going strong, decades after the Holocaust and its violent partition, even Cambodia is still a country after the horror of the killing fields – and so on and so on. Clearly the worry that Rwanda is an ‘impossible’ country is a problem which only exists in Gourevitch’s head and shows you just how obtuse his responses can be.

There’s a lot to be written about the ideology of Hutu Power which drove the genocide and the way it shaped the actions of the génocidaires at all levels of Rwandan society, but Gourevitch doesn’t have the conceptual framework or academic training to do it. He makes repeated efforts to do so, but I found them shallow and disappointing.

The big takeaway

Leaving Gourevitch out of the equation, I think the biggest single thing to take away from study of the Rwandan genocide is that it wasn’t a one-off, inexplicable outbreak of barbarity. The one big thing you learn from studying it is that it was simply the highest point of a century-old culture of ethnic rivalry and hatred, which broke out from the 1950s onwards in repeated massacres and pogroms, exactly as the Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe were subject to centuries of persecution and pogroms way before the Holocaust.

In that sense it is far from inexplicable, it is very, very explicable. What turned the long history of minor, localised outbreaks of ethnic violence into a genocide was the hard work of the Hutu Power ideologues who set out to organise the extermination of the Tutsis by harnessing the organisation and technology of a modern state, using state radio, magazines, and every level of the highly structured administration to promulgate simple messages of hate and desperation. It boiled down to: “Kill the cockroaches before they kill us!” and hundreds of thousands of Hutus, primed by decades of negative propaganda, bought this message and acted on it (p.251).

But study of the Rwandan genocide doesn’t stop in July 1994. Like all the other accounts I’ve read, Gourevitch shows how it leads directly on to the issue of the Hutu refugee camps and the way the Hutu Power génocidaires survived and recreated their power structures there, terrorising hundreds of thousands of refugees, carrying out deadly incursions back into Rwanda, and then setting about the ethnic cleansing of east Congo. And how that led directly to the AFDL invasion of Zaire which became known as the First Congo War, and how that led on to the second invasion of Congo, by Rwandan and Ugandan forces which led to the disastrous Great War of Africa.

For a few months the specific genocidal Hutu Power campaign was able to be carried out with unbridled ferocity, but the killing of Tutsis had been commonplace for decades before it, and the killing of comparable numbers of Hutus (maybe as many as 100,000 Hutus were killed in all forms of revenge attack, from individual reprisals and local pogroms through to the more organised massacres in the refugee camps) followed seamlessly after it.

Gourevitch ends his book gloomily with Bill Clinton’s flying visit to Rwanda in March 1998 (he didn’t even leave the airport) but during which he acknowledged that the events of 1994 had been a genocide and that ‘the international community’ had done too little to intervene. The later sections of his book testify over and over to the complete failure of the international community, America or the UN to act either to prevent the genocide or to intervene to prevent the regrouping of the génocidaires in the camps. Gourevitch gets progressively more angry about it.

But the thing that comes over in his last few pages is the way the killings resumed inside Rwanda. During 1997 and into early 1998, as he was finalising his account, the number of murders and massacres of Tutsis by revived groups of Hutu Power génocidaires was steadily increasing. In fact the book ends with yet another grim atrocity, an account of how a group of 150 Hutu Power militia and interahamwe attacked a boarding school in Gisenyi and hacked to pieces the 17 schoolgirls and a 62-year-old Belgian nun.

In other words, as he ended the book, the tide of communal hate killing had returned and was rising. I’ll need to read other books to find out what happened next…

A correct understanding of human nature

The Rwandan genocide itself was a definable and unique historical event with a specific start and a specific end-point. Gourevitch, throughout his book, professes himself puzzled and bewildered at how it could ever have happened, incapable of imagining the motivation and mindset of ordinary people who took up machetes to hack their neighbours and own family members to pieces.

But the more you study it, the more understandable the Rwandan genocide becomes, provided you have a correct understanding of human nature.

We humans are animals, part of the animal kingdom, subject to the same constraints and urges as other animals. My son who’s just completed his Biology degree, said one of his lecturers summed up all animal activity in a snappy motto: feed, fight, fuck. That’s it. Like all animals, we humans are programmed to mate and reproduce; to do that effectively, we have to fight or compete (albeit in socially mediated and sublimated ways) for a mate. But none of this can take place unless we can feed and water ourselves on a regular basis.

For sure, the so-called ‘mind’ and ‘reason’ which well-fed philosophers have pontificated about for millennia, beginning in the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome, is also a deep part of human nature – but most people, even the most highly educated, are fundamentally irrational and easily swayed. Humans are very suggestible and easily steered towards courses of action which let them fulfil their primal urges – hunger, lust, violence, and the more socialised wishes for praise and acceptance, wealth and power, no matter how local and fleeting. (Presumably Gourevitch has heard of Sigmund Freud. If so, why has he not learned anything from him, from the grim conclusions Freud drew about human nature based on the First World War?)

The great appeal of war for young men in less-than-perfectly-disciplined armies is that you can fulfil a lot of these really primitive urges. As well as the joy of killing alongside a closely-bonded band of brothers, war all too often provides endless opportunity for risk-free sexual violence. Hence the outbreak of mass raping during every conflict in human history, including the Rwandan genocide.

Once you align your thinking with the basic facts that humans are fundamentally irrational animals, driven by a cacophony of unconscious primitive urges, which lead them to make all kinds of irrational mistakes and, given the opportunity, behave terribly – then most of human history, including all its atrocities, make perfect sense, indeed seem inevitable.

Human nature doesn’t change, at least not on a timescale which human society registers. Give or take a few differences in social conventions, we understand the motives of medieval kings and Roman emperors just fine. And they map very well onto to the behaviour of contemporary African dictators such as Mobutu or Bokassa, just as the lickspittles and hangers-on in the court of each would be interchangeable, and just as the lives of the ordinary businessmen or urban workers or peasants doing forced labour in the fields would be recognisable in 1st century Rome or 20th century Congo.

It is only if you have a wrong understanding of human nature that you are surprised by atrocity and barbarity. Only if you assume that everybody else is as highly educated as you, as well-read in Rilke and Milton, as able to eat out in 5-star restaurants around the world on New Yorker expense accounts. If you come from this blessed background then you might be tempted to think that everyone else is as kind and generous and thoughtful and concerned about issues of gender and equality and identity and narrative as you are. So it is only if you live in this cloud cuckoo-land, liberal arts culture that you are going to be shaken to your core when you visit a country where hundreds of thousands of people undertook the systematic slaughter by hand of their neighbours and even their own family members.

The Armenian Genocide. The Russian Civil War. The Ukraine Famine. The Second Word War. The Holocaust. 20 million Russian dead. Indian Partition. The Great Leap Forward. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot in Cambodia. The Yugoslav wars. Has he not heard of these and many other comparable mass murders?

Why has he not learned the simple lesson that this is what humans do. In the right circumstances, whipped up by the right leaders, humans are capable of any atrocity. The Rwandan genocide wasn’t an inexplicable outbreak of madness but just the most recent example of an enduring and central aspect of human nature.

Gourevitch displays the same naive or obtuse shock every time he comes to ‘think about’ the genocide. The shock and dismay of a privileged, literature-soaked author, at the pinnacle of his liberal profession in the richest country in the world, amazed to discover what life is like in one of the poorest countries in the world (which is how Rwanda was classified by the World Bank in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, a place where the average annual wage was estimated to be $80, far less than Gourevitch and his fellow editors of The Paris Review probably used to spend on one business lunch.)

It isn’t anything ‘wrong’ in human nature or ‘wrong’ about the human imagination which he is discovering. Human nature is human nature just like gravity pulls things towards the centre of the earth, the sun rises in the morning, fire burns and so on. It is a basic fact of the world we exist in.

The reason Gourevitch is shocked is that he had such a completely mistaken view of human nature in the first place. He had read about the Holocaust but not really processed its lessons, what it tells us about what ‘ordinary’ people are capable of, namely any level of cruelty and barbarity if they think it means they and their loved ones will survive.

It is the shock of a pampered American discovering that the rest of the world is not like America, in fact it is inconceivably different. (Gourevitch is well aware of the issue of American parochialness and American ignorance. He routinely criticises the sparse and uninformed commentary on the situation in Rwanda and Zaire which he reads in even leading American newspapers like the New York Time and Washington Post, e.g. pages 297, 343. What’s the title of the Green Day song, American Idiot.)

Because he has diametrically the wrong view of human nature, Gourevitch at various points describes the genocide and the killings which followed it as a kind of failure of political and cultural imagination (p.206).

On the contrary, from my point of view, the Rwandan genocide was a kind of fulfilment of the profound and bestial aspects of human nature which I’ve described – albeit carefully whipped up, legitimised and organised by the Hutu Power propagandists. The genocide is explicable because it derives from understandable, analysable aspects of human nature. Have you not read any human history? Do you not know it amounts to a catalogue of massacres and genocides?

The common objection people make to my view of human nature, starting with my own kids, is: “Well, it’s not like that where I live. Where I live everyone is nice and friendly and caring. If what you say is true, how come everyone isn’t at everyone’s throats all the time?”

But the answer is simple: we in the West are well fed. Really well fed. The biggest medical problem in the West is the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Fat people don’t fight. Even the most casual knowledge of history shows a direct correlation between hunger and social upheaval. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis took place in societies pushed to the brink by famine, hunger and extreme social stress; in Weimar Germany mass unemployment meant people were literally starving.

In these circumstances, the most basic human drives come to the fore and can be manipulated and directed by those who understand how: Danton, Lenin, Goebbels, Pol Pot and, in Rwanda, the  exponents of Hutu Power such as Hassan Ngeze and Colonel Théoneste Bagosora.

It follows that the fundamental aim of any government should be to manage the economy in such a way as to ensure that most of its citizens are fed, not only as a good in itself but as the basic protection against social collapse and reversion to barbarism. To take a leaf from Gourevitch’s book and quote a famous literary figure, it was Bertolt Brecht who wrote: “Food first, then fancy talk about morality”. (“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” The Threepenny Opera).

Feeding your population, ensuring security of food, then of housing, then of work which is rewarded with a stable currency, are probably any modern government’s top priorities.

Gourevitch’s assembly of all the facts and his narrative of the deep history, build-up to and then catastrophic events of the Rwandan genocide are thorough and authoritative, and he has obviously interviewed an enormous variety of people who shed light on all levels of events, victims and perpetrators, as well as numerous UN and aid officials, ministers, government spokesmen, including president Kagame of Rwanda and president Museveni of Uganda. It’s a hugely impressive roster. He had tremendous, what the journalists call “access”.

For all these reasons his book tells a searing story and will remain important evidence. But every time he stops to ‘think’ about what he’s describing, he displays a regrettably low level of awareness about human nature, society and history. He demonstrates that he is an idealistic American unprepared for a world which is mostly not populated by well-read, New York liberals. His bewilderment is sometimes so total I wish I found it funny, but it ended up being deeply irritating and marring my admiration for the extensive and very impressive factual sections of his book.

Cecile Kayirebwa

We are animals, bound by the same fundamental facts and constraints of biology as all other life forms on earth. And yet we belong to a freak line of evolution which has led us to develop language, speech, writing, mathematics and technology, and create an impenetrably complex labyrinth of cultural artefacts. One among billions of these human artefacts is this song written by Rwandan poet and singer, Cecile Kayirebwa, which laments the victims of the Rwandan genocide.

Credit

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998. All references are to the 2000 Picador paperback edition.


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The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939–45 by Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman was born to Jewish parents in 1911 in Warsaw. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland 28 years later, in August 1939, Szpilman was already an accomplished classical pianist who worked giving live recitals on Warsaw Radio, as well as writing his own compositions.

This memoir was written immediately after the war, in 1945, and describes in mostly flat factual prose Szpilman’s terrible experiences of those years: the German siege of Warsaw, the long occupation, the creation of the Jewish ghetto, the two years he spent in it, how he escaped the deportation of most of the ghetto Jews to death camps, how he went into hiding and survived the terrible month of the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising, and his eventual freedom once the Germans had been driven out of the city by the advancing Red Army.

It moves very fast. Each of these periods is covered in just a few pages, the entire text is barely 180 pages long. He picks out telltale moments, sights he saw, atrocities he witnessed, just enough to paint a scene, to shock you, then moves on.

Szpilman was not a writer by profession or temperament. This is all to the good because it means his account is not weighed down by flowery descriptions or weighty socio-philosophical speculations. He just tells what he saw. If there’s one literary aspect or technique it is the note of bitter irony or sarcasm which regularly surfaces, often when he’s talking about the ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ of the bestial Germans, their mind-boggling cruelty and sadism, the rubber truncheons the SS lash out with which have razor blades at the end, the  bullwhips with ball bearings embedded in the leather (p.118) or the pervert who made anyone who misbehaved bend over, put their head between his thighs which he proceeded to crush as best he could while whipping their arse, till they fainted with pain (p.121).

The false hopes

It is upsetting to read the false hopes the Warsaw rumour mill generated as the Germans crossed the border into Poland, fought their way towards Warsaw, then besieged the city – early rumours that the Germans were being held and turned back, they were badly equipped, didn’t have enough fuel, later rumours that the French had even now attacked Germany, breached the Siegfried Line, the British were bombing Hamburg, the Americans would come to their aid any day now (p.38). Of course none of this happened. The Poles were utterly on their own.

The siege of Warsaw

A friend is sitting next to him in the bedroom of an apartment is killed by a shell splinter which comes through the window (p.40). He watches a horse and cart driven by an old working class man plod down a street during shelling, the driver pauses at a junction pondering which way to go, sets off down Zelazna Street, seconds later there’s a whizz, a dazzling burst of light, the explosion and when Szpilman can see and focus again, nothing but fragments of wood and red matter splattered all over the street (p.40). Bodies everywhere, a distressing number decapitated. Then it got worse.

Humiliating the Jews

Once the Germans had taken the city and established control, the slow encroachment on human rights. The Jews are made to wear armbands, forbidden from having savings over a minimal amount, all the rest must be deposited in accounts whose details were shared with the authorities. Random Jews are stopped and beaten in the street, or abducted in cars to be taken and beaten at police stations. Szpilman conveys what conventional history, concerned with statistics and ideology, often doesn’t: how Nazism, fascism generally, is a charter for bullies, the crude, bully-boy reality on the streets of drunk German soldiers enjoying their power to stop any Jews they want to, push then up against a wall, terrorise them, slap them, spit in their faces. If they put up a fight pull a gun and force them to their knees. Make them beg for their lives.

This happened to Szpilman. He, his father and brother were late returning from a friend’s apartment, broke the curfew and were caught by a German patrol in Zielmna Street, who pushed them up against a wall. Suddenly Szpilman heard weeping and realised it was his father on his knees begging for his sons’ lives. The German bullyboy asked them what they did for a living and when Szpilman replies ‘musicians’, the German lets them go, yelling after them they’re lucky that he is a musician too (p.53). Othertimes bored Germans might shoot begging Jews on the spot. The utter collapse of civilised behaviour, morality or ‘standards’.

Life of a sort continues. Szpilman earns money for his entire family (mum, dad, brother, two sisters) by playing piano in bars. Spring 1940 comes but no help from Poland’s ‘allies’. Instead in May the Germans suddenly invade Holland, Belgium and then attack France. Once again hopeful rumours spread of the Germans being held and turned back. One day Szpilman is about to begin a recital for friends when his sister runs in holding a newspaper carrying the massive headline PARIS FALLS! He lays his head on the piano and, for the first time his self-control snaps and he burst into tears (p.57).

The ghetto

In September 1940 the first transports carry some Jewish men off for labour camps. Others are deported to Germany as forced labour. Acquaintances are abducted in the street. In September signs go up indicating which streets would become part of the special Jewish quarter (the Germans ‘are too cultured and magnanimous a race’ to use the word ‘ghetto’, p.58). The walls are built. All the Jews of Warsaw are crammed into it – there is fierce competition for living space, legally or illegally acquired – and the gates close on 15 November 1940.

At its height as many as 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there,[6] in an area of 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi), with an average of 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager food rations. (Wikipedia)

Szpilman lived in the Warsaw Ghetto from November 1940 to July 1942 scraping a living playing piano at the handful of bars and restaurants which still managed to operate for the ghetto’s small circle of intelligentsia or better off, such as the Sztuka.

What he found hardest was the nightmare feeling of being shut in, trapped, when – just beyond the walls – the life of the city was going on as usual, ‘ordinary’ people were going to work, then afterwards to bars and cafés or for excursions into the countryside. But not for those in the ghetto. It was the psychological effects Szpilman found hardest.

Compared to the time that followed, these were years of relative calm, but they changed our lives into an endless nightmare, since we felt with our entire being that something dreadful would happen at any moment. (p.64)

Szpilman describes the stink and filth created by cramming hundreds of thousands of people into old, decaying, totally inadequate accommodation; the pathetic street markets and haggling about wretched damaged goods, which degenerated quickly into hordes of beggars clutching at the clothes of anyone decently dressed; the grey police vans taking suspects to Gestapo headquarters to have bones broken, kidneys ruptured, fingernails pulled out. With laconic bitterness, Szpilman describes this as ‘people hunting’, the Germans’ favourite sport.

He remembers the secret socialist organiser he met, confident Jehuda Zyskind who had a secret radio, assembled news reports smuggled in from outside, invited Szpilman round for an ever-cheerful briefing about the news… right up to the day he was caught red-handed by the Gestapo, with political reports all over the table, and was shot dead on the spot, along with his wife and all his children, ‘even little Symche, aged three’ (p.70). God, as Ian Kershaw repeatedly emphasises, Nazi rule represented the utter collapse of civilisation into inhuman barbarism, an unlimited charter for bullies, sadists and psychopaths.

Rumours

continue to circulate, wild conflicting rumours, about some Jews being sent to camps, wild rumours about Jews being gassed, more probable ones about the creation of a set number of ghettos in the major cities. Reading this, you realise – with a shock in my case – what it would really really be like to be very intelligent but to have no news whatever about anything that is going on: to be utterly deprived of every source of information, and so forced back into a teeming world of rumour and speculation.

Even official Nazi edicts didn’t necessarily mean anything, the Jews were initially terrified of them, for example the one forbidding the sale or purchase of bread under pain of death, and only slowly discovered lots of them were meaningless or never observed. While at the same time, anybody could be abducted off the street – ‘people hunting’ – for no reason or just shot out of hand.

He tells the story of the leading non-Jewish surgeon, Dr Raszeja, a leading specialist and university professor, who was called on to perform a difficult operation on the ghetto. German police headquarters had given him permission, he had a pass, he was allowed in, he was in the middle of the operation, when the SS burst into the flat where the operation was being performed, shot the patient on the table, then shot the professor and everyone else present (p.88).

Later, when he’s given work on one of the gangs demolishing the ghetto wall, as the vast majority of the 400,000-plus Jews are sent by train to a death camp (Treblinka), life and death continue to be as random. One day at the checkpoint out of the square where they’d been working a bored SS officer divided the work squad up, half to the left, half to the right. All those on the left had to life face down then the officer walked among them shooting them dead with his revolver. Then he let the ones to the right which, obviously included the narrator, continue on their way (p.114).

It was the psychotic irrationality of it all.

Survival

Szpilman survives, by a string of chances and accidents, the biggest of which is when he is rounded up with his family and sent to the vast open yard by the railway station, the Umschlagplatz, where they wait all day with no food or water in the blistering heat along with 8,000 other Jews, old and young, men and women, for the cattle train to arrive. As it does and the crowd surges forward, Szpilman and hid family among them, a hand grabs him from behind and pulls him out of the line, in fact jerks him through the line of Jewish police who are corralling everyone towards the trucks. A voice hisses, ‘Save yourself’ and he sees his father, looking round, make eye contact, try to smile and wave, and then he runs runs across the yard, through the now-open gates, back into the streets of the ghetto slips into a work squad being marched somewhere, goes on, makes his escape, is spotted by a distant relative, now a Jewish policeman working for the Germans, who pulls him aside and puts him up for the night.

Next day he goes to see the son of the new chairman of the Jewish Council (the previous chairman having committed suicide when he learned about the cattle trucks and death camps). This worthy gets Szpilman a job on a labour squad supposedly demolishing the ghetto walls. Rich people walk by, normal people, Aryans who stop and stare at the funny ‘Jews’. Some musician friends spot him, give him money. He buys black market food to take back into the ghetto proper and sell at a profit.

He’s moved through a series of other labouring jobs, turning into a clumsy useless hid carrier and mortar mixer on a succession of building projects where the Polish workers he works with, to some extent protect him. Just as winter 1942 is coming on, Szpilman twists his ankle carrying a load and is transferred to the stores which probably saved him from losing his fingers to frostbite.

Rumours circulate of another round of deportations but now some of the Jews inside the ghetto, considered vital to building and other work, start smuggling weapons in from the outside. Szpilman is leaving in a group to work when he hears shooting break out behind him. He and the other workers are housed by the Germans in temporary housing. Five days later, when they’re allowed to return they find widespread destruction and dead bodies but, surprisingly, the apartment he shares with a handful of others is in one piece and his few measly possessions.

A handsome young Jew, Majorek, had been allowed to go out to buy food for the inmates, and become a go-between with the broader Jewish resistance. Szpilman asks him to pass word to a couple he knew from the radio, and makes a simple escape plan. One evening at 5pm, as an SS officer arrives to inspect the stores, he takes advantage of the confusion among the German guards, slips out the building, takes off his Jewish armband, and walks through the gate into the city, where he rendezvous with his friend, who leads him hurriedly through the darkened streets, to his and his wife’s flat.

Szpilman is then passed on through a series of safe houses, though things remain dicey. The Germans are planning a census of the city which will involve the inspection of every single home. The friend whose flat he’s ended up in brings him news of the Allied victories in North Africa. Then news of the progress of the Warsaw Uprising, the refusal of the last Jews left in it to go quietly and their insistence on fighting the vastly better armed Germans to the death (19 April to 16 May 1943). Szpilman hears the rifle and artillery fire, sees smoke rising over the city for weeks, but plays no role at all, he is in hiding.

He is moved to another flat by the network of Polish Underground operatives but left in the care of one Szałas who, it turns out, take all his belongings, swearing to exchange them for food, and also cadges contributions from all Szpilman’s musical friends, but keeps the money for himself and only shows up once a fortnight or so with a handful of beans and oatmeal. Slowly Szpilman starves, eventually too get off his couch and comes down with jaundice. It is only the wife of one of his earlier protectors, Helena Lewicka, dropping by for a cup of tea and a catch-up who discovers him at deaths door and so hurries out and back with food.

All through the end of 1943 and spring of 1944 all houses are being watched, the Germans are instituting surprise searches, executing people in the street. Szpilman is moved to the last of his safe flats, in Aleja Niepodleglosci, a neighbourhood full of German administrative buildings and a German hospital. Nonetheless he experiences numerous false alarms as strangers hammer on the door or, on one occasion, a burglar tries to break in.

As 1944 progresses, the Germans’ military setbacks become more apparent. The catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 had been the turn of the tide, and slowly the Red Army advances. In September 1943 Italy surrendered. In June 1944 Helena visits him in the flat to tell him news has come through that the Allies have landed in Normandy.

The Warsaw Rising

1 August – 2 October 1944, a rising by the Polish underground resistance to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance but the Red Army, notoriously, stopped at the city’s outskirts and refused to help. Stalin was quite happy to watch the cream of the Polish resistance being exterminated. the Germans were doing his work for him. Their liquidation would make it easier for Stalin to impose his home-grown communist Polish administration in its place. And so the fighting lasted 63 days, street to street, house to house before the uprising was eventually, finally crushed.

16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded in the actual fighting, but as many as 200,000 Polish civilians died afterwards, mostly from mass executions. During the fighting approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Added to the damage suffered in the 1939 invasion and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in all over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when the Germans finally withdrew.

Szpilman gives us a kind of worm’s eye view of all this, trapped in the third floor flat of a friend, padlocked from the outside so as to keep the neighbours under the impression it is empty. Periodically Helena Lewicka’s woman friend appears with provisions. Otherwise he is completely trapped, has to remain silent and figure out what is going on from the street outside, namely some young men arrive with guns, fire at the German hospital, are fought off and then for day after day, all is mystery and confusion, people running up or down the street, lorries of soldiers pulling up and running into nearby buildings, the continual echo of gunfire around the city.

On 12 August Germans megaphone the inhabitants of his building to leave it, a tank fires a few shells into it, troops come running up the stairs, Szpilman grabs the stash of sleeping pills and opium he’s been given to deal with the after-effects of his jaundice (gall bladder problems), planning to swallow it all as the Germans smash down the door of the apartment. But thinks better of it, slips out the door and up the ladder into the attic space, kicks the ladder away. But the soldiers don’t make it up that far, not least because the ground floor is now on fire (p.155). Szpilman drops down from the attic and goes back into the flat but the fire isn’t dying down, it is raging up the stairwell and the smoke is becoming choking. So after five years of surviving in the ghetto, eluding the death camp transports, and hiding in a succession of safe houses, this is how he’s going to die – burned to death. He takes all the sleeping pills and passes out on the sofa.

He awakes. He is alive. The pills weren’t that strong but he is weak and the flat is full of smoke. He opens the red hot doorhandle, jumps over the bloated carbonised corpse on the next landing down and stumbles through the smoke and flames to the ground floor and outside. He hides amid foliage against a wall and hears Germans on the other side.

Clearly the house is about to collapse at any moment. On the other side of Aleja Niepodleglosci is the huge, half-completed hospital which will have stores of some kind. He crawls across the wide avenue, between the corpses, freezing every time Germans go by. Once inside the hospital he searches high and low but can find no food anywhere for days and days, getting weaker, he makes a hideaway in a lumber room and is terrified when the Germans come and search the hospital several times.

Finally he goes back to his burned-out building where he discovers some bathtubs full of rancid water and a few rusks in a half burned larder. Several times Ukrainian soldiers, even more brutal and sadistic than the Germans, search and ransack the building, Szpilman hiding in the burned-out attic. Later he watches the broad avenue lined with Germans as the escort demoralised civilians, marching them out of the city. The guards pull random men out of the bedraggled marchers and shoot them on the spot. Drop by drop Szpilman watches the city’s population leak away.

Autumn comes on, day after day goes by. Looters come into the abandoned city, one even begins climbing the stairs of  Szpilman’s house till  Szpilman roars out in German, terrifying the scrounger away. One day he sees a German patrol capture some looters, question them, put four up against a wall and execute them there and then, tell the others to dig graves, bury them, get out, never come back.

Worse is to come. He bumps into a German soldier in his ruined house but manages to bribe his way out of it by offering a half bottle of spirits he has found. The soldier is back in ten minutes with an NCO but Szpilman climbs up onto the tiles of the roof. The Germans search, fail to find him and leave. Szpilman takes to hiding out on the roof during the day and going down at night to hunt for food. But one day bullets fly overhead. Soldiers on the roof of the hospital opposite are shooting at him (p.172). He climbs in off the roof, scarpers down the stairs, out a back way, along a deserted street and into another ruined building.

There’s another encounter when he sees a crew of Poles walking down the street and rushes out to talk to someone, to hear someone’s voice, but realises something is wrong. He makes his excuses and deliberately lets them see him going into a completely different house. Sure enough 15 minutes later their leader is back with German soldiers who search the fake house and all its neighbours but don’t find him (p.175).

Finally, a few days later, he is foraging in one of the rooms of the ‘new’ house when he hears a German voice addressing him. Weak and at the end of his rope, Szpilman slumps down and gives up. But, to his amazement, the German is sympathetic. He asks what Szpilman does and when he replies ‘pianist takes him through the wrecked rooms to a music room with a piano and asks him to play. Szpilman plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor and that is the title of the 18th and final chapter in the book.

To his amazement the officer warns him that the Warsaw fortress unit is about to move into the building. He helps him find a much better hiding place in a kind of loft hidden above the attic and returns a few days later with a package containing bread and jam, undreamed of luxuries for Szpilman (p.179).

The German tells him the Red Army is on the other side of the Vistula and order, orders him to hold out. He explains his shame at being German. He is, Szpilman writes, the only human being Szpilman met wearing a German uniform. Szpilman is trapped in his loft as the building really is taken over by an administrative unit of the army but he stays safe in his hidey hole. On 12 December the officer slips up to the attic to see him for the last time and tells him the Red Army is at the gates, the Germans are pulling out. They shake hands. On impulse Szpilman tells him his name and to get in touch if he ever needs him (p.181).

The Germans do indeed pull out. Szpilman is left in the empty unheated house in the depth of a Polish winter. He has to thaw ice against his body to get drinking water. Rats run over his face at night. He is lonelier that Robinson Crusoe, the sole inhabitant of an abandoned city.

Then he hears voices, women’s voices! He rushes downstairs and a terrified woman shouts ‘German’ and soldiers turn and fire a machine gun burst at him. Of course, he’s wearing the German greatcoat the German gave him! He throws it off and yells in Polish that he’s Polish. Eventually they believe him, take him to a hospital. Wash. Rest. Food. Above all – freedom from fear.

Two weeks later he is strong enough to go for a walk and explore the incomprehensible ruins of Warsaw, once one of the most elegant and well-off cities of Europe, a city of one and a half million people, now a vast panorama of snow-covered ruins.


In this 1998 edition there are three addenda to the main, original text, which all shed a lot more light on the German officer who appeared right at the end of the story and probably saved Szpilman’s life.

Postscript

Just two weeks later Szpilman is visited by a colleague from Polish Radio, Zygmunt Lednicki. Immediately after the war ended Lednicki had made his way back to his home town, Warsaw, on foot (there was no transport of any kind. En route he passed a camp full of German prisoners of war, behind a barbed wire fence patrolled by Red Army guards. Lednicki couldn’t resist going over and shouting at the Germans, pointing out that they claimed to be a nation of culture and yet they had ruined Poland and ruined him, a musician, taking away his violin and destroying his livelihood. A feverish German officer pushes through the crowd at the wire and asks Lednicki if he knows a pianist named Szpilman. Yes, replies Lednicki. ‘I looked after him, I saved him’, says the German, ‘Please get him to come and rescue me from this hellhole’.

But by the time Lednicki meets Szpilman and tells him this story it is too late. They travel back to the POW camp but it has gone, its new whereabouts a military secret. Szpilman had deliberately never asked the German officer his name in case he was caught and gave it away under torture, so now he doesn’t know how to track him down, and so it remained a regret for several years, until…

Afterword by Wolf Biermann

The 1998 German edition contained an afterword by Wolf Bierman. According to a brief biographical note Bierman is ‘one of Germany’s best-known poets, song-writers and essayists’. He was born in Hamburg, his father was a shipworker, a communist and a Jew who was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war Bierman headed East, deliberately wanting to live in the new communist regime, but he became critical of it, the regime banned his works in 1965, and in 1975 expelled him to the West.

The point of this afterword is for Bierman to tell us more about the German officer, a lot more. A series of accidents led to him being identified as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. We learn that he served in the First World War and then worked as a teacher. His grown-up children testify to his way with kids. But Biermann adduces testimony from other eye-witnesses including several other adult Polish Jews who Biermann saved from certain death. It builds up into an impressive testimonial.

Not only this, but it was discovered that Hosenfeld was still alive and in a prisoner of war camp in Russia for seven years after the war. His wife was receiving letters from him, in one of which he lists the Poles and Jews he saved in Poland and included Szpilman on the list. Hosenfeld’s wife contacted Szpilman. Szpilman went to meet her in Germany, then returned to Poland and lobbied the head of the Polish security service, ‘a bastard’, who went off and carried out further investigations before summoning Szpilman to tell him said there was little he could do. If Hosenfeld had been in Poland, fine, but he is now in the Soviet Union, in the gulag system somewhere, and so…

So his family continue to get scattered news about him and then, seven years after the end of the war, learn that Hosenfeld died of injuries and beatings in a Soviet gulag.

Part of a memoir by Wilm Hosenfeld

Before the end of the war Hosenfeld had sent his wife two secret diaries in which he recorded his private thoughts, which were contemptuous and dismissive of the entire National Socialist regime. This edition contains 15 pages of these diary entries.

Conclusion

On the whole, I wish none of these appendices were in the book. They very considerably interfere with its original narrative arc, which hurtles with ever-growing speed and tension towards the bleak final vision of recovered Szpilman staggering through the ruins of his home town – and with its purity of tone. It is a straightforward factual account of what one man saw and experienced.

Then you turn a page and suddenly it turns into an Amnesty International appeal for the release of a Soviet prisoner, something completely different, a different subject (Stalinist terror, the gulags) from a different era (the Cold War), and the record of another man’s life and opinions.

Its worst impact is to undermine or dilute the burning anger, the horror and the disgust which I think any normal reader is very, very justified feeling against the Germans as a people and a nation.

The movie

As you might know, the book was made into a major motion picture, The Pianist, released in 2002, produced and directed by Roman Polanski, with a script by Ronald Harwood, and starring Adrien Brody.

It won a whole slew of awards, including the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Oscars for Best Director (Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Harwood), and Best Actor (Brody), the 2003 BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Direction, and seven French Césars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It is an awesome, harrowing film, which rearranges and simplifies some of the sequences, but for the most part is accurate in events and certainly in spirit to Szpilman’s terrifying account.

Credit

The book has a slightly tangled history. It was first published in Polish in 1946 as Śmierć Miasta. Pamiętniki Władysława Szpilmana 1939–1945 (Death of a City: Memoirs of Władysław Szpilman 1939–1945), edited by Jerzy Waldorff, a Polish music critic and friend of Szpilman’s, but this text was quickly quashed by the Soviet-controlled authorities.

Over 40 years later, a German translation by Karin Wolff appeared in 1998, Das wunderbare Überleben: Warschauer Erinnerungen (The Miraculous Survival: Warsaw Memories). The following year this his German version appeared in an English translation by Anthea Bell, titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45.

All references are to the 2002 Phoenix paperback version of the Bell translation.


Holocaust reviews

The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze (2006)

If we are to do justice to the Third Reich we must seek to understand it in its own terms. (p.147)

This is a massive book – 676 pages of text, 10 pages of tables, 84 pages of notes, a 25-page index = some 800 pages in total.

Tooze deploys a mind-boggling amount of research and analysis to give a really thorough economic history of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945. After a brief review of the economic woes of the Weimar Republic (huge reparations to the Allies, hyperinflation, the Dawes Plan) and the complicated series of events around 1931 when America and Britain came off the gold standard, devalued their currencies and began to enact protectionist policies – we arrive at January 1933 when a small group of Germany’s ruling class decided to make Hitler Chancellor on the assumption that they’d be able to control him.

The next 500 pages give a minutely detailed account of the Nazis’ economic policies, from the fiscal or financial level (they reneged on reparations to America, Britain and France, although the details are fiendishly complicated), through industrial strategy (subsidies to industry which then, however, had to do the Nazis bidding in areas like car and airplane manufacture) and agriculture (where Tooze sheds fascinating light on the problems of a still mostly agricultural economy, split into millions of small farms, with an ageing population).

Like anyone who studies a subject really intensively, Tooze’s account tends to undermine accepted myths or accepted wisdom if in part simply because accepted wisdom, by its very nature, tends to be simplistic – in order to be teachable, in order to be memorable – whereas the level of detail Tooze goes into reveals every element of Nazi policy to have been more complicated, contingent and compromised than we read in textbooks or watch on documentaries.

Agriculture

And Tooze takes evident pleasure in overturning received opinion. For example, he says the Nazis’ emphasis on ‘blood and soil’ has for a long time been interpreted as a regressive, turning-the-clock back fantasy on the part of an alienated urbanised society which wanted to return to some kind of peasant utopia. But Tooze devotes a chapter to explaining that Germany was, despite our generalised images of the Nazis’ massed rallies, of bully boys smashing Jewish shop windows in Berlin or Munich, associations of big factories and BMWs, still a predominantly agricultural society in 1939. Factoring in small shopkeepers and workshops who provided goods and equipment to farmers, around 56% of the German population worked on the land. So the Nazi rhetoric of blood and soil was addressing an actual economic and social reality.

Lebensraum

Tooze is at pains to explain Nazi economic policy in the context of the wider system of global capitalism and imperialism, and this is often very illuminating.

Tooze gives a sympathetic reading of Hitler’s analysis of the global economy in the 1920s as expounded in Mein Kampf (1924), and also in ‘Hitler’s Second Book’ (1928), a follow-up full of more anti-Semitic rantings, which he wrote but which was never published. A manuscript was discovered in a safe in Germany in the 1960s and published.

In these works Hitler acknowledges that America has become by the 1920s the dominant economy in the world because its settlers were able to expand across its enormous land area and the huge amount of natural resources it contained – coal, iron, all the metals, endless supplies of timber etc, all of which could be utilised by a population twice the size of Germany’s (America’s 130 million to Germany’s 85 million).

The next greatest economic power was Britain which, although it had a smaller population (46 million) of course possessed a vast and farflung empire a) from which it imported a cornucopia of raw materials b) to which it could export a) its goods, at a guaranteed profit and b) its surplus population, with hundreds of thousands leaving to find a better life in Australia, New Zealand or Canada (where my aunt and her new husband emigrated just after the war).

Even France, Germany’s neighbour, had only half the population of Germany (41 million) while being twice the size (France today is approximately 551,500 sq km, Germany approximately 357,022 sq km), plus the advantages of an overseas empire from which it imported cheap raw materials and to which, like Britain, it could export its surplus population.

Thus, by the mid 1920s, Hitler had reached a simple conclusion – Germany needed more land – and a simple strategy, the Drang nach Osten or push eastward.

In fact this was quite an old idea, having originated among a number of nationalist and right-wing German thinkers in the late-nineteenth century. What was new was Hitler’s determination to carry it out by violence, and the extreme brutality of his plan to not only conquer Poland and push into western Russia, but to subjugate their native Slavic populations as slaves as part of the horrifying Generalplan Ost.

Hitler’s success

As it was, by mid-1939, despite the mire of economic challenges the regime had faced (poor balance of payments deficit, lack of raw materials, housing shortage, crisis in agricultural production, and many more), by a series of extraordinary diplomatic bluffs, Hitler had achieved what no other Germany leader, even the great Bismarck had managed, namely the creation of the Greater Germany of the nationalists’ dreams (incorporating Austria and the Sudetenland), and all without firing a shot (it took Bismarck two wars to create a united Germany, climaxing in the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War).

But all the time Tooze is showing the toll it took on the domestic economy and the frantic juggling behind the scenes among ministries and officials, to try and prevent inflation, preserve the value of the Reichsmark, ensure a decent standard of living for the population while all the time trying to fulfil Hitler and Goering’s enormous wishes for wholesale rearmament.

Familiar and unfamiliar

So Tooze points out counter-intuitive facts (the largely agricultural nature of Germany) which you hadn’t quite grasped before. He goes into massive detail about, for example, the various policy options open to Germany’s finance minister to try and boost exports, improve balance of payments, bolster the currency, and sets all these amid the wider and constantly changing international economic scene, from the gold standard crisis of 1931, through the revival of the global economy in the later 1930s, and then the beginnings of a slowdown in 1939.

All this is new, and puts the main events in a rich and thoughtful context. Also we are introduced to a range of Germany businessmen, financiers and party officials whose internecine fights and feuds helped to shape the Nazi regime, men like the famous Ferdinand Porsche, but also Hjalmar Schacht, President of the National Bank (Reichsbank) 1933–1939, who opposed the scale of Nazi rearmament, was eventually dismissed in 1939, then arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1944. Or Richard Walther Darré, Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942 and also a high-ranking functionary in the SS.

The pen portraits Tooze gives of these key players, and the extraordinary depth with which he describes and investigates the Nazi economy, enrich your understanding, really bring it to life not as the dark legend we carry in our minds, but a congeries of overlapping and competing bureaucracies, the jostling for money and influence, all set against the fraught context of Hitler pushing the pace and ratcheting up the tension in international affairs.

And yet, stepping back, I didn’t feel Tooze changed the overall narrative much. Germany is prostrate from depression and reparations. Hitler comes to power in the back of mass unemployment. The backroom deal which made him chancellor turned out to be a wild miscalculation. He blames all Germany’s woes on the Jews and immediately sets about overthrowing the Versailles agreement. Through the mid to late 1930s he calls the bluff of the Western powers (Britain and France). Astonishes everyone with the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the invasion of Poland. During the war, from humble makepiece beginnings, a vast network of forced labour and concentration camps is constructed, which is never as productive as its planners hope. Defeat in Russia in 1942 leads inexorably to the defeat of the Reich, but the war is prolonged by the superb fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht and the ability of German armaments industries to struggle through their chaotic mismanagement by the Nazi hierarchy and pour out an astonishing stream of tanks, guns and ammunition almost until the very end.

Tooze’s book deepens and complexifies your understanding of these events, gives names and biographies of the key players, in the Nazi Party, the world of finance and the industrialists who made it possible and, at various key points (what I found most interesting) puts you in the shoes, enters the mindset of the Nazi leaders, to help you understand the choices they faced once they’d set off down their fateful road.

But stepping right back, I don’t think this long detailed and rather exhausting book fundamentally changes your overall understanding of what happened, or why.


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Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1962)

‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else, what are world wars for?’ (p.86)

Mother Night purports to be the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr., born 1912 (p.17) who goes to Germany in 1923, along with his family when his dad gets a job with the Berlin branch of General Electric (p.18) and so grows up fluent in German.

The three-page introduction by Vonnegut uses the hokey old strategy of claiming that the author is merely presenting the authentic papers of a genuine historical figure, which he has edited and corrected in various detail. This is both designed to give hokey plausibility to the narrative’s provenance while drawing attention to its artificiality. Just one of the numerous meta-fictional devices Vonnegut uses here and throughout his career.

Howard W. Campbell Jnr

The main text starts bluntly enough and very much in the tradition of much 19th century fiction:

My name is Howard W. Campbell Jnr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination. (p.3)

As he came of age in Nazi Germany (he turns 21 in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power) Campbell set out to make a living as a writer, producing so-so plays and poems throughout the 1930s and marrying a German wife, the actress Helga Noth, daughter of Berlin’s Chief of Police. The glamorous young couple find themselves invited to society parties and so meeting, among others, many of the leaders of the Nazi Party, notably Joseph Goebbels.

The text purports to be a memoir written in 1961 in prison in Israel where Campbell has recently been brought after living quietly in Greenwich Village, New York since the end of the war, because Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s main achievement in life was to become a traitor to his country and a war criminal by broadcasting hard core, anti-Semitic, anti-American Nazi propaganda from Berlin right till the end of the war. Although we are not told till the end of the book how he ended up there, he is now in the custody of the Israeli authorities who are about to put him on trial for war crimes.

The memoir uses Vonnegut’s familiar approach of not giving a chronological approach to Campbell’s life, but ranging far and wide over his former life, to pick out key moments and scenes. Thus, in what is effectively a series of fragments, we learn that:

In Israel

  • Campbell is writing the memoir for Mr Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals.
  • He describes the characters of the four very different Israeli guards who do the different shifts of guarding him – Andor Gutman who spent two years in Auschwitz, Arpad Kovacs who survived the war by pretending to be a good Aryan and joining the SS.

In Nazi Germany

  • It was Campbell who introduced Goebbels – and through him, Hitler – to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Half way through the war Helga was entertaining the German troops in the Crimea when the Crimea is overrun by the Russians. She was never heard from again, presumed dead.
  • Towards the end of the war Campbell borrowed the beloved motorbike of his best friend Heinz Schildknecht and went to visit his father-in-law, Werner Noth, in his big house on the outskirts of Berlin. Werner was having all the contents loaded on a cart and sent with his wife and other daughter, 10-year-old Resi, to Cologne. Werner asks Campbell to shoot the family dog, which Campbell did. 10-year-old Resi says she loves him (Campbell). Fine. He gets on his motorbike and tries to escape the advancing Russians.
  • In 1945 Campbell was captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army who drives him to the nearby and newly-liberated concentration camp of Ohrdruf, where he is photographed in front of the camp gallows (now full of former camp guards), a photo which makes the front cover of Life magazine and makes Campbell notorious.

In New York

  • Campbell is released by the American authorities and goes to live in New York. His mother and father had gone back to America just before war broke out, but they both die within 24 hours of each other of heart disease before the end of the war, and Howard has inherited their fortune.
  • Campbell’s downstairs neighbour in Greenwich Village is a young doctor named Abraham Epstein; he doesn’t care about the war, but his mother was in Auschwitz and recognises Campbell, who plays dumb.
  • In his loneliness, Campbell gets to know another neighbour, George Kraft, by playing chess with him. Little does he know that Kraft is in fact a Russian spy, real name Colonel Iona Potapov.
  • The beginning of the end comes when Campbell finds his mailbox stuffed with neo-Nazi literature, namely The White Christian Minuteman edited by the reverend Lionel L.D. Jones, D.D.S.
  • There’s also a letter from the American soldier who arrested him 16 years earlier, Bernard B. O’Hare, who threatens to pay him a visit and administer the punishment he so richly deserves.
  • How did they track him down? Kraft, the Russian spy. Over the months Campbell got to trust him and spill parts of his story. It was Kraft who contacted the neo-Nazis and O’Hare. Why? In order to force him to flee, so that he can be kidnapped by Russian security forces (see below).
  • Dr Jones comes to visit along with a couple of other American Nazis and… to Campbell’s amazement, his long-lost wife Helga. He gets rid of the others and he and Helga have riotous sex, just like back in the good times in Berlin. It’s only when he takes Helga shopping for a king-sized double bed like the one they used to have, that she drops the bombshell that she is not Helga – she is the kid sister, Resi, all grown up 🙂

Throughout the memoir Campbell claims he is innocent. He claims he was recruited for American intelligence by a Major Frank Wirtanen, who taught him how to leave pauses, gaps, coughs etc during his radio broadcasts, which conveyed valuable information to the American intelligence.

Trouble is the American government now (1961) refuses to confirm or deny Campbell’s story, and there are no records anywhere of this Major Wirtanen.

The deeper trouble is that Campbell himself is torn by his schizophrenia. Although he may have been an American agent he did, nonetheless, say those things over the radio. In his memoir he damns himself even more by pointing out various anti-Semitic ideas and pictures which he also contributed to the Nazi cause. He has no doubt that he was guilty of doing those things. Although he is also certain he was working for the Americans.

A book of two halves

Mother Night represents a drastic change from the mind-bending science fiction of The Sirens of Titan, coming freighted, as it does, with a lot of historical research, and a feel for the German language and German society (presumably drawing on the fact that Vonnegut himself was of German stock).

When the story is close to the Nazis and wartime Europe it is interesting. When it is more about the eccentric neo-Nazis in modern New York it feels like bubblegum comedy, like an early draft for Mel Brooks’s gross-out comedy, The Producers (‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany’).

The tone changes significantly and, in my opinion, for the worse, after Campbell is confronted and beaten up by an American soldier as he returns to his apartment building from that bed shopping trip with Resi, now that his identity is out. He is beaten to the ground and kicked in the head and loses consciousness.

When he wakes up it is in the house of Dr Jones, in the company of Kraft the Russian spy, along with some other grotesques, Father Keeley, a Catholic priest and Fascist, and the improbable figure of the ‘black Führer of Harlem’.

Somehow the book has turned into something like an episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., utterly implausible and unserious. When he was describing Campbell’s brief meeting with Dr Goebbels he was, I think, on his best behaviour. It is slyly satirical (the idea that Hitler would actually admire the Gettysburg Address) but at bottom serious.

Now it feels like an episode of Scooby-Doo with brightly coloured cartoon characters running round abandoned buildings.

Jones and Kraft tell him they’ve got a plan which is to abandon America completely and all fly to Mexico City.

In a farcical scene they invite Campbell to address a cohort of six-foot blonde American boys who have formed ‘the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution’.

Campbell is giving a little speech from the stage in the basement of the building when the lights go down and he is disconcerted to hear one of his own wartime broadcasts being played (which gives us, the readers, an opportunity to savour his anti-Semitic Nazi rhetoric in full).

While the lights are down someone slips a message into Campbell’s pocket. Later he sneaks a look and it is a message from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen to come meet him in a shop opposite.

Campbell makes his excuses for going for a stroll and suspiciously approaches the shutdown shop opposite but Wirtanen is waiting for him, alone and unarmed.

Here Wirtanen informs him the Kraft is a Russian spy and so is Resi. They will all fly to Mexico City where Campbell will immediately be kidnapped and flown to Moscow. Why? So the Soviets can try a high-profile war criminal and show how such criminals are allowed to live freely in the West.

Wirtanen warns Campbell that the safe house they’re all in is about to be raided. Back on the street, Campbell realises he has nowhere else to go and so walks back to the house. Here he confronts Resi and Kraft with their plan which they immediately admit – at which point American FBI agents burst in.

Now, John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was published just a year after Mother Night and even a moment’s mental comparison shows you that Vonnegut is not really interested in being serious. He is not interested in plot or suspense or dramatic climaxes.

If you call to mind the fiendish elaborateness of Le Carré’s plot and the depth of psychological duelling which it describes, and behind it all the sense of something really important at stake i.e. the survival of a high-level Western spy in the East German security machine – it throws Vonnegut’s bubble gum cartoon into vivid relief.

There is nothing remotely like that here.

The entire idea that Campbell was somehow transmitting secrets in his Nazi broadcasts is nonsense. Via a set of coughs and pauses? Rubbish. Vonnegut makes a half-arsed attempt to clarify it by having Wirtanen say that no fewer than seven women agents died getting him the information, but we never understand how that information reached Campbell or how it was codified into this nonsensical idea of coughs and pauses. He himself never explains how it was done, how he met these ‘agents’, how he turned their messages into code, the difficulty of staging the alleged coughs and pauses. It’s rubbish, a flimsy pretext.

When Campbell tells Resi that he knows she is a Russian spy she makes a rubbish speech about how she really, genuinely loves him and had asked Kraft to change the plan to protect him. But now she sees his love is dead she has no reason to go on living. So she takes a cyanide pill and collapses dead in his arms.

This isn’t serious. It is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The novel dissolves into fragments. While the others are arrested and taken away, Campbell, on Wirtanen’s permission is released.

He doesn’t know where to go and only a cop asking him to move along prompts him to drift back to his old apartment building. This has been trashed by various American patriots.

Campbell has a disconnected conversation with another cop, who tells him his own father was killed at Iwo Jima and how he reckons it’s all to do with chemicals in the brain, which affect our moods, can make us feel up or down, and maybe explain the different behaviour of different cultures. It’s call chemicals (a subject to be developed at length in Vonnegut’s later novel, Breakfast of Champions).

Upstairs in the ruins of his apartment (comprehensively trashed by American patriots once news about who he was has spread) Campbell is confronted by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army. He is drink but has dressed very correctly in uniform as he thinks he is fulfilling the military duty of killing Campbell which he should have performed 15 years earlier.

Vonnegut gives a good little cameo to O’Hare, having him admit how disappointing post-war life has been with his wife producing baby after baby and all his business plans coming to nothing. Vonnegut makes us see how O’Hare hopes to redeem all his failures in life and business by beating up Campbell, maybe killing him. But O’Hare is out of shape and drunk. As he lunges towards Campbell, our man beats down hard with a pair of fire tongs and breaks his arm. After some ineffective dodging and weaving Campbell forces O’Hare out into the hall where the latter copiously throws up, then staggers back down the stairs.

Campbell stands there, his life reduced to ashes. No wife, no lover, no friends, no cause, no help, and the entire country against him.

He has a brainwave and goes and hands himself into his young neighbour Abraham Epstein. Except it’s by now quite late at night and Epstein doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t care. Campbell insists he wants to hand himself over to the Israeli authorities. Epstein replies, well go along to the embassy tomorrow. But Campbell wants something decisive to happen now.

I suppose this is farcical but it didn’t strike me as very funny. Eventually Epstein’s mother phones three Jewish men friends who turn up and keep ‘guard’ on Campbell till the morning. She understands his need to confess, to come clean and for someone else simply to take over his life.

Suicide

And so the final pages cut to Campbell in the Israeli prison. There is a comic recap of the various witnesses for and against him, plus his lawyer who, like all lawyers, is costing him a fortune. He wakes up and has got three letters, two of them farcical (one from a company called Creative Playthings wanting his financial support).

But the third is from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen who says he does exist, he did work for the American army, Campbell really worked for him and is an American patriot, and he will say so in court under oath.

Campbell looks up from the letter.

So I am about to be a free man again, to wander where I please.
I find the prospect nauseating.

And so in the remaining seven pages of the book, he decides he will hang himself for crimes against himself. The book’s last words are:

Goodbye cruel world.
Auf wiedersehen?

By this stage I had completely stopped taking Campbell or his fate seriously.

Thoughts

1. Vonnegut’s wisdom

As the 1960s went on Vonnegut gave in more and more to the temptation to lard his books with insights and wisdom and sayings. In this, his third novel, this tendency is mostly reined in, though various morals and meanings and precepts and proverbs about life and the world still slip through:

Oh, God – the lives people try to lead.
Oh, God – what a world they try to lead them in!

In the preface he tells us that ‘the moral of the story’ is:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Although it might also be:

When you’re dead you’re dead.

And another one springs to mind:

Make love when you can. It’s good for you.

This tendency to buttonhole us with his folksy wisdom – and not to be able to stop – was to run riot through his books as the 1960s progressed.

2. The Nazis and leading a double life

As to any serious thoughts about the Nazis, or Eichmann, or the nature of evil, or patriotism, and the separate theme of living a double life, epitomised by the figure of ‘the spy’ – Mother Night prompts none. It is a kind of comic fantasia without thoughts or consequences.

There are serious books on these subjects and if you seriously want to understand them, you should read those.

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

3. Eichmann

The main thing it left me thinking was this: at one stage Campbell says he is being kept in the same prison as Adolf Eichmann, and several times they have brief conversations, in which Eichmann comes over as calm and serene.

Now Eichmann had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service Mossad, and was brought back to Jerusalem to undergo a very high-profile trial, before being found guilty and hanged in 1 June 1962.

The trial was widely followed in the media and was later the subject of several books, including Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. (Wikipedia)

Serious commentators around the world, politicians and philosophers, were writing long earnest articles about the Eichmann trial. I’d love to know how many of them even noticed this half-comic novel by a little-known American novelist, and what – given the seriousness of the issues being discussed – any of them thought of his rather shallow, comical treatment of them.

My opinion is: Mother Night starts promisingly but then disintegrates into cartoon capers larded with two-penny, ha’penny folk wisdom. In his later novels Vonnegut would find subjects and a form (more fragmented and studiedly meta-fictional, more open-ended and gossipy) which were much better suited to the kind of writer he is obviously, even in this early book, straining to be.

Credit

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was published in 1962 by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books. All references are to the Vintage paperback edition.


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Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Remembering the Kindertransport: 80 Years On @ The Jewish Museum

To mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the Jewish Museum in Camden is hosting two small but moving exhibitions.

The Kindertransport

‘Kinder’ is simply the German word for ‘children’, so the Kindertransport was the name given to the scheme whereby, in 1938-39, the British government allowed 10,000 Jewish and other ‘non-Aryan’ children from occupied Europe to come to Britain.

Earlier in the 1930s Britain had had a tough immigration policy, but that changed after the notorious Krystallnacht of November 1938, but the Kindertransport scheme was still very restrictive. Jewish lobbies brought pressure on the government to allow Jews up to the age of 17 to come to Britain without their parents, and on condition they would not cost the taxpayer.

Main room

Around the wall of the main exhibition room are photos of half a dozen grown-up Kindertransport children, now in their 80s or 90s. Photos of Ann, Bea, Bernd, Bob, Elsa and Ruth are accompanied by labels, replicas of the kind of labels which were attached to them when they arrived in Britain all those years ago.

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

The children escaped Nazi persecution, but they went through painful separations from their family, most of whom they never saw again. The parents had to find a British sponsor to cover the costs of hosting their child. In many cases this was done by British Jewish and non-Jewish charities under the lead of the Children’s Refugee Movement.

Not only teenagers, but toddlers and even babies were sent over. Often parents learned that their child had a place only days before the boat departed, leading to rushed and incomplete farewells. Most of the Kinder travelled by train through Holland, then by ferry to Harwich, before being taken on to London and greeted by the charity workers who then allotted them their placement.

Some children came to stay with relatives, but most lived with host families, or in children’s homes or hostels. The treatment of the Kinder varied from loving and nurturing through to surprisingly rough physical and economic exploitation. Some hosts and homes made no bones about the fact that the Kinder were going to have to work to earn their keep.

In 1940, when the Germans overran France and threatened to invade Britain, many of the Kinder found themselves evacuated yet again, this time to the countryside. And about 1,000 of the Kinder over the age of 18 were briefly interned as ‘enemy aliens’. Can you imagine the trauma!

On four big video screens are extensive interviews with Ann, Bea, Bernd, Bob, Elsa and Ruth , describing the pain of separation from family members, and the difficulty of fitting into an entirely new environment, with its new language and customs.

The films focus on the themes of ‘Life Before’, ‘Goodbyes’ and ‘New beginnings’. There are also a few display cases showing items like a hairbrush, a German-English dictionary, a Passover haggadah – the flotsam and jetsam of a terrible time.

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

Installation view of Remembering the Kindertransport at the Jewish Museum

On my visit the place was packed out with a school trip, working through one of those schoolkids’ worksheets which asks them to find facts and figures and ideas and issues among the various displays. That must surely be the focus of the exhibition – passing on history to the young generation. And above all the key message: Never again. Never again that kind of racism, intolerance and stupidity.

Still in Our Hands: Kinder Life Portraits

Up a few stairs, in the museum’s café, is a separate but related photographic exhibition. It consists of archival photographs and portraits by Dr Bea Lewkowicz of former Kindertransportees who were interviewed by the AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive.

The portraits in this little display show the connection between then and now, in each portrait the modern adult holding a back and white image of themselves as a child.

Some of the Kindertransport children, as adults

Some of the Kindertransport children, as adults

The 10,000 Kinder who came to Great Britain found themselves in the hands of a number of different agencies, governments, voluntary organisations, foster families and individual sponsors. In the words of one of interviewee, the Kinder were ‘thrown around by the tides of history’. Yet many not only survived, but thrived, going on to build extremely successful lives in their host country.

A small but thought-provoking exhibition in another time of mass flight and refugees.

A Kindertransport survivor remembers…


Related links

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

In front of us those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.
(Night, page 28)

Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel was 15 when the authorities in his Hungarian hometown, Sighet, rounded up all the Jews and forced them into a tiny ghetto. A few months later, with terrifying suddenness, the Germans arrived, arrested all the Jewish elders, packed the rest of the population into cattle trucks and sent them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

On arrival men and women were separated in a matter of minutes, then marched off to their separate dooms, to be stripped naked, forced into the gas chamber, then incinerated in the crematoria. The bewildered boy watched his mother and sister lined up with the other women and marched off, and that was the last he ever saw of them. Wiesel and his father were selected for labour and sent to a men’s barracks where he survived, enduring privations and the anguish of watching his father’s steady deterioration.

In August 1944 he and his dad are transferred to Buna camp where the entire focus of existence becomes getting enough food. They witness terrible scenes. Hangings, shootings. There is the terrifying ordeal of a ‘selection’, all the inmates passing naked before the legendary Dr Mengele, his pencil hovering, ready to add your number to those selected for gassing. Eliezer and his father pass. Then Eliezer develops an infected foot and is sent to the infirmary. He is terrified they will amputate his leg, but it is only an abscess which needs lancing.

Only days later, with the same suddenness, the same midnight panic, the Block elders announce the Russians are now close, so the Germans are evacuating the camp. It is January 1945, the depths of bitter frozen winter, when Eliezer and his father join the 60,000 inmates who are driven on a death march west. Cold, snow, thousands not walking but jogging, forced to run by hundreds of SS guards with machine guns. Respite in a snowed-in ruined factory, prisoners falling asleep in the snow never to rise. Then roll call and more jogging, the body an empty machine, cold, the pain, arriving at a new camp named Gleiwitz, bodies collapsing on each other, squeezing out breath and life.

Someone had lain on top of me, smothering me. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth or my nose. Sweat was running down my forehead and my back. This was it; the end of the road. Silent death, suffocation. No way to scream, to call for help. (p.94)

Three days in the derelict camp without food or water. Many die. They can hear the cannons of the advancing Russians. Then the SS rouse them and march them further west, to the middle of a field by a railway. They are packed into open-roofed cattle trucks, 100 per truck, which travel in bitter cold under the snow. Most die of exposure and are thrown out of the trucks. Light-headed, weak, hallucinating, starving, it is always night, the freezing snow is everywhere. Eliezer slaps his father to keep him awake, to stop him being stripped and thrown overboard. They pass through German towns, German workers throw bread into the wagons and Eliezer watches people literally fight to the death for scraps of bread. Someone tries to strangle him. Night. Snow. Someone dies, someone else starts keening and before long the entire wagon is a frozen hell of corpses and keening wailing lost souls.

Amazingly, Eliezer and his father are just about alive when they arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. 100 entered their wagon. 12 leave.

Everyone is starving. Everyone is dying. At the rest stop in the factory on the death march, Eliezer had talked to a rabbi he knew who was pitifully looking for his son amid the night and snow and corpses. He realised he had seen the son forging ahead on the march, having left his father, having abandoned his father, hoping to survive without the impediment which was his sick, ailing father.

Now, at the most searing moment of the narrative (which Wiesel had already told us about in the Preface to the book) young Eliezer repeats this ultimate act of impiety, unfiliality, inhumanity. He lies terrified on the upper bunk of a bed while he hears his frail father being beaten on the bunk below by an SS officer. He is too terrified to move or protest but must listen to each blow landing on his father’s frail skull. It was 28 January 1945. And the worst thing? Deep inside – he is relieved.

The process of dehumanisation is complete. He is a shell. Two and a half months are covered in a few pages. Details, descriptions, living no longer matter to him. Soup and bread are all that matter. In April the Germans announce a systematic selection and gassing of the inmates. But on 11 April the inmates rise up and disarm the SS guards. Later that same day, units of the Sixth Armoured Division of the United States Third Army arrive at the gates. They are liberated. Eliezer eats. He gets sick. He recovers.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p.115)

History of the text

It is almost unbelievable that anyone could continue living after these experiences, but Wiesel settled in Paris and attended the Sorbonne university, before getting a series of jobs as a journalist. It was only ten years later that the French novelist, François Mauriac, encouraged him to write it all down. The first manuscript was in Yiddish and 850 pages long. He went through and reduced this to 245 pages and, titled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent’) it was published by a Jewish publisher in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Wiesel translated it into French and sent this manuscript to Mauriac, who tried numerous publishers who all rejected it. Eventually Samuel Beckett’s publisher agreed to take it, cut it down to 175 pages and changed the title to La Nuit. This French version came out in 1958.

Wiesel’s agent had similar problems interesting an American publisher until Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York agreed to take it. He commissioned an English translation by Stella Rodway – which was further trimmed down to 116 pages – and published it as Night in 1960. It sold little to begin with, but became a word-of-mouth classic and stirred interest among Jewish literary figures.

As interest in the Holocaust revived among historians, academics and the wider culture, as more documentaries, films, plays and novels were written, Night grew steadily more important as testimony. In the early 2000s his publishers commissioned a new English translation from Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and upon its publication in 2006 it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, which led to a surge in sales and awareness.

Although first-hand testimony in its own right, Night – for good or ill – is now also part of the substantial cultural enterprise known as ‘Holocaust studies’.

(This textual history – and including the mention of Holocaust studies – is described in Wiesel’s own preface to the Penguin edition.)

Style

The book’s textual history explains its style. It is the result of not one but two translations, and an extensive process of revision and paring down. It has been extensively filtered. It is no surprise, then, that some critics have commented on its ‘minimalism’. By this they mean the style is polished. The sentences are mostly short. But they are pregnant with meaning. And suppressed emotion.

They ordered us to run. We began to run.

The old Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who he used to pore over the Zorah with, is shipped off with all ‘foreign’ Jews but, by a miracle, months later, reappears to tell everyone what happened to his transport i.e. they were lined up in a forest and shot, then piled into pits. He was wounded, played, dead, escaped to come back and warn everyone. But as in a fairy tale – or nightmare – no one will listen.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. (p.7)

Short sentences, simple forceful ideas conveyed in unfussy vocabulary. It has the power of a folk story. Or a sci-fi apocalypse.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (p.17)

Also, it is very fragmented. There are nine distinct chapters (though they don’t have titles or numbers) but within them the text is made up of short bursts, page-long sections. And – at least in the earlier part – each one starts with an indication of the time – ‘and then’, ‘one day’, ‘suddenly’. Cumulatively, they make the text feel punchy, staccato, like being punched. Thus pages eight to 20 have ten separate sections, which start like so:

  • Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian front.
  • Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem.
  • The eight days of Passover.
  • Two ghettoes were created in Sighet.
  • Some two weeks before Shavuot. A sunny spring day…
  • For a moment we remained alone.
  • The ghetto was awake.
  • The small ghetto.
  • Night.

Diary format. Short entries. Each one situated in time, their brevity conveying the sense of hurtling headlong. And that is part of the point. It all happened very suddenly at night, arrests, orders to pack all your belongings, to be outside by 10 o’clock. And continues. In short staccato bursts. Facts. At pace. Bewilderment. Horror.

The Oberkapo was arrested on the spot. He was tortured for weeks on end. He gave no names. He was transferred to Auschwitz. And never heard from again. (p.64)

At six o’clock the bell rang. The death knell. The funeral. The procession was beginning its march.
‘Fall in! Quickly!’
In a few moments, we stood in ranks. Block by block. Night had fallen. (p.84)

God

As a Jewish comedian commented, if God especially loves the Jews, he has a funny way of showing it. The first twenty pages or so describe young Eliezer as devoutly religious. His family want him to be the learned one, the scholar. He prays day and night with fervent feeling, and finds rabbis to study the Talmud and Kabbalah with, he fasts to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

But of course, rounding up into the ghetto knocks his faith and then the journey to the camp and even what he sees in the first few hours, destroys it. There follows the long slow lingering terrible extermination of his faith in God, man or anything. He walks past trenches full of gasoline into which Germans and camp kapos are throwing live babies and infants. Alive. Into the flames (p.32). People around him mutter prayers or reproaches against God.

Jewish and Christian literary critics make much of this central strand of the text. When Wiesel describes walking past a young boy who is being hanged, he overhears someone saying: ‘Where is God?’ to which, inside, he replies: ‘Here, hanging from this gallows’ (p.65). The exchange has prompted literary critics to give fancy interpretations of the boy as symbolising the crucified Christ and thus uniting Christian and Jewish blah blah blah.

I can see the imaginative, psychological, religious and literary power of such moments and such interpretations, but I find them blasphemous. For me, there is no God, no hint of God, no way of hiding, no way out, no redemption. Just humans reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt by systematic and sadistic evil. To elevate any of this, to invoke any kind of ‘spiritual’ aspect to any of this, seems to me a blasphemy. It is the quintessence of human evil. Talk of God is absurd, irrelevant, inadequate, grotesque.

But then, What do I know? I have never had any remotely comparable experience. I am just a reader.

Youth and identity

I’ve recently read two other Holocaust texts, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and This Way to the Gas by Tadeusz Borowski. Levi was 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz and had graduated as a chemist. In other words he had an adult identity. He credits his scientific training with saving his life, because it caused him to be transferred to the laboratory where he could steal things to exchange them in the camp for food (specifically the metal rods which he barters for the bread which keeps him and his friend Alberto going to the camp’s liberation – as told in the story ‘Cerium’ in The Periodic Table). But in a subtler way, it meant he had an identity based on science, scientific knowledge, the scientific method, and which related him to the entire scientific tradition of the West. The full depth and resonance and psychological power of this tradition is what gives such weight and force to his masterpiece The Periodic Table.

Borowski was twenty when he was sent to Auschwitz, and was already as a writer of poems, short stories and novels. He also had an adult identity which, in some way, helped him. Even as he unloaded the human freight onto the ramp at Auschwitz, maybe he was shaping and forming the experiences into words to write down.

Comparison with these two (still very young) men highlights Wiesel’s youth. All he had by way of vocation and ambition, was to become a religious scholar. So it wasn’t just his faith he lost in the camp, but  his entire purpose, his entire identity. And that is why, more completely than Levi or Borowski. His account conveys a sense of utter desolation. The others had an adult identity which could, to some extent, step back and rationally analyse the events.

Once stripped of his family and his religion, Wiesel had nothing. He is completely gutted, abolished, vacuated.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (p.37)

My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now… (p.68)

Controversy

Alas, Night has been dogged by controversy. At one extreme, some people have claimed Wiesel was never at Auschwitz and the whole thing is a fake. The ‘evidence’ for this and the counter-arguments are laid out in this article:

A lot of the criticism of Night and broader attacks directed at Wiesel and his works stem from his outspoken support for the state of Israel, and for its policies of holding onto the land seized in the 1967 war, and building Jewish settlements on Arab land. Plenty of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish critics see all of his writing as compromised by his support of Israel.

Then there are critics who broadly support Wiesel, but claim that Night is not a work of fact, but of documentary fiction. Criticism in this vein can range from quibbling about various factual inaccuracies through to questioning entire episodes from the book. Much of this is summarised in this review of the new translation of 2006.

I am not qualified to comment on Wiesel’s stance on Israel or on debates about the book’s factuality. All I can comment on is the text before me. And reading some of the criticism mentioned above did crystallise in me some misgivings about the book, namely:

Harrowing and terrifying though it is, ultimately the book’s shape seems a bit too pat and convenient.

In particular, the last twenty pages or so are designed to wring the very last ounce of anguish from the story of his dying father. Despite all the confusions of multiple transports, endless roll-calls, despite being split up into different Kommandos and work details, despite going through selection procedures and being shuffled from one barracks to another, Eliezer is never separated from his father. Through the confusion of the death march when others were dropping dead, there’s his dad. In the brick factory, he keeps his dad awake and alive. In the open freight car he supports his dad. In Buchenwald his first thought – on getting his soup or his coffee or his bread – is always his dad. He goes to several doctors to get them to treat his dad for dysentery. He cradles his dad as he gives him the water he asks for. After the SS man beat up his dad, he is still just about alive and Eliezer cradles his head for a long time before he finally retreats to his own bed exhausted. Then he wakes the next morning and his father is gone, died in the night and spirited away. At which point the son bitterly laments he had no opportunity to light the candles and say the prayers and perform the Jewish ceremonies over him.

I won’t say it rises to Hollywood levels of sentimentality – but it did feel laid on with a trowel. If you were going to craft a story designed to tug, pluck and finally rip to shreds your heart strings, this is how it would go.

And this sense of artifice is reinforced by the careful way Wiesel sets up earlier father-and-son anecdotes to anticipate his one. As mentioned earlier, on the death march an old rabbi gets separated from his son and young Eliezer doesn’t have the heart to tell him he saw his son steaming ahead, looking grateful to have ditched the old liability. And again, in the open train to Buchenwald, Eliezer claims to witness a burly son beat his own father to death for the sake of some bread thrown into the truck by passing Germans.

The point being that the final operatic Oedipal climax to the narrative has been carefully prepared and anticipated in the narrative – almost like a Shakespearean tragedy in which minor plots are designed to parallel and comment on the main action. Having witnessed the two earlier father-and-son betrayals allows Eliezer to feel even more distraught when he, also, fails the test.

I have absolutely no idea how much of this is fiction, fact, false or ‘faction’, but a seed of doubt is planted in your mind.

For this reason, I would recommend new readers seeking a first encounter with Holocaust testimonies to start with Primo Levi’s If this Is A Man, and would also recommend Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman to Night.


Credit

As described above, Night was published in French in 1958, Stella Rodway’s English translation was published in 1960, and Marion Wiesel’s revised English translation was published in 2006. All page references are to the 2008 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four of his fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland.

The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged just 28.

This review is divided into three parts: 1. Borowski’s biography 2. Notes on This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, the collection which made him famous 3. A detailed look at one particular story.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was four his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the Jewish ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and his short ‘story’, Auschwitz, Our Home, includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs at Auschwitz – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour, everyone on the train was dead – gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke spiralling up from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army.

From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski a type of ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world.

In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the Communist Party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

Borowski was so in favour with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 he was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. By the time he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed. As a result he became completely disillusioned with the Communist regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


2. The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from Borowski’s early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories.

In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time of it as he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day-after-day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

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