Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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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

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

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

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 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 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

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 4 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 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 the ‘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 – 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 climbing 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 ‘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.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski 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. When 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; he became completely disillusioned with the 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 breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his 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.

2. 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  since 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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The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi (1986)

This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets for itself a more ambitious goal: it will try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who happened to read our accounts. How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the duelling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified? (p.9)

The four books of Levi’s I’ve read so far concern themselves overwhelmingly with named individuals and specific events. This, Levi’s final book, is the opposite. It is an attempt to deliver his thoughts and conclusions on the issues raised by the Holocaust in general form. It is made up of ruminations and meditations and speculations, touching on the function of memory, on group and individual psychology, on sociology and anthropology, as they relate to ‘the Offence’.

The paradoxical enjoyment to be got from The Truce or Moments of Reprieve is the way they record the life-enhancing varieties of human behaviour in the inferno – the endless scams of the scheming Cesare or the unexpected moment of generosity when the Hungarian inmate Bandi shares with Levi his only vegetable, a radish.

By contrast, there are hardly any moments of reprieve or tall stories in The Drowned and The Saved. Instead you can see how Levi has ordered decades’ worth of thoughts and reflections under seven general topic headings and then, within them, tried to arrange his thoughts into a logical order.

However, the rather padded prose style, often embellished with literary references, which suits the creation of fictional characters – which allows him to circle and describe them from numerous angles – is less suited to logical argument. I frequently found myself having to read pages twice to understand what he was trying to say. And then realising that a lot of his conclusions aren’t that earth-shattering. A feature of the book is the repetition of thoughts and ideas he’s mentioned elsewhere previously.

1. The Memory of the Offence

Memory isn’t perfect, it decays. Many Nazis brought to trial denied they knew the full extent of the Holocaust, showing how some people create self-serving lies which they end up believing. People who’ve been through traumatic events often block them out, both victims and perpetrators. You can prevent undesirable memories from even being formed by not even letting events enter your consciousness – thus the Nazis laid on plenty of booze for their death squads, who often killed in a drunken haze. And they gave all the techniques of murder harmless euphemisms, ‘relocation’ = transfer to death, ‘labour centre’ = death camps, ’emergency units’ = death squads. At a macro level, the entire Nazi regime was an Orwellian exercise in forgetting, terrorising the population into not even being able to speak about events they had witnessed or learned about. And of course, at the end the Nazis tried to blot out memories of the death camps by a) dismantling and obliterating them b) killing all the inmates – the real purpose of the long, pointless forced marches west.

Thus memory was attacked at every level by the genocidal Nazi regime and thus the vital importance, to the survivors, of bearing witness. Well aware that all these psychological frailties apply to his own memories, Levi has checked them against the external facts, documentary evidence, other people’s accounts, in order to validate them.

2. The Grey Zone

The young want there to be heroes and villains in black and white. But the point of the complex regimes in the camp (or Lager as Levi calls it, using its German name) was that everyone was compromised. The system was designed and to degrade everyone, to imbrue everyone with the fathomless evil of the National Socialist system. The arrival ritual was precisely that: from word go arrivals were confused, stripped naked, shaved, given a cold bath, tattooed and shouted at, beaten and kicked. Where they hoped for some solidarity, from fellow wearers of the striped pyjamas, there was often the most violent abuse and betrayal, as the Jewish Kapos or overseers were the most vicious of all. Any attempt to stand up to power and privilege was immediately decimated, witness the sturdy Jew who returned the blow of a Kapo who casually hit him at the first meal break; all the nearby Kapos swooped across, enraged at t his show of insubordination, and together they drowned him in the soup cauldron. Levi considers the nature of the Sonderkommando, the work units selected to shovel gassed corpses into the ovens, and then to empty out the ashes, going through them for gold teeth or any other valuables. These were made of selected Jews – so that at one level Jews were doing it to themselves – just one of the many ways the SS devoted fiendish calculation to making sure that everyone was implicated, no-one could feel free or aloof from the system’s evil.

It is sometimes a little hard to follow the argument in this section, but then, abruptly, Levi ends it by cutting and pasting in the ten-page account from Moments of Reprieve of the strange fate of Chaim Rumkowski, a word-for-word copy of the earlier account. Unintentionally, this allows the reader to directly contrast Levi’s style when trying to write purely factual prose – full of insights but a little tortuous and hard to follow – with one of his person-based anecdotes, which is strange, luminous, haunting, powerful.

The mere fact that he is cutting and pasting a whole sequence from an earlier book suggests the struggle Levi himself had in ‘thinking through’ this imponderable subject matter. And makes it crystal clear to this reader, at least, which Levi he prefers, given the choice between factual Levi and story-telling Levi.

3. Shame

Literature, poetry and the movies all think that the moment of liberation is one of unspeakable joy. That’s not how it was for the prisoners of Auschwitz. Levi retells the moment he described at the start of The Truce in which four Russian horsemen ride into Auschwitz, the day after the Germans abruptly abandoned it. They sit silently on their horses, mute with shame, the same shame felt by the prisoners who stand dumb, empty, exhausted, their heads downcast. It is the shame, Levi explains, which the just man feels when confronted by a crime committed by another. Nobody cheered.

This shame of liberation had diverse elements which he tries to analyse. Shame to have been part of such a crime against humanity. Shame not to have resisted, no matter how futile resistance would have been (every attempt to escape or rise up was completely destroyed by the Nazis, all participants exterminated and others killed in reprisals). Shame to have survived and the gnawing nagging feeling which only grows with time that other, better, nobler colleagues and comrades died instead of you; that you are surviving in their place. The shame of standing by and watching others be beaten, kicked to the ground, drowned, kicked to death. The shame of not having found the time or energy to help the newcomers, those weaker than yourself.

Lots of forms of shame which go to explain why there was a rash of suicides after the Liberation, when everything should have been well. Because only with food, and energy, and the return of ‘civilised’ morality, did all these shames and humiliations return to plague the survivors, many of whom were overcome by the burden of bearing the guilt, day by day, minute by minute.

Why did Chaim the watchmaker and Szabo the Hungarian and Robert the Sorbonne professor and Baruch the docker all die and Primo the chemist survive? Why?

It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; it is not seen from the outside but it gnaws and rasps. (p.62)

4. Communicating

‘We are biologically and socially predisposed to communication’ (p.69) but communication was deliberately stifled in the Lager. The arrival ritual involved not only being stripped bare, forced to stand in a freezing barracks for hours, tattooed and beaten and kicked: it involved being shouted at by red-faced Germans who refused to speak any other language. Within days those of Levi’s Italian companions who didn’t understand this barracks German began to die, from failing to understand the countless petty regulations, and from failing to be able to talk to the existing old lags who gave advice about storing food, skipping some rules, which Kapo to avoid and so on, in Polish, Yiddish or French. For two or three pages Levi gives examples of the Lager-German which has, in fact, been identified by linguists as forming almost a distinct dialect of German – crude, brutal and deformed, designed to be shouted at Untermänner. (It is interesting how throughout this book, alongside references to other survivors’ accounts, he quotes from his own texts, almost as if they were by someone else.)

Like good health, the ability to communicate freely is something you only notice when it is taken away. As he told us in Moments of Reprieve, he was by a small miracle and via a chain of intermediaries, able to send and receive a letter from his mother, and this little fragment of communication with the outside world, the world of speech and affection and love, was one of the things that kept him alive.

5. Useless Violence

This section is more about the Nazis’ excess cruelty than violence: Levi uses as structure the novice’s journey to and induction into the camp. Thus, to start with, the inhuman callousness of stuffing human beings into unheated cattle tracks, packed beyond endurance. Thus the complete lack of facilities for journeys which sometimes took weeks. Those who didn’t go mad, were forced to poo and pee in front of everyone else as the start of their deliberate degradation. This open defecation continued in the camps as part of a process of dehumanisation. Ditto the frequent requirement for mass nudity – forced stripping upon arrival and in all subsequent cold shower or delousing procedures. Then the insane regulations like the compulsory making of beds in the morning (Bettenbauen), the standing in line for hours in the evening roll call, regardless of rain or snow. This and the mad system of tattoos – all designed, as Levi sees it, to be ‘gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence’ (p.95).

One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest amount of affliction, the greatest amount of waste, of physical and moral suffering. The enemy must not only die, but must die in torment. (p.96)

There is mention of the endless beatings, and a paragraph about the grisly ‘experiments’ some Germans carried out on live patients, but in general ‘violence’, in this section, is used in a psychological or moral, not a literal, sense.

6. The Intellectual in Auschwitz

Starts with a meditation on Hans Meyer, from an assimilated German Jewish family, who suffered under Germany’s anti-Semitic laws and so emigrated to Belgium where he fully espoused his ancestral Judaism until the Germans invaded, whereupon he was repatriated to Germany and thence deported to a series of concentration camps. Amazingly, he survived. Settling back in Belgium after the war Meyer changed his name to Jean Améry and, at the bidding of friends, finally wrote his searing camp memoir, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement), translated into as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

I was expecting there to be an investigation of Améry’s ideas or theories about the camps, but this biographical sketch leads into a series of fairly straightforward memories of how being a weedy intellectual was no preparation for the brutal life of the camp. Levi recalls being beaten up and forced to do manual labour with a shovel, an object he’d never even touched before. In other words the section amounts to anecdotes showing that being too scholarly was a definite disadvantage to survival in the Lager – it was the uneducated working men who survived the days and weeks.

This section makes clearer than ever that Levi is not an intellectual – i.e. he is not the exponent of a thought-out intellectual system: there is no consideration of the schools of thought prevailing in the Europe of the time, either Fascism, or communism or early existentialism or the Catholic movements of the 1930s. The opposite: Levi is an imaginative writer haunted by what he has endured and, instead of rational, consecutive thought, the laying out of a plan or theory – the text instead revisits stories and situations he’s already told us once or twice before in previous books, adding new details or aspects to already harrowing events, and proceeding by analogy with literary or cultural references, Dante, Homer, Leopardi.

This is a lowering and depressing book not just because of the subject matter but because the compulsive picking over of psychic injuries, the obsessive revisiting of the scene of the trauma (in this section he tells us again about Steinlauf the accountant, about strong Lorenzo the bricklayer, about the moment he, Levi, a lifelong agnostic, nearly prayed to God just before his ‘selection’). The obsessive repetition of these stories begins to convey the sense of a deeply damaged, unhappy man – maybe not in his public persona, but here, in the heart of his writing.

7. Stereotypes

In this section emerges one of the strongest themes of the book which, surprisingly, is ‘young people nowadays’. According to Levi, young people nowadays move in an atmosphere of complete freedom, healthy, wealthy, heirs to a cornucopia of consumerism. If they ever hear of ‘dictatorships’ it’s in far off countries which nobody has to visit if they don’t want to. Also they watch lots of movies, which – it goes without saying – reduce all human behaviour to the crudest stereotypes. He specifically mentions Papillon and The Bridge On The River Kwai. This superficiality explains why, at the schools and colleges which Levi visits to lecture, he always gets asked the same questions:

  1. Why didn’t you escape?
  2. Why didn’t you rebel?

The answers are:

  1. Because we were too weak, too demoralised, because escape was impossible (guards, dogs, machine guns) and escape where, exactly? All of Europe was occupied, all family had themselves been rounded up and imprisoned.
  2. For the above reasons but also, some did rebel. There were rebellions, notably at Birkenau, but they were quickly put down and everyone involved tortured and killed.

The thing about Levi’s answers is that we’ve read them before. The portmanteau edition of If This Is A Man/The Truce contains a 20-page afterword in which he lists eight Frequently Asked Questions, and these two – and the lengthy replies – top the list. He phrases them differently here, adds different emphases, new details – but the basic answers are the same.

8. Letters from Germans

The longest and least engaging article in this collection of articles. In the first pages it repeats the simple story of how If This Is A Man was initially brought out by a small publishing house which went out of business and so the book made little impression, before being taken up ten years later by a bigger firm in 1958. It tells how a German publisher approached Levi for permission to make a German translation; how Levi was full of trepidation about what to say to a German readership, but then was convinced when he received a long letter from the translator, giving details of his resistance to the Nazi regime. How the page or so which Levi wrote back to the translator explaining what he intended the book to do for its German audience was turned, with his permission, into the preface to the German edition. So much for the book’s publishing history.

Then Levi turns to the main purpose of this final section, which is to give excerpts from some of the 40 or so letters he received in the following years from his German readers. Some seemed to him cowardly evasions, some forthright admissions of guilt, and from the younger generation comes incomprehension at what their parents did. Levi prints lengthy excerpts from these letters alongside his thoughts and replies (where he entered into correspondence with them).

This dusty correspondence is, frankly, boring. It is an effort, for example, to read what a 20-something, German, evangelical Christian writing in 1965 thought her nation should do to ‘expiate’ the ‘sin’ of the Holocaust – and then reading Levi’s puzzled thoughts about her puzzling sentiments. History, our understanding of the context, subsequent events, and a comprehensive change in the way we discuss moral issues (i.e. with a lot less heavy Christian rhetoric) make almost all of these exchanges very dated, like reading dusty old Penguin paperbacks about the new theory of comprehensive education or how we must nationalise industry to create a better society. The tone and phraseology of the German letters and Levi’s replies, more than anything else in the book, make you realise how very long ago all this was.

It’s all a long way from the imaginative (and, therefore, for me, moral) immediacy of the characters in If Not Now, When? or the searing, awe-inspiring portraits captured in Moments of Reprieve.

9. Conclusion

A very short attempt to tie up issues which Levi has spent the whole book struggling to really get to grips with. He is painfully aware that it is all slipping into the past, that he is talking to the children or even grandchildren of victims and perpetrators and that, meanwhile, ‘the Offence’ is being overtaken by others – the Khmer Rouge, revelations about the Gulag – as well as all the pressing problems of the environment, the population explosion, the threat of nuclear extinction. In the face of all this, he makes the rather wan summary:

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (p.167)


Reflections

Dated When Levi wrote If This Is a Man in (1947 it was white-hot with the power (and slight incoherence) of the survivor struggling to marshal his memories into some kind of order. The controlled text of The Truce, begun at the same time (as he tells us in this book, p.54), was – when published 15 or so years later – still fresh and urgent, an early part of the great re-examination of the Holocaust which began in the 1960s.

However, by the 1980s when The Drowned and The Saved was published, there was a well-established and fast-growing body of work documenting the Holocaust – trials and depositions, books, research papers, institutes, museums, TV documentaries, movies – a corpus which has continued to grow at a steady rate.

And that was thirty years ago. Since then Holocaust studies have become a profitable industry, with historians, film-makers, curators and artists making a healthy living from it. The UK now has a National Holocaust Day. Many cities have Holocaust Museums. Both my children studied the Holocaust as part of their History GCSE. A review of a recent volume on The Historiography of the Holocaust indicates the breadth and scale of the modern Holocaust industry, which is discovering ever-new ramifications of the horror in order to define and write about and forge academic careers out of it. Levi’s book suffers by entering a field which was growing when it appeared and whose proleferation has long since dwarfed it.

Crowded out Unlike in his crucial memoirs (If This Is A Man and The Truce) or in his fiction (the brilliant If Not Now, When?), in this factual book you can feel Levi struggling against the pressure of other texts, other accounts, other studies and books and witness statements and interviews and documents. By 1986 his was far from being a unique voice. The text continually has to refer to other work which has been done on all the areas he mentions. And since he is not a professional historian, psychologist, economist, sociologist, lawyer and so on, the book sometimes suffers because you feel he is trying to say something authoritative in areas where he himself admits he is not an authority.

Empty It is possible that the Holocaust will eventually become such an everyday reference point that it becomes emptied of all content, ending up a cliché or cartoon. The most famous of all internet laws is Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer any discussion in an online forum or comments section goes on, the more likely it is that someone will insult someone else by comparing them to Hitler or the Nazis, and this is because it is seen as the ultimate, can’t get any lower, insult. But it has also devalued it as an insult.

This process has tended to empty references to the Nazis of any kind of historical context or complexity. And this steady process of emptying-out has rendered the term and reference, in my opinion, problematic as a tool for thinking about actual prejudice in the contemporary world, about the discrimination, the demonising and the blaming of minorities which is where the genocidal urge begins.

Its uniqueness makes it ineffectual as a warning In my opinion, asserting the uniqueness of the Nazis’ rise to power and the enormity of the Holocaust – the one-off nature of the attempt to exterminate an entire race on an industrial scale – has come to obscure the countless other ways in which such genocidal impulses can grow and be enacted.

All the Holocaust books and documentaries and school trips in the world didn’t prevent the Bosnian Serb Army rounding up 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica, machine gunning them and burying them in a mass grave, in July 1995. It didn’t prevent up to a million ethnic Tutsi being hacked to death in the systematic genocide in the summer of 1994. Because we were looking for people with SS uniforms and Hitler moustaches, instead of being aware of the general conditions and pressures which foster the genocidal impulse.

As warnings, as explanations of the genocidal urge, I found Tom Snyder’s book Bloodlands and Keith Lowe’s book Savage Continent much more powerful. They:

a) are definitive historical overviews by professional historians, which
b) put the mass murder of the Jews into the context of the extremely complex tangle of politics and economics, the clash of ideologies and nationalisms, which tore Europe apart for a generation
c) and, crucially, give a bewildering range of examples of the lust to demonise and then kill ‘the other’ which occurred in almost all European societies, in all social groups, throughout the period

These two books, with the wealth of horrifying examples they give, are much more effective at highlighting the myriad ways in which the temptations to blame others, and especially the outcast, the poor and vulnerable, minorities, the ethnically different, for all our problems – the first step towards making active persecution thinkable and therefore possible – are there tempting all people in all societies which come under stress or pressure, not just the Germany of the 1930s.

Literature not logic In my first job, on an international affairs TV programme, the series editor – ex-BBC World Service – said, ‘Never read any factual books by literary authors; they always get it wrong.’ I did a Literature degree so I was affronted by this cavalier dismissal, but in the years afterwards quickly came to realise he was right. I remembered all this as I read The Drowned and The Saved. Levi is, of course, an indisputable and priceless witness to one of the greatest atrocities in world history.

His testimony, his witness, his recording of the facts and of the individuals he met who were obliterated and incinerated are a lasting memorial and achievement. But this book amounts to a series of articles. And the articles themselves are built by literary quotation and analogy and anecdote rather than by statistical or rigorous evidence.

Thus the first page of ‘Stereotypes’ asserts that people who are imprisoned have two responses afterwards: those who want to tell everything and those who remain silent. Really? His evidence for this is a Yiddish proverb – ‘It is good to talk about sorrows overcome’ (which he has already quoted in a previous book) – and two examples from literature: when Paolo tells Francesca in Dante’s Inferno that there is nothing so sad as recalling happy times in misery, Levi asserts that the opposite can also be true; and the urge to tell all is exemplified by the moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus feels the need to tell the whole story of his escape from Troy as soon as he is sat at the feasting table in the palace of the Phaeacians. For those of us who had the kind of education which included reading Dante and Homer, these references are warm and comforting: they create the sense that we are in a ‘civilised’, European culture. But they aren’t really evidence or proof of the initial assertion.

Similarly, at one of the many schools he’s visited, a little boy asks Levi to draw a sketch map of the camp on the blackboard, including location of the barbed wire, guardhouse, watchtowers and machine guns – he then patiently explains to Levi how he could have created an explosion in the guardroom, neutralised the patrolling dogs, disarmed the machine gun towers while colleagues cut a way through the wire with cutters they’d stolen from a workshop. Levi takes this endearing story as proof of the general assertion that the younger generation don’t understand what life was like in a concentration camp, and have an increasingly simplified, stereotypical view of history as a whole.

A slender example to hang such a sweeping conclusion on.

When he divides the questions he’s asked into the main three – ‘why didn’t you escape? why didn’t you rebel? why didn’t you flee Europe before it all happened?’ – he’s on more solid, not to say, well-trodden ground. And when he subdivides the answers to the three, you go along with the sub-divisions: these are questions he’s been answering for forty years and he structures the replies logically and effectively.

But then, suddenly, he devotes two pages to the historical figure of Mala Zimetbaum, a woman inmate who actually did manage to escape from a camp – Birkenau – and made it all the way to Czechoslovakia before being arrested at a border crossing, returned to the camp, and who, on the gallows, tried to slash her own wrists before she was hanged, and so was kicked and bludgeoned to death by the assembled Kapos and SS men.

These two pages (pp.126-127) leap out of the text with infinitely more power that the question-and-answer sections or the cosy literary analogies. The structuring generally works (in a rather obvious sort of way); the literary references are nice to pick up for those who like that kind of thing – but Mala Zimetbaum’s story is vital. It is these pen portraits from hell that Levi does so well, for which is books will endure.

Conclusion

Levi’s final book is a noble attempt to gather his thoughts about ‘the Offence’ into a systematic exposition, but it is competing in a very crowded field. It tends to work best when it sticks closest to the harrowing details of his own experiences and the stories of inmates he knew and, to a lesser extent, where it uses literary references and analogies to add dignity and depth to the psychological feel of suffering and immiseration, to the memories of abasement which ‘gnaw and rasp’ the text.

Densely written, sometimes confusingly laid out, The Drowned and The Saved gives the unhappy sense of a man struggling to understand the incomprehensible, repeatedly returning to the harrowing events, the tormented victims, the pointless rules, the excessive cruelty, worrying away at the evil which has infected his soul and which no amount of books or lectures can ever exorcise.


Credit

I sommersi e i salvati by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1986. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal was published by Michael Joseph in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (1986)

After Levi had written and published If This Is A Man and The Truce in the late 1950s/early 60s, he thought he’d done his duty – in them he had borne public witness to the misery and evil of Auschwitz concentration camp (where he was incarcerated from February 1944 to January 1945) and exorcised his own demons. But as the years passed, he discovered he was one of that group of people who can’t forget, whose memory of atrocity follows them everywhere.

These are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read. (p.88)

And so he set down further memories in short anecdotes or vignettes which, when he came to review them, he realised each focused on one individual, and one particular moment, a ‘moment of reprieve’ from the general fate of immiseration and dehumanisation.

There are fifteen powerful ‘moments’ in this short book:

Rappoport’s Testament Little mud man Valerio and Levi are sheltering in a cellar during an air raid on the camp when they are joined by the giant, virile, healthy Pole Rappaport. As the bombs fall he tells them if either of them survive they can take his message to the outside world: he, cunning, manly Rappaport spent  his life drinking and eating and swiving and, if he meets Hitler in the next life, he’ll spit in his face because…’he didn’t get the better of me.’ With this text, Levi fulfils that debt.

The Juggler Working in another cellar, piling up cardboard tubes, Levi finds time to begin writing on a scrap of paper, a message to his mother. He is struggling to find the words when he is interrupted by ‘Eddy’, a Grüne Spitze, a Green triangle or German criminal, who is appointed Kapo of this work detail. Eddy slaps him a bit for doing something so illegal they could both be hanged if caught, then confiscates the scrap of paper and gets two independent Italian speakers to translate its contents. A few hours later he returns and give it back, apparently satisfied that it contained nothing subversive, and Levi wonders about the humanity hidden behind the Green Triangle

Lilith It starts raining and Levi takes shelter inside one of a pile of big metal pipes, bumping into the Tischler or carpenter. They watch a woman in a pipe opposite for a bit and this sparks off in the Tischler a colourful sequence of stories about the legendary Biblical figure of Lilith, second wife to Adam and, in the Tischler’s blasphemous version, of God himself!

A Disciple Amazingly, Levi manages to smuggle a letter out to a civilian who posts it to his mother – in hiding in Italy – who sends a reply via the same route. He shares this burning secret with a new arrival, one of the Hungarians, a happy healthy boy named Bandi who, in a radiant moment, crowns Levi’s happiness by making him the gift of… a radish.

Our Seal ‘Our seal’ is the nickname given to the enormous nose of a Berlin pharmacist named Wolf who is fond of humming the classics, even doing impersonations of different instruments. In the central scene he is persecuted by an inmate named Elias – ‘a Herculean dwarf’ (p.155) – for having scabies but trying to hide it, which ends with Elias attacking Wolf and tearing his short and trousers open for everyone to see the rash. Days later, on one of the rare Sunday afternoons off work, they all hear a strange haunting sound and go to discover Wolf has somehow acquired a violin and is playing a haunting solo and, lying on the ground spellbound and listening, is Elias.

The Gypsy An announcement is made that prisoners may write letters home (on certain, typically Teutonic precise conditions). Levi is pestered by fresh-faced young Grigo, the Gypsy, who is illiterate but begs him to write a long letter to his young fiancée, which proves tricky as Grigo only speaks Spanish (which Levi doesn’t understand) and the letter must be written in German (of which Levi only knows prison slang).

The Cantor and The Barracks Thief the new barracks chief is Otto, fifty, tall, corpulent, shouty like all Germans, but he surprises them with the tenderness he shows when he personally strips and washes down big, dumb Vladek, a Polish political prisoner, using warm water, a brush and then rags to clean him. This favourable impression is confirmed when Ezra, a watchmaker and cantor from a remote Lithuanian village, very politely asks if Otto can hold back his soup ration for a day, as it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews are not meant to eat or work. To everyone’s amazement, Otto is drawn into the maze of law and tradition which Ezra explains to him in great detail, so that he eventually agrees, gives him a generous soup portion and carefully stores it in his personal lock-up overnight. For Ezra, as Levi comments:

was heir to an ancient, sorrowful, and strange tradition, whose core consists in holding evil in opprobrium and in ‘hedging about the law’ so that evil may not flood through the gaps in the hedge and submerge the law itself. In the course of the millennia, around this core has become encrusted a gigantic proliferation of comments, deductions, almost maniacally subtle distinctions, and further precepts and prohibitions. And in the course of the millennia many had behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number. That is why the history of the Jewish people is so ancient, sorrowful, and strange. (p.82)

Last Christmas of the War Two stories: Levi is approached by one of the secretaries in the chemistry lab where he worked, who asks him to fix a puncture on her bicycle, a risky thing to do as he might be accused of stealing it, sabotaging it, or shirking his lab responsibilities. He does it and she rewards him with a hard-boiled egg and some sugar and a whispered comment that Christmas was coming. Was this a German… actually being sympathetic? In a separate development he is amazed to receive a small food parcel smuggled in from his mother and sister but then he and his partner, Alberto, are faced with the tragi-comic dilemma of hiding a surplus of food in an environment with absolutely no secrecy.

The Quiet City The grimmest story, this is a profile of a young chemist, Levi’s mirror image, Mertens – except he was a German and a Catholic who, after some hesitation, took a pay increase for moving to the unhealthy region of Upper Silesia with his young wife and working at a new chemicals factory there (the Buna factory at Auschwitz). Levi pieces together evidence about Mertens’ behaviour during this period from scattered friends and witnesses, which was assembled when he was questioned years later by a Jewish historian of the camps years later. Like most Germans, he parrots the usual lies: he knew nothing, he tried to help prisoners whenever he could, he didn’t know about the gas chambers, the crematorium etc etc. This is a rare case when Levi devotes an anecdote, a story, to a specific German – Mertens. (In If This is a Man the cold Nazi supervisor of the lab, Dr Pannwitz, is almost the only other Nazi to get this kind of treatment).

Small Causes Levi steals some pipettes from the lab and smuggles them back into the camp where he tries to sell them to the unimpressed Polish head of the infirmary who, in turn, gives him half a bowl of soup. Half? Yes, probably abandoned by a patient too sick to finish it. Too hungry to quibble Levi takes it back to his barrack and shares it with his bosom friend, Alberto. Sure enough Levi comes down with scarlet fever within a few days and ends up being moved to the infirmary. Here he remains during the crucial days when the Germans abruptly evacuate the camp to escape the advancing Russians, forcing all the ‘healthy’ inmates onto a long march west in which almost all of them die. His friend, Alberto, had scarlet fever as a child and so is immunised, and so is rounded up and goes on the march, disappearing forever. Levi never had scarlet fever, is sick, and survives. Such is the randomness of the universe.

The Story of Avrom Avrom was aged 13 in 1939, when his parents in Lvov were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis. Levi gives a potted history of how the boy survived in the criminal underworld, inveigles his way into the barracks of the Italian Army in Russia, returns with them to Italy, but is then rounded up with them by the Germans, jumps off the moving train taking them to the Fatherland with a letter of recommendation to the family of one of his fellow deportees who live in a remote Italian village. This family kindly put Avrom up and he finds himself, incongruously, becoming an assistant to the parish priest, until he helps a group of Czechs who’ve defected from the Germans head up into the mountains to become partisans, travels all over the mountains with them, becoming their trusted radio contact with the Allies, before returning to the cities in triumph at the Liberation. Now he lives modestly in Israel and is drafting notes about his life for his children and grandchildren. Quite simply, what a life story.

Tired of Imposture A summary of the adventures of Joel König (in fact told in his own memoir Escape From The Nazi Dragnets) in which young Jewish Joel manages to adopt numerous identities, eventually masquerading as a blonde Hitler Youth, smuggling himself from Berlin to Vienna, then into Hungary and Romania.

Cesare’s Last Adventure Levi has obviously kept in touch with Cesare, the rogue who accompanied him on his long bizarre journey east into Russia after their liberation from Auschwitz, as described in The Truce. Eventually, fed up with sitting in an endlessly delayed train in the Romanian mud, Cesare left his colleagues determined to fly back to Italy. He begged for a while, got together semi-smart clothes and set out to seduce a woman. Eventually he found one willing to be seduced, and conned her and her father into thinking he would marry her. He asked the father for an advance to find a job and then went straight to the airport and bought a ticket to Italy. On arrival he was arrested – turned out the father had given him counterfeit dollars, whether as a shrewd guess that Cesare was about to run out on him, or by accident, we don’t know to this day.

Lorenzo’s Return Lorenzo is a strong, silent Italian mason, working on the ‘outside’ of the camp, who gets to know Levi and brings him and his buddy, Alberto, a mess tin of soup hidden in a secret place every day. It is this extra soup which helps Levi survive through to the Liberation in January. He sets off to walk home and has an epic four-month trek, stopping to work as a mason on the way to earn money. He finally makes it back to his home village near Turin and works for a while, but he has seen too much of life and begins to fade. He gives up his lifelong trade of mason and lives by trading farmers’ produce, then becomes a complete nomad sleeping rough. Finally he stops wanting to live and although Levi has, by this stage tracked him down, and arranges for him to go into hospital, they won’t give him wine so he leaves and dies rough. The tremendous Biblical nobility of strong, good Lorenzo and his eventual demolition, is taken as a slow-burning consequence of the evil he has seen. This story made me cry.

Story of a Coin Levi finds a coin in the ruins of bombed Auschwitz just before he is evacuated, slips it into his pocket without thinking and carries it round in his purse as a good luck charm. Years later he realises it was minted at the order of Chaim Rumkowski, a 60-year-old businessman who made himself into the ‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto, one of the longest lasting of all the Polish-Jewish enclaves. Appointed by the Nazis as a useful puppet, he oversaw the working on starvation rations of over 100,000 imprisoned Jews while creating a court of lickspittles and toadies, and riding round his ’empire’ on a sledge pulled by a knackered horse. When the ghetto was finally wound up ie all the Jews were transported to death camps, Rumkowski secured his own carriage to ride in style to Auschwitz – but here he met the fate of all the other Jews. Levi is left pondering the story of this ridiculous and tragic figure, reminding us that:

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting. (p.172)

Thoughts

Taken together, and especially the last few tales, prompt the question – Can the characters Levi describes really be the noble, upstanding heroes they appear in these stories? From time to time he makes comparisons with characters from classic literature, from Dante, the Bible and the prophets, from Homer. I think it’s impossible not to feel that Levi’s imagination, like theirs, has shaped and moulded what were once real people and real events into patterns which have a greater depth and resonance than normal life allows.

This activity, this deepening and widening and ennobling, is Levi’s characteristic achievement.


Credit

Lilìt e altri racconti (literally Lilith and other stories) by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1981. The English translation by Ruth Feldman was published by Michael Joseph in 1986. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)

The zip on the briefcase was the interlocking plastic flange type and opened silently. Inside was the folder with the black cover. It was the memorandum… It would contain all the information they could give me, all the names, suspects, dossiers, leads and theories they could cull from the whole of the Bureau files, a complete and exhaustive breakdown of the field. (p.20)

This is a cold-eyed, cold-hearted spy thriller about a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor tracking down former Nazis. The tone of the novel is dictated by his sporadic memories of the unspeakable atrocities carried out by the Germans against their Jewish prisoners. No laughs, no colour, no colleagues or clubs, no music or art or galleries – just a solitary man trudging the streets of Berlin, moving from hotel to hotel, and soon making the horrifying discover that he himself is being hunted by the very organisation he’s trying to expose.

Elleston Trevor

Elleston Trevor (1920 – 1995) was a British novelist and playwright who wrote prolifically under at least eight different pseudonyms. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote no fewer than 19 spy novels featuring the tough secret agent, Quiller, from Quiller’s début in 1965 to his final appearance in 1996.

The Quiller Memorandum

It is Berlin in the freezing winter, snow everywhere. Quiller isn’t his real name – we don’t find out what that is. He works for ‘the Bureau’ – we don’t really know what that is, either, though he explicitly denies that it’s MI6. He has a set of codewords which is the only way he has of identifying other agents, as well as a set of terminology not usually found in other spy books – ‘tags’ are people tailing him, ‘flushing’ is losing a tag, ‘doubling’ is double crossing.

We learn he was at Dachau concentration camp during the War. He saw Jews being murdered, he saw Nazi guards and officers at work, he has a scar on his leg picked up at Dachau, and somehow he set up a network smuggling Jewish prisoners out of the camp. He has been working undercover for nine months in modern Germany, tracking down ex-Nazis and delivering dossiers about them to the Z Commission which then arrests them and delivers them to the Nazi trials in Hanover.

A contact meets him to explain that one of the biggest names is back in Berlin – Heinrich Zossen, a leading Nazi who he last saw twenty years ago at the edge of an execution pit in Dachau. The contact, Pol, is from the Berlin office of ‘the Bureau’, otherwise known as Berlin Control. Pol gives him a list of other Nazis they’re looking for – a memorandum (the original title of the novel was The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller’s task is to track them down. Rather melodramatically, Pol says he is the sole man standing between two armies poised to go to war.

Quiller has a fortuitous encounter with a girl called Inga who, after inviting him back to her flat for a drink, tells him about her harrowing experiences of being a nine-year-old in Hitler’s bunker which has left her with lots of unresolved ‘issues’. She reveals she used to be a member of Phönix, an underground group of ex-Nazis.

A Jew Quiller knew from the camp, who now works in a germ warfare lab, Sol, contacts Quiller and is on his way to meet him when he is assassinated. Shortly afterwards Quiller is picked up by some of the Phönix group, led by the cold-eyed boss, Oktober. They inject him with various drugs and interrogate him.

(The use of drugs in interrogation reminds me of the similar scene in Len Deighton’s thriller, An Expensive Place To Die, where the unnamed spy narrator is injected with LSD.)

The Nazis want to know the location of Quiller’s superiors, the office of Berlin Control. Quiller knows they will raid it or bomb it, so he resists during a prolonged and hallucinatory scene, until he hears Oktober order him to be shot and dumped in the river. When Quiller comes to, wet, near the river, he realises it was a ploy. And it works because, once he has made it back to a hotel and cleaned up, he goes back to Inga’s flat seeking – as the narrator explains in brutally clinical language – the sexual release of the man who has escaped death. Only to find Oktober there and ready to torture the girl in front of him to get details of the Bureau, its code words and tradecraft etc.

Cold psychology

Though there are occasional flashes of colour, metaphor and simile in the writing, on the whole it is cold-eyed and factual. There is none of the humour of Len Deighton, the stylishness of Ian Fleming, none of the agonising theology of Graham Greene, none of the fast-moving excitement of Alistair MacLean, none of the subtle plot and counter-plot of 1960s John le Carré.

Instead the narrator is detached from everything around him, including himself and his plight, much given to analysing his physical and mental reactions to situations as if from a clinical distance. He liberally uses psychoanalytical terms to analyse his own and other people’s motivations.

I was helpless in a situation of rapidly increasing strain, and however much the ego and superego tried to rationalise and seek comfort or simple acceptance, the id knew I was in bad trouble and was ready to throw the switch and relieve the strain by blacking out. (p.117)

Everything is coolly analysed in this cold, detached manner. Even his return to Inga’s flat Quiller makes cold and detached by describing himself and her as mating animals. To say there is little or no feeling in a book which prides itself on its coldness is an understatement.

It was no good thinking, this is no prelude to love. There would be nothing of love. This was the prelude to something that we would each act out for our own reasons: the simple biological urge to impregnate and be impregnated, the needs of dominance, subjection, identification, a lot of things known and unknown, an act of catharsis to let the fiends come out and perhaps to let others in. The beast with two backs would lord the jungle for a time, then it would die, without knowing why it had lived. (p.108)

Twice Oktober captures Quiller and twice – after the drug interrogation, and after they’ve tortured Inga to try and get him to talk – they let him go without a scratch. Each time Quiller guesses that the Nazis hope he will lead then to Berlin Control – and so he goes wandering round Berlin refusing the temptation to ring his office or to post a message – but this blank and circular repetitiveness eventually stretches credulity. Basically he walks the streets for hours and hours with no purpose except not to contact his base.

A Modesty Blaise-style shootout would have lightened the mood and lifted the tension. And they’re Nazis, for God’s sake. Surely they could extract any the information they wanted from a helpless prisoner pretty damn quickly? The entire premise of the plot – that the Nazis have Quiller in the grip twice but fail to extract the simple information of where his Bureau office is – simply doesn’t convince. Why don’t they look it up in the phone book? Are we to believe that a network of Nazis based in Berlin is not capable of working out where the HQ of a Western spy network is based?

The novel features an elaborate double bluff where the Phönix organisation let Quiller into their base and let him see a big tabletop plan of a Nazi takeover of the new West German army. It is only when they release him that Quiller concludes the whole scene was an elaborate ruse to provoke him into contacting his Control, so they can find out where it is.

And yet, at the end of the novel, it appears that there actually was a Nazi plot to seize control of the army. And that the character Sol, who was shot on his way to meet Quiller, had in fact been working for the Nazis and been tasked with producing vials of fatal germ warfare bugs.

But, unfortunately, by this late stage of the story, I’d stopped caring…

Disconnect

There’s a radical disconnect between the majority of the plot – which consists of Quiller stumbling round Berlin trying to shake off his tails (or ‘tags’ as they’re called in this book) and getting picked up twice by the group and having sex once with Inga – between this very small set of rather dull and silly incidents – and the vastness of the supposed conspiracy to seize the German Army and then all Europe! The disproportion seems quite mad. There is none of the sense of a huge and monstrous conspiracy being slowly unveiled with a masterly sense of pacing which makes, for example, the early thrillers or Robert Harris (Fatherland and Archangel) so breath-takingly exciting. Excitement doesn’t seem to be Hall’s aim at all.

Memo style

The style often descends into memo or Powerpoint format. ‘Situation: Being followed. Decision: ditch tag at next junction.’

Quiller’s favourite phrase is ‘no go’, which is his stock response to umpteen calculations he coldly carries out on the odds of various course of action. ‘No go’ began to really get on my nerves.

Towards the end of the book, the prose reduces further and further to bullet points and lists of issues and actions.

Paramount consideration: protect the Bureau from risk. Worst eventuality: death and no signal sent, my people back where they began. (Who would replace me? Dewhurst? Disregard likelihood) Programme: send signal by direct phone if absolutely certain unobserved. If impossible, wait for the bullet in the neck and try to – (Disregard).

I suppose it’s an interesting experiment in style, and it obviously struck a chord in 1965 as The Quiller Memorandum became a popular bestseller – an exercise in alienation, an essay in a certain kind of masculine psychology, a modish assemblage of contemporary concerns in the era of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. But I found it a difficult and, for the most part, deeply unrewarding read.

Spy boom

The Berlin Memorandum was published in 1965, at the height of the 1960s spy movie boom. The same year saw the release of Thunderball – the decade’s most popular Bond film – as well as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Like them, Memorandum was swiftly turned into a movie, just a year after publication, in 1966, with a sparse repetitive screenplay by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Anderson, and starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow and Senta Berg. The movie accurately captures the blank and puzzling sense of dislocation of the book. I thought it was dire.

The TV series

Ten years after the Quiller novels began publication they were turned into a 13-part BBC TV series starring Michael Jayston, which transmitted from August to November 1975. I remember watching and loving this TV series, mainly for Jayston’s understated acting style, the same Michael Jayston who played the part of Peter Guillam so beautifully in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. Sadly, the series is not on YouTube or available on DVD, though someone has uploaded the funky jazz-fusion 1970s theme tune.


Related links

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap the said VIP. After much shooting and a high-speed road chase, the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high-speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.
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