Otto Dov Kulka’s exploration of the time he spent in Auschwitz as a child won the 2014 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize, one of the judges calling it “the greatest book on Auschwitz since Primo Levi.”
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination, by Otto Dov Kulka. Translated by Ralph Mandel. Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 144 pages, $23.95.
By Susan de Sola Rodstein
Otto Dov Kulka is a distinguished historian. He is aware that a book of memories is a personal and precarious enterprise. It is the imagination’s way to supply what memory fails to deliver. The book’s images of a life interrupted seem the opposite of a history, and its deceptive brevity seems right. The cautious subtitle, Reflections on Memory and Imagination, signifies a double removal: he reflects upon his memories, and anticipates possible lacunae. He is “probing the memory, not writing memoirs,” and it is this probing quality of the investigating mind at work—and what a sensitive mind it is—that sets this book apart from other Holocaust accounts. The book recently won the Jewish Quarterly Wingate-Prize, the judges citing the book’s “new language for living with Auschwitz.” Kulka asks more questions than he answers. The limited experiences of a small boy lead to astonishing vistas of contemplation.
Most of the chapters are derived from a series of recorded interviews made over ten years (1991-2001) followed by three haunting dream-diary entries and finally, an historical appendix which clarifies much of what has gone before. Kulka has never spoken before of his own experiences. This is a book of breaking silence: “…few are aware of the existence in me of a dimension of silence, of a choice I made to sever the biographical from the historical past.” Fluidly translated from Hebrew by Ralph Mandel, Kulka speaks in a loose, ruminative style, in which qualification follows upon assertion. He is ever alert to the possible deceptions of memory.
Kulka’s last memory of normality is standing in his parents’ library when he was nine. Thereafter, his life became a series of Holocaust transports and internments. What is exceptional is that Kulka and his family were in a Familienlager, or “Family Camp,” at Auschwitz. These special camps were set up at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz in anticipation of a possible Red Cross inspection, to disprove rumors about the annihilation of the Jews in the east. Kulka’s family had volunteered to go from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz to be reunited with other family members. In the Family Camp, families would be kept together. During the day the children were in a special youth block, and the inmates could keep their clothes and their hair and administer some of their own affairs. Nevertheless, the mortality rate was very high (one fifth died within months of natural causes). In addition, the inmates faced a completely inexorable fate. Unlike at an ordinary camp, where selections might possibly spare or prolong the lives of those fit to work, the inmates of the Family Camps—as they would learn—were faced with the absolute certainty of extermination (code “SB,” execution without verdict).
Further transports in December 1943 and May of 1944 brought thousands more prisoners. When negotiations between the Red Cross and Nazi authorities stalled, the original 5,000 inmates of the Family Camp were gassed in one night on March 8, 1944. They were first forced to write postcards (post-dated 2 weeks after their annihilation) to relations still in Theresienstadt and beyond, perhaps as an additional prop in preparations for the anticipated Red Cross inspection. Kulka happened to be in the infirmary with diphtheria at that time. His mother was with him and so they were spared. One can only try to imagine his response when upon his discharge he discovered that all of his friends and family had been murdered.
For the later arrivals, there was the expectation of a six-month cycle until the next liquidation, which did in fact occur in July of 1944. This purge, however, featured labor selections. By a rare chance, Otto Dov and a group of boys were selected by Dr. Mengele for labor (pulling carts) in the main camp, and his mother was sent to a work camp in the north. When it was clear that an IRC inspection at Auschwitz was not forthcoming (the inspection at a falsified Theresienstadt had satisfied IRC officials) the final liquidation of the family camp took place. Otto Dov Kulka escaped death twice—and then a third time in surviving the final death march in January of 1945.
His survival of the largest mass murder of Czechoslovakians of the war (some 16,000 dead, only about 1200 survivors) is an anomaly. But we must remember that while the Family Camp at first looked like an exemption, the absolute imperative soon known to all of its inmates was that of certain death. Part of the power of this book is the reversal of perspective this certainty enforces. In the normal scheme of things, it is the child who lives without the apprehension of the “immutability of death.” We listen here to Kulka the child, under the apprehension of certain death, and at the same time to Kulka the middle-aged man, who must somehow live on in the shadows of his anomalous escape. “However much I know that I must be caught, I always know, too, that I must be spared.”
His story increasingly takes on the features of dystopian fiction, with its discussion of mysterious transports, “selections,” and liquidations. We can see the careful analytical mind of the historian at work, but the memoirs also release an almost unbearably particular sense of the ten or eleven-year-old Kulka in a “landscape” that is alien, but one which has also furnished his internal topography for decades. It is a “place you never leave,” presided over by the descending stairs and rising smokestacks of the Auschwitz crematoria, the “long columns of people in black being swallowed up in the furnaces.” He is a “life prisoner” precisely because he never was in those buildings. “I circled them as a moth circles a flame,” in recurrent dreams. In these dreams he somehow escapes through subterranean passages—a negative geography of dark water, trenches, fences, and hidden chambers—only to be recalled to the furnaces in an endless cycle.
Sometimes the questions of Kulka the boy are indistinguishable from the questions of Kulka the man:
…the images, particularly toward evening, as dark descended slowly across the skies of Poland, when we watched the crematoria burning with a quiet constant fire, and the flames a few metres high rising above the red-brick chimneys of the crematoria, and the smoke billowing and rising above the flames, and the riddle that engaged us, me especially: how does it happen that the living, who enter in their masses in long columns and are swallowed into these structures made of sloping roofs and red bricks, are transformed into flames, into light and smoke, then disappear and fade into those darkening skies? In the star-strewn night sky, too, the fire continues to burn, quietly. That belonged to everyday life.
Kulka experiences an unrelenting “system of the immutable law of the Great Death,” an immutability that is seemingly self-enclosed, beyond which lies nothing; and even when there is something like a spark of rebellion, or illusion of hope, such notions only float past like motes on the surface of an immutably “grim consciousness.” While there is an adult truth to this, it strikes the reader most crushingly as the truth as experienced by a small child, with a child’s capacity to soon experience authoritative structures as normative: “The immutable law from which no one is exempt, certainly not me at the age I was then.” There is a poignant photo of Kulka in his 50s during his first adult visit to Auschwitz. He is actually split in two, due to a mishap with the camera by the taxi driver. Half of him ever remains by the camp’s iron mesh entrance gates.
The book is illustrated with dozens of soft black and white images—photos, letters, drawings, sheet music—a Sebaldian touch that makes a storehouse of memory. Bits of lost writing form an important thread through the narrative: papers are scattered, torn, hidden, passed in desperation, thrown in hope out of train windows, and pushed through the barbed wire of cattle cars. Back-dated postcards from the Family Camp are written under duress. Most incredibly, three remarkable poems written by an unknown young Czech woman are passed to Kulka’s father just before she is forced into the gas chambers. They are included here in the middle of the book, a nameless, powerful voice, accusatory and yet pacifist, and abidingly humanist, mourning already Europe’s lost youth—”The only three poems written in the family camp of Theresienstadt Jews that survived the flames of Auschwitz”:
A leaning cross and a cracked helmet;
the rain will not water the parched earth.
In that tomb beneath the collapsed tower
like aliens in an alien grave lie
Europe’s slaughtered youth.
Cluttered up with a rickety birchwood cross
that grave becomes a dreadful sore.
And alien here, in a distant alien land
among the bones, are the ideals
of twenty youthful years.
(From Alien Grave, translated from the Czech by Gerald Turner)
Kulka calls them “the only glistening sliver that was saved from a great work of art which existed and perished in that place of perdition.”
Like the photo-images, many of Kulka’s memories are themselves black and white, above all those of the excruciating final death march in January of 1945, with its large and proliferating dark stains against the snow, whose meaning becomes clear to him only in stages. Where there is color, it is memorable by its very incongruity. Among his memories is the most beautiful blue sky he has ever seen, glimpsed from within the camp’s fences, a perfect cerulean, “a touchstone of beauty, nonpareil in all the landscapes I have collected into myself.” Beauty is also an immutable law, from which there is no escape.
Other oddities stick in the memory, such as rehearsing the “Ode to Joy,” which celebrates the brotherhood of man, with the impromptu children’s choir in a lavatory barrack within only a few hundred feet of the crematoria. Kulka still wrestles with uncertainty as to whether this was a symbol of enduring aspiration or a gesture of darkest sarcasm. He prefers the first meaning but tends to the second. This small episode in a mind as capacious and thoughtful as Kulka’s may become emblematic of “the whole unfolding of my existence or of my confrontation both with the past and with the present from then until today.”
In fact, many of his most formative encounters with the humanistic heritage of Europe were given to him in the children’s block of the Familienlager. In particular, his future vocation by way of the history lessons first learned from the teacher Fredy Hirsch. Remarkably, the prisoners, although they knew they were doomed, persisted in the pursuit of some kind of cultural life, in the form of plays and concerts (with Dr. Mengele in the audience, Kulka recalls) and schooling. Kulka speculates that despite the absolute lack of any kind of future, or perhaps because of it, these attempts at community became “something on the order of absolute values.” They also had their own code language of black humor, subversive jokes, and idioms which took form in improvised skits. In retrospect, Kulka can see both the satirical cabaret and the passing on of a humanistic heritage as forms of protest.
The stories are told delicately. We follow the impressions of a ten-year-old boy and the discriminating, self-examining mind of the adult historian simultaneously. The poetry of the book is somewhere in this unlikely juncture. His mid-life visit to Auschwitz was precipitated by a visit to the Temple Mount, “opposite the sealed Gate of Mercy.” The associative link is the barbed wire:
Indeed, that place was charged like no other with the unfolding of a historical trauma, with death and end-time, with everything that came out of it or flowed into it, and walking across it was to make one’s way through the mute ruins, through grass growing wild, amid the rustling barbed wire that links this place to that. Had it not been for that barbed wire, there might never have arisen that stunning and unmistakable feeling: in this place I have been before!
At many points the book works in the ways of a poem. Kulka is aware of the freight of myth (Tantalus, Prometheus, Sisyphus, Orpheus) and metaphor his experiences carry. But he is also aware that he has built up a private mythology, a personal topography that he has never before attempted to communicate or subjected to the kind of intellectual analysis that makes up his daily activity. He realizes that his memories are his “gate”—referring to Kafka’s story, “The Gate of the Law.” He cannot find his experience in the writings or accounts of others; they exist for him alone; and here the historian sees the utter particularity of one’s story, which makes the effort to share it here all the more moving.
The history of his mother is one of the most eviscerating in the book. She is sent to labor at the Stutthof camp, already pregnant with Kulka’s brother, conceived at Auschwitz. One can only guess at the mixture of hope and grief this pregnancy must have presented. Her departure was to Kulka a possible “crack” in the immutable law. The baby is born in hardship, yet is healthy. But the same small sisterhood of friends who helped her to deliver the infant is then compelled to suffocate it as the SS approaches rather than allow it to be killed at their hands.
At the evacuation of Stuttfhof, she flees one of the most murderous of the death marches. Under assumed identities as German refugees, she and three friends are sheltered at a German farm. She uses her last hidden resources (intended for the baby) for medicines to help one of the friends, sick with typhoid, who survived. She then succumbed herself and was buried near the Vistula River. Her last hours, as reported to him in 1961 by the surviving friend, were full of hallucinatory worries about him, that he might be hiding and doomed in the very lavatory barracks where they had rehearsed the “Ode to Joy.” “Here the circle was closed, after I heard the conclusion of this tragedy, foreordained as it was, here, in Jerusalem of 1961.”
The adult Kulka sometimes seems to remember more than he acknowledges. There is an odd moment where he says he cannot remember any “conventional small cruelties,” and yet they are plentiful in his recollections. He hides a burn sustained after touching a barbed wire (it had been electrified early because of a rebellion at the crematorium) for fear of being found unfit to work; he recalls the savage beatings and floggings of other prisoners; he recalls the piles of skeletons and, vividly, the public execution of some Russians who tried to escape and were defiant to the last. In the light of such details, his assertion that “I possess no such memories” comes as a surprise. For Kulka the child, the savage flogging of a prisoner elicited a “feeling of a peculiar ‘justice’ that resided in all this; a feeling that it was some sort of actualization of a perplexing ‘order’ that overlay the camp’s everyday life….as though [it were] one system, in which it was impossible to distinguish, to separate the victim from the deliverers of the punishment.”
Every effort he has made to read any mainstream evocations of Auschwitz resulted only in a feeling of “utter alienation.” He is appalled that he cannot find in them what they seek to convey. Kulka’s inner landscapes, whether of absolute death (the crematoria) or absolute beauty (the blue skies), are paradoxically also his freedom, a private mythological space sealed off from his daily life. The perceived freedom conferred by childhood memories, of childhood landscapes, survives even Auschwitz: a forged Homeland, “a myth” available to him always, even as the world, “with the Metropolis (of Death) and the immutable law of the Great Death having been, can no longer and will never again be able to free itself of their being part of its existence.”
Further, he tells us he has refrained from seeing literary or artistic depictions of the Holocaust as part of his “stance of remoteness.” He realizes that as an historian of broad ideology and policy, he “never had to deal with the state, the dimension, of the violent end, the murder, the humiliation and the torture of those human beings”—a dimension he skirted as he skirted the piles of skeletons in front of the barracks. He wonders if his work has perhaps been his “Trojan Horse.” Citing Kafka’s story, he concludes, “This gate is open only for you, it exists only for you, and now I am going to close it.” But just as the massive iron doors of this deceptively slim volume are about to swing shut (…the gatekeeper said to the man, “I am going to close it”) Kulka, interpreting Kafka, imagines that just beyond the gates is a light yet to be seen, “such as he had never before seen in his life.” Kulka’s daily province is the world of fact, but here he invites us into a world that eludes easy answers or explanations. The book ends with an historical essay, written by Kulka, about the history of the Family Camp, but only after three astonishing dream-diary entries of Blakean, Biblical scope and power, the last of which contains a rabbi’s admonishment never to ask the question, Where was God? “It is forbidden to ask that question, those questions, there and into eternity.”
Kulka the historian was able to piece together the last movements of his mother, but a mystery to which Kulka does allow his mind to return is his last meeting with her, in July of 1944. They say their last goodbyes as she walks out the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate on the way to Stutthof and disappears over the horizon. It occupies his mind ever after that she does not turn back once to look at him. His adult self is able to piece together her story, deducing that she is already pregnant. His adult self understands that it was perhaps easier for her not to turn around, indeed that it may have been impossible for her to turn around. For all of Kulka’s characteristic understatement, we feel the anguish of both mother and son.
There is a photo of the older Kulka at the approximate spot of her death, which like Auschwitz itself has been reduced to a buried horizontal emptiness—hardly a metropolis. Yet, what his memory and imagination supply—a figure pregnant, hopeful, and tactical, yet doomed, growing ever grayer and dimmer as she disappears in the distance—is a fitting emblem for this unique book. We may be grateful that Kulka had the courage to look back at these shades. In a turn on Orpheus, his backward-looking glance animates these figures even if it cannot fully release them, or him, from what he calls The Metropolis of Death. Finally, this book is much larger than its brevity would indicate. It does not tell, but asks. The very meanings of memory and death are laid open.
Susan de Sola Rodstein holds a Ph.D. in English and American literature from The Johns Hopkins University. As Susan de Sola, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Hudson Review, The Hopkins Review, Measure, River Styx, and Ambit, among many other venues. A David Reid Poetry Translation Prize winner, she lives near Amsterdam with her family.