Of Madness and Murder

A brilliant new novel explores how the search for his family’s fate during the Holocaust nearly costs a man his sanity.

“Götz and Meyer” by David Albahari. Translated from the Serbian by Ellan Elias-Bursac. (Harcourt, 176 pp., $23)

By Tess Lewis

“We need so little to imagine another world, don’t we?” asks the narrator of “Götz and Meyer,” David Albahari’s chilling novel about the impact of the Holocaust in the former Yugoslavia. But the world the middle-aged Belgrade teacher tries to recreate in this discomforting book is so unimaginable in its horror that the effort very nearly costs him his sanity. In a single 168-page paragraph, Albahari delivers a gripping account of one man’s teetering balance between the real and the imagined, past and present, sanity and delusion.

In an author’s note, Albahari explains that his book is based on historical fact. However, as this novel is a story and not history, “it respects the facts only insofar as the facts suit the story.” We need stories, the teacher tells his students, to “help us to sustain the pressure of reality, to ease the burden of life on our shoulders.” Albahari, who is Jewish, was born in Serbia in 1948 and experienced a great deal of reality’s pressure. He missed the horrors of the Second World War, but left his home in the former Yugoslavia in 1994 as his country disintegrated under waves of ethnic violence. He moved to Canada, where he has published, mainly for university presses, a series of superb but neglected books including, for Northwestern University Press, the marvelous short story collection “Words are Something Else” and the novella “Tsing.” His first book for a major publisher, “Götz and Meyer” may finally garner Albahari the attention he deserves.

Albahari captivates the reader in an almost voyeuristic journey in search of two minor historical figures who, although unremarkable, were indispensable to the machinery of the Holocaust. And it is at the hands of such ordinary people that genocides continue today. One unanswerable question shadows this novel, asked in relation to both the victims and perpetrators: “What would I have done?”

On turning 50, the unnamed narrator decides to discover his past. This means filling in a family tree that had been stripped of its branches in the Holocaust. Many of the narrator’s relatives perished in the Judenlager at the fairgrounds outside Belgrade. The narrator and his mother had survived the war, hidden in a small village. His father, an officer in the Yugoslavian army, survived in a German prisoner-of-war camp. But neither parent ever spoke of their past, hoping their silence might protect them from any resurgent evil.

Obsessively combing the archives of Belgrade’s Municipal Library and Jewish Historical Museum, the narrator managed to fill in most of the blanks on his family tree with names and dates. But his lost relatives never become as real to him as Wilhelm Götz and Ernst Meyer, two SS noncommissioned officers who were stationed in Belgrade from 1941 to 1942. These were “specialists” sent by Gestapo with a “special-purpose” Saurer truck to assist in implementing the Final Solution.

The trucks were fitted with air-tight cargo space to which a movable exhaust pipe could be attached. They ferried the camp inmates from the fairgrounds to mass graves, efficiently asphyxiating them along the way. Each load consisted of 70 to 100 Jews, depending on their level of starvation. In less than a year, Götz and Meyer drove some 5,000 men, women, and children, including most of the narrator’s relatives, to their deaths.

Götz and Meyer were a link in a chain, but it was a chain that tolerated no weak links. They were simply doing their job, and they tried to do it well. What draws the narrator to these two-bit players on the historical stage is the fact that they were “not little cogs in a vast mechanism, blissfully unaware of what the mechanism was for, rather they were entirely aware of the nature of their assignment, being simultaneously the heralds of death and death itself.”

Without an understanding of how and why the Holocaust occurred, the claim, “Never again!” has little force. Historical knowledge alone cannot explain the past; imaginative empathy is also necessary. In “Götz and Meyer,” Albahari brings a large measure of each in delineating “the dark face of evil, which each of us carries within, some people have it closer to the surface of their being, some in their depths.”

Through his narrator’s fevered imaginings, Albahari fleshes out the two Nazi officers. Call it the Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern approach to history — darkly comic, though without Tom Stoppard’s antic absurdity. While recreating Götz and Meyer, the narrator has trouble keeping the two straight. He never speaks of one or the other but always of Götz and Meyer or of “Götz, or was it Meyer,” conceding by the end that it does not really matter which was which.

The narrator, having never seen pictures of the two officers, must conjure them up with words and facts gleaned from his research. He endows them with all too human details. One has a wife and a sickly daughter; the other likes to hand out chocolates to the children in the camp. One of them mumbles to himself, which annoys the other at first, but he gets used to it. Both raise their hands in a similar fashion, but one has slightly wider feet so his boots chafe. But as they assume greater definition, the narrator slips more frequently into the world he is creating. He sees Götz and Meyer whispering and making paper airplanes in the back of his classroom or finds himself drinking beer with them under the Sava Bridge, or even hears them moving around his apartment.

“The soul that remembers is not lost,” the teacher assures his students. And yet, memory has its perils. The narrator is drawn inexorably into madness the deeper he delves into the past. As Götz and Meyer become more real, his identity disintegrates. Neither memory nor imagination alone is enough to stop history repeating itself. Even their combined their power is inadequate.

But the narrator of “Götz and Meyer” is determined to wrest some consolation, some meaning from the abyss of the last century: “As long as their faces are nothing but a stand-in for any face, Götz and Meyer will return and repeat the meaninglessness of history that becomes, in the end, the meaninglessness of our lives.”

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