Tue, Mar 12, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Landscapes of the metropolis of death

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

He relates how, when he was in the camp as a child, he was put in a special section where Jewish families were allowed to live together. This was an attempt to demonstrate to international visitors that the camp was benign in its function. Almost all its members were eventually killed, but the boy managed to evade death twice, once when he was in hospital, and once when he managed to join a group of men being sent to work in Germany during the evacuation of Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944.

Among his memories are the public hanging of three Russians who had tried to escape, and the beating, mostly on the head, of another, quite elderly man who was judged to have been avoiding his fate by hiding in the toilets. He also remembers being in a choir that paradoxically sang the Hymn to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and watching a cabaret, performed by inmates, in which the inevitable fate of death in the gas chambers was, extraordinarily, made the subject of ironic jokes.

In an interview Kulka has said that, whereas nothing in history is finally over and done with, nevertheless the post-war generations in Germany have displayed a remarkable volte-face, so that they are nowadays among the most liberal and progressive in Europe. In addition, Kulka, who was born a German-speaker in what is now the Czech Republic, says he was one of the first Israeli academics to go to study in Germany. He went to Frankfurt, where the celebrated Theodor Adorno was his supervisor.

Time and again the author of this short book insists that his private dreams of Auschwitz prevent him from feeling any connection with published descriptions, memoirs or documentary films on the subject. This aspect of the book, a solitary figure now living elsewhere visiting a dream-like landscape, together with the blurred black-and-white photographs (many of them his own) that accompany the text, are all reminiscent of the more complex — and, it has to be said, more rewarding — books of the late W.G. Sebald.

This book, translated from the original Hebrew, is in effect a series of footnotes to the history of the Holocaust. In attempting to speak once again of the unspeakable, its tone is inevitably somber. After a lifetime of brooding on his dreams Kulka, now 80, has finally brought himself to put something down on paper. But he has clearly found it difficult, and his method of avoiding a simple narrative account doesn’t make it any easier for the reader.

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