When considering the Holocaust, it’s relevant to think of some other instances of hideous brutality and murder committed by human beings. A list might include Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the carpet bombing of European cities in World War II, hangings, drawings and quarterings in the UK over many centuries, the ancient Chinese habit of surrounding cities and then setting them on fire, the burial alive of those who had helped build many ancient Asian tombs, and probably many more instances of mass slaughter of which history contains no account.
The point of saying this is to suggest that the attempted extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis, appalling though it was, wasn’t unique. If we argue that it was indeed an isolated instance, then we are able in a way to write it off. This was an unparalleled atrocity, we will say, but then Adolf Hitler was a madman, this was a horror without precedent, and human life fortunately isn’t normally like that.
But putting the Holocaust in a wider historical context allows us to say something general about human nature. Given permissive circumstances, in other words, many people are capable of the most atrocious crimes, and just about anywhere in the world.
However, all the horrors listed above do have one thing in common. They were all committed by governments. There are undoubtedly vicious individuals around the world following their own nightmarish agendas. But the greatest crimes, in terms of sheer scale, have, probably throughout history and certainly in the 20th century, been instigated and committed by governments.
And even when something like the 9/11 attacks appear to be the work of individuals, we nevertheless often find ourselves assuming that, if we look closely enough, we’ll find that a government was somewhere behind them.
Even when we consider war in general, the conclusion is impossible to avoid that governments are to blame. Smaller groupings such as football crowds may display aggressive behavior expressing a sometimes-violent local patriotism. But the systematic arming and deploying of troops into positions where there is no alternative but to fight the opposing forces until one side or the other is defeated — and with vast numbers killed on both sides — can only be the work of authorities with total control over their populations.
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by Otto Dov Kulka, is a series of meditations on his experiences as a child who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and who is today a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He’s spent his whole working life, he says, cultivating a professional objectivity, never mentioning his own experiences of the death camps even when they might have been relevant. Now, however, he’s decided to put into print a series of tapes on which he recorded his camp-related dreams. These are preceded by a few paragraphs describing the actual events that the dreams appear to relate to.
Kulka was 11 when he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He returned to nearby Krakow to give evidence at the trials of former Auschwitz officials in 1946, also then re-visiting the site, and went back in 1978 after attending an academic conference elsewhere in Poland. Then in 1992 he visited the former Stutthof concentration camp at the mouth of the Vistula on the Baltic, near where his mother died after being transferred there by forced march from Auschwitz.
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.