Wednesday, July 01, 2009

“You had to suffer it to know”

American writers and artists were not silent about the Holocaust for two decades, but merely constructed its meaning differently. It was not, for them, as it would come to be, “the Holocaust kingdom” or “Planet Auschwitz,” a place apart. Even when it was described as “the center of the world,” as in The Young Lions, it belonged to the war. The concentration camps first appeared in war stories, and the horror of the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jewry was first recorded in the reaction of American G.I.’s to what they found upon liberating the camps. In Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film The Search, to name another example, U.S. Army engineer Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) helps to reunite a Jewish refugee boy with his mother, who survived Auschwitz. Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who fled to the United States ahead of the Anschluss, may have been the first American artist to put the name of Auschwitz before the American public.

But American readers were not conducted into Auschwitz, unless I am mistaken, until 1959 when the first-person narrator of Meyer Levin’s Eva is imprisoned there. In the immediate postwar years, the Nazi camp as sign and proverb was Dachau. And more perhaps than anyone, the novelist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn fixed Dachau in the popular imagination. Gellhorn covered the war for Collier’s. She arrived at Dachau on May 7, 1945—the day on which Germany surrendered to the Allies. “It was a suitable place to be,” she wrote. “For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau and all the other places like Dachau and everything that Dachau stands for.” Her dispatch from the prison camp was published the next month and reprinted in the Library of America’s two-volume anthology Reporting World War II. Three years later she incorporated her observations into the novel Point of No Return. (It was originally published by Scribner’s in 1948 as The Wine of Astonishment.)

After the narrative taboo against “appropriation” or “stealing the Holocaust from its victims” had arisen, Gellhorn could not have got away with what she does in Point of No Return. She installs a Jewish G.I. as her protagonist and eyewitness to Dachau. Jacob Levy, an infantryman from St. Louis, decides that he must see Dachau for himself after he overhears two G.I.’s from the 12th Armored Division, which had liberated one of the Dachau subcamps near Landsberg on April 27, 1945, talking about “the biggest one of these kraut death prisons.” Levy tells himself that “you had a right to be curious.” With his C.O.’s permission, he requisitions a jeep from the motor pool, and enjoys his first chance since coming to Europe “to go off for his own pleasure. It was almost like getting into the car at home and going for a drive.”

On the way, Levy imagines “something like Sing Sing in the movies,” but when he arrives, the village of Dachau is pleasant—houses with flowers in the window boxes, flowers in the yard. “The bombers had not troubled this place,” he reflects: “it didn’t seem as if the war had bothered [the residents] any way. They were well-off, lucky people; they’d had it easy.” The prison itself looks pretty good to him; “those 12th Division guys were just drunk and shooting a line,” he decides.

Levy strolls over to the gate and asks the sentry about “getting in.” Although the American officer now running the prison is reluctant to admit visitors, the sentry believes that the Army ought to let people in “to see what the krauts did to those Jews.”

“Is that what they got in there?” Levy asks.

“Jews? Sure, I guess so,” the sentry says. “That’s what they look like. That’s who Hitler wanted to bump off.”

Levy is sprayed with DDT against typhus, and enters the barbed wire. Almost immediately, he wants to turn back. The prisoners frighten him:

They moved about in a way that was almost like crawling even if they were walking, slow and aimless and sick. Their eyes were all the same: too big, black and empty. There was no recognition or curiosity or anything in those eyes, just sick dead eyes in yellow or grey faces. Their bodies moved, without reason, as there was nowhere to go; and they stared at him. He had never imagined people could look like this.These of course are the Muselmänner: “thousands of starved mindless men.” The limits of human imagination are reached at the very sight of them.

A small man detaches himself and drifts up to Levy. He introduces himself as Heinrich, and offers to act as Levy’s tour guide. He looks like a “bundle of rags that walked,” but his eyes are intelligent, although “the intelligence was bitter and cold and not at all human.” He takes Levy to the infirmary, smelling of decay, where a Polish doctor is attending to the survivor of “the last death transport.” The Americans had to dig him out. Although he is twenty-two, he looks sixty and weighs “possibly ninety pounds.” As Heinrich describes the medical experiments and prisoner castrations, the doctor watches Levy closely “to see how an outsider would receive news from this world of darkness where they all lived.”

Heinrich shows him the women’s camp and the isolation chamber, which he calls “nacht und nebel.” Levy hears his own feet scraping on the cement floor as he struggles to understand what he is being shown and told. Impatient at last with the restrictions that an American soldier’s reactions have imposed upon her, Gellhorn abruptly switches to free indirect discourse from Heinrich’s point of view:Heinrich suddenly felt ashamed, because all he had to show, the only world he knew, was this place. He had no other life and no other knowledge; he knew that he could not live anywhere now because in his mind, slyly, there was nothing but horror. He wanted the others to know; the sane, the healthy, the free; he wanted to infect them with his pain, or what had been pain. Now he had no feeling but he wanted them to know. They could never know; no one could know; you had to suffer it to know.Despite its anticipation of what Primo Levi, nearly forty years later, would call the “belated shame” of the survivor, “concrete, heavy, perennial,” this passage is remarkable primarily for demonstrating the limitations, not merely of Martha Gellhorn’s art, but of narrative art as such. The experience inside the Nazi camps could not really be described until a literary genius who was also an ex-prisoner, someone who knew the experience because he had suffered it, was able to invent a narrative technique for describing it. Holocaust literature really begins with Tadeusz Borowski, whose first Auschwitz stories appeared in Polish the same year as Gellhorn’s novel. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman was not published in English, however, until 1967—the date that, for most scholars, marks the end of the “two-decade silence.”

Gellhorn did her best with the art she had at her disposal. Her tour of Dachau ends with Jacob Levy’s being led into a gas chamber. “The gas comes from there,” Heinrich explains as Levy covers his mouth and nose with a handkerchief, his eyes stinging from the smell. He follows to the other side of the building, where bodies cover the floor. “They had not time to burn these,” Heinrich starts to say, but Levy flees.

Many things might be said about American novelists like Martha Gellhorn, whose art was defeated by the enormity of the Nazi death machine, but that they were silent about “what the krauts did to those Jews” is not among them.

Point of No Return was reissued in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press in 1995, and remains in print.