There can be no way to analyse accounts of the the unendurable
This is a book I found it impossible to assess a clear response to. It is, of course, a book which should never have been written, since the fact that this history happened at all is horrifying beyond the imagination of horror itself.
Yet, having happened, books such as these MUST be written, and even more importantly, MUST be read. We must know what we are capable of for good and for ill. But how can a reader like, love, think its okay, not like or hate a book such as this?
I have (fortunately) no concept of an existence like this; I have only encountered people who lived through those times, and suffered what was suffered, who, try though they might cannot tell what they endured, because those of us who did not have these experiences cannot comprehend or imagine them.
And those that suffered them, however well they survived them were of course scarred deeply.
Otto Dov Kulka, Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. was a boy in the ‘family camp’ at Auschwitz, via Theresienstadt.
He seems to have survived in terms of his emotional, mental, spiritual sense of himself, through an element of dissociation – which is of course the third response the autonomic nervous system has to danger – aggression fight, fear/flight, or freeze/dissociation. Tellingly, he recounts (and this is horrific, heartbreaking, and at the same time astonishingly awe-inducing) a childhood (camp) memory not of the horror but of the blue skies, in the family camp. That is, he somehow managed to find a sense of the blue remembered hills idea of childhood, so many of us remember, despite the unendurable reality of the death camps. If an individual is to survive and recover from these sorts of horrors, the way it can be done may be strange indeed. I had a sense, reading this, that Dov Kulka got through by analysis, intellect, discrimination, judgement, forcing himself into a sort of objective overview response, withdrawing from the personal, subjective loss, pain and suffering. It is no surprise he became a historian, existing at the overview of events, drawing clinical assessments of them.
This is a book beyond my comprehension, shocking, dreadful, humbling. He spares the reader gory graphic individual details. It is enough that we know that those personal sufferings he spares us were, dreadfully, day to day mundane facts of what life was like, in those days, for those millions who lived and died in those unimaginable places.
It is also a book which escapes and transcends any categories it may be put into, leaving this reader bewildered, appalled – and in awe of those who, like Dov Kulka, so clearly escaped the concerted, deliberate, vicious procedures which were designed not just to physically mutilate, torture and kill, but to destroy the individual and collective humanity, the soul, the sense of self, before the final physical destruction.
It is not the physical survival of those who survived the Holocaust which humbles us, it is the evidence of the survival of their humanity – and sometimes a greater, wiser humanity than those of us fortunate enough not to be scarred and damaged by what we can darkly do to each other.
I am not saying anything about suffering like this ennobling – it doesn’t, that sort of suffering is deliberately designed to degrade and destroy and remove nobility. However, some people seem to have the ability to be as greatly transcending their baser selves, as some others have to embrace only what is most monstrous
I received this an a review copy