Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov KulkaTuesday 05 Mar 2013
Publisher: Allen Lane Hardback
There is an insatiable desire abroad still for so-called Holocaust memoirs, those compelling accounts of suffering and deprivation, of lives which ended terribly in concentration camps and death camps, notably those of Theresienstadt (or Terezin) in the Czech Republic and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
Think of the lasting impact of movies set during that period, such as Schindler’s List or The Pianist, and in literature terms, observe the unflagging interest in The Diary of Anne Frank amongst readers of all ages.
This is a fact readily recognised by the author Otto Dov Kulka, a noted historian of the period and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew Univeristy of Jerusalem. Born in 1933, he grew up in Prague until his family were sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Acknowledging the many works of cinema, theatre and art which have helped us understand Auschwitz - and indeed continue to do so - he notes the "excellent writers who have obviously confronted the subject .. . (and) everyone reads these books, they sell thousands of copies - so they obviously speak in a uniform language to all those myriad readers. Yet I cannot find in them what they seek to convey! (His italics) It’s a completely different world! The only response I feel able to express is alienation; all that is authentic is the authenticity of the alienation. Therefore I ask: in what am I different? Something is wrong with me!”
Although unknown to this reviewer, it appears that Dov Kulka has in the course of long years of historical research attempted to probe the motivational super-structures, to clinically analyse how a society that could permit such unspeakable horrors actually functioned in practical terms.
However, privately, he was making a series of tape recordings between 1991 and 2001 in which he recounted the images that came back to him from events that took place in those aforementioned camps in 1943 and 1944.
Moreover, writing this slim but profound 127-page book makes him think about his own life and how he has been in flight from confronting a boyhood in which his father survived, and in which his mother died.
In his painstaking, scrupulous account, he masks the pain it must cost him to think about his mother Elly walking away from Auschwitz and not looking back at father or son, as she made her way to a labour camp in Northern Poland. He would never see her again, and never know how she died.
When he travels to Stutthof, the location of that camp, there is no grave, although there is a burial ground, which he dutifully photographs, as indeed he does on visits back to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Among the 48 illustrations in the work, there is a poignant full-page portrait of his mother, photographed as a young woman before the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Ultimately, the author realises that his cold emotionless study of the period was “a Trojan horse”, a way of spiriting himself, as best he could into confrontation with his eleven-year old self in Auschwitz. Dov Kulka’s account is careful, wise and acutely fresh in its insights, and will be essential reading for many.