Holocaust Pulp Fiction
The Auschwitz survivor known as Ka-Tzetnik 135633 wrote lurid novels derided as pornography when they were published. Now he’s Israel’s Elie Wiesel.
Virtually every educated Israeli knows Ka-Tzetnik, or more precisely, Ka-Tzetnik 135633. Born in Poland as Yehiel Feiner, he moved to Israel after World War II and started writing in Hebrew; he would become Yehiel Dinur. But these names were eclipsed by the number tattooed on the author’s arm at Auschwitz, and so they appeared on none of his books. Instead, the covers of these books announced that they were written by Ka-Tzetnik 135633, a prisoner in Auschwitz in the terrible years 1943 to 1944 who emerged to write the very first novel about the Shoah, closely based on his own experience. (The writing was done in two and a half weeks in 1945, while he was lying in a British army hospital bed in Italy.)
KZ (pronounced “Ka-Tzet”) is the German acronym for Konzentrationslager (concentration camp), and in camp slang a Ka-Tzetnik is a prisoner. In later years, Ka-Tzetnik would claim he was born at Auschwitz when he arrived there in 1943. He said he was the true representative of the camps: the archetypal “Muselmann,” or walking dead man. In his books, he insisted, he spoke for all the others, the anonymous lost ones. Of all the witnesses at the Eichmann trial, the event that gripped the Jewish world in 1961, he is the one the Israeli public would remember most vividly. Facing Eichmann in his glass booth, he spoke for a few minutes, in agonized, disconnected fashion, and then collapsed in a faint. A few minutes later he was carried off to a hospital, to be treated for a nervous breakdown.
Ka-Tzetnik lacked utterly the dignified, philosophical seeker’s tone of Primo Levi or the heartfelt spiritual intensity of Elie Wiesel. He was a primitive, not a ponderer. But he had a traumatized, prophetic need to speak the truth. It’s time to rediscover his work, most of which has long been out of print in English translation.
Ka-Tzetnik’s first book, Salamandra, the one he wrote in the British hospital, came out in 1946; he followed it with a string of often lurid novel-memoirs, works that shock the reader with grotesque scenes of torture, perverse sexuality, and cannibalism. His second book, House of Dolls (published in Israel in 1953) was a wild success and was translated into a dozen languages. House of Dolls is a meandering mess of a book; its real point is its explosive conclusion. In the last 50 pages, the hero’s sister Daniella becomes a prostitute in a women’s labor camp: She is forced to join the camp’s Freudenabteilung or “Joy Division,” which services German soldiers (yes, that’s where the pallid, death-obsessed British band got its name—from Ka-Tzetnik’s book). The girls selected for the Joy Division have Feld-Hure (military whore) tattooed between their breasts. (The tattooing really happened, although the brothel at Auschwitz was frequented only by Kapos and other privileged prisoners, not by the SS.) The girls suffer under an ardent and brutal lesbian boss named Elsa, who forces them to strip naked, then bends them over a chair and lashes them.
For Israeli kids in the ’50s and ’60s—a rather puritanical era, devoted to the responsible building of a new society—this was exciting, illicit stuff. Often enough, they learned about sex from a novel about a Nazi death camp. Ka-Tzetnik’s House of Dolls influenced the Stalag series of schlocky, sex-and-violence pulp novels featuring Nazis and Jews, popular among Israeli teenagers in the postwar era; eventually, it became recommended reading in Israeli high schools.
House of Dolls is, unavoidably, Holocaust porn—written by a survivor. As a result, Ka-Tzetnik has been accused of turning the Shoah into a spectacle, of avoiding the incomprehensible horror of the catastrophe in favor of grotesque scene-painting. He was not alone. In the first few decades of the postwar era, as the scholar Omer Bartov notes, the Shoah was often, at least in Israel, a theme for fantasies of violence, perversion, and degradation. Only later did it become an occasion for high speculations about God, man, and the destiny of the West.
Ka-Tzetnik is no mere pulp author, despite the trashy calamity that is House of Dolls. His strength as a writer and witness shows itself best not in House of Dolls but in his first novel, Salamandra (translated as Sunrise Over Hell, and long unavailable in English). The salamander is legendary for being the creature that can live through fire; Ka-Tzetnik saw himself as a salamander-like survivor, exposed to the fiery worst and still—if just barely—living.
Ka-Tzetnik fills Salamandra with scenes of Jews betraying Jews, some of which are quite hard to take. At one point, a group of Jews hiding in the countryside strangle a baby, afraid that it will cry out and reveal their hiding place when the Gestapo arrives; another Jew turns over to the SS his brother’s wife and infant girl. The Judenräte, the Jewish town councils set up by the Nazis, are arrogant, self-satisfied exploiters who glory in their power over their fellow Jews. Salamandra includes a heroic depiction of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (popular in Israel for the example it offered of brave Jewish self-defense in the face of the Nazis), but there are also moments when the doomed sacrifice themselves. In an unbearable scene, a mother cuts the throat of her infant before slitting her own wrists, so they can die together. Israel established Yom HaShoah in 1953, 10 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the chag was originally intended to be observed on the exact anniversary of the uprising. Ka-Tzetnik’s books emphasized that there was much more to the Shoah than the noble defiance of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters.
Along with the episodes of shocking violence, there are considerable subtleties in Salamandra. Of life in the Krakow ghetto (called Metropoli in the novel), Ka-Tzetnik writes, “The days and the nights passed in this way. Tears tasted like tears no longer, nor did they touch or agitate the soul. They merely ran to be swallowed, like tea.” The homely simile—like tea—says more than any elaborate image could. When Harry Preleshnik, the book’s autobiographical hero, is sent in the truck to the crematoria, Ka-Tzetnik describes “a hazy geometry of rectangular block-after-block fading to an invisible horizon, and Block Chiefs in striped clusters, by the feet of the gaping vans, a dream ending. The van off now, to the end of the ‘square,’ then turn the bend to the crematorium route. There was something he must think about, but there was no time to work out what, no time with the oven a minute away now. Shoved into the oven, and you were finished—all those things he must think about and no mind to think with.” Here Ka-Tzetnik captures with an eerie and simple detachment the near-inconceivable mental state of a man with just a few moments left before his death: Harry has everything to think about, but “no mind to think with.”
The facts about Ka-Tzetnik’s—Yehiel Dinur’s—life are, in some cases, elusive. He was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1909 (not 1917, as he later claimed). A star yeshiva pupil in Lublin, he was later active in Zionist circles, and in 1931 he published a book of poetry in Yiddish. (When Ka-Tzetnik found out in 1993 that a copy of the book existed in Israel’s National Library, he stole it, burned it, and sent the charred remains back to the library with the instruction that the rest of it should be reduced to ashes, like all of his pre-Auschwitz existence.) He had a twin sister, memorialized as Daniella in House of Dolls, and a younger brother, whom he depicts under the name Moni in They Called Him Piepel, his third novel.
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