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.
In one instance, at least, Ka-Tzetnik bent the truth: He claimed his mother was sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz; in fact, she died before the war. But much of Ka-Tzetnik’s work blurs the line between fantasy and actual events. They Called Him Piepel features a horrifying scene of a former Piepel (a boy who served as sex slave to a Kapo) being roasted and eaten by hungry prisoners; but on closer inspection, the reader realizes that this scene may be a delusion rather than a reality. According to Hebrew University professor Yechiel Szeintuch, to whom Ka-Tzetnik showed the original Yiddish manuscript of Salamandra, this early version showed odd, outrageous touches of humor that were excised from the Hebrew version. Ka-Tzetnik was always a disconcerting writer; his work utterly lacks the decorum one now expects from books about the Holocaust.
The reason for Ka-Tzetnik’s survival is itself in doubt, on his own testimony. In Salamandra, Harry is selected for the gas chambers, and survives only because he hides in a coal bin at the rear of the van that carries the doomed prisoners to their death. Ka-Tzetnik relived this dreadful memory during the therapeutic LSD treatment given to him by a sympathetic Dutch psychiatrist in the 1970s (he recounted the whole course of the treatment in a fascinating book, The Code—Shivitti: A Vision in English translation). Elsewhere, though, Ka-Tzetnik claimed that though he was a walking skeleton in Auschwitz, a true Muselmann, Mengele nevertheless spared him during a selection: The man later known as the Angel of Death sensed something indestructible in Ka-Tzetnik’s eyes.
Did Ka-Tzetnik merely feed a voyeuristic desire to see atrocities, and even to fantasize about them? To wade in a bloody and brutal sea of images, rather than seek an explanation for the Shoah, in the manner of Primo Levi and others? My own answer is no: For all the exploitative aura of his work, his aim is a profound one. Ka-Tzetnik’s shock tactics have a powerful truth-telling impetus behind them. As Bartov notes, Ka-Tzetnik puts us in the middle of the horror as Levi does not; he strips away the defenses provided by reticent and respectful invocations of the Shoah.
Ka-Tzetnik has been accused of kitsch: of being a clown, a vulgarian incapable of conveying the unimaginable tragedy of the Holocaust. Ka-Tzetnik does descend into kitsch and even revels in it. But Wiesel is also at times a purveyor of kitsch, of the soulful, French existentialist kind. (Of the dying violinist Juliek in Night, Wiesel writes, “It was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.”)
Over and over in his works, Ka-Tzetnik gives us not kitsch but genuine witnessing. In The Code, he remembers being carted off to the Auschwitz crematorium under the watchful eye of a yawning German soldier. “If this is so,” Ka-Tzetnik suddenly realizes,
Then he could have been standing here in my place, a naked skeleton in this truck, while I, I could have been standing there instead of him, on just such a cold morning doing my job delivering him and millions like him to the crematorium—and like him I, too, would yawn, because like him I’d certainly prefer snuggling under the covers of my warm bed on a cold morning like this. … Oh Lord, Lord of Auschwitz heavens, … you know that at this moment … two of us, dispatcher and dispatched, are equal sons of man, both created by you, in your image.
Ka-Tzetnik’s yawning SS man, with his unbearable revelation that Auschwitz is a universal possibility—that we are all responsible for this greatest of horrors—gets as close to the heart of the matter as it is possible to get. In his other works, Ka-Tzetnik pursues the idea of our responsibility for one another. After settling in Israel, he criticized the country’s discriminatory policies toward its Arab citizens in the decades after 1948. In Phoenix From Ashes, Ka-Tzetnik’s autobiographical hero carries the body of an Arab woman mangled by a land mine, just as he himself was carried by a Red Army soldier during the death march from Auschwitz. “Shouldn’t we be the ones to break the cycle of hate?” he asks.
Any consideration of Ka-Tzetnik must, in the end, center on the day in the summer of 1961 when he confronted Eichmann and, at the same time, his own memory of the Holocaust. When he was asked by Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor at the Eichmann trial, why he had “hidden his identity” behind a pseudonym, Ka-Tzetnik replied:
It was not a pen name. I do not regard myself as a writer and a composer of literary material. This is a chronicle of the planet of Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. Time there was not like it is here on earth. Every fraction of a minute there passed on a different scale of time. And the inhabitants of this planet had no names, they had no parents nor did they have children. There they did not dress in the way we dress here; they were not born there and they did not give birth; they breathed according to different laws of nature; they did not live—nor did they die—according to the laws of this world. They were human skeletons, and their name was the number ‘Ka-Tzetnik.’
A concentration camp uniform was brought out and shown to Ka-Tzetnik, and he remarked, “Yes, this was the garb of the planet Auschwitz.” Ka-Tzetnik went on to say, a minute before he fainted, “I believe with perfect faith that, just as in astrology the stars influence our destiny, so does this planet of the ashes, Auschwitz, stand in opposition to our planet earth, and influences it.” The traumatic memory that brought on Ka-Tzetnik’s collapse at the Eichmann trial was the eyes of those being led to the gas chambers. “I see them,” he muttered, transfixed, on the witness stand. “They are staring at me, I see them standing in the line.” Years later, under LSD treatment, he would circle back again and again to this trauma. None of his books, Ka-Tzetnik declared, came close to telling the truth about Auschwitz. “How could I communicate to them [at the Eichmann trial] the way I myself burn, searching for the word to name the look in the eyes of those who would walk through me to the crematorium, with eyes that fused with mine?”
Hannah Arendt was repulsed by Ka-Tzetnik’s “performance” (as she called it) when he testified against Eichmann. She mocked him as an author concerned with “brothels, homosexuals and other ‘human interest stories.’ ” But Arendt’s scorn misses the point: Ka-Tzetnik saw himself as a prophet, a new Jeremiah (who had his own images of cannibalism and perversion). And he was a prophet who, as he knew, lacked the words to express his vision. In The Code, Ka-Tzetnik wrote, “People have died of starvation before, and people did burn alive before. But that is not Auschwitz. What, then, is Auschwitz? I don’t have the word to express it; I don’t have the name for it. Auschwitz is a primal phenomenon.” He added, “Wherever there is humankind, there is Auschwitz.” In this he was accurate: Auschwitz is a permanent presence, one that cannot be wished away; its echoes continue to resound in later genocides.
In her remarkable book A Thousand Darknesses, critic Ruth Franklin comments that “we worry that we are insulting the dead” by wanting explicit images of the Shoah, as if to speak bluntly would be unforgivably vulgar. But, Franklin adds, we also want a “direct channel” to the Holocaust, a quasi-experience of it. Ka-Tzetnik shows us, as other survivors have, that even those who were there have no direct channel. No matter how grossly palpable he makes the terrors of the death camps, he still cannot reveal them completely. He is haunted, as we are, by the lines of doomed eyes; by the untellable truth of someone else’s death.
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