And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. With these words W. G. Sebald ends the first tale of The Emigrants. A short though not insignificant part of the same tale brings up the peculiar fate of an Alpine guide who had disappeared in a crevasse in 1914 and was never seen again until his remains resurfaced in 1986, 72 years later. The point of the story might seem simple enough: body falls, body freezes, and like Ötzi, the well-preserved, 5,000-year-old frozen man discovered in the Alps in 1991, body finally reappears or, in Sebald’s words, is finally released. What is disquieting about the sudden reappearance of the Alpine guide’s body is not that it disrupts our perception of aging and time—the guide would be around 140 years old when discovered—but that he emerges from the tranquility of the Swiss Alps untouched by the events of the century and therefore totally unaware that, during his prolonged absence, not one, but two cataclysmic world wars raged scarcely a few paces beyond the Swiss border, and that the second of these wars unleashed the most horrific crime ever committed in mankind’s history. Time stopped for the fallen guide. Time didn’t happen to him. Now, however, his thawed body, if intact, could, by a stretch of the imagination, throw open its eyes, shake its limbs, thank those who brought it back to life, and start walking.
This is exactly what happened to all Holocaust survivors when they were finally released by the Allies: They started walking. They were more dead than alive. They themselves couldn’t quite tell whether death has spared them or simply overlooked them, or whether, after granting them a deceptive furlough, it planned to catch up with them—if not now, then soon enough, and if not soon, then later. Such oversights weren’t supposed to happen in the seamlessly regulated industry of death that was the Shoah. Death would never be far from them again. They themselves claim to smell its odor on their clothes. Some are too sick to move, and will most certainly die even as they clasp the hand of their liberators; and those who were famished for so long devour more food than they should and die from the very care that was meant to bring them back to life. Some, as we know, die on the road, some are killed as soon as they come back to reclaim their home and property, and some will linger in limbo until the brutal, earsplitting din of the Lager, or camp, suddenly erupts on them and yells out its sentence decades later. As Elie Wiesel said on Primo Levi’s death in 1987, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years earlier.” Or, as one of the characters in Göran Rosenberg’s memoir A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz implies, there is no after after Auschwitz. Life stops at Auschwitz; the rest is just stalling and deferral and borrowed time.
Meanwhile these sloughs of their former selves, like Rosenberg’s parents after the camps, are headed to places that might as well remain nameless, since they mean nothing to them. In their case it will turn out to be Södertälje, a small, clean, wholesome town in Sweden, with people who wouldn’t know the first thing about them or about what happened to them. Everything is nameless in this safe, new, clean, wholesome universe where words seem superfluous while the silence and shadows that hover over each survivor keep them in a sort of stupor that has become their most reliable mainstay. Survivors don’t speak much. They don’t speak of what, in Rosenberg’s world, was called the shadows. They don’t want to remember, they don’t want to scare the children, they don’t even speak the old language when the children are around. Their devastating silence about the Lager leaves them feeling expunged and hollowed out, exactly as the Nazis would have wished: without papers, without pictures, without keepsakes, without identity. As for the few personal effects that they were told to bring with them to the train station before boarding the train to Auschwitz, these, at the last minute, they are told to leave on the platform. Those who watch the abandoned luggage sitting on the ground after the train leaves know their turn will come soon enough. And still, they too, when their day comes, will arrive with bundles of their own that they too, at the last minute, will be told to leave on the platform. “The ghetto lies sleepless over the luggage left behind. And”—Rosenberg continues—“over the luggage that’s sent back.”
You leave with nothing, you have become nothing. You have no record of who you are. You are a shadow, and you will be haunted by shadows.
After the war when the Germans offered to pay reparations, provided that Rosenberg’s father detail exactly how he spiraled and was no longer able to hold a job in Sweden, the poor man was unable to find the words to describe his condition. He was accused of malingering, of suffering from a case of what became known as “pension neurosis.”
Words are treacherous. Silence is no better.
This aphasia of the soul gives Rosenberg’s book its unmistakable timbre. His parents do not speak, and Rosenberg captures this alienation from human speech in his style, particularly when he avoids giving names to things and people.
“The man who is not yet my father,” he writes, has just discovered that “the woman who will be my mother” is alive in one of the displaced-persons camps. She too lacks a name. They were teenage lovers in Lodz before being forcibly jam-packed into cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz where they were suddenly separated on the selection ramp without the leanest hope of ever seeing either each other or any of their other relatives huddled in the same wagon. Both miraculously survived the camps and reemerged from the house of the dead while still in their 20s. They were told that there is a place in Sweden willing to give them refuge and work. Quite appropriately this new, seemingly unreal place also lacks a name yet and is simply called the Place. What to do in this new Place, how to forge a new life and build a small new world among its people who are not their people and do not speak their language, how to put the past behind them—all this they call the Project.
The Project, the Place, the man who is not yet my father—no names. Survivors don’t talk.
Adapting to the Place is difficult. They have survived the camps, now they must survive survival—and this, it turns out, merely seems easier. It is not. It’s another hell but with a clement face. It comes with a job, a house, children, even an automobile. But “[w]e have already died once,” says Göran’s father, and as was the case with Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Bruno Bettelheim, Tadeusz Borowski, and Jean Améry, their return among the living may, in the end, not be worth the price. Survival is costly too, for what the Lager does, if it doesn’t kill you the first time around, is to utterly demolish, in the words of Jean Améry, your trust in the world. Without trust in the world, you are simply a floater. There is no place to call home, and you will always keep getting off at the wrong station on the long road from Auschwitz. In Rosenberg’s beautiful phrase, home is the place “where we put our first words to the world,” and once you’re wrenched away from this the damage is permanent, there is no stepping back, no turning the clock, no chance to put words to the world again. There is only a lumbering forward. You are eternally dislodged, eternally transitional, and eternally out of sync with the world. You cannot ground yourself. You and earth, like you and time, have become strangers. Place is unreal, time is unreal, you are unreal. You are frozen—which is why the words “alive” and “dead” are no more than figures of speech.
Göran Rosenberg’s memoir starts with “the man who is not yet my father” getting off at a train station on the road from Auschwitz. He has endured the worst that one can imagine in the camps, and there is clearly something at once stunned and numbed in his gait as he alights. He is wearing more clothing than is necessary on that hot day and is met by other young men from the camps who arrived before him. This is their first stop, and there is no doubt among them that it is to be a brief stop on their way to a better life elsewhere. The undisclosed irony is that for Göran’s father this will turn out to be his last stop. This was not the Project. Göran’s father, after all, is young and ebullient but he is a seemingly hapless, unassertive man, clearly not an alpha survivor type set on, as the sayings go, getting over it and moving on. Both he and his wife appear to be haunted by shadows about which their soon-to-be-born son knows nothing, just as he probably doesn’t understand the lives they lead under the unbearable pall of “loneliness and lost bearings.” The shadows will grow larger and loom heavier on the father until there is no shirking them, until what his sons called the horizon offered by this safe, clean, wholesome new home will “refuse to open up to him” and all his dreams are doomed to failure.
But A Brief Stop is not a study of the father. Nor is it just about the horrors of the Holocaust. There are horrors aplenty in this book, particularly in the description of the Lager, but the author knows that it is near pointless to attempt capturing the experience of the camps after Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, a book that remains the standard by which every first-hand account of the Holocaust is measured if only because it conveys both the meticulous bestiality of the Germans and the brutalized humanity of their victims.
No accident, then, that before even beginning to describe some of the horrors witnessed by his father in both the Lodz ghetto and the camps, Rosenberg should write: “I read Primo Levi with envy and realize for many reasons I will never be able to write a narrative like his.” And herein lies the strength of this short book that is so reminiscent of the best of W.G. Sebald. It is a reflective work that seeks to meditate upon the enduring and still-menacing shadows that clouded the lives of his parents as he was growing up with them. It is more about the shadows—if we can continue to call them this—than about the camps themselves. In fact, and despite appearances, the real subject of A Brief Stop is not the father but rather the son who is seeking to retrace his father’s steps and who goes, like Telemachus, on what could easily be called a pilgrimage on the road from Auschwitz. To do this, Rosenberg, who is an established writer and reporter in Sweden, needs to chronicle and capture the atrocities his father faced during the war. But what he is ultimately seeking to understand and to chronicle is growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. This is about the Holocaust that is passed on, the Holocaust that colored his childhood whenever he heard Polish or Yiddish spoken either by his parents or by their minuscule circle of friends, or when his parents happened to drop a few hints about a past he couldn’t even begin to fathom, because what he had to work with was never the hard truth but the scars and shavings of the truth, because those who knew the truth were themselves unable to speak, much less live with the truth, because, let’s face it, they couldn’t understand it themselves.
Rosenberg spent a long time researching this book, partly to provide an accurate account of his father’s journey from the ghetto in Lodz, then to the concentration camps of Auschwitz, of Braunschweig, then Wöbbelin and finally, by miracle—when the Americans arrived—to freedom in Sweden. Rosenberg needs to know exactly when, where, why, how, what, and what else happened. When did they arrive in Auschwitz, how were they separated, why were Red Cross food packages given to Jews and not to others? He wants to know who lived where in the dreadfully cramped rooms and spaces in Lodz and what was life under Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish leader (some deem him the Jewish Führer) of the Lodz ghetto appointed by the Nazis and who encouraged the Jews to give up their elderly and their children under 10 to placate German demands. Rosenberg, who has a sense of irony, also researches newspapers in his local town in Sweden to point out how on the very month when these papers were reporting the building of schools or of public parks, Jews were fast disappearing off the face of the world. One of the tiny articles in Sweden happens to wonder why over 1 million Jews disappeared in Europe. But the newspaper drops the matter and simply moves on.
As Serge Klarsfeld had done in his monumental French Children of the Holocaust to document as best he could first the name of each deported child, then the child’s picture, then the child’s address in Paris, the date when the child was rounded up, the holding pen where the child was held, the date on which the train to the extermination camps left, the wagon on which each child traveled, similarly Rosenberg wants to know the names of every one of his father’s siblings, the name of each of their children, and at which exact point they were separated when the train finally stopped at Auschwitz. As he writes,
It’s me [these facts] have a function for. I’m the one who needs them. I’m the one who needs every fragment that can possibly be procured. … A fragment that can’t be erased, edited, denied, explained away, destroyed. A date. A list. A registration card. A photograph. The exact names and numbers of the days when [his father’s] world is liquated.
The purpose of so detailed a collection of facts? There are many explanations: to quench the historian’s and reporter’s thirst for impartial truth; to bear witness and “to rescue [facts] from oblivion,” especially when so many in the world continue to deny them; to fight extinction—the extinction of a people, of communities, of humanity, of memory itself; perhaps even to stand bewildered before the ever-incomprehensible enchainment of the very tiny miracles it took each time one survivor among thousands, sometimes through no skill of his own, just happened to escape the gas chamber. Or perhaps all one wants in pursuing so many details is to try to grasp the equally intractable fact that, barring these tiny miracles, the writer himself might so easily never have been born to ponder the matter.
All these are good reasons why Rosenberg was so tireless in his pursuit of facts about both the camps and his family.
Yet something else could be going on that might ultimately explain the explosion of a new breed of memoirs and novels being written today about the Holocaust by authors who are not first-generation witnesses, but second- and, now, third-generation Holocaust writers: writers who were either too young during the war or who were born after the war. As far removed from the maw of the Shoah, they nevertheless inherited the agony of the persecuted; their own memory is so inflected by the Holocaust that one is tempted to say that their genetic makeup has been forever altered by events in their parents’ or grandparents’ lives. W.G. Sebald comes to mind, as does Art Spiegelman, Leon Botstein, Edmund de Waal, George Prochnick, Thane Rosenbaum, Nicole Krauss, Daniel Mendelsohn, Amy Wildman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Rosen. Maybe the reason why they and so many others are unable to free themselves from the Holocaust lurking in the periphery of their lives is that none can tell whether what they know about it stands as a reminder of horrors past or of horrors that haven’t quite washed away and may seem to want to come back. To echo Freud’s “shadow memories,” theirs are shadow traumas, i.e., acquired traumas. Unreal but indelible. They are all Jews still trying to expiate what can neither be undone nor ever understood, much less resolved.
Second- and third-generation writers go back to the world of their fathers and forefathers either on foot or on paper, or both. They want to walk in the shoes of the dead and tread the very same cobble lanes, perhaps in search of virtual stolpersteine, which are these cobble stones covered with brass that are placed alongside regular cobblestones throughout Europe to commemorate the name of victims of the Shoah. These travelers want to revisit homes that may not mean much to them but that still do. They walk up stairways that still lead to an old apartment where forebears lived or hid before escaping or being rounded up. They want to turn back the clock, to relive the past, to reopen wounds that have not and may never heal. Again, one redresses the past, not by understanding it—as Rosenberg writes, “Everyone knows, but no one understands”—but by ultimately sitting down and giving the past as coherent an account of itself as possible.
Still, reliving or redressing the past, or retracing someone’s footsteps, or putting back the pieces, all these are metaphors; they bring us no closer to why someone like Rosenberg spends years researching his father’s dark itinerary. Surely it must have something to do with giving a narrative to a life that was permanently dislodged and, through this narrative, make sense of what would otherwise have remained a swirling eddy of incidental facts. One researches the facts not to come up with factoids but to arrive at something called meaning. And meaning is never given, or even discovered; it is constructed. Which is why it is poetic. Which is why, when confronted by his inability to comprehend events that resist comprehension, Rosenberg resorts to a language that verges on paradox and koans.
Thus, thinking of his father: “The Germans have no intention of letting anyone survive to say anything, and those who survive don’t know what to say to be believed.” Or this about the not-so-honorable gentiles: “The road from Auschwitz is lined … with people who initially say they heard and saw nothing and in any case had nothing to do with it, and then say they opposed what they neither saw nor heard.” Or about the victims: “They don’t cry like humans because the pain isn’t human. … Humans aren’t capable of bearing such suffering. Beasts perhaps, but not humans. So people don’t cry.” And finally, about his father for whom life in Sweden could not undo what he had seen and lived through in the Lager and who was unable to leap forward and thrive in Sweden: “The more the horizon closes in, and more important the leap becomes, and the longer that leap is postponed, the more the horizon closes in.” About remembrance: “I think the step from surviving to living demands [the] apparently paradoxical combination of individual repression and collective remembrance. You can look forward only if the world looks back.”
In thinking of the deaths at Auschwitz, one writes in paradoxes to sort one’s way around the mind’s failure to fathom the unfathomable. It’s how one accepts both the horrors that have ceased to be and those that won’t go away long after they’ve ceased to be. A koan is how the mind palpates that imponderable zone where a no longer can so easily feel like a not yet. Time’s covenants are thrown off when we’ve lived so close to death.
As Sebald writes elsewhere in The Emigrants in his inimitable cadence, “It truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them.” Which is another way of saying what Sebald’s Austerlitz says, when he tells the narrator, “As far back as I can remember … I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all.” The space between the living and the dead is paper thin. Which is why the dead are ever returning to us. And this is good, this is justice.
Göran Rosenberg will be at the Graduate Center at CUNY in New York City, March 30, as part of Children of the Holocaust: Writers of the Next Generation, in which a distinguished group of writers to reflect on this haunting legacy, including: Leon Botstein, Roger Cohen, Jeremy Eichler, Ruth Franklin, David Greilsammer, Marianne Hirsch, Daniel Mendelsohn, George Prochnik, Jonathan Rosen, and Sarah Wildman.
André Aciman, a professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is the author of, most recently, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and of Out of Egypt: A Memoir.