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The Age of Bad Holocaust Novels

A cautionary tale: ‘The Death’s Head Chess Club’ and other period fantasies are the inevitable next thing in Shoah fiction

Adam Kirsch
May 07, 2015
(Erik Mace)
(Erik Mace)

When Theodor Adorno made his famous pronouncement about there being no poetry after Auschwitz, he was thinking about good poetry. Art that successfully transforms reality, elevating it to a plane of harmony and permanence, can only be a falsification of an experience as violent and inhuman as the Holocaust. In time, however, writers emerged who showed that a different kind of art can do some kind of justice to horror—an art not of beauty and transformation, but of fragmentation and austere witness. The poetry of Paul Celan, the prose of Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi, created the style we still associate with authentic writing about the Holocaust. That style renounces beauty and cleverness in the name of more sustaining values like humility and truth. Not coincidentally, all of those writers were themselves victims and survivors of Nazism; for them, the Holocaust was not just another literary subject, but the central truth of their lives.

Time has also showed, however, that Adorno’s warning remains pertinent in a somewhat different way. For if people write poetry, or fiction, about the Holocaust, some of them will inevitably write bad poetry about the Holocaust. They will use Auschwitz as a tool for shock value, or for gross sentimentality, or for false gravitas. This can be a result of bad faith, deliberate exploitation of the subject; but that is seldom the case. Much more frequent is simple inadequacy to the subject: The writer believes he is saying something profound and necessary, but in fact he is spouting clichés and recycling horrors. Books like that have been written from the very beginning—look at the pulp pornography of the Israeli who wrote under the pen name Ka-Tzetnik, slang for “Concentration Camp inmate.” More common than lurid books have been sanctimonious and self-congratulatory movies, like Life Is Beautiful, which mine the Holocaust for redeeming human-interest stories.

As the Holocaust recedes into history, this kind of bad poetry proliferates. Auschwitz remains central to our imagination of evil, but the experience of evil itself has grown remote, so that thinking about Auschwitz threatens to become a kind of moral tourism. We make mental excursions there, just as we make physical pilgrimages to the site, because we feel it’s good for us to spend some time in the company of the abyss. But just as tourists at Auschwitz inevitably means selfies at Auschwitz—because not everyone who visits has the patience, or courage, or knowledge, to understand what they are doing there—so writing about Auschwitz means that we will get mediocre, self-satisfied books on the subject.

The Death’s Head Chess Club, the new novel by John Donoghue, arrives with an unusual backstory. Donoghue is a 58-year-old English pharmacist, and this is his first novel. From such an author we do not expect the kind of stylistic virtuosity that Martin Amis lavished on his Auschwitz novel, last year’s The Zone of Interest. But that might be an advantage, considering how awkwardly Amis’ style comported with his subject. The real question is what new insight or literary quality Donoghue brings to this much-written-about, much-pondered subject. How does the Holocaust speak to someone so removed, biographically and temporally, from the horror?

The answer, in this case, is that it doesn’t. Donoghue has done his research on Auschwitz—he makes that clear by sprinkling the text with German words and including an endnote on “historical context.” He knows what kind of work went on in Monowitz, the slave-labor camp attached to the concentration camp at Auschwitz and the death camp at Birkenau. He knows, and extensively deploys, the names of all the ranks in the SS, from Rottenfuhrer (corporal) all the way up to Gruppenfuhrer (general). We get glimpses of some of the institutions that feature in every history of the concentration camp, such as “Kanada,” the warehouse used for storing items looted from dead Jews. Because the book is simply written and dramatic, it would be a good way for, say, a high-school student to glean some of the basic facts about how Auschwitz was organized.

Everything about this story—its conception, its execution, and its unexamined assumptions—is so obviously wrong that it barely needs to be pointed out.

Unfortunately, it would also suggest to that student that the most significant thing that took place in Auschwitz was a chess tournament. And not just a chess tournament, but one in which a heroic and supernaturally inspired Jewish prisoner was able, and permitted, to beat a series of SS men. The chess club is the brainchild of Paul Meissner, the SS officer who—unlike all those bad SS officers—comes to realize that Auschwitz is evil, and that the Jews don’t deserve to be tortured and murdered. This realization is fostered by his relationship with “the Watchmaker,” Emil Clement, the French Jewish inmate who turns out to be so unbeatable at chess. His secret, we learn, is that he casts a kind of rune before every game, using kabbalistic techniques to decide what strategy to use at the board. (Each chapter of the novel is named after a chess move: “The Baltic Defense,” “The Janowski Variation,” and so on.)

That is what happens in one of the novel’s intercutting time frames, in 1944. In the other, in 1962, Emil and Paul are reunited in Amsterdam, where the former is competing in an international chess tournament, and the latter is a Catholic bishop dying of leukemia. In this part of the story we witness the sincerity of Paul’s repentance and the obduracy of Emil’s refusal to forgive him. Fortunately, at last the stubborn Jew yields to the redemptive power of Christian love, in a scene where Emil actually drops to his knees and prays before a crucifix: “He raised his eyes to the figure on the cross. ‘Is that it?’ he mouthed silently. ‘Is that how a Christian prays—by listening?’ ” Donoghue writes.

Everything about this story—its conception, its execution, and its unexamined assumptions—is so obviously wrong that it barely needs to be pointed out. In an endnote, Donoghue writes, “I do not know whether or not there was a chess club for the SS in Auschwitz, and in my research I have found no evidence to confirm it either way.” But whether SS officers did or didn’t play chess with one another—and probably they did; why wouldn’t they?—the idea that the administration of Auschwitz would organize a match between SS guards and Jewish prisoners is so comprehensively absurd, so contrary to everything we know about the life and spirit of Auschwitz, as to render the whole book an exercise in fantasy. In reality, the SS saw the Jews as subhuman carriers of disease and barely interacted with them at all, reserving that task for the prisoners appointed as trusties or Kapos.

Things are only made worse by the way that Emil wins match after match, to the increasing anger and confusion of the SS higher-ups. This is a Hollywood story in which we root for the underdog; the structure of the story, too, with its series of increasingly tense and triumphant chess matches, is pure Hollywood. But in Auschwitz there were no plucky underdogs. There were hundreds of thousands of sick and starving people who could barely stay alive from day to day, and who dropped dead regularly from disease, malnutrition, or the blows of Kapos and guards. A prisoner like Emil would have spent his days doing backbreaking labor on the strength of a piece of bread and a dish of watery soup. He would not have been able, Jewish magic or not, to win a series of chess games against the men who were torturing him. To suggest otherwise is implicitly to scorn the actual Jews who did not manage such feats of resistance and intellect—who merely suffered and died.

If the Auschwitz sections of the novel err by trying to make misery “interesting,” the Amsterdam sections are actively offensive in the way they recycle the age-old equation of Judaism with stubborn vengefulness and Christianity with loving forgiveness. Emil holds on to his grievances like Shylock, while we are meant to take Paul Meissner’s postwar embrace of a Catholic vocation as proof of his essential goodness. This is an especially unfortunate plot device for anyone who remembers the role that the Catholic Church actually played after the war, helping some of the most hardened Nazis to evade Allied justice. (Adolf Eichmann, for one, escaped to Argentina under false papers given to him by a Catholic bishop in Italy.) And the novel’s concluding scene, when Emil scatters Paul’s ashes at Auschwitz while saying Kaddish, is pure kitsch.

There is an amazing kind of innocence in the way Donoghue has managed to write an Auschwitz novel without ever really discomfiting himself or the reader. Auschwitz, in this treatment, turns out to be a rather interesting place, where games of skill turn into moral contests, and evildoers learn the value of repentance. Yes, there are deaths along the way—including the deaths of Emil’s two children, led away on the ramp in the initial selection—but these are not allowed to get in the way of the pleasures of a good read. Anyone who writes about the Holocaust, however, ought to be required to try to imagine, first, what it was like to be one of those children—on the train, and in the selection, and in the gas chamber. Only after coming to grips with this central story of Auschwitz—a story repeated a million times—should the writer put pen to paper, if he still can.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.