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The Unforgivable Sin of Survival

Only now, years after he survived Auschwitz, can we hear the alienation and fury of H.G. Adler’s newly translated ‘Shoah Trilogy’

Adam Kirsch
December 10, 2014
Aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by a reconnaissance aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, 1944.(Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv)
Aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by a reconnaissance aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, 1944.(Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv)

For Hannah Arendt, the peculiar horror of the Holocaust was the way it attempted not just to kill its victims, but to erase them from history. “The totalitarian state,” she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “tried to establish holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear.” Under such circumstances, resistance to Nazism was as futile and traceless as submission; even if someone had the courage to fight back against the horror, her deeds would not inspire others, because no one would ever hear about them. But reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and listening to the stories of survivors, Arendt realized that this effort at erasure was, in the end, a failure. “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.”

One of the uncanny things about Holocaust literature is that these stories, each one miraculous in its survival, continue to be discovered even 70 years later. Sometimes these are literal unearthings. Emanuel Ringelblum’s “Oneg Shabbat” archive, documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto, was buried in milk cans and dug up years after the war. The “Ponary Diary” of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a journalist who documented the genocide of the Jews of Vilna, survived the war buried in empty lemonade bottles and was only published in English in 2005. In other cases, however, major works of Holocaust literature were published, in a variety of languages, but simply never captured the world’s attention: The stories they told were ones that people were not ready to hear.

That is what happened with H.G. Adler, a survivor of Auschwitz who published some two dozen books before his death in 1988. Adler, a native of Prague, spent the postwar half of his life living in London, where he never quite managed to break into the ranks of famous exile writers like Elias Canetti. He was best known for his sociological study of Theresienstadt, the transit camp where he and hundreds of thousands of Czech Jews were interned before being sent on to slave labor or extermination. His book Theresienstadt 1941-45, published in 1955, is considered the best-documented account of any concentration camp. While Adler produced a series of sociological studies—including The Administered Man, a book about the deportation of German Jews—he also attempted to capture his own Holocaust experiences in poems and novels. Yet Adler’s fiction was little regarded by his contemporaries, and often he struggled to get his novels published.

In the last few years, however, Adler has been rescued from oblivion, as a series of his novels have been translated into English by Peter Filkins and published by Random House. Panorama, written in 1948, appeared here for the first time in 2011; The Journey, written in 1951, was translated in 2008. And now comes what is being described as the third installment in Adler’s “Shoah trilogy,” The Wall, which had the longest incubation period of all: Completed in manuscript by 1956, it was not published in German until 1989, after Adler’s death. The term “trilogy” is applied fairly loosely here, since the books share no characters, and it’s not necessary to have read the earlier novels in order to appreciate The Wall.

In style and subject matter, however, Adler’s novels do have a certain unity, which is the unity of their author’s own life. Each book renders a section of Adler’s own experience in fictional form, though always in a murky stream-of-consciousness style and with many departures from fact. Panorama depicts episodes from his childhood through his early manhood, culminating in his experiences in Auschwitz and other camps. The Journey focuses on the deportation of a whole family to Theresienstadt, where all its members die but one—just as happened to the Adlers, of whom Hans Gunther was the only survivor. Now The Wall takes up the story of the author’s postwar experiences, showing how Adler tried, and mostly failed, to make a life for himself after surviving the Holocaust.


Of all the different genres of Holocaust literature, the survivor’s story is perhaps the most challenging. It is the story of an aftermath, of a life lived in the shadow of events that are so terrible they can never achieve the banality of “closure.” And it is precisely this unresolved quality, this sense that a survivor’s life has broken away from all recognized narrative patterns, that gives The Wall its uneasy power. Its protagonist, Arthur Landau, is given to saying that he does not exist, and the whole book is like a document of what it feels like to live without existing: “I realize I don’t belong to human society. … If I have been granted a consciousness, it doesn’t allow me the possibility of sharing a basic understanding with others who sense they are conscious. I am not part of any continuum that allows those who are self-evident—so they maintain, at least—to discover something in common or at least assume it.”

Even this brief passage gives a taste of the dense and elusive prose that is one of the most common registers in The Wall. Whenever Arthur Landau stops to reflect on his condition, the text becomes as clotted as that condition itself; and what was surely already difficult in German becomes even more so in English, a language less accommodating to the melodrama of abstraction. Take, for instance, the first of many passages in which Landau proposes the wall as a metaphor for his condition:

The wall before me has never disappeared; I have known it for many years, not knowing when it first sprang up, though I didn’t always see it. … Whenever I feel invigorated and brave, I stride toward the wall, farther and farther, and yet it always stands before me. It is never far from me, but I have never gotten all the way to it. Indeed, I rush toward it, wanting to reach it, storm it, and overtake it, yet no matter how much I tirelessly try, it always remains there across from me, securely fixed and implacable. Wall of my vicissitude that often from an insatiable distance lures me onward, until I collapse before it, abandoning my pursuit.

Here it is easy to see what Adler owes to Kafka: The idea of being hemmed in by a wall that keeps retreating as you approach it is absurdly menacing in the way we’re used to calling Kafkaesque. Yet while a number of critics have compared Adler to Kafka (not to mention Joyce and Musil), the truth is that this passage is too rhetorical and over-extended to have his kind of lucid, concrete power. In Kafka’s story “The Great Wall of China,” to which Adler is perhaps indebted for his governing image, the bizarre infinity of the wall emerges implicitly from the extremely literal, specific details of its construction. Adler, on the other hand, uses emotive verbs and adjectives, insisting rather than showing. If The Wall is a difficult book, it is partly because it is often overwritten in a way that taxes the reader’s attention.

Yet in other ways, Adler shows a remarkable gift for narrative construction and organization. The events chronicled in The Wall come, in their basic outlines, from the writer’s own life. Returning to Prague after the end of World War II, Arthur Landau finds that his parents and everyone he once knew are dead. He takes a job at a museum devoted to Jewish history, where he compiles an inventory of now ownerless artworks, but he longs to leave the country and get a new start abroad. Despite his physical and mental weakness, Landau manages to get to London, where he expects that some old friends, who fled Czechoslovakia before the war, will help him resume his career as an academic. But he is direly disappointed when each of these friends proves false, and he is left without a career or any public recognition of his talents. His only consolation is Johanna, a fellow Czech émigrée whom he marries after a brief acquaintance, and who supports him unquestioningly. By the end, Arthur is living in London as the father of two young children, embittered and deeply scarred by his experiences, but still dreaming of intellectual success.

Yet this fairly straightforward account has to be reconstructed by the reader from the actual novel, which tells Landau’s story out of order, slipping ingeniously from one episode to another with no external signposts. (The whole 600-page book is one long section, with no chapter breaks.) These oblique segues are designed to leave the reader disoriented: We are reading about Arthur in London in 1950, and then with no warning we are reading about Arthur in Prague in 1945. Characters appear before they are introduced, and then vanish just as suddenly. Long surreal dream sequences—a nightmare train journey, a carnival full of sociologists—emerge out of realistic scenes and melt back into them. And while the settings of the book are obviously Prague and London, Adler never actually uses those names, preferring to call them “my old city” and “the metropolis,” as if to heighten the sense that we are reading about a dimension parallel to the real world.

Long surreal dream sequences—a nightmare train journey, a carnival full of sociologists—emerge out of realistic scenes, and melt back into them.

While much of the book is dreamlike and pensive, however, Adler is also capable of sharp, mocking satire. For one of the candid revelations of The Wall is that Landau the survivor is not simply devastated and distraught, as we might expect, but also very angry. Everywhere he goes, he finds people determined not to understand what he has been through, not to credit his lingering weakness, and not to help him get back on his feet. “It seems to me,” Landau tells a would-be benefactor, Frau Singule, “that those who survived also need to be felt sorry for a little bit,” and he is continually shocked by the world’s refusal to do even that little. Instead, people treat him with a combination of suspicion, resentment, and superstitious horror. “One cannot expect anything at all,” replies Frau Singule. “It’s best to be grateful that you are still alive and don’t have to run around naked. Indeed, too many survived. It would be so much simpler if all were killed and cremated, every last one, for then it would be easier to speak of the crimes and all the victims could be mourned together. … I mean, to have survived, it’s unforgivable!”

Clearly, part of Adler’s inspiration in writing The Wall was to take literary revenge on everyone who failed him in this way. The most comic and lively sections of the book deal with the series of acquaintances who promise to help Landau get an academic job and invariably fail to lift a finger. Theodor Adorno appears as Professor Kratzenstein, the academic mandarin who could make Landau’s name with a word but continually puts him off with excuses and evasions. Another character, Herr Konirsch-Lenz, is a Czech refugee turned successful wallpaper manufacturer; he promises to help Landau but only offers him a job as an apprentice in the wallpaper factory. If Landau, and by extension Adler, come across in these sections as a little bitter and entitled, these feelings are eminently understandable: “I had hoped for too much, wanted too much that was not possible,” he reflects, but after all he wants nothing more than the life he was supposed to have had, before the Nazis stole it from him.

The fiery temper Landau displays in these parts of The Wall alternates, however, with moments of utter despair. One of the most frustrating things about Landau, to his friends, is that he has emerged from the camps unable to handle even the most trivial social and practical challenges—indeed, the most trivial ones above all. Few writers have written better about helplessness than Adler, when he shows us Landau unable to order from a menu, or to make small talk at a party, or—in a memorable scene—hand in his train ticket to be punched:

I held my ticket high, it being the only weapon that could save me, yet I clutched it too tight, such that it wasn’t suited to battle, and there I stood, still paralyzed, my escort already having moved ahead, no longer an escort but, rather, deserters who had left their comrade behind and betrayed him, such that he had to face his demise alone. … People pressed behind me, but I didn’t wish to block traffic; at the gate some passengers had already begun to go around me. “I’m going, I’m going,” I whispered as apology, yet I did so inaudibly as the monitor waited atop his high chair so impartially, confidently looking on at my supposedly lawful actions …

The difference between the survivor’s view of the world and the ordinary person’s is best captured in the scenes set in the Prague museum, in the first months after the war. Landau has taken a job cataloging family portraits left behind by deported Jews—as terrible and haunting a task as could be imagined, and one that leaves him feeling responsible for each painting and each victim. His boss Frau Dr. Kulka, on the other hand, is a brisk, businesslike bureaucrat who only cares about the paintings insofar as they can be used to mount exhibitions. “What is past is past, and now we had to think of the future, of the building of peace and freedom, which depended on the common welfare, and this was the sense in which I finally needed to consider the museum and its message,” she berates him.

But Landau can’t help being turned around, his eyes fixed not on the future but the past: “I always see what lies behind, between, before me. The dead don’t speak, there are no ghosts, no; yet how eerie it all is. The dead are gone, crushed and scattered, but their things speak the language of the dead. … I could say a lot more about it, but I fear you wouldn’t understand me and would be cross with me about it all,” he says. The Wall reads like the repository of everything Adler couldn’t say to his contemporaries, all the fury, elegy, and metaphysical quandary that the practical world never had time for. Perhaps only now, with the Holocaust receding into the past and the survivors on the brink of disappearing, are we ready to listen.


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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.