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.
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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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.