Holocaust literature is neither history nor memorial: (dialectical synthesis)

(A Pre-Proposal for Doctoral Studies which never worked out)

The issues with the selected texts: H.G. Adler’s The Journey [Eine Reise or Die Reise], as well as Panorama and The Wall [Unsichtbare Wand]), Otto Dov Kulka’s Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (נופים ממטרופולין המוות ); Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, present nuisances in the representation of the Holocaust. Such terms as ‘memorial’, ‘memoir’ and ‘history’ do not belong in the same class. Then how do we classify these as belonging in the Holocaust genre? How do we – the critics – cull these jagged fragments of narrative to make a linear (true both to life and to pedagogy) historiography? Notwithstanding the fact the genres, ‘memorial’, ‘memoir’ and ‘history’ are incongruent and considering adversity from Adorno’s ethos of censorship: “Nach Auschwitz keine Gedichte mehr” (note: Adorno himself had not endured a concentration camp), which dictated ethical publishing in the decades after the liberation of Auschwitz, the trick was to consider our source texts with an application of dialectical synthesis. Ergo, in the anti-memoir of Otto Dov Kulka and the fiction of H.G. Adler, W.B. Sebald and Rachel Seifert, ‘memorial’=’anti-memorial’ and ‘history’=’anti-history’ to form dialectical syntheses.

History vs. anti-History

H.G. Adler’s mission was a scholarly undertaking of Holocaust history. “Adler researched his history of Theresienstadt while working at the archives and library at the Jewish museum (Jüdisches Zentralmuseum) in Prague” explains Irina Sandomirskaja, “which, after the war, was purged of its Nazi ideology but not of its contents, structure, and organization – nor of the memory of how it came to be. It was there that the surviving documentation from Theresienstadt was deposited after the liberation of the ghetto.” [1] Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antliz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft or Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The face of a coerced community was completed between 1945 and ‘48. But the language of history was inadequate. In the introduction to Adler’s debut novel, Panorama, German translator, Peter Filkins, writes, “…key to Adler’s work is the dovetailing of fact and fiction in trying to both scientifically and imaginatively encompass his experience. Theresienstadt 1941-1945 would be…examining his past through the exacting lens of a scholar and a social historian. However, during the same decade in which he concluded his thousand-page study, he also wrote twenty-five hundred pages of fiction, completing five novels, of which Panorama was the first… it was one thing for Adler to ‘judge the run of affairs’ in keeping the copious notes that would lead to the Theresienstadt book; it was yet another thing for him to ‘enjoin’ his imagination with what had happened through writing fiction. (Panorama xxi)

Panorama (written in 1948 and not published until 1968) is an almost true-to-life account of the author’s formative years, growing up in Bohemia, Prague on the cusp of Nazis and deportations. In a change of setting, Theresienstadt is not reflected. Using a Kafkaesque moniker, Josef Kramer, is shipped off to Langenstein camp – outside of Buchenwald – where he enters into slavery and finally, after liberation, chooses a hermetic life abroad (mimicking Adler’s own exile in London); yet the liberties taken to fictionalize character and place, and the stream-of-conscious narrative remind us we are reading a novel as much as an ‘anti-history’. While The Journey (written in England in 1950) was not published until 1962, it was written as the follow-up to Panorama. In the town of Lietenberg near Ruhenthal, the fictional Lustig family is doubtless a stand-in for Adler’s own clan which he formed with his wife and mother-in-law, both of whom perished tragically in the gas chambers. The character known as Paul, Adler’s persona, is the sole survivor. While the emotions and psychology are authentic, there is no mention of Nazis, or Jews or the name of the ghetto and camp. “Similar to the way in which Adler renounces the standard language of Nazi, Jew, death camp, et cetera, all place names in The Journey are fictional, though they indeed serve as metonymic ties to the significant portals along Adler’s own journey…” writes Peter Filkins in the essay for the translation’s introduction. To survive Auschwitz or Buchenwald, one required the mental disguise of “masks of masks,” as Norbert Troller puts it in the introduction to Theresienstadt: Hitler’s Gift to the Jews: “Through fictional characters placed outside of a direct historical context and settings that only symbolically connect to actual places,” writes Peter Filkins, “Adler evokes the mythos that lies beneath the surface of experience, memory becoming, in the words of his son, Jeremy Adler, ‘the burning ember that defines the theme as well as the style.’” (The Journey xv)  Having completed the first draft in 1956, The Wall, was not published until 1988 – the year of Adler’s death. “Adler clearly taps his own biography in the shaping of this epic tale…” writes translator Peter Filkins in the book’s introduction. “At the novel’s start, we find Arthur Landau living in a ‘metropolis’ that clearly mirrors Adler’s postwar London, while the city he remembers from ‘back there’ is a sure stand-in for Adler’s native Prague.” (The Wall xii)

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As a vocation, Otto Dov Kulka is a self-proclaimed “historian.” His object, though, Auschwitz, cannot remain an autonomous specimen, quarantined from psychology and emotion by a scientific probe. Our historian, Kulka, survived the ghetto of Theresienstadt and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as a child. So to put it in his own words – as a writer and academic researcher seeking objectivity – he must “sever the biographical from the historical past.” (Kulka xi) To put it another way, the survivor’s testimony must sieve out an account of blurry emotions and amnesic bewilderment. To illustrate the difference between ‘history’ and ‘anti-history’, let us sample a paragraph of Man’s Search for Meaning (or Trotzdem Ja zum Leben Sagen Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager) by Auschwitz survivor, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, M.D, PhD:

To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject [Auschwitz] is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgements may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias, and that is the real difficulty…

(Frankl 6)

Given this hindrance, the attempt to create a genuine history of life in Auschwitz, by a historian who he himself had endured the horrific experience, and is therefore doomed to leave his own empirical impression on the otherwise, ideally translucent spectacle, we encounter both the ubiquity and magnitude of photographs. What successful work of historiography does not include images – and what judicial testimony could hold up against their veracity? And so, Kulka’s literary album – translated from Hebrew – indulges in the use of black-and-white photographs. Some of the realistic photographs Kulka uses are a panoramic shot of “black stains along the sides of the road…”; “…And [he] saw what they were: human bodies.” (Kulka 5)


Figure 1 Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 1945 (United States Holocaust Museum, Photo Archives)

In doing his best work as historian, we can see the contrast between these two photos. The first photo of corpses along the path from Birkenau shows a scene—a landscape— of an event (“the death march” of January 18, 1945) and therefore, is true to its classification: ‘history’. This sensed triad is the fusing of ‘history’ and ‘anti-history’ into one intellectual synthesis: “reflections on memory and imagination,” as the work’s subtitle bodes. In the introduction to Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, Kulka writes, “I am aware that, beyond the dichotomy that looms between my scholarly work and my reflective memory, this present book in itself reveals immanent tensions: a confrontation between images of memory and the representation of historical research.” (Kulka xi)

As with all historians, having a few photos handy will consistently dazzle the spectators, and certify one as a qualified historian. Kulka’s book does not fall short, offering an array of images of Auschwitz then and now and pictures drawn by children. But in the novel, Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, arbitrary black-and-white images interrupt the text, bringing to graphic design a motif of random detail as spectacle. Kurt W. Forster is a Swiss historian of architecture and professor at the Yale School of Architecture[2]. In a 2012 article in the Italian magazine, Engramma, entitled, “Images as Memory Banks,” he enlightens us about our mysterious novelist:

One of the most compelling instances…leaps from a page in Austerlitz, on which Sebald paired eyes of owls and human beings that instantly brings to mind the joint gazes in a photograph of Alighiero Boetti with his owl in Kabul. Less the bird of wisdom than of nocturnal thievery, its gaze is hypnotic and yet wide-awake…[3]

Figure 3 W.G. Sebald, page 3: “the gazes of humans and owls, from Austerlitz (2001)

As the novel opens, the story’s narrator has simply wandered into a zoo while visiting Antwerp, Belgium, and he is enjoying the life inside the artificially-dimly-lit “Nocturama”, among the lemurs, raccoons and owls. Classically anti-Semitic and (racist) in timbre, this setting establishes the ambience for a shadowy ‘anti-history’.

The protagonist, Jacques Austerlitz, is a professor of Architectural History, which he teaches in Bloomsbury, England. In the last segment of Austerlitz, the protagonist learns he was saved from his family’s tragic fate at Theresienstadt through a deportation from Prague by kindertransport. He was adopted by a Calvinist Welsh couple. Upon hearing this, he journeys to Terezǐn. The protagonist remarks that for the most part, the town is empty of people. Here, we first glimpse Sebald’s use of objects and memorabilia in creating an ‘anti-history’. “The ANTIKOS BAZAR is the only shop of any kind in Terezǐn apart from a tiny grocery store…” (Sebald 194) exclaims Austerlitz as he makes his way through the inventory in search of history through artifacts. “What secret lay behind the three brass mortars of different sizes, which had about them the suggestion of an oracular utterance, or the cut-glass bowls, ceramic vases, and earthenware jugs, the tin advertising sign bearing the words Theresienstǟdter Wasser…” (Sebald 196) As a historical reference for tracing the path of his family, Austerlitz employs H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antliz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. “I began to spend my evenings and weekends poring over the heavy tome, running to almost eight-hundred close-printed pages, which H.G. Adler, a name previously unknown to me, had written…” (Sebald 232-233) Voyaging to Terezǐn and Theresienstadt, he needs to witness the location where “…people, who before they were sent away had been led to believe some tale about a pleasant resort in Bohemia called Theresienbad…” (Sebald 239) Practically, an illustrated history of the Holocaust, it is the specter of fictionalization which tags the novel an ‘anti-history’.  Peter Filkins writes in the introduction to Panorama:

…Sebald, who features Adler and his Theresienstadt study in…Austerlitz,…blends Adler’s twin approach by presenting texts…carefully researched factual studies of the author’s own experience, replete with their own panorama of photographs, but which are also highly manipulated forays into the fictional sublime.

(Panorama xxi)

Again, in the essay “Images as Memory Banks” we introduce the theme of eschatology. “Sebald’s procedure [of frequently including uncaptioned black-white photos] recalls the age-old practice of assembling tokens and memorabilia, photographs, clippings and ephemera in scrapbooks as a ritual of mourning.” Regarding Sebald’s affinity for objects, photos and historiography—as observed in works such as Austerlitz (and The Emigrants or Die Ausgewanderten [1992]), architectural historian, Dr. Forster, writes:

These scrapbooks do not look to the future for other purposes than to capture reflections of what has happened in the past. Physical repositories that they are, they double as a site of memory and a stimulant for recollection. Few writers of recent years have tapped the intangible nature of relics more perceptively than Sebald, who, by acts of imaginative transfer, managed to turn image tokens into totems of memory.[4]

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So far we have identified Holocaust literature as being a synthesis based on opposing dialectics, or a triad. For example: H.G. Adler is a historian / H.G. Adler is a novelist > his trilogy: Panorama, The Journey and The Wall are all ‘anti-histories’. And pretty much the same goes for W.G. Sebald. As an objective phenomenon, ‘history’ must be on display for all to learn from, as if various participants are waiting in line to peer through the glass, at the panorama. H.G. Adler writes ‘anti-history’ based on what he endured as a survivor; W.G. Sebald, a German, whose father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis from 1929 and was a prisoner of war until 1947[5], wrote an ‘anti-history’ based on a character, which exists through meta-narrative. The character, Austerlitz, a persona of Sebald, forces speculation about the possibility of Sebald’s own Jewish ancestry.

And this brings us to our next novelist of ‘anti-history’: Rachel Seiffert, who is inspired to create Holocaust tales about the lives of German gentiles. Like Sebald, Seiffert’s ‘anti-history’ is oftentimes motivated by guilt. As a historian, Otto Dov Kulka makes use of photographs. Sure enough, in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, as a successful historian and historiographer, Kulka inserts photographs from: his own private film, taken as a tourist; the United States Holocaust Museum; the Jewish Museum in Prague; Der Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie; Yad Vashem and more. Had he a camera, though, along with him as a child prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau or the family camp at Theresienstadt, the objective to create a historiography would be stress-free – not so much remaining for the posthumous archivist. Introducing the anti-hero of the novella, “Helmut,” part of German author, Rachel Seiffert’s trilogy entitled, The Dark Room. Helmut is a young German with a slight physical handicap. Unlike the Jewish protagonists in Austerlitz, Panorama, The Journey and The Wall, the tragedies, trials and tribulations perpetrating war-time Berlin are either moderate, compared to the chronicles of suffering in some of our other literature, or are simply inflicted on another race, making the protagonist anti-hero a witness to trauma and atrocity, but not necessarily a victim. Helmut has the personality to, through a kind of journalism, assist future historians. He is frequently seen “standing at the high fence at the far end of the tenements, staring through the slats at the trains pulling in and out…Helmut does not concern himself with engine numbers or types of carriage. He likes times and destinations, arrivals and departures.” (Seiffert 8) He impresses the guards with his “encyclopedic knowledge of the timetable.” Through the turnstile bars, he quizzes them “on arrivals and distances.” “Puberty and the Third Reich arrive simultaneously…” (Seiffert 9) and soon, Helmut is employed as a photographer’s apprentice, where he learns to take pictures and develop them in the dark room with special chemicals. He even ventures to develop color photographs – a recent innovation. He finds that he cannot stop photographing the people coming on and off the train, instead of taking film of the construction being done to the train station. Were Helmut a photojournalist, his recording the faces of the Romani would make this story a work of ‘history’; yet the protagonist’s aestheticizing of the photography warrants the label, ‘anti-history’:

Inspired, Helmut starts to think about depth in his framings; foreground and background; throwing the focus; leading the eye. He experiments, using longer exposures to convey a sense of activity, figures blurring in their workday haste. Over the next few weeks, Helmut also becomes more adventurous with his perspectives and elevations…taking pictures through the windows of moving trams.


The gypsies are divided and loaded into the trucks. They shout back at the men in uniform, gold teeth barred. Children cry on their mother’s hips and hide beneath their wide, bright skirts. Girls bite the soldiers’ hands as they pull the jewels from theirs ears and hair. Men kick those who kick them and are kicked again. Women push away the hands which push them, and one runs but doesn’t get far and is soon unconscious and I the truck with the rest of her family. Helmut is afraid, exhilarated. His hands sweat and shake. He clicks and winds and clicks again, photographing as quickly as the camera will allow: not quick enough. He reloads, curses his fingers, feeble and damp, fumbles and struggles with the focus…In the viewfinder his eyes meet the eyes of a shouting, pointing gypsy. Others turn to look: frightened, angry faces in headscarves, hats, and in uniform, too.

(Seiffert 27-28)

In prior Holocaust fiction we have only seen through the eyes of the survivors. That Helmut is “exhilarated” by the part he is playing in this historical tragedy shows the ruthlessness of the oppressor. His camera might as well be his rifle, now our German protagonist finds as a ‘studium’, a faceless mass. And so, for the callous behavior of the camera’s operator, mixed with his aesthetic curiosity for variations of a photograph, we label our story, ‘anti-history’:

Crowded streets, station openings, all of these things he is good at because he can take his time, find the right spot for the camera, and do multiple exposures of similar compositions. He also concludes that black-and-white film was really not suitable for the subject matter. The bright skirts of the gypsy women are just drab rags in his photos and don’t swirl and dart like they did that afternoon. The dark SS uniforms blend into the soot-black walls of the buildings, making them almost invisible. Helmut knows he was too far away to capture details. He blows up the image, but the grain evens out the angry lines on the face of the officer who was screaming orders by the jeep, and he barely looks like he is shouting.

(Seiffert 30)

When photographs are too grainy to capture memories of the Holocaust, a cinematographer is the historian’s best friend – or so we would conjecture. Again, let us recall, Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald:

…the Germans,…for propaganda purposes in order to justify their actions and conduct to themselves, thought fit after the end of the Red Cross visit to record in a film, which Adler tells us, said Austerlitz, was given a sound track of Jewish folk music in March 1945, when a considerable number of the people who had appeared in it were no longer alive, and a copy of which, again according to Adler, had apparently turned up in the British-occupied zone after the war, although he, Adler himself, said Austerlitz, never saw it, and thought it was not lost without a trace.

(Sebald 244)

A soundtrack of Jewish folk music set to moving images of camp inmates – both the living and the dead; or (black-and-white photographs of clocks and architectural structures). All of the above contribute a stroke of aesthetics to an ‘anti-history’. “Sebald has been accused of bordering on a kind of preciousness in bringing such a highly aesthetic approach to the Holocaust, and it is a criticism that Adler, too, faced in his dispute with Theodor Adorno on the question of whether it was even possible to write fiction or poetry after the camps…” (Panorama xxi) writes Peter Filkins, but the ‘anti-history’ of Rachel Seiffert’s short-story, “Helmut,” is taking things to a much different extreme, especially considering the spectacle of ‘tormentor’ and ‘victim.’

Memorial vs. anti-Memorial

          A memorial is an elegiac tribute. A common paragon is the war memorial. For most military campaigns by any given country, a memorial must be set as a tribute to the casualties. Fallen veterans are seen as national martyrs, angelic souls. But in the case of the Holocaust, as students, we need not only count the fallen victims of genocide. During the war, the Nazis also succumbed to the blitzkrieg of the allied forces. And when a young soldier dies in a Nazi uniform, his German family still mourns him as a “national martyr” and “angelic soul.” When an Aryan civilian (free from the imprisoned society of concentration camps) is killed in a bomb raid in Germany or Poland, it is still a tragedy—at least for some. Moreover, inside the camps, inmates frequently carried out mental cruelty, physical torture and even homicide against fellow Jews and prisoners. Then, for literature to honor Hitler’s unspeakable chaos, an ‘anti-memorial’ must be set—to delineate genocidal disaster from a simple wreath memorializing the unfortunate beloved.

The first ‘anti-memorial’ brought to our attention is the novella entitled, “Micha,” the third in a trilogy by author Rachel Seiffert, known as, The Dark Room. In 1997, a young German schoolteacher is visiting his grandmother. Michael’s ancestry has been in the German military, and some have fallen in battle. It is necessary in the family to memorialize them: “In front of Michael, all along the wall, are Oma’s uncles, who died when she was a girl…” Seiffert writes, “Dark oil paintings of boys in uniform. Mutti’s great-uncles. My great-great uncles. Im Krieg gefallen: fallen in war. Not Opa’s war, the one before.” (Seiffert 160) Military heroes are easy to honor – in fact, it is expected—“dark oil paintings of boys in uniform” as described above provide a passable ‘memorial’ for these Prussian war casualties—Michael’s kin. But in a twist, Michael learns that his late grandfather was a Nazi: “—Opa came back New Year 1954. He was Waffen-SS, you see…He went away in ’41, the Russians got him, and I didn’t see him again for thirteen years.” (Seiffert 164-165) It is a memorial to recollect one’s grandfather, but how do you honor their memory knowing they were Nazis? How does he reflect on his ancestor with pride knowing he was a prisoner of war in Russian custody? Tormented, the protagonist still harbors warm memories of his grandfather, as would any healthy kin: “I was his only grandson…” speaks the protagonist, “Opa drew pictures for me when I was born, birds and horses and a squirrel. He drew them with blue pen on hospital stationery, talking to me in my crib.” (Seiffert 167) In another sequence, upon seeing the images collected by a cameraman directly after Heinrich Himmler hanged himself—avoiding judgment—Seiffert compares the protagonist’s naturally-deceased grandfather to the Reichsführer of the SS. A critically decisive moment of dialogue between the protagonist and his confidante:

Can you imagine admiring Himmler?

No, but I know what he did. He looks ugly to me because he was a Nazi.

—Yes, but Opa doesn’t look ugly to me.

That’s completely different.


It just is. He was your Opa. If Himmler was your Opa, he wouldn’t be ugly. It would have made you sad to see him dead, not angry.

(Seiffert 175)

Mid what we glean from the novella is while we memorialize the dead, some dead require ‘anti-memorial’—there is no other worthy ceremony. We recall the spectacle of Heinrich Himmler’s lifeless body dangling from a noose, before an allied cameraman. Is it justice that the monster is finally dead? Or is it injustice that the monster committed suicide as a means to avoid judicial sanctioning? Would, that he was sentenced to hanging by the judge and defendants, some semblance of justice be pronounced. This confounded and distorted sense of justice is a Holocaust phenomenon which especially haunts Otto Dov Kulka, tinges his personality with sarcasm and inspires his ‘anti-memorial’ memoirs. “Victims and perpetrators,” writes Kulka, “…were as though one system, in which it was impossible to distinguish, to separate the victim from the deliverers of punishment…” Alluding first to the Jewish Kapos, he is referring to an unnamed synthesis: a triad computed by a thesis, an anti-thesis, and a memory. “Here again it was the sense of a strange ‘justice’ residing in the unity of opposites…” (Kulka 44)

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Under the system of oppression in the concentration camps where “depersonalization climaxes in ‘the reduction of people to mass,’” it is hard to record a history, as would a photograph. And this is where our historian, Adler, employs fiction: “the mass is a fiction, since no individual is a member of the mass or any one mass but is always an individual in a group of men which is part of a society and a community.” [6] (Langer 146) How does one chronicle the history of a concentration camp in which one’s young wife was reduced to ashes? In the essay, Holocaust Fact and Holocaust Fiction: The Dual Vision of H.G. Adler, Lawrence L. Langer writes, “Adler’s dual vocation as a chronicler [of] Theresienstadt and as a…fiction writer resolved to rescue from anonymity some individuals who were deported there is dramatically illustrated by the dedication to his wife that precedes his vast scholarly narrative.”  (Langer 142) Or take for example the protagonist of Adler’s first work of fiction, Panorama. In Peter Filkins’s introduction we read: “…Josef’s mission and calling involves the implicit need to ‘bear witness to the existence of the lost ones…’”.  (Panorama xx) Not just a work of ‘anti-history’ for its fictionalization of character and plot, we also receive the book as a work of ‘anti-memorial’. This is because of the concern with the fates of ‘the lost’ which might also cause to be considered a work of eschatology. And this: the study of eschatology brings us to another work, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (reflections on memory and imagination) by Otto Dov Kulka.

Let’s begin by dissecting the title. The word ‘landscape’ evinces the visual, or the graphic, as in a panorama. A ‘metropolis’ (Μητρoπόλεις) is a noteworthy conurbation consisting of an economic, cultural and political hub (according to the Oxford Dictionary). The fact that it is a “metropolis of death,” a saturnine absurdity and a flagrant contradiction of terms, reminds us of our marque, ‘anti-memorial’. Would Kulka’s opus be a ‘memorial’, were it not for the breathing life of a ‘metropolis’? It would be a mass funeral, a memorial site, but Kulka, the memoirist is a survivor:

…because everyone died one night and I remained…at the last moment I would be saved. Not for any merit of mine, but because of some sort of inexorable fate. That night dream always brings me back to the same immutable law by which I end up back inside the crematorium and…I dig beneath the barbed wire and reach freedom and board a train, and at one desolate station at night a loudspeaker calls my name, and I am returned to the place I am bound to reach: the crematorium.     (Kulka11)

One more time: a ‘memorial’ is to serve the memory of an event or soul, usually deceased. Because of Kulka’s “immutable law”, all who went through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau suffered – at the very least – a figurative death in which the soul has ascended in graduation of the material world. Landscapes, is not only one historian’s ‘anti-memorial’ for Hitler’s camps, but an essay in eschatology. Such eschatological ‘anti-memorial’ is to be observed not only in Kulka’s Landscapes, but also in the fiction of H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald who writes:

It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel…as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like,…the longer I think about it the more it seems…that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.

(Sebald 185)

It is the living who, traditionally make a spectacle of the corpses, but in this “higher form of stereometry,” it is the dybbuk that senses the living. In the essay “Holocaust Fact and Holocaust Fiction: The Dual Vision of H.G. Adler,” Lawrence L. Langer writes:

Just as we need to understand what a survivor of Bergen-Belsen meant when she wrote upon liberation, ‘We have not died, but we are dead,’ or what an Auschwitz companion…intended when she said after the war, I died in Auschwitz, but no one sees it,’ so we are obliged to interpret the idea that turns up so often in the testimony of returnees that for them, after the Holocaust, conventional chronology ceases to function.

(Langer 140)

It is owing to this dysfunctional “conventional chronology” (a surrendering to eschatology) that a linear history or historiography is mirrored in a dialectical synthesis.

In Austerlitz, ‘history’ is honored by the protagonist’s Adlerian study of Theresienstadt and pilgrimage to Terezǐn: a ‘memorial’ for his parents. But ‘history’, as predicted, fails ‘memorial’ when an object is worthy of sentimentality. Austerlitz is studying Adler’s historical tome, Theresienstadt 1941-1945, but given its dry sense of chronology, it isolates Austerlitz’s ‘imagination’ and ‘memory’ focused on his mother:

…since although I had been to Theresienstadt before leaving Prague, and despite Adler’s meticulous account, which I had read down to the last footnote with the greatest attention, I found myself unable to cast my mind back to the ghetto and picture my mother Agắta there at the time. I kept thinking that if only the film could be found I might perhaps be able to see or gain some inkling of what it was really like,…”

Sebald records the cogitation of Austerlitz. Then there is a moment of attainment – the mother-child reunion: “…and then I imagined recognizing Agắta, beyond any possibility of doubt, a young woman as she would be by comparison with me today…” (Sebald 244-245) Indeed, the film, and more specifically the image of Agắta are a miraculous find: “Whatever footage was actually produced in Theresienstadt during the two film projects (1942 and 1944–45), most of it was lost: censored, arrested, hidden, destroyed, locked up in one or other archive, or just fragmented, scattered and never recovered in full” wrote one critic.[7] Upon the discovery of that one particular tape resurfacing, Austerlitz’s one private wish – his yearning to set eyes on his biological mother – comes true:

Figure 5 Sebald, W.G.; Austerlitz, page 251

In the course of the performance the camera lingers in close-up over several members of the audience, including an old gentleman whose cropped gray head fills the right-hand side of the picture, while at the left-hand side, set a little way back and close to the upper edge of the frame, the face of a young woman appears, barely emerging from the black shadows around it, which is why I did not notice it at all first. Around her neck, said Austerlitz, she is wearing a three-stringed and delicately draped necklace, which scarcely stands out from her dark, high-necked dress, and there is, I think, a white flower in her hair. She looks, so I tell myself as I watch, just as I imagined the singer Agata from my faint memories and the few other clues to her appearance that I now have, and I gaze and gaze again at that face, which seems to me both strange and familiar, said Austerlitz, I run the tape back repeatedly, looking at the time indicator in the top left-hand corner of the screen, where the figures covering part of her forehead show the minutes and seconds, from 10:53 to 10:57, while the hundredths of a second flash by so fast that you cannot read and capture them…

(Sebald 251-252)

Austerlitz is privileged to watch Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet / Terezin: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area(produced in the ghetto in 1944-45), at the suggestion of Adler – (but with a frown). H.G. Adler, though, whose imaginative novels, Panorama and Ein Reise, were attacked by his iconic acquaintance, Theodor Adorno, denied “all cinema the status of a cultural representation or creative phenomenon.” In fact, Adler “renounced it and any other representation based on the panorama principle of the mechanical reproduction of the image. It was his firm conviction that they were all ‘rusty apparatuses’ of abomination, complicit in the Nazi crimes against humanity, and therefore incapable of witnessing for the sake of truth and justice.”[8] But Austerlitz makes good use of this particular film. A familiar appearance from Austerlitz’s memory– either shrunken to miniature or blown-up to portrait, depending on the screen size – is captured in motion-picture and projected – Austerlitz’s mother has – in a sense – come back to life. The monument attested to is the ‘anti-memorial’.  And we stress that it is ‘anti-memorial’ because it is not as if Austerlitz’s mother, the actress, is simply playing for the sake of cinema. First of all, “It is a panopticon…” writes Irina Sandomirskaja in her essay, “Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt: Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called ‘As If’ (Reading H. G. Adler).” (A ‘panopticon’ provides a way for the inmates of a concentration camp to be watched by the guards; they remain unawares of whether or not they can be seen). “It is a panopticon in which capacity it seems to have been most relevant for the prisoners of Theresienstadt, the unwilling producers and performers of a grossly falsified, cynically manipulative filmic image made by order of their executioners.” While, the film does enough to quell certain suspicions in Austerlitz’s imagination, it is in Adler’s “analysis of cinematography in the ghetto” that “the image appears as a tool of the ultimate moral torture and repression in all meanings of the word – rather than a way towards elucidation, memorialization, or empowerment.” [9]

While visiting Prague, with the recently-watched film about his biological mother—an actress named Agắta—still fresh in his memory, Austerlitz reports:

I also spent several days searching the records for the years 1938 and 1939 in the Prague theatrical archives…., and there, among letters, files on employees, programs, and faded newspaper cuttings, I came upon the photograph of an anonymous actress who seemed to resemble my dim memory of my mother, and in whom Vera, who had already spent some time studying the face of the woman in the concert audience which I had copied from the Theresienstadt film….and without a shadow of a doubt, as she said, recognized Agắta as she had then been…

(Sebald 252-253)

Figure 6 Sebald, W.G.; Austerlitz’s mother; Austerlitz, page 253

And so, to reunite with one’s own mother is an inimitable ceremony. That through the media of cinematography and still-life photography, a respectable séance is practiced. But of emotive reaction we may draw opposing dialectics, that א) it is increasingly tragic that should Austerlitz know the fate of his mother, this picture itself may conjure a nasty poltergeist; and ב) now that he can feed his imagination with the true-to-life image of his mother, he can have a sense of closure. What we have is a synthesis between the dead and undead—a dybbuk. Among other syntheses, the picture is a cenotaph that serves as a ‘memorial’ for the young woman who was murdered by the Nazis, and an ‘anti-memorial’ for the undying, preternatural spirit found in a recorded image. Architectural historian, Kurt W. Forster, writes:

[W.G.] Sebald seems to waver between securing documentary evidence and capturing the past in the fictional web of his narrative. The (chiefly) photographic images he includes in his texts are oddly reticent participants in his stories, because images differ from words…However diminutive in size or blurry contour, photographic images are able to endow a person appearing in them with a ghostly presence.[10]

After a successful ‘anti-memorial’ for his mother in Prague, Jacques Austerlitz sets out for Paris, where he, trying “not to let anything distract [him] from [his] studies” at the “Bibliothẽque National in the rue Richelieu”, also seeks information regarding his biological father. Jacques is reading a morose story by Balzac, (a fosse des morts[i]: “the tale of the mass grave”), and leafing through American architectural digests:

…I had always entertained that the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think,…I came upon a large-format photograph showing the room filled with open shelves up to the ceiling where the files on the prisoners in the little fortress of Terezǐn, where so many had perished in the cold, damp casemates,….

(Sebald 283-286)

Figure 7 Sebald, W.G.; Austerlitz; page 284-285


*                      *                      *

Otto Dov Kulka speaks much about what he calls “The Great Death” and “The Small Death.” The former constitutes the fatality of the body and the mind, whilst the latter constitutes the experience of nearly dying, of touching electric fences and visiting crematoria. Since the latter ‘death’ is not officially ‘death’ per se, the return to the concentration camp by a survivor is an ‘anti-memorial’. Had there been a proper burial and funeral rite for the deceased of the camp, it would have been more in the spirit of ‘memorial’. The synthesis of the two types of death equals “the Metropolis of Death”; as the synthesis of ‘memorial’ and ‘anti-memorial’ equals Kulka’s Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death.  “As children, we were very curious to know whether the barbed wire of the electric fence was really electrified…We would approach the fence…dare to touch the barbed wire and stay alive…” writes Kulka. Because it was not usually electrified during the day—except during revolts—it represented for the youths a ‘small fear’. “To overcome the great fear of the crematoria and of the immutable law that led to them was impossible. The victory over this grid by the daring of small children, who took a deliberate risk in order to test this subsystem of death – the fence,…was in itself a great thing. (Kulka 22) Take note of the simple language in the translation. Phrases such as “great thing” can only be offered an antithesis: “terrible thing”. Another set of dialectical opposites: “the great fear of the crematoria” and the “small fear” of the barbed wire, fuse together into a smooth synthesis to illustrate an ‘anti-memorial’. “These things are bound up…within a kind of mythic dreamscape…” writes Kulka, “That night in March, in which all my childhood friends – and part of my family,…were annihilated, comes back in images which I did not see with my own eyes but I continually re-experience.” He explains how his imagination copes with the murders and the guilt of his own survival. “How they enter the gas chambers and I with them, because I belong to them. How they and I enter the corridor and afterwards the gas chambers and I with them. And how I at the last minute, by some roundabout way, escape…and I come out of the crematorium and dig beneath the barbed wire.” (Kulka 31) In his own ‘private mythology’, the narrator is dead. He died along with his generation and family in the gas chambers. This is the meaning of ‘anti-memorial’. His encounter with the ‘small death’ happens during an adolescent epiphany, “A completely different encounter with the Auschwitz form of death lay in a kind of development,…touching the electrified barbed-wire fence.”:

…at one point I touched the barbed wire. I felt shocks run through every part of my body and I was stuck to the fence. I was immobilized but felt as though I had risen into the air and was floating a few centimeters above the ground. At that moment I understood well what had happened: I was caught on the electrified fence. At that moment it was also clear to me that I was dead, because it was known that anyone caught on the wire died instantly. But I see, even as I float, even as I experience a choking feeling, as I look at the world around me – I see that nothing has changed. Blue skies hide between the clouds, there are people opposite me – opposite me wearing a faded green coat and holding a large wooden pole, a Soviet prisoner of war was standing and staring. The only thought that kept pounding in my head the whole time was: I am dead, and the world as I see it has not changed! Is this what the world looks like after death?

Here was the boundless curiosity a human being possesses from the moment he first becomes aware of his mortality; curiosity that transcends death: ‘What is it like to be dead? Is this what it is like to be dead? After all, one sees the world as it is and the world is open before me. I am floating, yes, but nothing has changed.’…Death is not death – the world has not changed; I see the world and I take in the world… (Kulka 34-35)

So for Otto Dov Kulka, his ‘anti-memoir’ is set in the ‘Metropolis of Death’. No soul survives the ‘great’ or ‘small death’; all souls are guilty of the ‘immutable law’. When the narrator first enters the gas chamber of the crematoria, his life is shortened by a figurative ‘anti-death’. By surviving, he has to adhere to the ‘immutable law’. His existence is tormented by a series of converses. His funeral, or better, ‘anti-memorial’ is his return to Auschwitz decades later.

In that return with the completion of the last act, which I had not then been ‘privileged’ to experience – the act of descending into the ruins that survived, at least to those of the gas chamber of the crematorium – that immutable law ran its course,… ‘crowning glory was restored’…

(Kulka 40)

The experience of looking back on the years inside a concentration camp is a moment of ‘anti-memorial’ for all Holocaust survivors.  “But for every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all…” writes Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare.” Evoking the language of Kulka, he writes, “The crowing experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his God.” (Frankl 93) Hence ‘anti-memorial’; thus the Holocaust survivor has transcended death.


Works Cited

Adler, H.G. The Journey. Tr. Peter Filkins. Random House, 2008; 292 pg.

—Panorama. Tr. Peter Filkins. The Modern Library, 2012; 450 pg.

—The Wall. Tr. Peter Filkins. The Modern Library, 1989; 630 pg.

Forster, Kurt W., “Images as Memory Banks: Warburg, Wolfflin, Schwitters and Sebald,”; Engramma, September, 2012; http://www.engramma.it/eOS2/index.php?id_articolo=924

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Tr. Ilse Lasch. Ed. Harold S. Kushner. Beacon Press, Boston, 1959; 165 pg.

Langer, Lawrence L. “Holocaust Fact and Fiction: The Dual Vision of H.G. Adler”; H.G. Adler: Life, Literature, Legacy. Ed. Julia Creet, Sara R. Horowitz and Amira Bojadzija-Dan. Northwestern University Press, 2016; pg. 139-158.

Kulka, Otto Dov. Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: reflections on memory and imagination. Tr. Ralph Mandel. Belknap Press, 2013; 125 pg.

Sandomirskaja, Irina. Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt: Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called “As If” (Reading H. G. Adler). Apparatus Journal. http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/48/99

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Tr. Anthea Bell. Random House, 2001; 298 pg.

The Emigrants. Tr. Michael Hulse. New Directions Publishing, 1992; 354 pg.

Seiffert, Rachel. The Dark Room. Pantheon Books, 2001; 278 pg.

Troller, Norbert. Theresienstadt: Hitler’s Gift to the Jews. Tr. Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz. The University of North Carolina Press, 1991; 182 pg.

[1] Sandomirskaja, Irina; Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt: Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called “As If” (Reading H. G. Adler); http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/48/99


[2] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_W._Forster

[3] Forster, Kurt W., “Images as Memory Banks: Warburg, W

[4] Forster, Kurt W., “Images as Memory Banks: Warburg, Wolfflin, Schwitters and Sebald,” Engramma, September, 2012; http://www.engramma.it/eOS2/index.php?id_articolo=924


[5] Sebald, W.G.; bio; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._G._Sebald

[6] The American Journal of Sociology 63 (5) (1958)513-22;H.G. Adler

[7]  Sandomirskaja, Irina; Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt: Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called “As If” (Reading H. G. Adler); http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/48/99


[8] Sandomirskaja, Irina; Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt: Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called “As If” (Reading H. G. Adler); http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/48/99


[9] Ibid.


[10] Forster, Kurt W., “Images as Memory Banks: Warburg, Wolfflin, Schwitters and Sebald,” Engramma, September, 2012; http://www.engramma.it/eOS2/index.php?id_articolo=924


[i] “Des gémissemrents pousses par le monde des cadavres au milieu duquel je giasis. Et quoique la memoire de ces moments soit bien tenebreuse, quoique mes souvenirs soient bien confus, malagre les impressions de souffrances encore plus profondes que je devais eprouver et qui ont brouille mes idees, il y a des nuits ou je crois encore entendre ces soupirs etouffes.”

(Colonel Chabert, Honoré de Balzac)

About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for TOI since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others. He has a degree in Judaic Studies and a Master's in English from Bar-Ilan University. He has learned at Macon Ha'Gavuah L'Torah in Israel and Hadar Ha'Torah Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn.
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