March 2013

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination by Otto Dov Kulka, translated by Ralph Mandel

One day there will be no more books like Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. Otto Dov Kulka, sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau at nine, is among the youngest of the Holocaust survivors, just old enough at the time to have the facility of observation, yet still sharp enough to recall it in crisp, precise prose. That his investigation of memory -- Kulka stops short of the word memoir -- almost never happened underscores the value of its existence, and the rapidly expiring window for more documents like it.

A respected professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Kulka has written copiously about the Holocaust, but always from the disinterested promontory of the historian. He so segregated his personal experiences from his studies of their circumstances that when he informs a colleague he's visiting Auschwitz, the friend recommends the camp's prime spots, never stopping to think that Kulka might know its stone contours from the inside.

For an historian, the bog of memory is a methodological torture; Kulka deplores the irony of doling out history in tidy narratives to others when he can make so little sense of his own role in it. Yet as a Holocaust survivor, Kulka is left "alienated" by the historical renderings of the event. He avoids Holocaust museums even when researching in their adjoining libraries, has never watched Shoah, and leaves a lecture on Auschwitz feeling as if the speaker was speaking a separate language. Trapped in interdisciplinary purgatory, one day Kulka wanders away from the tour: while his conference-mates schlep off to tourist destinations in Poland, he returns to Auschwitz-Birkenau to undertake a dissertation on his own trauma.

The central mystery for Kulka, as for many survivors, is why he is alive at all. Kulka was transported from Theresienstadt, where many Czech Jews ended up, to Auschwitz, but once his family arrived, they "miraculously" -- Kulka's word -- skipped the selection process that sent most to the gas chambers. Instead, the Kulkas were kept together, allowed to retain their possessions (and, as a badge of the elect, their hair), and housed in the Familienlager, a special section of the camp for families. This is the first time Kulka is spared the crematorium. Six months later, all 5,000 members of the Familienlager are "liquidated" -- the Germans' word -- in one night. Kulka was excluded only because he had fallen ill and was recovering in the camp's hospital when everybody else was rounded up.

This pattern repeats itself for several years: a new shipment of families arrives, is treated unusually well, and then executed en masse in six months, with Kulka somehow surviving each time. The sheer inexplicability of it drives the young boy nuts. Unable to process the irrational horror around him, Kulka, eleven years old, improvises his own mythology: Auschwitz becomes the Metropolis of Death, and the crematorium, which burns day and night, the immutable law of death that will eventually claim him. Each time Kulka escapes its fire, the crematorium coughs fresh black clouds out its smokestacks, as if warning him he's only won this round. As an adult, Kulka is still haunted by the crematorium's vindictive, personal flames, the immutable law outlasting the building itself.

Kulka is preternaturally attuned to both the process of metaphor and its perversion in a concentration camp. An electrified fence becomes a simulacrum of the crematorium, a "subsystem of death" that can be conquered in place of the implacable larger one. Kulka grabs the fence one day and shocks himself into what he thinks is the afterworld until someone pries him off. "Here is the boundless curiosity a human being possesses from the moment he first becomes aware of his mortality," he writes of his out-of-body experience, "curiosity that transcends death." So, too, does language become a method of turning experience into a portable unit of expression out of the reach of even the sternest SS agents. Kulka warns friends in Theresienstadt of Auschwitz by ensconcing words like "starvation" into his relatives' names, and the children's choir slips protests under Schiller's "Ode to Joy."

But this ability for one thing to become another, the bare essence of mythology, can no more withstand the Nazis' brutality than can the Jews themselves. "How does it happen," Kulka asks, "that the living, who enter in their masses in long columns and are swallowed into these structures made of sloping roofs and red bricks, are transformed into flakes, into light and smoke, then disappear and fade into those darkening skies?" As destructive as their genocide is the Nazi's mass extirpation of metaphor as productive of meaning: Kulka tries to appreciate an idyllic blanket of snow, then notices it is covering a field of corpses; the same train carrying piles of shoes to a camp for repair had transported the shoes' wearers to their slaughter, so that footwear had replaced humans in the hierarchy of life, a system of synecdoche as death.

It is against this mass destruction, not just of lives, but of meaning, that Kulka's book struggles. Like many Czech survivors before him -- Ivan Klima and his wonderful Love and Garbage come to mind -- Kulka finds sustenance in Kafka (he is still cited as an authority on his countryman). Viewing Auschwitz's detached system of fatal degradation as a vast iteration of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," in which justice has become a self-perpetuating system that implicates its victims, Kulka identifies resistance, elusive and ephemeral, as a sort of shadow order. He recalls three poems smuggled out of a column of women being led to the gas chambers, verses written by a young woman who knows she's about to be executed, and who calls, in blunt but searing prosody, for vengeance:

your fields are already bloated with us
and one day your land will burst

And then we'll emerge, in awful ranks
a skull on our skulls and bony shanks;
and we'll roar in the faces of all the people
We, the dead, accuse!

Kulka never found out who the author was. Without an identity, she speaks for all the murdered Jews, her disembodied voice attaining the authority of myth: beyond mortality, declaiming from eternity. If the dead can accuse, Kulka realizes, than the immutable law of the crematorium is not immutable after all. Here Kulka found "justice as a meta-dimension," a reclamation of meaning from the pyre of obliteration.

The eleven year old Otto reading these poems eventually becomes the renowned professor Kulka, and the two finally meet in the appendix of Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, when Kulka the historian writes a conference paper that solves the mystery of Kulka the survivor. The Red Cross initially planned to tour Auschwitz-Birkenau after Theresienstadt, and Kulka and the Familienlager were to be presented as healthy, well-tended, intact families. But the Red Cross was so impressed by the Nazi's infamous staged camp that they cancelled the next leg of the journey. The 5,000 Familienlager inmates, now useless, were "liquidated" a few days later.

Thus was Kulka turned into a metaphor himself, a prisoner converted into a prop whose sole function was to negate his own essence. When he at last returns to Auschwitz, it is with this full knowledge of his use as a corrupted symbol. In this vein Kulka finally has revenge. Auschwitz, partially destroyed, partially preserved as a horrible ruin, is empty, silent, enveloped in haze; it is, Kulka realizes, its own graveyard. So does the immutable law of death eventually exterminate even itself.

Kulka, shuddering at the stone roof of the crematorium collapsed like a "broken wave," confronts the two choices he faced there as a child: whether to give in to death's destruction of meaning, or make a new system of meaning for himself. "The subject remains an open one for me," he writes, both as a survivor and a historian. "When I choose the left or the right, that is in fact the whole unfolding of my existence or of my confrontation both with the past and with the present from then until today."

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination by Otto Dov Kulka, translated by Ralph Mandel
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0674072893
144 pages