Interview by Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death combines your experience of Auschwitz as a boy between September 1943 and January 1945, your ‘private mythology’, with deep historical analysis and understanding, which you have acquired as a historian later in life. At what point did you decide to combine these two individual perspectives?
It always was with me. However, in my scholarly work I have strictly separated these two dimensions while completely avoiding the mentioning of my autobiographical experience as a boy in Auschwitz. There was no place for exploring my own past in my historical research, which was always based on documentary, mostly archival material, and its analysis and evaluation. But this was not the case the other way around. Auschwitz was ever present, but only in my diaries and dreams and, from a certain point on, also in tape-recorded monologues, where I dived into the ‘Landscapes’ that I have called the Metropolis of Death. In these ‘Landscapes’ my reflective thoughts as a historian were already present.
You recorded your memories of Auschwitz and you kept them private for a long time. Why did it take you so long to make your recordings public?
I started the recordings in 1991 and continued until 2001. All these recordings and my diaries existed for my self-understanding only and, as mentioned above, I regarded it as illegitimate to mix them with my scholarly, strictly impersonal research (for example: an article on the Familienlager found in the appendix of my book – written in the ’70s) but when I was diagnosed with advanced cancer fifteen years ago, after an operation and chemotherapy, the surgeon told me that I had only two to three years to live. This was in 1997.
I decided to have the recordings and diaries typed up, and did another recording, to round off the series. I consulted a publisher friend and told him that I wanted the texts to be part of my literary estate. He said there was a chance that they might be considered for publication and that I had to make up my mind about this. I gave the transcript to a few colleagues and friends to read, and had a selection translated into English. But for a long time I doubted whether these texts could reach anyone other than me. I sent the English text to a few colleagues abroad, and first and foremost to Ian Kershaw, with whom I have worked together in research and exchanged ideas for years. Ian and others analysed and commented on it in great depth. But the first to hear some of the recordings was my friend, the historian Saul Friedländer, who a few years earlier published his book When Memory Comes. Saul told me unequivocally that I must publish. All of them tried to persuade me to make this manuscript accessible to the public. But it took me another decade to decide. Only after publishing three major documentary and research projects between 1997 and 2010, on which I was working many years before, was I ready to embark on the new road of publishing my ‘non-scholarly’ work.
You survived Auschwitz in Familienlager, or ‘Family Camp’ allowing families to be housed together, their heads unshaved and wearing civilian clothes. You describe it yourself in the book as a ‘miracle, whose meaning no one understood’. The history of the family camp is relatively unknown to the general public. Can you tell our readers more about the role of the Red Cross in this part of the Holocaust’s history?
I have written a scholarly article on the history of the so-called Family Camp based on the documentary material that I discovered in one of the German archives. You will not find a trace of my personal experiences in this article, written in 1980. It appears as the appendix in the book Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. I refer to it in my book and not the other way around. But beyond the documentation mentioned in my article, I did not research further on the role of the Red Cross during the Nazi-period. I only wish to clarify here that the documents include an exchange of letters and negotiations between Adolf Eichmann’s department in the Main Security Office of the SS and the German Red Cross, and between the German Red Cross and the International Red Cross in Genève. The negotiations discussed the question of a possible visit to the Ghetto of Theresienstadt and a Jewish camp in the East, which could have been identified as the Family Camp in Auschwitz, by the International Red Cross.
You talk about the cultural life in the camp, about concerts, performances and classes. You say that these experiences ‘form the moral basis of your approach to culture, to life, almost to everything. Historical, functional, and normative values and patterns of life were transformed into something in the order of absolute values’. How do you think this was possible?
What I mean here is that the education that went on, even in the world of the children’s block of the Family Camp, was unprecedented. Since education is, in its essence, always oriented to the future and the future was the only thing that certainly did not exist for those children and their educators in Auschwitz, it was not performed for any other purpose than for its own existence. That makes the values underlying this education ‘into something in the order of absolute values’.
The book describes some ‘fond memories’ like classes in history and literature, a friendship with a young man who gave you his copy of Crime and Punishment, or an image of blue skies above the camp, signifying for you: ‘the colour of summer, the colour of tranquility, the colour of forgetting.’ How do you think these positive memories managed to stay with you, and were even possible?
The only possible answer I have is my existence, and the fact that those memories are living with me and shaped my entire life.
Your book tries to look at how your memory preserved and processed the trauma of Auschwitz. This is, of course, a very personal and unique process. You experienced Auschwitz as a 10-11 year old boy who was confronted on a daily basis with images of death and atrocities. How do you think this differs from experiencing Auschwitz as an adult? From remembering it?
We, the children in the children-and-youth barrack, were not directly exposed to the atrocities that were part of the daily life of the adult inmates. But we were of course aware of the presence of the Great Death and of, what I call in my diaries and in the book, the ‘Unalterable Law of the Great Death’, meaning that there was no way out of Auschwitz and we were all doomed to die there. Through these metaphors and other abstractions I have been able to internalise and express the world of these atrocities.
You describe an episode when a children’s choir learnt to sing ‘Ode to Joy’ in a lavatory barrack where the acoustics were good. You wonder in the book whether the choice of music and that particular text was an act of defiance, expressing belief in absolute values despite the reality of the camp, or a case of ‘extreme sarcasm.’ Which interpretation do you lean towards?
In my professional life as a teacher at the university I am trying to understand and convey my understanding of absolute values, of the humanistic interpretation of history, including this period. But the other case you mention is always present within me with all its ambivalence. My own attempt to understand this history and my approach to it is shaped by this polarity.
The ‘Immutable Law of Death’, the ultimate certainty that one was going to die, was how you saw what was happening in Auschwitz. Yet you survived through chance. ‘However much I know that I must be caught. I always know, too, that I must be spared. It’s a kind of circle’. You talk about this a lot in your book and about other images of escape and return. Are you finally free from them now?
What do you think is the role of ideology when exploring the history of the final solution? And how is scholarship and understanding of that period at all possible when one is faced with events of such utter horror?
There is a very nice sentence that often appears in the rhetoric of commemoration: ‘What happened in this period was perpetrated by humans to other humans.’ In my eyes this is not much more than a truism. What happened then was perpetrated by humans who have devoted themselves to a radical racialist ideology or were ruled by it. They believed in it or believed in its necessity to ‘save’ the nation or even the world from what they regarded as disastrous, universalist ‘Jewish spirit’ and its bearers were the Jews. This ‘redemptive anti-Semitism’ was the very core of national socialist ideology and the imperative behind the attempt at the ‘Final Solution’. Once this ideology and its charismatic leadership were defeated, or in other words, when Germany was liberated from them, most of the former perpetrators returned to being normal liberal citizens of post-war European society.
After your visit in Auschwitz in 1978 you never went there again. Why?
The impressions of my return to the deserted landscapes of the ruins of Auschwitz in 1978 were so powerful and are imprinted in my memory and imagination so deeply, that I am not willing to reshape or overwrite them. These were my own childhood landscapes, in which I always find a kind of freedom, which exists only for me. I am always afraid that I will be alienated from these impressions through receiving different images.
You moved to Israel when you were still very young and your father stayed in Czechoslovakia. What does Israel mean to you?
I moved to Israel in the year 1949 at the age of 16 in the awareness that I am participating in the great historical event of the return of an exiled and dispersed nation to its ancient homeland. This also meant for me and my generation an attempt to create a new society based on humanistic values and the active participation in the revival of an ancient language and the creation of a modern culture built on a historical heritage. My father first stayed in Prague, with his new family. But in 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed the dream of the Prague Spring, he joined me.
About the editor
Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.
The memoir explores Otto Dov Kulka’s haunting memories of a childhood spent in Auschwitz. Breaking years of silence, it is now translated into 17 languages.