A dance with the past

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A dance with the past

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The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (photo: Willard)

Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedom
by Sam Pivnik (Hodder and Stoughton, £20)

Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood
by Joachim Fest (Atlantic Books, £20)

The past is populated by people we will never meet and customs that are foreign to us, but it is not some alien land with no bearing on the present. Our relationship with the past is crucial to how we understand ourselves today. So we engage in a kind of dance with the past. Different facets are emphasised, mythologised and polished, their new shape reflecting back a different image of who we are today.

In this process of refashioning the way things were, the memoir is pivotal. The broad narratives we create must still be reconciled with the “way it really was” according to those who were there. This applies especially to the memoir by Sam Pivnik, an 86-year-old Jew living in London, with the self-explanatory title Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedom.

Pivnik’s story is incredible—almost literally. We follow him from his childhood in Poland via a Jewish ghetto to Auschwitz, from which he miraculously emerges alive, and onward still to further horrors. As he describes his experiences of starvation, cold and swimming for his life from a bombed ship, one reels at how many near misses he has with death. And the “survivor” of the title describes not only his remarkable ability to stay alive, but also the creed he adopts. Prisoners are stripped of all dignity, and it becomes evident that the will to survive must be placed over all other principles. There is no resistance, and precious little solidarity between the imprisoned; the choice is between compliance and death.

The book does not offer a graceful narrative arc nor standard progression from crisis to struggle and redemption; just a long sequence of trauma and barbarism. The Holocaust carries such boundless, definitive significance for individuals and whole countries, but the note that endures coming to the end of Survivor is its senselessness—what would sociopolitical explanations have to say to a 16-year-old who loses his parents and siblings in the space of an hour?

The Germans have a word for the ongoing attempts to understand and interpret the darkest chapter in their country’s history: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, literally “dealing and coping with the past.” In the realm of literature this has been through many waves as each successive generation has taken it up anew. The 1960s and 70s saw fierce confrontation (Aufarbeitung) and a string of tortured (and typically dreary) vaterromane, as the 68er generation tried to express their outrage at the crimes of their parents. Yet neither inarticulate rage nor bald recounting of the facts feels like a satisfactory response to the crimes committed and the suffering endured.

The tension between the constructed narratives of historians and experienced human reality is embodied by Joachim Fest. After a successful career as a historian, biographer of Hilter and central figure in the Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) of the 1970s, his autobiography, Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood, has recently been published in English translation.

Fest was born within three months of Sam Pivnik in 1926. The appearance of these memoirs in the same month (in English at least) is an interesting coincidence, and it invites comparison. From every page of Not Me, Fest’s origins in the highly educated class of the Bildungsbürger shine clearly. The prose is not high-flown nor prone to the interminably complex sentences of which German is capable, and on only a couple of occasions is Martin Chalmers’s admirable translation obviously out-manoeuvred by wordplay. But Fest’s writing is strewn not only with off-hand allusions and quotations from literary and historical figures, but detailed accounts of which great works of literature, music or art he was absorbing at any given point. It is jarring to picture his absorbed conversations about Schubert with a fellow prisoner of war, or other similar instances.

Fest’s father is the real hero of the story. A schoolteacher and intellectual living in Berlin, he watches with grave concern as the Nazis gain power and use it to suppress dissident voices. In refusing to join the party, he loses his job and his home, lives in poverty and ends up in a Russian gulag. There’s a compelling and disturbing juxtaposition, as in Pivnik’s book, between Fest’s boyhood adventures with friends and the world around him sliding into a dangerous madness—all absorbed from a childish state of half-awareness and half-naivety.

The differing titles alone speak volumes. Not Me comes from the Fest senior’s dictum to his sons. “The problems of the moment,” he exhorted, “should never place a principle in doubt.” Where the Jewish Pivnik family were enemies to the Nazi regime by birth and race, the Fest family were outsiders by choice. Where Sam Pivnik must relinquish every principle just to stay alive, Joachim Fest tries to keep his own mind in the face of indoctrination. They are survival stories of two different orders: Pivnik fights to save his life, Fest fights to save his humanity.

Perhaps the most notable point about these two memoirs is that they must be among the parting shots of their generation, the closing remarks of those who were there to witness Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The time will soon be with us when there is nobody alive to recall them. Memory will disappear, leaving only commemoration, and losing this link changes our collective relationship and responsibility to that past.

If the literature of Vergangenheitsbewältigung starkly confronted history, since reunification a different, more nuanced approach has emerged. In such works a picture is painted of irresolvable complexity, where the process of digesting the past is itself made subject, and the protagonists are also commentators drawn into a self-referential framework. We’re not let off any hooks, nor allowed to move on. Günter Grass’s 2002 novel Crabwalk, about an adolescent drawn to neo-Nazism, ends with the words, “it doesn’t end. Never will it end.” Germany is far from knowing and agreeing how to accommodate the Nazi era into its present understanding of itself, even so many decades later. In September, the weekly broadsheet Die Zeit ran an article by Bernd Ulrich with a large photo of Hitler and the headline, “When does the past pass?”

Now that a generation of Germans is growing up without a grandparent or elderly neighbour who was a Nazi party member, history becomes depersonalised. The question of guilt takes on a different quality in the absence of living perpetrators: should the German collective conscience continue to carry the responsibility for the crimes of distant ancestors? In the past, this was hardly in doubt. As Ulrich writes in his article, “to think about the Holocaust, to place oneself among the collectively responsible—that was always the minimum prerequisite for being active in German politics, or writing about it.” But the younger generation is now calling this into question as never before. The trend is compounded by the growing proportion of adolescents from migrant backgrounds whose families never had any connection to the Third Reich.

The depersonalisation of responsibility brings with it a kind of internationalisation of Germany’s attempt to make sense of the past. The works of WG Sebald have been more widely studied and written about in Britain, where he lived and taught, than in his native Germany. Bernard Schlink’s The Reader has sold five times more copies in English translation than the original German, and its film adaptation was shot in English (albeit with German accents). Those guilty of carrying out the Holocaust are dead Germans, but its burden now belongs to all people. Visit the museum at Auschwitz today and you will find Germans and Israelis alongside Brazilians and Chinese.

A sort of taboo is broken too. Joachim Fest’s father resisted the Nazis and paid the price with almost everything he had. His heroism blighted his entire life, and he later refused to ever discuss those years. A past that now belongs to nobody and everybody is newly subject to discussion, but also to abstraction. There is the risk, in making a coherent historical story, of losing the mooring to real people whose lives were affected.

The great value of these memoirs is their ability to step over the ongoing attempts at reconciliation, understanding and interpretation, and to present again the things that happened and what they looked like. Fest’s mother sums it up: when she read a draft chapter of his biography of Hitler, she “was moved to observe that, from a distance, world events seem rather grand, whereas if one looks at the fates of individuals, one discovers a great deal of shabbiness, powerlessness and misery.” What ultimately emerges from these books is human finitude: the limited powers and oversight of any single person within the great flow of history.

  1. November 1, 2012

    Gordon D. Munro

    A review worthy of its all too human subject.

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