Speak, Memory

Bearing witness: Irene Zisblatt, right, with her childhood housekeeper in The Last Days.Photo: Geoffrey Clifford

Let it be said up front that the unspeakable has to be spoken – that every scrap of testimony to the Holocaust must somewhere be recorded; that the survivors and historians should insist on preserving every syllable, and that the poets and novelists should turn those syllables over (and over again) for the smallest particle of missed meaning. Jorge Semprun, the Spanish radical who survived Buchenwald, tells us in his 1994 memoir Literature or Life that it is “not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely … something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account, but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density.” Since I’ve started quoting this neglected masterpiece, let me continue:

“The only ones who will manage to reach this substance, this transparent density, will be those able to shape their evidence into an artistic object, a space of creation. Or of re-creation. Only the artifice of a masterly narrative will prove capable of conveying some of the truth of such testimony. But there’s nothing exceptional about this: it’s the same with all great historical experiences.

“In short, you can always say everything. The ‘ineffable’ you hear so much about is only an alibi. Or a sign of laziness. You can always say everything: language contains everything. You can speak of the most desperate love, the most terrible cruelty. You can speak of evil, its poisonous pleasures, its poppy flavor. You can speak of God, and that’s saying a lot… . But can people hear everything, imagine everything? Will they be able to understand?”

So we should not only sit still this week for The Last Days (Thursday, May 25; 8:30 to 10 p.m.; HBO), a documentary from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, but we should go out as well to the Film Forum to reacquaint ourselves with Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity and our own complicity. Then we might reread the Israeli novelist David Grossman’s See Under: Love, with its kaleidoscopic White Room and its mechanical “Scream,” a design of drainpipes to contain “the purest octave of human anguish.” After which, maybe, Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, imagining the lost manuscript of the murdered Bruno Schulz. Or E. L. Doctorow’s City of God, with its diary of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania. Or Saul Bellow, in The Bellarosa Connection, on the surrealist “slapstick side” of the death camps: “Prisoners were sent naked into a swamp and had to croak and hop like frogs. Children were hanged while starved, freezing slave laborers lined up on parade in front of the gallows and a prison band played Viennese light opera waltzes.” Or – there are as many or’s as there are syllables.

The Last Days is the terrible story of four months during the final year of World War II, when Hitler knew his Reich was lost but insisted nevertheless on the extermination of Hungary’s Jews. It is a story told by five survivors of that fast-forward genocide, all of them naturalized American citizens, who return to the cities and villages from which they were seized, and to the camps to which they were committed; who speak about lost families and lost childhoods, to James Moll’s camera but also to the husbands, wives, and children who have accompanied them back to evil Europe; who find grave sites of loved ones and neighbors who betrayed them; who wander in the ruins of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen as if in thrall to a curse, remembering the day of their tattooing, the Shabbats in the latrines, boxcars and barbed wire, Zyklon gas and crematoria, mass graves and a sudden liberation as inexplicable as the curse.

Irene Zisblatt, a grandmother now, recalls her own mother’s sewing diamonds in the hem of her skirt – diamonds the little girl would swallow and excrete and wash and swallow again every day in Auschwitz; diamonds she will pass down in pendant form to the first girl child in each new American generation. Alice Lok Cahana, an artist, is joined by her husband, children, and grandchildren in a prayer at Bergen-Belsen, but clearly she must paint her way out of her past. Bill Basch, a businessman, to this day hasn’t forgiven himself for betraying a schoolmate to whom he had pledged solidarity but failed to protect on a death march. Renee Firestone, a teacher, actually interrogates the doctor, Hans Munch, who performed medical experiments on her sister Klara – experiments like sterilization, for example, or trying to find out if you could change the color of a Jew’s eyes without at the same time blinding her. (His excuse is that his patients would have otherwise been gassed immediately.) Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress, was saved from the fate of the rest of his family by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who hid him in a Budapest safe house.

We see these five as they were 55 years ago, in black-and-white snapshots, and as they are today, bewildered in their prosperity. We see the camps as they were then – some of this black-and-white atrocity footage new to me; all of it unbearable (and yet of course we have to bear it) – and as they are today, squalid remnants in impossibly bucolic settings, when surely the color ought to have been leached out of nature itself. We are told that the two daughters of the California congressman have tried to give him back the family he lost in the form of seventeen grandchildren. We also meet an African-American GI who happened on hell without forewarning, who blew away a German officer who spit in his face as he was trying to comprehend the abomination he had stumbled upon, and who will be remembered by one of the Hungarian Jews whose life he saved with a bequest – a menorah made of death-camp nails.

I must say something about that chatty doctor with his neatly trimmed goatee, who goes so far as to speak of the smell of burning human fat. It seems to me that Martin Amis got it exactly right in Time’s Arrow, his backwards novel about a Mengele in America, an accident victim who remembers his life against his will, in reverse like a wrong-way film. Thus, in church, we take money out of the collection plate. On the street, garbagemen strew trash. At the dinner table, we vomit up our food. In hospitals, doctors dismember their patients. At Auschwitz, Jews are saved from ovens by helpful Nazis who reattach their beards and send them home in trains. Trapped in a reverse dream of himself, devolving, this butcher returns through layers of denial back to the moment when he ceased to be human. It’s not just that the Holocaust was a moral inversion. Amis suggests that history itself is arbitrary – a falsification that assumes a logic that doesn’t exist; a fictitious causation from the poisoned premise. Somebody chose this evil; it didn’t just happen, like the color of these eyes that bear such dreadful witness.

Speak, Memory