Visions of death in the colours of life


The Metropolis of Death (a fitting designation for the Auschwitz complex) offers reflections on the Holocaust by the eminent, Czech-born Israeli historian, Otto Dov Kulka.

Kulka was transferred, when still a boy of 10, from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he miraculously survived in Block BIIb — the “family camp”— for 15 months.

Over 30 years, pursuing a career as a historian of the Holocaust, Kulka kept his own experiences sheltered in “a dimension of silence”. Then, in 1978, after attending an international conference in Poland, he felt compelled to visit Birkenau.

The landscape that confronted him was not the Abaddon of his boyhood, but its ruins. And there, Kulka’s journey began to redress a time when “the immutable law of the Great Death” ruled.

Adorno’s famous statement, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” has been debated endlessly. But few exegetes have aspired to answer the question Adorno proceeded to ask: whether, after Auschwitz, a person, especially one who as a rule would have been killed but by chance survived, can — may — go on living. Perhaps, like the question that Kulka’s father asked a rabbi — Where had God been during the Holocaust? — this is a question that, echoing the answer of the said rabbi, “it is forbidden to ask.”

While Kulka, in addition to legions of terrors, conjures visions like Doctor Mengele boasting that he is frozen in time and will always be present in the world, and relates episodes wherein Birkenau’s quotidian rites mimic Kafka’s conceptions In the Penal Colony, he offers glimmers of hope.

The terrors are soothed, if not dispelled, by such simple memories as a camp choir singing Schiller’s Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th symphony or a vista of distant hills that look other-worldly, or the colour of a summer’s day. Thus, the reader is offered another immutable law: that death will have dominion if life is renounced.

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