What creativity means in hell

As the 2009 Wingate shortlist is announced, we consider the claims of the two Holocaust books on it


The Seventh Well

By Fred Wander, Trans: Michael Hofmann
Granta, £7.99

Rezso Kasztner

By Ladislaus Löb
Pimlico, £12.99

The Seventh Well was first published in East Berlin in 1971. Urged on by Christa Wolf among others, Fred Wander evoked his experiences of concentration camps in France, Poland and Germany and the “death roads” between. Notable for its atmosphere, its economy, its startling shafts of lyricism, the book was republished in the West a decade after the tearing-down of the Wall. Its English translation is by Michael Hofmann, poet, critic and translator of Kafka, Brecht, Joseph Roth and Elias Canetti.

Wander is an apt addition to this list. The Seventh Well is a work of literature as well as of Holocaust memory. Placement in the latter category may indeed do it an injustice: Wander attempts no global comment on the catastrophe, only to breathe life into characters he knew or observed.

What is striking again and again is their — and his — ingenuity of spirit. When he cannot know exactly what a starving comrade may think, Wander imagines. And Wander’s imagination, like that of most of his subjects, is rich to a point of genius.

What sustains life is the key issue. The sun also rises for those chained 16 hours a day to hard labour. Nourishment of bread, however stale, is still felt in gullet and glands. Memory does not vanish: it may be enhanced even, as shown through unexpected recitations of Ezekiel or Baudelaire, performances of jazz by fingers on thighs, serving of grand feasts in mime.

The narrator recalls classic scenes of Jewish wandering and yearning to belong, among hagglers on the Rue de Rosier in Paris or ecstatic dancers in the holding-camp of Perpignan. Though ever aware of the frightening (and frightened) brutality of “the jackboots”, perfidy of collaborators, antipathetic compromises by fellow Jewish kapos and prominenten (prominent individuals) at the expense of muselmen, he never lapses into hate. His message is to observe and survive.

Ladislaus Löb’s Rezsö Kasztner mixes memoir with a new judgment on the “Jew-saver” of Budapest and his “maverick Zionist” fellows.

German occupation of Hungary in 1944 led to the swiftest round-up and deportation from any country; at the same time, it seemed to offer ways to negotiate — Jewish lives in exchange for money and material to use on the Eastern front. The Allies rejected this flatly. Why? Disbelief in tales Jewish interlocutors were telling? Scepticism about the credibility of Himmler and others apparently ready to deal? Not wanting “millions of Jews dumped” on them? Fear of the wrath of Stalin should they perform a volte-face?

Lob restates these questions but does not attempt to answer them. Rather he describes the chutzpah by which Kasztner and associates bargained on their own with competing Nazi gangsters to try to avert disaster for as many as they could.

They were successful for some, including Löb and his father, but not for the masses. This led to suspicion by others of their motives and methods, inflamed by Kasztner’s foolish boast in 1948 that he was responsible for the de-Nazification of SS leader Kurt Becher, who went on to become one of the richest men in West Germany.

A trial over the matte convulsed 1950s Israel, causing Kasztner’s humiliation. Before an appeal could exonerate him, he was gunned down in a Tel Aviv street.

The Üntergang of the ’40s kept spiralling on, many refusing to reconcile not only with their ethnic tormentors but also with their own kind who had had the temerity to deal with them.

So the path from Auschwitz continues to wind through golgothan landscapes, far from a destination in closure.

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