I am writing about a very short book, which could take no more than a couple of hours to read and no more than a lifetime to digest. As its author, Otto Dov Kulka, says: “I am … aware that these texts, though anchored in concrete historical events, transcend the sphere of history.” It is a historian’s memoir of Auschwitz, without sentimentality and almost without outrage, since it is an examination of a place where all human reactions are inadequate.
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is told in vignettes. Here is one I take to be central: a boy sits playing a tune on a harmonica. Another child comes up to him and asks if he knows what he is playing. No, he replies, it was taught to me six months ago in a camp that no longer exists. Kulka, who was the harmonica player, continues: “He then explained to me what I was playing and what we sang there and the meaning of those words. I think he also tried to explain the terrible absurdity of it, the terrible wonder of it, that a song of praise to joy and to the brotherhood of man, Schiller’s Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s ninth symphony, was being played opposite the crematoriums of Auschwitz, a few hundred metres from the place of execution, where the greatest conflagration ever experienced by that same mankind that was being sung about was going on at the very moment we were talking and in all the months we were there.”
In one sense this terrible absurdity and wonder cannot by their nature be explained. Absurdity and wonder can be revealed and their ramifications expounded, but they cannot be made to make sense; they can’t be reduced to any explanation. The same is true of death – except that in Auschwitz death made all the sense there was. Death was, as Kulka says, “The sole certain perspective ruling the world.”
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