Chronicle from Witzburg- A Novel
How was it possible? How could a nation, such as Germany, a civilization that had cultivated some of the finest minds and talents, descend, almost overnight, into the most abysmal barbarism that ultimately produced the Holocaust? To face the Holocaust, I came to believe, was to see not only what "they, the enemy had done", but what man, perhaps any of us "civilized" people, may be capable of. To look into the face of the Holocaust, ultimately, is to confront oneself, to see one's own reflection, and this reflection is unsettling. Deep within that reflection may lie a monstrosity, dormant but too easily roused by the first shrill bugle call.
Evidently, that bugle call - shrill, as well as seductive and enticing - could rouse not only mindless street mobs but also the "intelligentsia", "civilized" men of learning and culture. The specter of periodic descent into barbarity has troubled me ever since fleeing Nazi Germany and then confronting its inevitable horrors during the ensuing War. I was fortunate to have come upon Buchenwald and the Holocaust - not as one of its victims, but as an American soldier. Born in Poland (at the end of World I), taken as an infant to Germany (thought to be more "cultured and civilized"), I fled Germany in 1933, as soon as Hitler triumphed - first to France and in 1935 to America. "Hitler and his Nazi cohorts cannot possibly last - Germany is too civilized, too cultured for their kind", I was admonished when I left. But it did last, long enough to unleash one of the most horrendous human catastrophes.
As an artist, a maker of images, much of my work persist in reflecting the images of war and holocaust, haunted by its remains and reminders. No matter how often I have tried to banish memory and the images of that time of horror, I have never fully succeeded. Sometimes, an image will present itself or intrude at a most inappropriate moment: One particular evening, in the early Autumn of 1997, I happened to listen to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, one of my favorite musical scores - "sublime" I always felt.
I did not catch he name of the soloist, but at one especially moving passage, my mind began to wander off, and there appeared, or intruded, a strange image: A violinist caught up in the Holocaust and shipped to a concentration camp. He is saved from instant extermination by his talent to charm the commandant of the camp with his virtuoso playing. The violinist's name, Jacob Unger, presented itself almost the same instant. The entire episode appeared like a sudden flash of inspiration.
My work has always depended on these flashes of inspiration. All artists must be familiar with the phenomenon - a sudden flash of insight, an inspiration, often at strange moments. One never quite knows where they originate or how. With me they often form at the moment of waking, but they can arise spontaneously at any time - day or night, even while listening to music. Invariably, so many images and ideas present themselves that most are almost immediately discarded or eventually forgotten. But the image of Jacob Unger, the violinist caught up in the Holocaust, persisted and kept nagging, but in some literary rather than pictorial form.
In the weeks and months that followed, the image kept reasserting itself, adding always new images, situations and especially dialogues - inner dialogues between Jacob Unger and newly appearing characters. As the scenario evolved its central character shifted to the Commandant, Colonel Heinz Schmidt of the Witzburg Concentration Camp. Before the War, in civilian life, he was Professor of Philosophy at Heidelberg University, lecturing on Plato's "natural descendants" of Nietzsche, Hegel, Heiddeger, as well as on Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest".
As Commandant of Witzburg he could savor his role, not only of absolute power (life or death of every inmate), but also indulge his every whim and fantasy, especially in what he refers as the "battles of the mind", reminders of his time not only at Heidelberg, but also in Paris. Besides Jacob Unger, the formerly world renowned violinist, Col. Schmidt adds Rudolf Stein, a once successful artist, and Eugene Dessau, a poet to what he likes to imagine his "salon". Within the Commandant's compound - housing some of the finest examples of looted European art - his "Salon", his garden-oasis of art, culture and intellect, flourishes amid the wasteland of Witzburg - "the ultimate expression of an advanced civilization!"
"How was it possible?" Perhaps, the question should be rephrased "how is it possible?" There appears no letup to the ever escalating deadliness of the means and mentality for brutality. Following World War II and the Holocaust, the 20th Century has produced some of the most horrendous human barbarity in history. The question becomes unavoidable: "Does 'civilization' produce not only art and culture but also - in almost equal measure - deadly power and the imagination and arrogance to use it.
From a "Letter to the New York Times", published June 11, 1985:
Is "Star Wars" the ultimate deterrent to nuclear confrontation? No, not really. Living as I do with a resident skunk in an otherwise bucolic environment, I have learned better: it is the skunk who has evolved into nature's supreme weapon and ultimate deterrent to aggression.
We, who have come upon this earth more recently, might well learn from nature instead of relying on our own questionable technologies. No animal, no matter how ferocious or dumb, would be dumb enough to tackle a skunk (certainly not a second time), not even homo sapiens. We have learned to keep our distance - respectfully.
It certainly should not prove too difficult to synthesize the stuff that lurks behind the skunk's pungency. Rather than plutonium, let us fill our missile warheads with skunk aroma and then dare any evil empire to challenge us or our allies. The very first salvo of stink bombs would surely end as quickly as it began. A war that literally smelled to high heaven would prove unbearable.
Without traditional blood and guts, a purely stinking war would be most unheroic - it would mean the end to all wars. Nations would have to learn to live, if not in brotherly love and harmony, at least with respect for their mutual malodorous effectiveness.
There may be differences between soldiers of one army and another, but basically, all soldiers are comrades in arms, bound together by the same instinct for brutality, and they all speak the same foul language.
Eventually, a soldier settles down to war - in both body and mind. Not that he has suddenly become "brave". He has become "seasoned", "battle hardened", meaning dull and all his senses blunted. War has become routine. It seems as though nothing can shock him any more, no matter the disembodied bodies, gore, severed heads, hands and limbs, blood-soaked and fragmented beyond decent recognition and the always foul stench. Constant day and night bombardment no longer troubles him. It's not bravery; stupefying numbness leaves him progressively more mindless. Everything becomes routine, automatic, and automatically he follows and gives orders.
Then one day, a soldier sees the world for what he thinks it is: a slaughterhouse and an insane asylum, run by butchers, pimps and madmen. And man? - a festering, putrid, slimy excretion polluting the face of earth. Some events can never be forgotten, no matter how deep he tries to bury them, or attempt to elicit some sense from what increasingly he sees as "that mad butchery":
Why do men march off to war and slaughter, again and again, willingly, often joyously? Too much testosterone? Or because war appears exciting, more exciting than any ordinary existence, the most exciting sport man has yet devised? Perhaps, war reflects an excitement which has remained in men's groins ever since he began to hunt - first wild beasts and then one another. It is only the occasional survivor who may eventually recognize war for what it is: no longer sport but a vile aberration which has gone too far and out of control.
Obedience, following orders - mindless, without questioning - invariably leads man marching off into disaster, past all reminders of their "humanity" - a terrible reminder of how low, how debased man can sink. Neither culture nor civilization have so far proven an obstacle to this recurring descent. And yet, even in its darkest moments, there have always been a few who would question, disobey and resist the general descent into depravity. Though few, they offer the only light that man is not entirely lost or beyond redemption.
Artists, generally, have had the good sense to stay away from wars. How many poets and painters have there been who did pass through Hell, not Dante's imaginary "Inferno", but the real Hell of war and Holocaust? Not many, and fewer ever survive. Those who do may therefore have a special obsession and obligation. They must "bear witness". They can never escape from what they witnessed. They can never rest describing what they saw, indescribable as it is.
The real horrors of war cannot be imagined and cannot be described. "Hell"? - a fine poetic metaphor, but beyond all description, comprehension and belief. And so, generation after generation parade off into war not ever knowing what they parade into - a mindless slaughter and a foul, stinking, bloody mess. All the descriptions, all the pictorials, all the warning signs prove inadequate, even meaningless. War becomes a spectacle. Why then go on with this need to "bear witness"? There remains the obsession to confess of having witnessed a terrible secret: the horrendous but seductive underbelly of man. Having confessed, the witness may leave behind the markers of his testimony.
But the sights and smell of memory pursue: How, especially, was the Holocaust possible? How could the "cultured" Germans have permitted themselves to be led down to such atrocity? How could the Allies, the great Democracies, stand by and watch the Holocaust unfold? The Allied High Command knew, almost from the beginning, of Auschwitz and other extermination camps and could have bombed them out of existence. How could popes and bishops, priests and ministers - princes of the church - stand by the bonfires, but which they helped stoke centuries before? The Nazis, after all, did not invent anti-Semitism; orderly, methodically, efficiently, they only brought all previous pogroms to their ultimate "final solution".
The Holocaust was, indeed, unique: a neat and cold-blooded solution - in contrast to all other slaughter in the heat of battle, massacre or even pogroms. The Final Solution operated in silent precision and efficiency, administered by elegantly dressed SS troopers. It allowed for no emotion, commotion or waste. The "dirty" work of ultimate extermination and disposal was left to the victims. It is this cool, meticulous, precisely planned efficiency which makes the Holocaust not only unique but horrendous.
It is too easy to dismiss the Holocaust as "inhuman". The ultimate horror of the Holocaust may be that it was all too human. No other animal species could have done what man did. "Final solutions" will remain attractive and seductive until man has, perhaps, evolved into a new species - beyond Homo sapient - to truly leave this part of "human nature" behind.
Santayana, the famous Spanish philosopher, once declared: "Those who will not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is not only forgetting but remembering which too often condemns us to repeat the past - through vengeance, violence, war and trauma