God’s Mussulman

In an addendum to the newly reissued volume House of Dolls, the publisher has included a letter written by a young Israeli soldier to his girlfriend shortly before he was killed in the 1967 war: “I have just finished reading the book House of Dolls by Ka-Tzetnik,” he writes,

and I feel that from all the horror and helplessness a tremendous ability to be strong is growing and flourishing in me; so strong that one could weep; as sharp as a knife; both silent and terrible. This how I want to be now! I want to know that never again will bottomless eyes stare from behind electrified fences! They will not stare this way only if I am strong! If all of us are strong! Strong and proud Jews! We will never be led again to the slaughter! In the commando unit we were like that, we were swift, strong, and silent as devils . . . and we felt that we could overcome them. We did everything they had refused to believe we could do, we were sure of our strength. Can a soldier feel anything better than being silent, alert, and dangerous? We passed by settlements, mountains, fields, like shadows, and no one knew that we had been there.

More than any other of his volumes, Ka-Tzetnik’s House of Dolls is related to both, and yet belongs to neither, the “legitimate” nor the “illegitimate” literature on the Holocaust. Indeed, throughout his writings, Ka-Tzetnik may be said to maintain an ambivalent position between these two categories. Here we find no glorification of resistance, in fact hardly any armed resistance at all. If Sonia eventually joins the partisans, that episode remains marginal to the account, and she ultimately dies in the gas chamber rather than in a gun fight with the Nazis. If Harry does carry a gun at the end of the war, the only episode in which he is shown to be at the point of killing an SS man ends up with him hesitating so long that the German is finally shot quite casually by a Soviet soldier. Nor does he become an effective resistance fighter against the British in Palestine, and later on he reverses his initial position of equating the Arabs with the Nazis by promoting understanding with the former. To be sure, Harry is ultimately cast in a somewhat heroic mold but never one rooted in physical, armed action. Similarly, Ka-Tzetnik’s books cannot be said to be pornographic in the sense of consciously trying to manipulate their readers and merely excite their senses, even if in parts, and especially in House of Dolls, they share some characteristics with the Stalag pulp fiction, which also employed women’s camps and prostitute inmates as the “historical” context for their plots. Nevertheless, it is in the sheer violence and explicit physical and mental atrocity of the Salamandra sextet that we must begin to explore the reasons for Ka-Tzetnik’s popularity among Israeli youth long before he was officially adopted by the state’s political establishment.

What is most striking and baffling about Ka-Tzetnik is the unexpected manner in which the content and the form of his writing interact. Almost up to the end of his sextet, Ka-Tzetnik’s prose resembles the writing common to the youth literature on the Holocaust that was circulating in pre-1967 Israel. This does not seem to be a deliberate technique but merely reflects the author’s mind cast and literary ability. And yet precisely because he fails to adapt the form of his writing to its content, that is, the banalities of juvenile literature to the context of the Holocaust as he experienced it, an infernal region in which humanity was reduced to its most base instincts even before it was destroyed, his writing becomes more brutally explicit and free of all euphemism and distance than almost any other such text on the Holocaust. At the same time it reflects the writer’s complete inability to take delight in the pain and perversion he so meticulously describes (although it has the potential of evoking such a voyeuristic urge in its readers). Hence also the paradoxical outcome that whenever Ka-Tzetnik writes about “our” planet, namely, describes “normal” events and relationships, his prose is so replete with kitsch and cliches that it can only appeal to a juvenile audience. However, once he plunges into that “other” planet, that very predilection toward the banal makes possible a remarkable transformation whereby the author achieves devastating insights into the human condition that have been barred to far more sophisticated writers—not least, perhaps, due to their greater concern for the aesthetic aspects and moral effect of their work.

In this context it might be useful to refer to Primo Levi, probably the most articulate and significant writer on Auschwitz, who, interestingly, became known in Israel to a larger public only after the translation of his Survival in Auschwitz appeared in Hebrew in 1988, forty years after its original publication. To be sure, Levi also delves deeply into the horror of Auschwitz, but his profound commitment to humanity and his keen awareness of both the moral issues at stake and the aesthetic rules of prose writing prevent him from lingering on the horror to the same extent as Ka-Tzetnik, and they compel him to try and view events from a certain distance and perspective, even in his earliest writing on the Holocaust, composed shortly after his return from the camps. Thus while Ka-Tzetnik is almost never able to distance himself from the experience of the camps up to the last volume of his sextet, Levi moves in the opposite direction, becoming inextricably enmeshed in the past and the paradoxes of its representation, as is so painfully revealed in his own last essays. Reading Ka-Tzetnik, we are in the midst of the horror; there is no control here, no embarrassment, no qualifications. Indeed, Ka-Tzetnik does what Levi ultimately reproaches himself for having been unable to accomplish, namely, he writes from the point of view of the drowned, the mussulman. Nor is his writing on horror in any way contrived (in stark contrast to his attempts to describe “normality”), and precisely because of its wholly uninhibited, raw nature, his representation of evil is not only disturbing but in many ways annihilating of the manner in which we all desire to see and understand the interaction between humanity and the Holocaust.

The paradoxical consequences of the tension between aesthetic control and devastating experience, bewilderment and insight, chaos and articulation may also be demonstrated by contrasting the writings of the highly assimilated Primo Levi and Jean Amery, whose world of associations was an integral part of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, with those of Elie Wiesel and Ka-Tzetnik, both of whom were raised in a traditional East European Jewish environment, studied Talmud and the Kabbalah, and perforce were compelled to relate the Holocaust to their increasingly shaken belief in God and his Covenant with the Chosen People. While Levi and Amery view the Holocaust as a manifestation of the crisis of European civilization and try to sustain their hope in humanism and humanity, Wiesel and Ka-Tzetnik are constantly struggling with their religious belief and their understanding of Jewish fate and faith. Levi is of course the strongest defender of humanism, as is so powerfully demonstrated in the key episode of Survival in Auschwitz when he attempts to reconstruct in memory the essence of Dante’s humanistic vision, those crucial lines in which Ulysses distinguishes man from beast by his eternal quest for a higher meaning:

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance

Your mettle was not made; you were made men,

To follow after knowledge and excellence.

Amery, for his part, ends up as the disillusioned and betrayed believer in the Enlightenment who can no longer live with the unacceptable realization that the Holocaust continues to happen under different guises in a post-Auschwitz world indifferent to the destruction it inflicts on itself. Ultimately, Levi too seems to be overtaken by a sense of depression and hopelessness, both about his ability truthfully to reconstruct the experience of the Holocaust and about transmitting it to others in any meaningful way. Since he counts himself among the saved, while the true representatives of Auschwitz are the drowned, the mussulmen who had died even before they were finally gassed, and because he senses that the lesson of the Holocaust has been unlearned by subsequent generations, he eventually appears to succumb to that very urge to put an end to his life that he had earlier condemned so strongly in Amery.

Wiesel and Ka-Tzetnik, who have gone through the same hell of Auschwitz, offer a wholly different perspective on their experience. While Wiesel is the more sophisticated and controlled of the two, he is consequently also far more contrived, and his account bears the characteristics of well-crafted, skillful, didactic rhetoric, which may also partly explain his successes among the French-and English-reading public. Wiesel’s kitsch, his bombastic utterances and exclamations about the human condition in the mode of French Existentialism that was fashionable when he wrote much of his Night trilogy, has appealed both to youthful readers and to a more adult public searching for a palatable representation of the Holocaust and its implications for humanity. Conversely, Ka-Tzetnik’s anguished, at times almost insane, obsession with depravity, his wild fantasies, and his anarchic refusal to conform to any rules of the genre have barred him from gaining attention in cultures that prefer a well-told story, insist on close attention to matters aesthetic, require some moral lesson, and instinctively reject such baffling, messy, and often repelling accounts. At his best, his kitsch is of such an extraordinary nature that it penetrates the most hidden, darkest, and most repulsive recesses of the human psyche. Yet the very core of these two writers’ literary works is almost uncannily alike, to the extent that they seem to present two versions of the same experience: a young traditional Jew’s encounter with limitless evil. Both set out from their own very personal, Jewish experience. In Wiesel’s writing this hearkens back to his quasi-mythical Jewish town of Sighet in Hungary; in Ka-Tzetnik’s writing this is associated with the wealthy Jewish-Polish bourgeoisie and the protagonist’s Zionist aspirations. Ironically, it is Wiesel who universalizes his experience from the very beginning, not least by implicit references to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jean-Paul Sartre just as much as to Jewish tradition. Ka-Tzetnik, on the other hand, begins by focusing almost exclusively on himself and all other Jewish victims, and subsequently on the Zionist experience in Israel. It is only in the last sections of his sextet that he attempts a universalization of the Holocaust. Yet it is Wiesel who is thought of by now (at least in France, Britain, and especially the United States, but not in Israel, possibly because of his having left the country) as the public representative par excellence of both Jewish fate and its universal meaning, while Ka-Tzetnik has been assigned almost everywhere (with the partial exception of Israel, and even there for the wrong reasons) to the lunatic fringe. Interestingly, despite their doubtless torment and pain throughout the post-Auschwitz era, which spans the main bulk of their lives, neither Wiesel nor Ka-Tzetnik have reached the radical conclusion of Levi and Amery. They struggle with God and fate, belief and identity, but precisely because their point of departure is the role of providence in human evil, by the time they come to ruminate on the inherent evil in man and human society they are no longer prepared to give up all hope. Instead, they take up the traditional role of the ancient Hebrew prophets, decrying evil, fighting with God, yet never relenting in their struggle to reintroduce the divine sparks back into the world of men, just as the Kabbalah spoke of the tikkun (restoration) of the spiritual lights by liberating them from the domination of the kelippot (forces of evil).

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