Contaminating Survivors

Yehiel Dinur collapsed in the courtroom during the Eichmann trial shortly after he revealed that he was indeed the writer Ka-Tzetnik, the man without a name who had written those harrowing tales from the “other” planet of Auschwitz. Hence he seems to have been overcome by his inability to link his two personae, rigidly kept apart all those years precisely because bringing them together again might have precipitated a mental crisis and thereby prevented him from continuing his life’s work. In the trial Dinur was asked by the judge: “Why did you hide behind the pen-name Ka-Tzetnik?” To which he replied: “This is not a pen-name. I do not see myself as an author who writes literature. This is a chronicle from the planet of Auschwitz, whose inhabitants had no names, they were neither born nor bore any children; they were neither alive nor dead. They breathed according to different laws of nature. Every fraction of a minute there revolved on a different time scale. They were called Ka-Tzetnik, they were skeletons with numbers.”

The Eichmann trial was the first occasion in which large sectors of the Israeli public, who had until then had only a rudimentary knowledge of the Holocaust, were exposed to its details. This did not, however, bring greater understanding but rather served precisely the purpose for which it was intended by David Ben-Gurion, prime minister and towering political figure at the time. It fortified the sense of Israeli identity, at least overtly (on a deeper level the trial may have also shaken Israeli self-assurance), and set it against that other identity, on that other planet, which came to symbolize the Diaspora as a whole as well as its alleged culmination in Auschwitz. The witnesses were recruited from among both victims and resisters. Young Israelis could feel distant from and uncomprehending of the victims, and they could strongly identify with the resisters, who had acted according to the logic inculcated in the youth raised in Palestine and Israel at a time of foreign war and domestic conflict. In this context it was unlikely that Ka-Tzetnik’s perspective would be understood, namely, that he was reporting directly from that other planet, that he not only identified with but was indeed a living remnant of those lowliest of the low, the mussulmen of the camps, the Jews who had been transformed into nonhuman beings. It was therefore all the easier to understand Ka-Tzetnik in a wholly different manner, as asserting that Auschwitz was another planet in precisely the sense that the discourse in Israel of the period would have it, symbolizing everything that Zionism was created to undo, and serving as the ultimate and absolute justification and legitimation for the foundation of the Jewish state.

This is not to say that on another level Ka-Tzetnik himself did not share this vision. Indeed, the blurb printed on the cover of every volume of the sextet, which includes portions of Ka-Tzetnik’s abovecited statement in the trial, goes on to describe these books in the following manner: “Salamandra—the apocalyptic vision of that period reflected in today’s mirror. The confrontation, the bare chest of an orphaned generation fighting for its survival in the midst of the battle cry. Salamandra—the song of songs to love that overcomes evil and death.” This is of course everything that Ka-Tzetnik’s writing is not. But there is no reason to think that the author did not approve the blurb, nor that he disagreed with it as a precise summary of his work. For Ka-Tzetnik seems only rarely to grasp the full meaning of his writing and begins to realize the inherent contradiction that runs through the first five volumes only as he writes the sixth, forty years after he began this mammoth undertaking. And, not untypical for this remarkable writer, he appears to finally find peace only by resolving this contradiction in a manner that is devastating for the present, that is, by extending the planet of Auschwitz to include our own world and time.

In another addendum to the 1994 reissue of House of Dolls, a special edition supported by the Israeli ministry of education, we find an article by Yitzhak Sadeh (commander of the Haganah), published originally in 1946. Although it was obviously meant to change (and therefore also reflects) the attitudes of his subordinates toward the Jewish refugees from Europe, whom they were smuggling into British-ruled Palestine in the Brihah, it is in fact a disturbing document on the reception and perception of Holocaust survivors by young men and women (but in this case especially men) raised in what was soon to become the state of Israel. It is just as interesting that the officials of the ministry of education and the editors and publishers of this volume appear to have been wholly unaware of the extent to which this essay reflected the ambivalence of young Sabras on encountering the remnants of the Diaspora, their sense of pity and revulsion, their urge to cleanse the survivors of the evil they had been exposed to and their fear of pollution by it, their uncertainty as to the true status of these representatives of “another planet”: Were they sanctified by going through all chambers of hell, or was their very survival, so unlikely considering the millions who had perished, an indication of some complicity with the perpetrators? It is with this context in mind that we should read Sadeh’s short essay, on the opposite page of which the publisher has reproduced what is said to be “an authentic photograph of Paela, heroine of the book House of Dolls,” portraying a woman whose bare chest carries the tattoo: feld-hure.

Night. On the wet sand my sister stands before me: filthy, her clothes in disarray, her hair disheveled, barefoot, her head bowed—she stands and weeps.

I know: Her flesh is stamped with the tattoo: “for officers only.”

And my sister weeps and says:

Comrade, why am I here? Why was I brought here? Am I worthy of the young and healthy lads who risk their lives for me? No, I have no place in the world. I should not go on living.

I hug my sister . . . and say to her: You have a place in the world, my sister, a special and unique place. Here, in this our land you should live, my sister. Here we will give you our love. You are dark and beautiful, my sister. You are dark, for the suffering has scorched you, but you are beautiful, as beautiful to me as beauty itself, as sanctified to me as sanctity itself. . . .

I know: The villains have tortured her and made her barren. . . .

I say to her: . . . We love you my sister; you carry all the glow of motherhood within you, all the beauty of womanhood is in you. To you our love is given, you will be a sister to us, you will be a bride to us, you will be a mother to us.

Before these sisters of mine I kneel, I cover myself with the dust of their feet. And when I rise to my feet, I stand erect, I hold my head high and I feel and know: For these sisters of mine—I am strong.

For these sisters of mine—I am brave.

For these sisters of mine—I will also be cruel.

For you [I will do] anything—anything.

And this is how Ka-Tzetnik was read, indeed, this is in some respects a gist of the manner in which the Holocaust itself was read as a crucial, formative event for Israeli history. The survivors arrived, contaminated by the evil from which they had barely escaped, barren and defiled. And yet they were accepted by those who wished to see themselves as their saviors, accepted not only (or even primarily) as individuals but as the irrefutable legitimization of the struggle, as the fundamental sanction to be strong, courageous, and cruel, to fight one’s enemies as if they were the Nazis, to fear defeat as if it could only spell another Auschwitz, to repress any sense of pity and compassion for anyone but one’s own kind. For weakness was the chief characteristic of those very same Jews whose genocide had made survival into the highest moral imperative and any action ensuring it not only permissible but noble.

Yet on a more profound level, Ka-Tzetnik took a wholly different path, one much harder to follow at the time and even to this day, precisely because it contradicts so much of what many of us would like to believe when we think of the Holocaust. For if Ka-Tzetnik set out by seeing Auschwitz as another planet and Israel as his (and the Jewish people’s) only salvation, during the subsequent decades he came to realize that salvation was not at hand, and he found himself torn between that self which had entered the Holocaust and that other self that was born again, out of the fire, when he escaped the transport to the gas chambers by hiding in the coal box on the truck that took him and his fellow mussulmen to their death. There, curled inside that coal box as a baby in the womb, he was reborn, as a Salamandra, from the flames of hell, invincible and yet a monster, a creature protected from annihilation by having bathed in the blood of the doomed. Initially, upon arriving in Palestine, he still shares Sadeh’s vision; he perceives the Arabs as Nazis, the Jews as warding off extermination. He refuses to feel pity, compassion, even fear. But for him the essential confrontation always remains more than the struggle between the past and the present, or the Jews and their enemies. The remarkable fifth volume, The Confrontation (Ha-imut), is ultimately about the polluting effects of the Holocaust survivor on those who love him, whose urge to identify with his suffering leads them to torture their own body and soul, and it is just as much about the tragic reversal of roles in Israel (as he perceives it), where the Jews treat the Arabs the way the gentiles treated the Jews. It is, then, about the implantation of evil in the very fabric of that new, cleansed, and optimistic Jewish existence in an independent state—that is, about the contaminating effects of the Salamandra, whose invincibility is derived from blood and hate, revenge and brutality. To be sure, this extraordinary volume is rarely cited in the various official ceremonies and celebrations surrounding Ka-Tzetnik in Israel (which he never attends). It was probably not even read by those who appended to it the above-cited documents. Yet it is an early and strikingly powerful rumination on the longterm effects of evil and destruction. And while it is not free from the kitsch of a cheap romance that mars this writer’s prose (precisely because much of this volume is devoted to post-Auschwitz “normality”), it carries a dark and forbidding vision, not at all one of love surpassing evil and death, but rather of evil overcoming hope and compassion.

The notion of the survivors as polluted by evil and thereby threatening to contaminate their post-Holocaust environment was prevalent both among those who had received them into their midst and among the survivors themselves. Feelings of guilt were never far from the surface on both sides—guilt for having survived while others perished, guilt for having not done enough to help the victims, and shame for having led a more or less normal existence while the crematoria worked day and night. Some have argued that this deep sense of guilt was at the root of the numerous cases of suicide among survivors (and their children), often many years after the event. But Ka-Tzetnik’s case is once more different, since his mythical vision of himself as having been born again from the flames of Auschwitz made for a radical break into two personae; his new, fire-proof self is immune even to his most pernicious enemy, his inability to find the link between present reality and the tormenting memories (and torments) of the past. Yet this invincibility is achieved at a price, that of remaining a monster, a Salamandra, a creature dipped in the blood of that other planet’s victims. And whenever his other persona attempts, or is compelled, to emerge, the conflict inevitably leads to mental collapse, an escape perhaps into a state of semi-insanity in which the inability to fuse the splinters of his personality is no longer registered in the mind.

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