Universal Auschwitz

A few years ago the Israeli ministry of education, then headed by Zevulun Hammer, chair of the National Religious Party, a Zionist and in recent years increasingly right-wing party, decided to collaborate in a reissue of Ka-Tzetnik’s sextet and to deliver thousands of these volumes to Israeli high schools as recommended reading on the Holocaust. It seems unlikely that these officials had an intimate knowledge of Dinur’s writings; rather, they most probably either retained a faint memory of reading the earlier volumes in their own youth, or simply accepted the common view in Israel of Ka-Tzetnik as an icon of Hebrew-language representation of the Holocaust. Consequently, these officials in fact provided the final sanction to a writer as widely known in Israel as he has been almost universally misread and misunderstood, whose views on Israeli society, Jewish identity and faith, indeed the human condition as such, challenge much of mainstream thinking in current Israel and starkly contradict the conventional interpretation of the Holocaust by the political right and the religious community. Thus we might say that Ka-Tzetnik was never read for what he said but for what his readers imagined (or expected) him to be saying, that is, he was read as a confirmation of prevailing views and prejudices on the Holocaust and as one who could legitimately express (since he was the survivor par excellence) what others dared not utter. In the 1950s and 1960s Israeli youngsters often read Ka-Tzetnik because he was the only legitimate source of sexually titillating and sadistic literature in a still puritanical and closed society, with the result that the Holocaust somehow became enmeshed in their minds with both repelling and fascinating pornographic images. Similarly, by now the complete sextet may well have the opposite effect from that expected by the Israeli educational establishment. For ultimately, when read from beginning to end, Ka-Tzetnik casts doubt both on the Zionist venture and on the possibility of dividing humanity and history into different planets. His “recovery” from schizophrenia and depression is not achieved by “coming to terms” with the past, but by accepting that the past and the present are one and the same, and that the victim of yesterday may turn out to be today’s executioner. Most radically, he concludes that yesterday’s victim was potentially also the killer and that the killer could have easily been the victim. In a mystical scene pregnant with kabbalistic symbolism, Dinur finally “resolves” the mystery and unites with his other self by bringing the evil of Auschwitz into our own world:

I raise my eyes to the heavens of Auschwitz. On the horizon is a picture of “Shivitti” such as those found normally over the prayer-column before the cantor in every synagogue. Only here, this “Shivitti” ... looks different. . . . it is burning like a torch, glittering with the colors of the rainbow. But—and this is what is strange about it—all its light is shining inward and upward. . . .

I am struck with terror. Cramped by the skeletons I stand on the truck and stare at the letters Jehovah shining out of the “Shivitti” with a light not of this world; and at the pair of lions, to the right and left, which guard between them the secret of the combination: “I imagine [shivitti] God [Jehovah] always before me.” . . . And the letters Jehovah mix and stir one in each other, one on top of the other. And I call out:

“God! God! Who decreed this?!

God! God! Auschwitz—to whom does it belong?!”

With trembling I raise my eyes to see God’s face in His characters, and see in front of me the face of an SS man standing by the front of the truck. His eyes still show the signs of sleep. The dawn is cold, and his hands are in the pockets of his black military coat. Before his eyes—a stream of skeletons silently flowing from the gate of the barracks to the opening of the truck. And then his mouth opens with a long yawn. . . .

And I am inside the rolling truck, a naked skeleton among naked skeletons, being sent now by the yawning German to the crematorium. I look at him and his yawn, and suddenly I ask myself: Does he hate me? After all, he does not even know me. Not even my name.

I continue to look at him and I ask myself: Do I hate him? After all,

I do not even know his name. . . .

At that very moment I am struck with a horror such as I have never known before: If so, then he could have been here instead of me, a naked skeleton in the truck, and I, I could have been there instead of him, on this cold morning, making sure that I send him, and millions like him, to the crematorium—and just like him I would have yawned, because I would have preferred, just like him, to stay in bed on such a cold morning. . . .

Oh, God, merciful and compassionate, is it I, is it I who created Auschwitz? . . .

Ah, God, Great God of the heavens of Auschwitz! Show Your face to Your creature so that I know who is it who dwells inside me and is being sent now to the crematorium—and why? And who is it who dwells inside him and sends me to the crematorium—and why? You Who know that at this moment the two of us, the sender and the sent, are equal as men! Your own creatures, in Your very image.

The truck passes the gate of Auschwitz and over it the German words:

Arbeit macht frei

And they change into the Hebrew words:

“And He made him in the image of God.”

It is at this point, as he relives he moment of his near destruction and rebirth under the influence of LSD, viewing himself not only from the perspectives of “then” and “now” but also through the eyes of his own yawning perpetrator, that Ka-Tzetnik begins the process of coming to terms not with the event but with the Salamandra he believes he had become. Made in fire, of fire, both victim and killer, he is one and the same, a man. Immediately after the event, in his first book, Primo Levi had asked, Ecce homo? Forty years later he could neither refute that assumption nor live with it any longer. Ka-Tzetnik had set out by dividing humanity into monsters and men, time into “then” and “now,” the world into “there” and “here.” Forty years later he finally fuses them all together into one continuous apocalyptic vision encompassing our own present reality. A world, that is, in which Salamandras can feel at home:

I look at the number written at the top of the page on which I am writing these lines, and I cannot believe my eyes: I have already covered scores of pages with tiny letters and have not noted the innovation in them. I have never written on this subject in the first person. In all my books I wrote in the third person, although that form of writing was difficult for me, since all I wrote was a kind of personal diary, a testimony: I saw these things, I experienced these experiences, I lived through the events, I, I, I, and yet while writing I had to transformed the “I” into “he.” I felt a splitting, a discomfort, a strangeness, and worst of all—I felt myself, God forbid, as if I were preoccupied with literature. Yet I knew that if I did not write in the third person I might have not been able to write at all. And all of a sudden, without even noticing it, for the very first time, and already in the first line: “I, I, I ... ”

Up to this point Ka-Tzetnik/Dinur has used the metaphor of the Salamandra, a foreign import into Jewish mysticism. Now as he prepares himself to go to another LSD-induced psychiatric session, he recalls the words of the psychiatrist: “Through this opening you must enter in order to find the answer.” On the opposite page we find a citation from the Hebrew sources, invoking the ancient equivalent of the Salamandra, the Phoenix, or, as it is called in the Hebrew source (Bereshit Raba, 19:5), the Bird of Hol, which no longer bears the same monstrous characteristics of the Salamandra, even though it is still a creature of fire: “There is a bird whose name is Hol—it lives a thousand years and at the end of a thousand years a fire comes out of its nest and burns it and what remains of it is like an egg that grows limbs again and lives.”

On returning to Israel from the psychiatric ward in Leiden, Dinur gradually realizes the transformation that has occurred: “Before Leiden, the splitting was—I: A nightmare from within myself that seizes me under the cover of darkness. But now, after Leiden, the nightmare of splitting stands before me in the light of day, and it is of all humanity, even cosmic.” He concludes:

In the past I sought solitude, far from human habitation, for I wanted to be alone with Auschwitz. Now Auschwitz threatens all men. Wherever man is, there is Auschwitz, because it is not Satan who created Auschwitz, but I and you, just as it is not Satan who creates the [nuclear] mushroom but I and you.


I am no longer haunted by the monstrous nightmare at night; it appears before my eyes in the light of day.

And thus, finally, after hundreds of pages filled with the most explicit descriptions of that “other planet,” of sadism and cannibalism, sexual perversity and torture, endless suffering and hopelessness, and an unfathomable degradation of humanity, he ends his sextet with these words:

In the past I used to say: Auschwitz is another planet! It can not be explained and it can not be described. Auschwitz is a cosmic Holocaust! Its nightmare attacks me at night. As if Auschwitz has no rule in the daytime when men are awake and alert. Auschwitz is of hell, of the night, on the other side of man-in-the-image-of-God. ...

Auschwitz and the splitting? God and Satan? The other planet and man? Questions, questions. And the answer? End!

For Ka-Tzetnik, it seems, relief has at last come from the realization that the whole world is inhabited by Salamandras.

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