ANYONE WRITING TODAY on the Holocaust is haunted by the thought that the decimated generation of Holocaust survivors will soon pass away. Consequently, the question of how to preserve their voices and memory poses major challenges to post-war generations. Angela Morgan Cutler’s experimental novel Auschwitz addresses this question while contemplating her family’s past and the Holocaust’s aftermath. Discarding sentimentality, moralising and preaching, Cutler engages with inner and outer voices, recording her struggle with the book that “writes itself, almost behind her back”. The result is a highly personalised and deeply honest response to considerations that some might see as profoundly human, others inconceivable, but all would find unavoidable after a century which has witnessed more than one holocaust and a catalogue of atrocities.
For those who think that the Holocaust has been discussed ad infinitum and whose capacity for sympathy may be exhausted, I recommend the latest statistics drawn from the novel: Nearly half of Britons have never heard of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. And among women and the under-35s, the figure is as high as 60 per cent, according to a BBC poll. Of the 4000 adults surveyed, 45 per cent said that they had never heard of the camp in Poland where a million were killed. The BBC commissioned the survey in advance of Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, which marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
We have just observed the 63rd anniversary of the liberation; I would be greatly surprised if updated BBC poll figures would indicate an increase in public awareness. Yet Cutler’s novel is not a didactic response to these findings. It is not meant to be a sociological debate either, although it often refers to press cuttings, TV and radio programmes, daily news and selective publications. When compared to other recent Holocaust writing, it also defies some established genres in the field. It is not a semi-fabricated fiction like Call The Swallow (2002) by Fergus O’Connell or The Memory Man (2004) by Lisa Appignanesi which centre on memory and deal with intricate mechanisms involved in remembering and forgetting. It is not an insightful analysis of the impact that parents’ wartime experiences had on their children’s daily lives as depicted by Anne Karpf inThe War After (1996). While Cutler’s novel does share some themes with Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge (2004), it is not an example of investigative journalism informed by in-depth research into the Holocaust and its aftermath. Cutler’s Auschwitz creates a category of its own. Narrated by ‘Angela’, it is a mixture of travelogue, dream-book, diary and e-mail exchanges which complement the narrator’s passionate voice. This passion fuels the author’s response to her times as well as her struggle to preserve the collective memory of a passing generation. Sometimes the absence of such memory becomes a surprisingly powerful subject of her poetic meditation.
Being partly a travelogue, the work has a plot clearly marked by visits to various sites in Poland, Budapest, Byelorussia and Berlin. The travelling that the narrator undertakes and describes follows largely in the footsteps of Wilhelm and Ella Engelhart, the family on the narrator’s husband’s side who are also the real grandparents of Cutler’s husband. The book is dedicated to them, to her other living relatives and friends and to all known and unknown souls who perished during the war. Each visited place adds a highly symbolic dimension to Angela’s (i.e. the narrator’s) search and contemplation.
The trip to Budapest – where the grandmother Ella was born – symbolises the futility of decoding the past. Kolbuszowa, Poland – the place of Wilhem’s birth – is out of the travellers’ reach, so they go to more accessible places such as Kraków, with its Jewish district of Kazimierz. But the place reveals more questions regarding its Jewish/Polish history than it offers answers. Sadly, the revival of Jewish culture does not unveil any mysteries lurking in each house and basement or hidden beyond Jewish graves. The celebration of Jewish food and music paradoxically seems to obscure rather than to illuminate the district’s complex history, but the narrator’s voice never accuses or complains. While visiting Berlin, she wonders if she can find any signs of “good guilt” or honourable motivation behind preserving the memory of Jewish history and the Holocaust. She reports on other people’s attempts to do so but it is unclear if what she sees in Germany satisfies her curiosity. Yet, all these places are of minor significance by comparison to two milestones of her journey: Auschwitz and Minsk.
Obviously, many writers before Cutler shared their thoughts on visiting Auschwitz but the novel doesn’t resonate with their voices. The only exception is Moinous, the character based on Raymond Federman, the Franco-American writer and a Holocaust survivor. His voice guides the narrator, offers sobering thoughts on the subject and introduces liberating laughter. In his e-mails, he refers to literary testimonies by Amery, Borowski, Celan, Levi and others. Yet, the name missing from the narrative that kept coming to my mind was another Polish writer, Tadeusz Rózewicz, whose short story ‘An Excursion to the Museum’ (1956, transl. 2002) depicting a visit to the Auschwitz Museum in 1949 is a revealing comparison to Cutler’s novel, written almost fifty years later in a different language. The central questions for both writers are the same: How does one narrate Auschwitz? How is one to commemorate Auschwitz? What is one ‘to do’ with such a place (and such a word)? Predictably, neither writer offers definitive answers to these conundrums, but each is in full agreement when it comes to the observation that we have no clue about how to face ‘what’s there’ and ‘what’s not there’. It is paradoxically what’s not there that seemed to fuel visitors’ curiosity in 1949 as much as it continues to do in 2004. Or has the nature of this curiosity changed?
Cutler’s meditative sub-chapters, with the respective titles ‘Hair and Tears’, ‘The Photograph’, ‘The Shoe’, ‘The Gas Chamber’, ‘The Pond’, and ‘The Missing Pages’, make the absence of memory behind these objects/places a powerful subject for poetic and refined contemplation whose illuminating nature is simultaneously undermined by sober awareness:
And what is there in many ways to remember, as many stories ended on a station platform and after that all those that did know were killed and silenced and all those left behind had only questions and a life of not-ever-knowing; so what can another generation want from a story already based on the never-to-know?
While Auschwitz’s symbolic meaning for the Holocaust can never be overestimated, Maly Trostenets Camp near Minsk, with its surrounding forests, stands for all the forgotten places of Jewish martyrdom that are hardly recognised in the wider world. The nearby Blagovshchina forest is the area where the Engelharts and thousands of others were shot and buried in 1942. Through Angela’s narrative the forest gains nearly a mystical and mythical dimension. The reader almost feels the ground move under the visitors’ feet but is soon assured that it stands still and betrays no secrets to those unfamiliar with the region’s past. Bella, a local woman translator, who points out local places of martyrdom, remarks: “Nowhere on any of the memorials is there any mention of the Jews, only Russians and political prisoners and the partisans that were killed”. I find these lines highly symbolic and reminiscent of many such places scattered all over Europe. Yet, it’s clear to me that by recalling this episode Cutler does not suggest that such places should be re-marked or commemorated with more signs. To assert her point of view, Angela repeats the words of an artist who, while commenting on the design of German Holocaust monuments, observed: “There should be no finishing touches no finished monuments only an endless discussion”. Auschwitz, undoubtedly, keeps the discussion going.
In the city of Minsk, the contemplative mood the narrator felt in Blagovshchina shifts abruptly as the couple is nearly arrested for crossing the road instead of using the underpass. They are in sheer horror when a uniformed man shouts at them in a language they don’t understand. This episode strongly echoes a linguistic horror of the Holocaust that – with the exception of Primo Levi’s writing – is not very much discussed. Since English has become the global lingua franca for discussing the Holocaust, the awareness that it was not the native tongue of decimated survivors is almost non-existent. Cutler refers to the linguistic issue through her recorded dreams and conversations (real or imagined) – yet her carelessness regarding languages is somehow surprising.
I was quite amused by an unintended joke that found its way into the description of the family’s visit to Kraków. It has to do with the Polish word pozar – meaning fire – versus pozer, meaning humbug and connoting words like buffoon, fraud, hoax. The narrator proudly reports to Moinous that she learned the Polish word pozar in order to call for help in case of fire. However, when she imagines a situation of danger, she leans over the window and shouts: pozer! Luckily for her, the whole event is staged in her imagination. If it were for real, it’s unlikely that Poles would run to rescue a woman screaming Buffoon! This time, however, the joke is more on the writer, not on the narrator.
Similarly, Federman when writing the stunning Return To Manure was haunted by the French onomatopoeic word shut. The last time Federman saw his mother she shut him in a closet for his protection. Her last word to him was shut, meaning in French, as it is translated here. shhh, although translating it as such loses its double personal meaning. All of this attests to the fact that one’s native tongue has profound meaning in any traumatic experience and that perhaps the ethics of translation should occupy a much more prominent place in Holocaust writing than it currently does. There are many such digressions thatAuschwitz prompts one to make. And the novel itself also digresses a lot. When Angela establishes that the term ‘concentration camp’ was first used to describe camps operated by the British in South Africa during the 1899–1902 Second Boer War and were later used to confine and control large numbers of civilians in areas of Boer guerrilla activity, Moinous replies: “So the British were the first to use concentration camps – can you believe that? – the fucking Nazis plagiarised the British”. And more laughter follows when Angela records their playful ideas on how to de-commercialise Auschwitz through mocking some ‘marketing devices’ that have obscenely commercialised the place over many years.
There is much, much more to this remarkable novel to which I’m unable to do justice here. Cutler’s voice is undoubtedly a new voice of the post-Holocaust generations who contemplate the subject with great sensitivity to the numerous genocides all over the world that followed the Holocaust. Her sophisticated and highly individual poetic style “shows the tracks of her labour” (to use Moinous’ expression) in an imaginative way and by doing so turns Cutler’s debut into a superb novel on writing. But above all Auschwitz is a powerful triumph of post-memory, which is a memory of what one never saw or experienced. The novel traces and preserves this memory for us all. Beginning her literary career with such an innovative work, Angela Morgan Cutler faces a challenging task of not disappointing her readers with future publications. I’ll watch this space holding my breath.
Angela Morgan Cutler
Two Ravens Press, £9.99
pp384, ISBN 9781906120184