In February 1942, H.G. Adler and his wife, Gertrud, along with her parents, were “deported” to Theresienstadt. This was no ordinary concentration camp. At first noised about as housing, especially for elderly Jews, drawn from the Nazi “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” it actually served several purposes. It was both a collection and transport point. In other words, a punctuation of sorts, holding Jews and others in the camp in pause between their roundup and shipment to death.
More cynically (if one can accept this weak term), it was designed to be a “show” camp, a Potemkin village. Delegations, especially the Red Cross, could—and did—visit, only to be hoodwinked by what seemed to be the normalcy of life there. Hitler, so one deceptive rationale went, was protecting inmates from the fury of the German people. To paraphrase a line from a propaganda film about Theresienstadt, Hitler had given the Jews a city.
Inspection teams would be presented with a beautified settlement (rose gardens and the like), be greeted by a camp official (in one instance, replete with a telling black eye), see visible and functioning amenities and witness the (temporarily) ample food. The camp also had numerous cultural and social activities, factories and workshops (run akin to slave labor camps), physicians (albeit few and under-equipped) and its own worthless currency.
Of course, there was nothing normal about the camp. Visitors did not understand this was a drama staged for them. Once they were gone, the inmates would be taken, sooner or later, to gas chambers.
Adler traced the impetus for his massive, and now-classic book, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community, to his arrival in the camp. He resolved that if he survived—and this would be miraculous itself—he would depict Theresienstadt “at length and comprehensively.” He did. Originally published in 1955 in German, the English translation of his book—the major work of his life, which took years to write—is 857 pages, released in May by Cambridge University Press. The book is dedicated to Getrud, who refused to abandon her mother. Both women were “gassed and incinerated” in October 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In Theresienstadt, one could “participate” or “observe” or, breaking this opposition, combine the two. One could be an anthropologist or a member of a bureaucratic office, or a common, anxiety-ridden prisoner-worker without portfolio. Judging by the book’s scrupulous numerical presentations, as well as attention to the life of prisoners, Adler was knowledgeable about all of them. Above all, Adler was a witness.
What strikes the reader beyond the epigraphs and somber memorializing is the book’s detail, as if Adler is copying Nazi bureaucratic reports, as well as numbing the mind by charts. After a while, given the dark nature of the data, they become a form of resistance in prose: a black, grotesque parody of whatever can be reduced to numbers. But what is not imitated from bureaucratic protocol is Adler’s confrontation with nothingness, the limit of human comprehension and existence.
We cannot turn away from what cries out for our attention: the subtitle. The Face of a Coerced Community. We must ask what these words mean to us, as readers and hopefully as bearers of humanizing traditions.
Some slight variations on Adler’s meditation are helpful. A coerced community is an oxymoron. Communities embody and transmit ways of living bespeaking the fullness of their culture. They cannot be seen as broken moments in time but as a summation of human life’s entirety, embodying consciousness—of freedom, and of conscience. Communities are also organic, Adler emphasizes; they are formed by multiple relationships and marked by “reciprocal” activity. They resist fitting into pre-ordained plans. (This last, alone, marks one of the salient differences of representation between a “report” and a novel.)
For Adler, the State is coercive, and limiting, by administering the condition and shape of human fulfillment. (The title of one of his books is Administered Man: Studies on the Deportation of the Jews from Germany.) The felt condition of being supervised is the reduction of human capability to the dominating imagination of the State (or if you wish, Master) that deprives individuals of will, practical thought and consequent activity. The person is now a slave—a tool, an instrument for use. (In Greek, a slave is “doulos” which is later transformed in slang to “dooley” or tool.) The individual is transformed into what is used by others.
A usable past was therapeutic for a stalwart few souls who represented the dignity of an earlier life. But for most in the camps, memory was not practical; it could not guide their future, only their delusions. No action had a genuine personal consequence because all were subject to the transports leading to extermination. In Theresienstadt, an unusual defence—a diversion—was mounted: cultural activities, well-meaning and trenchant, suspended the realization of impending death. The more one plunged into the world of culture, the more one deluded oneself about the fragility of life and the capriciousness of selection. The more one committed oneself to work, and even to pleasure, the more one was actually turning away from a moment, chosen by the SS, for death.
Adler offers us broad, synthetic (my term) causes for the camps, and we need not go over a cultivated anti-Semitism, the rise of Nazism and its entailments. Among the most perceptive, though, is the rise of mechanization—not only State standardization of life, but State dismissal of individuality per se. As a result, inmates became unpersons (again, the term is mine), people devoid of humanity, humans being objects. They could be managed. Even cruelly played with. Caught in the constricting web of propaganda and its language, they became, as I interpret their situation, deprived of humanizing language, one capable of conveying common-sense reality and foresight. (See, for example, Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich. Klemperer, a Jew and former professor of Romance languages, under Nazi detention turned his philological interest to studying the duplicitous, euphemistic lexicon of Hitler’s Germany.)
Moreover, as Adler observes, Theresienstadt copied, by and large, State bureaucracy, what with its innumerable paperwork, reports, offices, social and official hierarchies, and obsessively recorded numbers. These last overwhelmed the mind, obliterating reality: As numbers grew in magnitude, they lost their signification; they became incomprehensible.
In Theresienstadt, there was a possibly new rhetoric: a de-evolving language made by masters, leading to confusion and disablement. Emotional camp lingua franca was common. Call it the subjunctive rhetoric of hope: rumors and gossip about the end of the war, vain projections about survival, and shreds of information picked up from other prisoners and even the SS. Would/could/might one escape death? Tragically, the fate of the inmates could easily be guessed. Prisoners transported from the East had seen the gas chambers and the crematoria. In one instance, children coming from another camp refused to go into a suspicious-looking building, crying that it was a gas chamber.
Camp rhetoric promoted moral paradox and ambiguity. The ethical problem for those who knew with certainty what the camps were about was whether the imprisoned should be told, depriving them of hope, or the truth be concealed, nourishing the inmates’ delusions and will to survive (though some, indeed, did). How could common virtues and knowledge about them be explicable—or endure at all? (The figure who shines in this regard is Rabbi Leo Baeck, “honorary chairman” of the camp’s “Council of Elders.”)
What was also unique about Theresienstadt was its administrative deception. It was ostensibly run by Jews, notably a Council of Elders, having a “senior Jewish Elder” as titular ruler. In reality, the administration of Theresienstadt depended on the actual Nazi commandant of the camp who also had to answer to his officiate. However, illusions, when life is at stake, are also obsessive delusions. The camp could be seen as self-administering by those who willed to do so. Nonetheless, there were those who were forced to choose between those who would live and those who would leave on transports.
The fear of death, all too real and actual, led to predictable consequences which deeply impress themselves on Adler’s prose, as if one could be or should be shocked by the desperate criminality of the prisoners: an easy opportunism—theft, prostitution, malice, trading in contraband. Without faith in the Absolute, or faith in absolutes in general, a redemptive human community lacked foundation for a moral life. One’s weapon was endurance (which, by my lights, runs the gamut from survival at any cost to impassiveness, which is a deliberated aggression).
I have deliberately bypassed the architecture of the book; its commentary on history, sociology and psychology requires volumes. In fact, almost every page is substance enough for yet another and another book. So, where does this leave us?
As I write this, America under Trump is shutting the door on immigrants fleeing for their lives. Is it fair to connect this with Nazism? In my eyes, it is. On the one hand, we have a new—as of this writing—ban on Muslims from several countries. On the other, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), if repealed, would crush immigrants, usually from Mexico and South America. Mainly “dark-skinned,” they were children when they illegally were brought or fled to the U.S., and would now face government deportation. This, to me, is a criminal act, reminding us of the mandated relocation of Japanese in World War II, to barren land and a desolating life.
But, it also suggests to people, and members of my generation especially, the transports. The vicious roundups and uprooting of families from their homes, delivering them to an unknown future and the beginning of an unforeseen, terrifying life. If this bill were suspended, many would be delivered to a country of origin that they have not known and could take no solace in. They would be, in a sense, the new Jews, facing exile motivated by hostility and racism. The repeal of DACA is, in essence, an Aryanization program—a culling of “others” from a putative Caucasian America. A deportation that brings the force of law to bear upon people who willingly—and in good faith—registered their data with the federal government. Although we do not yet live in Amerika, we are coming closer.
I write this in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement during which we pray for a year of peace and tranquility for the renewal of our lives; for life itself. We must ask for forgiveness from those we have sinned against but, most importantly, from God for those offenses against the moral codes of sanctity and righteousness. In these intervening days, we are encouraged to pray for the awakening of our spirit, for our commitments to repair the world and ourselves. We ask to be entered in the book of life. How else better to do this than by opposing—by all the peaceful means we have—the tarnishing of the American democratic ethos and its culture; we must accept our common lot. To bear witness to the encouraged antagonisms and racism in America by our putative and illegitimate president. May God have mercy upon us and humanity. And may we be worthy of forgiveness.