Book Review: Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka

Haunting reminiscence of inhumanity

Dreamlike and poetic, yet no less lucid for that, Otto Dov Kulka’s personal reflections of his time in Auschwitz is a compelling testament that is both haunting – and haunted, writes Mark Cantrell 

First published on Cheshire Today

BEAUTY in the midst of Auschwitz must seem a strange concept, but that is one of the many apparent paradoxes one might perceive in Otto Dov Kulka’s personal testament to the Holocaust.

Certainly, as Kulka himself relays in ‘Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death’, the author is himself struck by the strangeness of the observation, yet as his own words testify “the blue of the sky in this land is many times stronger than any blue one can see anywhere else”. This was in Auschwitz; surrounded by so much senseless death, constrained by the bleak landscape of the camp, the colour blue takes on a whole new intensity.

The strangeness is compounded by the strangest phenomenon of all, the family camp, so-called, where the boy Kulka found himself living amidst a strange discontinuity of normal family and cultural life, yet immersed at the very same time in the continuation of cultural and social living. In stark contrast to the by-now-familiar images of Auschwitz, here there were no striped uniforms, no shaven heads; there were choirs, and schools maintained, intellectual activity, a semblance of life. Again, paradoxical, contradictory, the way the inmates of the camp continued to cling to the norms and practices, one might say the very fabric of civilised society – indeed that they were allowed to – amidst the wastelands of death that lay all around them.

But what was the family camp? A cruelty within a cruelty; a charade to mask the horrific truth of the existence of murder on an industrial scale, all established to deceive officials from the International Red Cross. Once it had served its purpose, the camp was “liquidated”; the euphemism for the gas chambers and crematoria that gulped down the inmates in ghoulish swallows to belch from grim chimneys the ash of their remains.

The image of those chimneys stands stark in the mind of a young boy who witnessed their voracious appetite for human flesh, even as he shied away from the maddening totality of their reality; just as they become essential sites of visitation for the adult Kulka, finally confronting these macabre obelisks as they lay in ruins, but no less potent for all that.

Kulka was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933. As a child he was first sent to Theresienstadt ghetto with his mother, and from there to Auschwitz – the Metropolis of Death – where he survived the lie of the family camp. He went on to become a respected historian, and dedicated much of his academic life to studying and researching Nazism and the Holocaust.

Today, Kulka is Rosenbloom Professor Emeritus in Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and in publishing ‘Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death’ he has ‘broken ranks’ from the lifelong discipline he has maintained in the course of his historical research; the man has built his reputation on the strictest adherence to cold objectivity in his subject matter. Now, he breaks a silence to provide an insight into his own personal history.

The whys and wherefore of this are best explained by Kulka himself in his introduction to the book: “[F]ew are aware of the existence within me of a dimension of silence, of a choice I made to sever the biographical from the historical past. And fewer still will know that for a decade (between 1991 and 2001) I made tape-recordings which allowed me to describe the images that well up in my memory and explore the remembrance of what in my private mythology is called ‘The Metropolis of Death’ ... These recordings were neither historical testimony nor autobiographical memoir, but the reflections of a person then in his late fifties and sixties, turning over in his mind those fragments of memory and imagination that have remained from the world of the wondering child of ten to eleven that I had once been.”

Don’t be fooled, then, into taking the book as a straightforward autobiographical account. It isn’t. Yes, there is personal history, drawn from his diaries, the recordings he mentions, his own recollections; the essence of the book is a reflection on memory, on imagination, how the sights and sounds of Auschwitz impact the mindscape of a growing boy, and the man that boy in time became.
In many respects, it makes the book difficult to quantify; we are invited to roam through Kulka’s internal narrative space, to perceive his memories and recollections and dreams, the metaphors and euphemisms his mind constructed, as he himself reflects upon their meaning. This is both an exploration of the horrors of Auschwitz, as it is an exploration of the conundrums of the place; a reflection on the nature of people to cling to the trappings of life, in both a denial of mortal doom and yet, it seems on reading, a kind of defiance.

There is something almost dreamlike to ‘Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death; seemingly surreal at times, as dreams can be, poetic in its cadence, in its allusion to metaphor and visual symbolism, yet for all that, the book is never less than a lucid account of Kulka’s memories and reflections. Equally there is a sense of timelessness here, a disconnection from the conventional passage of years; naturally, for here in these pages Kulka comes to his Auschwitz from two directions.

First, there is the conventional chronology of years lived; the actual time in which he dwelled within – and was fortunate enough to live beyond – Auschwitz. Then there is the mind slipping back to the memory of those times, interspersed with his backwards travel through his chronology, to the memories and recollections of visits to Auschwitz as an adult, to the memories of the child invoked in those visits, to the memories of the adult by a still older man. This is a tangled tapestry of time and space and life and death.

Here, we have an author haunted by boyhood experience, seemingly no more able to make sense of the horrors of the camps than distant observers separated from this Great Death by time and space; in his own words, he explored his life works as a rigorous scholar, suggestive of building a shell around the memories of the past.

As he writes, deeper into the book: “Here, in this safe and well-paved way of scientific discipline, I believed that I would be able to infuse a consciousness of the intensity of the experience of those historic events, a consciousness of their trans-dimensionality, a consciousness of their vast impersonality, which I experienced through the prism of that present – its memory and its imagining, from which I flinched and which I feared, perhaps subconsciously, to confront head-on.

“The fact is that in all my research I never had to deal with the stage, the dimension, of the violent end, the murder, the humiliation and the torture of those human beings. I left, or skirted that dimension – as perhaps I skirted the piles of skeletons of the corpses that were heaped up in front of the barracks in Auschwitz on my way to the youth hut – in order to study the broad background of the ideology and the policy underlying it all, the historical implications, the dynamics of society and government, and the society and leadership of those who were the objects of the ‘Final Solution’ – the Jews – in the period preceding that stage of a violent, ultimate end.”

Meaning, an ancient human urge, made all the more painfully poignant here, in its context of one of the 20th Century’s worst of crimes against humanity.

Throughout, Kulka invokes the two great themes of his experiences and recollections of Auschwitz: the “Metropolis of Death”, and the “immutable Law of Death” by which the fate of the camp and its inmates seemed embroiled. In these, he wrestles with the obfuscations of memory, seeks the vaults of hidden meaning in the euphemisms of language in camp life, strives to draw meaning out of the incongruities of that existence’s mental memorial: the sounds of Ode to Joy sung by a children’s choir opposite the crematoria, the “black stains” he saw on the snow-clad roadside during a winter march – the frozen corpses of stragglers too weak to continue. And his mother, a notable vision in Kulka’s memory and dreams, as she walks towards her death with never a backward glance.

‘Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death’ is intense without ever becoming overwhelming, personal without – apparent – bitterness; the book is intimate, yet still conveys an aura of detachment. Human and humane, Kulka’s book is a moving testimony that is both haunted – and haunting.


Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death
Reflections on Memory and Imagination

By Otto Dov Kulka
Translated by Ralph Mandel

Allen Lane
ISBN: 978-0330519694
Price: £14.99

This article first appeared on Cheshire Today, 19 February 2013. 

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