BOOK REVIEW | BARBARA PROBST SOLOMON
In Search of Peace at Auschwitz
Peter Matthiessen (who died this April at the age of 86) possesses an extraordinary range of bona fides—co-founder of The Paris Review, world famous naturalist, explorer, author of myriad books and the only winner of both the National Book Award for Fiction and for Nonfiction—yet to my mind his greatest gift, and what makes In Paradise a masterpiece, is his finely tuned poet’s ear, which he situates like Tolstoy on firm moral ground.
In the book, Clements Olin, an American academic of blurry Polish origins, joins a meditation group of “over one hundred guests of Poland.” That is, rueful Poland. It is l996—they are to meet at the site of Auschwitz. Among the guests is a German woman who, for the first time, is shocked at being snubbed for her nationality; a Palestinian who has traveled all the way from the Middle East to pay his respects to the dead of Auschwitz-Birkenau; a German called Rainer who startles the guests by his determination to say Kaddish at the Black Wall, which he uses to apologize for his being so German; a defrocked monk and, of course, hippies.
On his way to the former death camp, Olin’s car breaks down. He is lost, cast out of Paradise, so to speak, but two young Poles, Wanda and Mirek, insist on giving him a lift to his destination. The couple—young, simpatico and typical of their age—know next to nothing about the Shoah. Ever the professor, Olin queries them as to their knowledge of prewar Oswiecim, a small, cheerful enclave with a significant Jewish population, near Auschwitz, that was famous for its hospitality. Olin continues: “Its name” may derive from a Yiddish word meaning “guests.”
“‘Yittish.’ Tasting the word, the girl [Wanda] gazes about her, lips parted. ‘Near this Oshpitzin I am borned.’” By coincidence so was the initially bad-humored Olin. Earlier Olin had abruptly accused his young Polish drivers of historic ignorance, asking Mirek if he had not known about the thousands of Jews slaughtered by the Poles after the war was over. Then he reminds himself that these kids had done nothing bad to him, they were not the cause of this once beautiful historic town being turned into a place of no history; indeed, they had been kind in going over 30 miles out of their way to steer him to his destiny.
Olin repeatedly says he has only come to this retreat as part of his research for a biography of Tadeusz Borowski, the Auschwitz survivor who turned his camp experiences into the 1959 short-story collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Borowski committed suicide at the age of 28 at the height of his success and just days after the birth of his daughter. Matthiessen uses the work of Holocaust writers as a sort of sacred text: Other Holocaust authors referenced in the novel include Aharon Appelfeld, Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi who also committed suicide, after he had received world renown.
Matthiessen is most haunted by the fate of the children: He writes: “Reading Borowski was Olin’s first exposure to the swarming scenes of terror on this platform, the howls of lost children running everywhere and nowhere ‘like wild dogs,’ the young mother so frantic to be spared that she forsakes the little boy calling Mama! Mama! who runs behind her (‘Oh no, sir! He’s not mine!’), casting away the last of her humanity for a few more hours of excruciating life. Who could bear the despair of that child, the cries of all those children being stripped of their brief moment on this earth, without suffering this urge that he feels now, a half century too late, to beat and kick those dolled-up SS pigs into a jelly.”
There was certainly no punishment right after the war: While covering the trial of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief known as “The Butcher of Lyon,” in 1987 in France, I came across this letter addressed to the court in the 1949 trial of Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Vichy France, but nothing was done about it at the time.
“…Where the named Barbie triumphantly announced that on April 6, 1944, 41 children from three to 13 years were captured…” These children plus thousands of others were thrown alive under the eyes of their mothers into the furnaces of the crematorium. During three years we were the victims and witnesses of the torture, and, by pure chance, survived our less fortunate comrades. We, gathered together in The Association Fraternelle of Drancy, consider it our duty to demand justice for them. We demand in the name of justice that those who were guilty of extermination and pillage without historic precedence, be brought to justice and punished. There will never be for us either defense or forgetting, and we will never cease to demand a punishment for those criminals commensurate to their crimes.
Please accept, my General, my most respectful wishes,
Henri Blaustin (translation mine)
I was a 19-year-old American girl when I saw Dachau two years after the war ended. I wrote about it in Arriving Where We Started. Sometimes I wish I had never gone. Instead of becoming dimmer, the images hardened in my brain. In In Paradise, Matthiessen describes an older Poland: the shabby countesses, Jews who have managed to become ex-Jews, rabbis, communists, name changes and thefts of valuable church art. Above all, there are the destroyed and dead children. There is the young boy who gets left behind on the docks of the dark night of the Danube when the Struma, an old scow that a group of escaping Jews have rented, does not stop for him. “Wait, Mama, it’s me!” A group of Roma take him in, and though he lost his mother’s face over the years, he has never forgotten those marks made by cheap eyeglasses. Years later, the adult “gypsy boy” sits alone on the bank of the river. “The light has vanished. With time gone utterly, he cannot know how long he may have been there. But in a while, as space and time regather, awareness comes that imminence is gone. Of those wild colors, only tints remain; the old church is left in medieval stillness to get on with its decay.”
Matthiessen concludes his anguished novel about loss—human loss: “A scary bang as the storm doors are thrown wide, and the world rushes in on gusts of weather. In the surging vestibule, amorphous figures in dark winter clothing mill and bump, pale faces blurred, half-hidden.”
“There you are, he thinks. The missing. The nearly forgotten.
In the wavering of candles he sits motionless, broken-brained and wholly brokenhearted.”
Barbara Probst Solomon is the editor-in-chief of The Reading Room, a literary magazine, and the author of five novels and many essays.
2014 pp. 256, $27.95