The dreamy land­scape of a young writer’s Auschwitz

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Books - NOR­MAN RAVVIN

There is room – even great need – for imag­i­na­tion in re­sponse to the events of the Holo­caust. Each reader and writer stands in a par­tic­u­lar place with re­gard to the events of the war, and each writer of fic­tion with­out ac­tual mem­ory of that time must re­sort to re­search and imag­ined wartime sce­nar­ios to suit their par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary choices.

Affinity Konar sets the stakes high in her re­cent novel Mis­chling. Its fo­cus is a lit­tlewrit­ten-about sub­ject, though she ex­plores what was a wide­spread phe­nom­e­non in Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camps: pseudo-ex­per­i­ments on hu­mans un­der the guise of racial sci­ence or mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tions. She chooses as her lone Ger­man ac­tor Josef Men­gele, who ar­rived at Auschwitz as a 32-year-old in the spring of 1943 and at­tained the rank of se­nior SS physi­cian at Birke­nau.

If there is one thing peo­ple know about Men­gele it is that he es­caped cap­ture at the end of the war. This is one of the painful fail­ures of the Al­lies’ post­war ef­forts to meet Ger­man crimes with jus­tice and pun­ish­ment.

Konar presents Men­gele’s es­cape as be­gin­ning with “trans­fer to Gross-rosen, and then a flight into Rosen­heim, where he found work as a farm­hand, sep­a­rat­ing the good pota­toes from the bad pota­toes, putting them into neat lit­tle piles for the farmer’s in­spec­tion, be­fore set­tling into the ease of his fi­nal hide­out in Brazil, where he wrote his mem­oirs and lis­tened to mu­sic and swam in the sea.”

The United States Holo­caust Mu­seum tells this fi­nal chap­ter some­what dif­fer­ently, in­clud­ing the fact that the Amer­i­cans held Men­gele as a pris­oner for a short time, unaware of his true iden­tity, and re­leased him in 1945.

Even those well read in Holo­caust his­tory and lit­er­a­ture likely know lit­tle about Men­gele’s ac­tiv­i­ties at Auschwitz. In the mem­oirs of ma­jor Holo­caust sur­vivor-writ­ers he is of­ten placed on the ramp, over­see­ing se­lec­tions upon the ar­rival of trans­ports from across Europe; and his SS co­hort took note of his de­vo­tion to this role. Th­ese re­ports con­trib­ute to an in­flu­en­tial myth associated with Men­gele – his unique­ness, his sta­tus in the camp as a kind of “an­gel of death,” a moniker Konar places in the thoughts of her imag­i­nary Jewish in­mates of Auschwitz.

Cur­sory read­ing of his­tory al­lows us to punch at the myth, how­ever hap­less such ef­forts prove to be long af­ter the end of the war. “Hu­man ex­per­i­ments” in the pur­suit of “racial sci­ence,” or mil­i­tary con­sid­er­a­tions re­gard­ing Ger­man wounded, took place at nu­mer­ous con­cen­tra­tion camps. At Dachau, the ear­li­est of camps, SS medics ap­plied ex­treme air pres­sure, icy wa­ter, and ex­treme cold on land, mostly to Pol­ish in­mates. At Ravens­bruck, in­mates – in many cases young women – were ex­per­i­mented on sur­gi­cally and in­fected with bac­te­ria in the pur­suit of would-be cures for gan­grene. At Auschwitz, dozens of SS doc­tors car­ried out a range of ex­per­i­ments, of­ten seek­ing their vic­tims among the women’s camp at Birke­nau and doc­u­ment­ing out­comes us­ing the pho­to­graphic re­sources em­ployed at Auschwitz to reg­is­ter in­mates.

Men­gele’s par­tic­u­lar mania for en­forced suf­fer­ing was di­rected at twins. His­to­ri­ans be­lieve as many as 1,000 twins be­tween the age of 2 and 16 were in­fected with ill­nesses and sur­gi­cally tor­tured with­out the use of anes­thet­ics. This fas­ci­na­tion with twins pre­ceded Men­gele’s time at Auschwitz, hav­ing played a part in Ger­man racial pseudo-sci­ence among fac­ulty at univer­sity med­i­cal de­part­ments.

This his­tor­i­cal frame­work is not a part of Konar’s fic­tional tableau; nei­ther is a de­tailed por­trait of Men­gele’s back­ground or per­sonal in­cli­na­tions. He, like other key as­pects of Mis­chling, is pre­sented as part of a dream land­scape, some­times evoked by key mo­tifs – his way with a smile, ob­jects he trea­sured, his in­ter­ac­tion with sub­or­di­nates in the in­fir­mary – so that the man re­mains a mythic fig­ure, a prac­ti­tioner of cru­elty who might be an “an­gel of death.”

Mis­chling has at its core the story of twin girls, Stasha and Pearl, who ar­rive at Auschwitz in 1944 and re­main trapped by Men­gele’s ex­per­i­ments un­til the Rus­sian lib­er­a­tion of the camp. This event in­tro­duces one of the novel’s rare uses of con­crete his­tor­i­cal de­tail in its oth­er­wise vaguely sketched por­trait of 1940s Poland. The sur­viv­ing twins are pic­tured among the chil­dren who were brought out to the camp fence by Rus­sian nurses to be filmed for Soviet news­reel cam­eras. Stills from this footage be­came iconic images of the Ger­man war against the Jews.

Pearl, hav­ing been re­leased from the ru­ined camp in­fir­mary, en­coun­ters the Rus­sian cam­era and its sub­jects: “pris­on­ers, tiny lit­tle pris­on­ers whom the Rus­sians had dressed in the gray-striped, vo­lu­mi­nous uni­forms of adults for the at­mo­spheric pur­poses of their film.”

This is a rare pas­sage in the novel linked to rec­og­niz­able his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion. Large swaths of Mis­chling are strangely fan­tas­tic. Once Stasha and a coun­ter­part leave Auschwitz as part of the death march fa­mously pre­sented in Elie Wiesel’s Night, they em­bark on what reads like an ad­ven­ture out of Grimms’ fairy tales. A horse car­ries them over the war-torn Pol­ish coun­try­side, and they nar­rowly es­cape the threat of death in scenes that are rem­i­nis­cent of the re­venge-nar­ra­tives found in films like Quentin Tarantino’s In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds.

The de­ci­sion to write this way may have to do with Konar’s imag­ined au­di­ence. Her style echoes the kind of story-telling found in The Boy in the Striped Pa­ja­mas and in films like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beau­ti­ful, which leaven Holo­caust ex­pe­ri­ence with a kind of child­like hu­mour meant to of­fer respite from a bru­tal con­text. The con­clud­ing pages of Mis­chling read like chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, but they could, in their fan­ci­ful tone, be about al­most any­thing: “With the ru­ins be­hind, dis­tant vil­lages floated be­fore us. On horse­back, we picked our way across the puddles of black pock­ing the white, Horse sink­ing mid­step into le­sions of mud . . . . ”

When Pearl ar­rives in newly-lib­er­ated Krakow, un­til re­cently the mil­i­tary head­quar­ters of Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Poland, the an­cient city presents it­self as some­thing out of Alice in Won­der­land: “Here and there you’d see a sud­den flut­ter of cur­tains – you could see fin­gers ap­pear at the edge of the lace, and it was as if ev­ery adult had turned into a child in a game of hide-and-seek.”

Some­times a sin­gle sen­tence lurks in a care­fully worked-out nar­ra­tive and presents it­self as a thread a reader might pull to un­cover a book’s un­con­scious life. Pearl’s mus­ings about the newly lib­er­ated city of child­like Poles is in­dica­tive of Mis­chling’s own goals.

The book imag­ines a Holo­caust land­scape that is purely made up, far from the life of wartime events them­selves, all the while bent on of­fer­ing up a style of writ­ing that ex­hibits no­table flair in re­sponse to things that might be said to be at the ab­so­lute bot­tom of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and ac­tion. The out­come is strangely dis­con­cert­ing, but, cer­tainly, a strain in re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Holo­caust fic­tion.

Mis­chling, by Affinity Konar. Ran­dom House

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