The Survivor

How Do You Write About the Holocaust?

The 82-year-old historian Otto Dov Kulka has spent his life studying Nazism and the Holocaust, but how can one ever fully capture the horrors of the death camps? Ilana Bet-El on Kulka’s exquisite approach of rendering childhood memories, invented languages, recurring dreams, found poems, and ghostly photographs, to build a whole city of death.

05.05.13 8:45 AM ET

Otto Dov Kulka was a child in Auschwitz, and survived. He became a professor of modern Jewish history, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and spent a lifetime establishing the truth through the study of factual documents. But Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is a work of inner truth, depicted through images, memories, and feelings. It is thus pervaded by a sense of paradox: a meticulous historian reflecting upon the intangible;  a collection of exquisite, often individual pieces about a single harsh event, and a very readable book about an unimaginable event. Above all, this is a book that enriches the reader, to an extent much belied by its slim appearance.

Born in Prague in 1931 to an intellectual middle-class Jewish family, Kulka was sent in 1941 with his mother to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It was a beautified camp the Nazis used to dupe international visitors and officials. In September 1943 Kulka and his mother were transferred to Auschwitz, as part of a group of 5,000 Jews. To their own astonishment, the Theresienstadt Jews were kept together in a separate camp. They were allowed to keep their clothes, their hair, and mostly run their own affairs.

Kulka thus lived in a “family camp” in Auschwitz. Indeed, there was even a family reunion: Otto Dov’s father, the historian and writer Erich Kulka, had been arrested by the Gestapo upon the outbreak of war in 1939, and sent to Auschwitz in 1941. He established contact with his wife and son as soon as they arrived there too.

But in March 1944, nearly the entire group of 5,000 from Theresienstadt were liquidated. They were sent to the gas chambers and burned in the crematoria in one night. Otto Dov Kulka and his mother were among the handful that survived: he happened to be hospitalized that night, and she was with him. It was an amazing escape, thanks to an event of chance.

They were moved into the main camp. Those fit to work were allowed to live; all others were destined to die. His mother was in the first group, and was sent to a work camp in northern Germany. Otto Dov was in the second, clearly marked for death. But then a small number of youths were chosen for various jobs in the main camp, and Otto Dov was one of them. It was another amazing escape, thanks to a second event of chance.

When the camp was destroyed in January 1945, the remaining Jews were forced on a death march. Kulka and his father survived. His mother did not. Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is both a contemplation of these facts and a reflection upon living with them for decades.

‘Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination’ by Otto Dov Kulka, translated by Ralph Mandel. 144 pp. Belknap Press. $24.

Otto Dov Kulka the historian spent a life studying Nazism and the Holocaust, careful to leave his own emotions and experiences to one side. But Kulka recorded his memories privately on tape and in a diary. This book is based on these personal documents, but it would not have been possible without Kulka’s professional background. Underpinning every page is a sense of the historian ruefully shaking his head over the power of memory. In the last chapter the historian conquers: it is Professor Kulka’s academic paper on the Auschwitz family camp. (Both Otto Dov and Erich Kulka testified at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials that convicted a number of the death camp’s war criminals.)

The adult Kulka attempts to come to terms with his memories, but at the heart of the book is the child Kulka. It is he who experienced the events, and he invented his own language in his dreams of the camp. It was his Auschwitz, in the way he lived it and understood it, as a child. He knew that death was the only certainty in the camp—“the immutable law of death,” as he puts it—but he ultimately survived, twice, through chance. The adult relives the death and the survival repeatedly, seemingly unable to accept that he was exempted from the overriding logic of Auschwitz. “However much I know that I must be caught,” Kulka writes, “I always know, too, that I must be spared.” It is the dialogue between the child and the man that makes this volume so compelling.

There is often an unspoken trade-off in Holocaust books. We are curiously reading about the horrors, but we are also providing the service of remembrance. But Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is a very different kind of Holocaust book. There is no blatant horror. Kulka imparts the unspeakable crimes through beautiful little segments of dreams and imagination. There are three poems, published here for the first time, from an unknown young woman who thrust them into the hands of a Kapo as she went into the gas chamber. The Kapo gave them to Kulka’s father. And throughout the pages there are photographs of the past and the present, the people and the places. In just 144 pages a vast emotional terrain is revealed, and made real. It is a metropolis of death, as lived throughout a life.