Reading Ka-Tzetnik is an unsettling, disturbing experience. Just as he employs a multitude of cliches and banalities when writing on normality, so, too, he shatters all the cliches and banalities about atrocity that we hold dear; just as he maintains the tone of a wide-eyed adolescent when describing love and friendship in conventional times, so, too, he uncovers with almost unequaled power and deeply troubling relish the seemingly unlimited human capacity, among victims and perpetrators alike, for betrayal and sadism, hate and perversity in the infernal regions of the Auschwitz. If the Nazis are always in the background of the evil he portrays, his attention is focused much more on the disintegration of even the most basic human relationships and moral codes among the inmates, the cruelty of the Kapos, the murderous instincts to which hunger, deprivation, and humiliation give rise, the fall of those who under other circumstances would have been the most admired members of a community. Few figures retain their humanity for long in his version of the camps, and the isolated figures that do so are quickly destroyed precisely because of their failure to adapt to that new and for them unacceptable world. Underlying his representation of the Holocaust, even if rarely asserted, is the assumption that only those who adapted by shedding their humanity, forsaking their loved ones, their faith, indeed leaving their old selves behind in the crematoria, had even the faintest chance of surviving. If in some of his writing he may be said to abuse the memory of the Holocaust by applying it to contemporary politics, and if his volumes have indeed been employed for that purpose by readers, critics, religious leaders, and politicians, the most crucial portions of the sextet constitute a complete rejection of this tendency to invoke the camps whenever their memory seems to serve present needs. If the Germans are for Ka-Tzetnik the personification of evil, they are also and simultaneously men just like ourselves; if the victims are for him the embodiment of suffering, they are also and at the same time (with few exceptions) the incarnation of human brutality and savagery; if love for him can surmount evil, it is also polluted by it and turns against itself. If revenge is a necessary condition to survive survival, then revenge means to him also playing into the hands of the Devil. If God had hidden his face from the Jews and can no longer be trusted, then God is also suffering the betrayal of man by man. And finally, if Auschwitz is another planet, then we are still living on that planet today, as Ka-Tzetnik ultimately argues after forty years of writing that culminate in a decade of slowly internalizing and unraveling the mystical visions he had experienced in the psychiatric lab in Leiden.
The Ka-Tzetnik that Israeli youth read in the first two decades of the state is very different from the Ka-Tzetnik/Dinur of the last two of decades. His is a slow and in many ways fascinating transformation, a voyage of revelation and understanding, an internal quest not wholly divorced (despite his personal abhorrence of public life) from contemporary affairs. To some extent, perhaps precisely because of his quasi-adolescent mind, his evolution is closely related to the changing images of the Holocaust among Israeli youth during the past fifty years. In the 1950s and 1960s the Holocaust was fascinating by its very destructiveness and cruelty, perversion and sadism; it had a powerfully liberating effect in that it allowed its (potential) victims to act in the world as if all their actions were a vicarious vendetta against the assassins of their people; it also made for some bizarre and disturbing tendencies toward identifying with the killers, wanting to be as cruel and efficient and even as dashing as they appeared to be in some youngsters’ imagination. In the last two decades, however, the Holocaust has been the site of an increasingly mythical and mystical view of Jewish history and faith. For some twenty years God seemed to have been banished from the world of Auschwitz, but then he began coming back, step by step, filling the voids that rational explanation and historical reconstruction had left behind. Contemporary extremists in Israel, some of whom come from the United States, were raised on a memory of the Holocaust that combines terror of destruction with an urge for revenge, mystical visions with a willingness for ruthless political and military action. This is a new type of instrumentalization of the Holocaust, whose roots can be traced in part to an eschatological frame of mind that was wholly foreign to the youth of pre-1967 Israel. It is, perhaps, the nemesis of God’s exile from the landscape of his people’s destruction for so many years. Ka-Tzetnik’s mysticism reflects this tendency, this search for answers that secular thinking failed to provide. But while his underlying political stance has been in favor of reconciliation, perhaps precisely because of his recognition of every man’s potential brutality, these young fanatics have retreated again into a narrow world of “us” against “them,” and a willingness to wreak destruction not only because of past crimes against their people but also because of God’s perceived sanction for such actions in the present. Yet for now such newly sanctified politicization of the Holocaust is a minority view among Israeli youths.
When Menachem Begin said in 1982 that, by fighting Yasir Arafat in Beirut, he was actually fighting Hitler in Berlin, what was most striking about that proclamation was not the fact that it was made but the rejection with which it was met by large sectors of Israeli society. This kind of politicization of the Holocaust was no longer universally acceptable, whereas in the 1950s there was no need for such pronouncements, since for most people it was self-evident that Israel’s enemies were Hitler’s allies and that the Jews in Israel were all potential victims of gas chambers. Moreover, as Israeli society opened up to the West and became exposed to increasingly graphic representations of sex and violence in the media, there was no longer a need to look for titillating scenes in Stalag pulp fiction or the explicit fantasies of a writer such as Ka-Tzetnik. By now Playboy magazine and pornographic videotapes could replace House of Dolls as the source of information for youths on matters their parents would not discuss with them and as a forbidden kind of entertainment.
This does not mean that the Holocaust has ceased to serve as a site for sexual titillation and pornographic representation, often clad in the respectable garment of historical novels or films and asserting special importance (while arousing greater interest) by dint of dealing with a “serious” topic. But this is a different matter that goes well beyond this discussion. Indeed, by now many Israelis watching such films or reading such novels will react in a not wholly dissimilar manner from, say, Americans or Germans, while very few readers would find Ka-Tzetnik particularly pornographic. At the same time, since we have recently been urged to consider the need for a more explicit language in historical writing on the Holocaust, we must note that such representations may well attract readers more interested in detailed descriptions of sadism and murder than in understanding their causes and motivations.
It is for this reason that the recent debate over Daniel J. Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners should have paid more attention to his assertion that he had provided the kind of “thick description” of the killers’ actions missing from previous historical monographs. Leaving aside the question of whether this was indeed such a scholarly innovation, and keeping in mind Ka-Tzetnik’s vivid accounts of his own experiences in Auschwitz, one might have asked to what extent the historian can faithfully provide such a description without filling the gaps in the available documentation by exercising his imagination beyond the bounds of scholarly writing. Put differently, might the historian be in danger of fantasizing about the events and protagonists he writes on and thereby distort the historical record in a manner that is acceptable perhaps for survivor-chroniclers such as Dinur but is far more perilous for those displaying scholarly credentials? What, for instance, are we to do with a scholarly work that not only vividly describes the horrible deaths of children but also speculates on what the perpetrators were thinking while they were doing the killing, neither of which can possibly be found in any documents nor, in this case, can be based on the writer’s personal experience, but must rather stem from his own (morbid) fantasies, which in turn would be at least partly influenced by televised, cinematic, and literary representations? And since fantasies of horror tend to find an audience, it is reasonable to assume that some of those who rushed to buy the book were curious to read precisely those “thick” descriptions of atrocities that, they had been told, were so much more “powerful” and “gripping” than the laborious interpretations of conventional historians. This is a disturbing thought, because it implies that what is most marketable about the Holocaust is its horror, and hence that the more one concentrates on horror the more one is likely to appear to be engaged in a sincere attempt to expose “what actually happened,” and at the same time to achieve commercial success. This of course should not come as a great surprise to any Hollywood producer who has made his millions through blockbuster horror films.
Moreover, anyone who has followed the flood of reviews of Goldhagen’s book, especially but not exclusively in Germany, might have noticed that they were often accompanied by photographic evidence from the Holocaust. And although there are thousands upon thousands of available photographs, only a few of them tend to appear over and over again: a child with raised hands threatened by an armed German soldier, naked women running to their deaths, a Jew having his beard shorn by laughing soldiers, a mound of skeletal corpses. These are the most common images of the Holocaust, and one must stop and wonder how these images are interpreted by those who see them repeatedly reprinted in newspapers and magazines, no matter what the text actually argues. These photographs are a celebration of inhumanity, degradation, horror, and pornography. Repeated exposure to them in the mass media may have consequences well beyond this or that thesis on the causes and course of the Holocaust, for what remains in the mind are images, and those images are the ones that the Nazis had wished us to have.
This brings me back to Ka-Tzetnik. If explicit, quasi-pornographic representations of brutality and sadism in the Holocaust do indeed attract readers, how is it that Ka-Tzetnik never even came close to the kind of sale figures reached almost overnight by Goldhagen? To my mind, the answer lies in the final lines cited above from The Code, which, although they contradict his earlier description of Auschwitz as another planet (akin to Goldhagen’s argument of Germany as a “radically different culture” to be approached “with the critical eye of an anthropologist disembarking on unknown shores”), were in fact all along the crucial subtext of his representation of the concentrationary universe. For from the very first volume, Ka-Tzetnik insists that under such conditions all human beings become savages and yet that all savages are human. That the Germans are out to kill the Jews is of course a given; but that the Jews and other non-Jewish inmates incessantly brutalize each other, that all members of that universe—with very few exceptions—are ultimately reduced to the level of potential murderers, is an insight that is difficult to bear. Pornography may be attractive, violence may be fascinating, but lack of boundaries and loss of control is dangerous and threatening. No one wants to think of himself or herself as an SS guard sending people to the gas chambers with an early morning yawn. It is much easier, indeed, almost comforting, to read about brutalities with the certainty that those who inflict them are essentially different from us (and that we are also no longer in danger of being brutalized by “such” types). Even young contemporary Germans, the so-called third generation, who are reported to have received Goldhagen’s book with particular enthusiasm, can read about what other Germans perpetrated fifty years ago and feel personally safe from similar murderous urges and fantasies thanks to their chronological distance from these events (as well as to the fact that Goldhagen himself had absolved postwar Germans of antisemitism, to his mind the primary motivation of the Holocaust).
Curiously, it was only in pre-1967 Israel that Ka-Tzetnik was widely read, and then, as I have noted, mostly for the wrong reasons. This is a sad statement on the ability to represent the Holocaust in historiography, fiction, or personal memoirs. Nevertheless, in the long run one must credit Ka-Tzetnik/Dinur with a tremendous achievement, whose ultimate peak was reached in the last volume of the sextet, after forty years of solitary struggle. To have transcended his own vision of another planet and applied it to our own could have only been possible after an inner conflict of indescribable pain and suffering. But for us its importance lies in the fact that it casts a different light on his whole oeuvre by making us read this final conclusion back all the way into his first lines. Those who wish, and are able, to read hundreds of pages of thick descriptions on the anus mundi that was Auschwitz must add this sextet to their lists, perhaps even put it on top of everything else. And those who are unhappy with simplistic and banal interpretations of the Holocaust must make the effort to plunge into these harrowing, uneven, at times frustrating, even outrageous, but ultimately extraordinary volumes.
In late 1993 the seventy-six-year-old Yehiel Dinur surreptitiously took a rare copy of his first published work, his 1931 volume of poetry, from the National Library in Jerusalem, and a few days later he sent its burned remains back to the director of the library with the request to complete the task of burning all the “remnants” of the book “just as all that was dear to me and my world was burned in the crematoria of Auschwitz.” By this act Dinur seems to have expressed the wish to reverse Adorno’s dictum, itself by now a cliche, that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism. For Dinur, it was poetry written before Auschwitz that was barbarism (and it was his poetry that he had a right, indeed a duty, to burn). The world that had existed before the great conflagration had no right of expression any longer, and whatever remnants of it were still scattered in the world must be destroyed.
This is a dark, almost nihilistic vision of our time. But there is a truth in it that we ignore at our peril. For Auschwitz is a mirror in which the history of our century is reflected. It is by no means the only mirror, and we may well prefer other, more elevating sights. Not all that had existed before Auschwitz was leading to the crematoria, nor everything created after Auschwitz is polluted by it. But in this post-Auschwitz world we can no longer view the civilization that produced the Holocaust in the same manner: we cannot and must not consign Auschwitz to another planet, nor perceive the perpetrators as a different species. If Dinur’s act was characteristically juvenile and bombastic, it just as typically implied a profound insight that most of us would like to avoid: that when we look in the mirror of the Holocaust, we see our own reflection.