IT'S LIKE PHOTOGRAPHING the sun -- some events are so over-whelming they can only be viewed through filters.
The more successful fiction about the Holocaust works by indirection. Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird isn't even about the camps. It is about a wild boy surviving in a devastated world. But no one ever had to ask what it was about. (Whatever did happen to those babies pushed out through the slats of the cattle cars bound for Auschwitz?)
The novels of Elie Wiesel and Arnost Lustig are almost unbearably laconic, perhaps because both authors -- as death camp survivors -- understand the basic dilemma: how to speak of the unspeakable without reducing it to the merely terrible.
It is impossible to grasp the full reality of 6 million murders, and that is why the TV show Holocaust failed as art: not simply that its creators didn't understand this, but that they didn't understand that they didn't understand.
Now a 40-year-old American, Leslie Epstein, has written a novel of the Holocaust, King of the Jews . It may prove the most successful of all, not just because it is indirect, but because it manages, incredibly, to place the experience in the context of written Jewish tradition.
Writing in the manner of the old Jewish storytellers, Epstein dares to be funny: it is the mordant humor that has always been the visible rage of those who are forbidden to show their rage. He writes of I. C. Trumpelman, the leader of a Polish ghetto, who in the hope of saving Jewish lives becomes a dictator.
Just as Alain Resnais in Night and Fog reminded us that the camps had to be designed by someone and contracted for and built by someone and supplied by someone, so Epstein reminds us that it was the Jews themselves selves who helped the Nazis with their Selection.
The nightmare begins gradually. A Judenrat is set up, a council of leaders to govern the community. All the Jews in town are confined to a ghetto. Then the census:
"'At least if there's a Judenrat to make a list, there will be exemptions. No one under 15 or over 60. And no one who's sick. To let children work in the river, to let sick people carry stones -- it's the same thing as murder. Murder! Listen! Either we have the courage to make this census or it will be made for us, according to whim, to passion, to chance! We have to do what we can! No one wants to be on the Council? Trumpelman will run! He's not afraid to dirty his hands!'"
Slowly, slowly, the net is drawn tighter. Trumpelman's power becomes absolute, even to special currency with his picture on it, even to his own police force. The quotas begin: first 50 Jews, then 100, then 1,000 a week -- "'for a farming project. Light work. In the open air. There will be meat to eat and vegetables and dairy products. All the Jewish Council must do is draw up a list of names.'"
They tell themselves it could be true. They tell themselves they will all be relocated in Madagascar after the war. They see the cattle cars going away full of people and coming back empty, the people's clothes coming back without the people in them.
A boy actually steals out of the ghetto, tracks down the deportees to a place where they are stripped and jammed into a yellow bus with its wheels up on chocks and its engine laboring. He sees the people being carried out dead. And be brings the word back to Trumpelman, who says:
"'What if it's true? What do you want the Elder to do? To announce it? What suffering then! What a massacre!
It's better if they think they're going to a farm.'"
The word Nazi never appears in this book. Hitler is not mentioned -- only a farcical figure named Horowitz. History has been turned into, not merely fiction, but myth. Legend. A Yiddish folktale.
"That nitespot was not then as famous as it later became. Trumpelman took a table at the back. He ate a beefsteak and drank a clear liqueur. He bought four cigarettes. A thin comedian, losing his hair, told a number of jokes. About the Jew and the bathtub. About the landowner and the crow. Then a woman with black bangs and painted lips began to sing songs.... The singer pinned the rose to her waist, just above the split in her tight, gleaming gown. Then she blew that patron a kiss. It was in this manner that I. C. Trumpelman celebrated his 49th birthday."
It could be Sholem Aleichem.
Its flat, declarative sentences mask their fury with quiet irony, as straight-faced as a prisoner whose captor had just accused him of impudence.
Trumpelman says, "'I am the lion tamer. I stuff his mouth with meat! It's the flesh of my own brothers and sisters! The lion eats and eats! He roars! But he does not spring. Thus, with ten Jews, I save a hundred. With a hundered, I save a thousand. With a thousand, ten thousand more. My hands are bloody. My feet are bloody. My eyes are closed with blood. If your hands are clean, it's because mine are dirty!'"
An astonishing accomplishment, King of the Jews .