THE LITERATURE of the Holocaust is now so vast, varied and thorough that there would seem to be little if anything left to say on the subject; yet recent evidence indicates that it is far from exhausted. Aharon Appelfeld's new novel, The Age of Wonders, is a fresh reminder that the great and terrible themes raised by the Holocaust have only begun to yield the possibilities they offer to the writer of fiction. The photographs collected in The Auschwitz Album adds yet another chapter to the long tale of individual suffering, courage and survival.
It is the story of a woman named Kitty Felix. For many years she has lived in England, where she is married to a man named Ralph Hart; she has raised two sons and made a career for herself in physiotherapy. But in 1939, as a very young teenager, she lived in a completely different world, a Polish town called Bielsko: "The town was small but thriving, thanks largely to its textile industry, and was set in the most beautiful countryside. Shielded from winds by that mountain range, we had lovely hot summers and cold but dry and sunny winters. The view from my bedroom window was of a peak 3,000 feet high, and when the sun fell on it there was a glittering reflection from the windows of the tourist hut at the top."
The Felix family was prosperous--her father ran the family's agricultural-supply business--and largely unaffected by anti-Semitism; Kitty attended a Catholic school, along with many other Jewish girls. So when the wave of anti-Semitic poison swept into town it came as a shattering blow. Within weeks the family was uprooted; its retreat into the ghettos of Lublin was the first step on a journey that would not end until 1946, when Kitty and her mother emigrated to England as Displaced Persons.
It is a story of survival. A young girl, brought up in privileged and cultured circumstances, is suddenly forced to adapt herself to the law of the jungle: "It was now that I began to understand how much like an animal a human being is. You have to be, in time of stress. Basic animal requirements are food, sleep, and the ability to excrete. Everything else is a bonus. Nobody who has not been on the run across hostile countryside, then driven to exhaustion as a slave laborer, then bullied and driven close to death in an extermination camp, hungry for months on end--so hungry that most of the time it is impossible to think of anything else--can know how trivial everything else is."
The desperate race against despair and death that began in Lublin took Kitty Felix on a strange, nightmarish odyssey. The family split after several months; her brother joined the underground and her father separated himself from Kitty and her mother, arguing that they stood a better chance without him. For a time they passed as gentiles and worked at an I.G. Farben industrial plant in Germany, where Kitty had a clerical job. But soon enough they and several other women were identified as Jews and put on a train for a place called Auschwitz:
"Mother and I were puzzled by this name. We both knew it as the German translation of Oswiecim, a small town in the lowlands some 30 miles north of our home at Bielsko. It stood in a swamp area beside a tributary of the river Vistula, and apart from fishing it had little to commend it. What could anyone be doing up there?"
They found out soon enough. That either of them survived this long, merciless incarceration is remarkable; that both of them survived is simply miraculous. Their chief assets were intelligence, cunning and fortitude. Kitty quickly realized that "there was a lot to learn, and survival depended on it." The basic lesson was that you could never relax: "You had to be on your guard, thinking 'I must get over there . . . mustn't stay here . . .' You had to sense from which direction trouble was coming, and make sure you weren't on the scene when it arrived. That was the key to survival: to be somewhere else . . . to be invisible."
For a time Kitty was only dimly aware of what was happening at Auschwitz. But then she was moved to a section known as Kanada Kommando, "after that far- off country which for some reason was associated with all the riches the heart could desire"; this was where the clothes and possessions of newly arrived victims were sorted and dispersed. The section was near the gas chambers and crematoria, and it was here that the full truth of Auschwitz descended on Kitty:
"It was no longer possible to pretend even to yourself that the stories were not really true, could not conceivably be true. All that we had heard and guessed was now here before our eyes, Here were the death factories. In daytime I heard the regular thuds coming from that attractive white house into which people were ushered one at a time with the assurance that they were to be disinfected--thuds which marked successive shots into the head as victims filed through. And day in, day out, we watched the procession towards the gas chambers and heard the screams, and day and night smelt the crematoria as they labored to keep up with the increasing tempo of incoming transports."
As the Russians closed in from the East and the Americans from the West, the pace of the slaughter intensified; an amazed Kitty realized that the Nazis were more interested in the extermination of the Jews than in their owm defense, as they committed men to Auschwitz who were desperately needed at the front. Mysteriously, though, the Nazis did not kill Kitty, her mother or the other members of a band of 100 women whom they led out of Auschwitz on a long "death march." That trek ended in the town of Salzwedel, where American troops freed the women--who went on an orgy of destruction, ransacking the town. There came a moment when Kitty found herself in a basement, confronting a terrified family:
"All at once I knew I couldn't throw the knife or drive it into any of these people. If I committed murder, the S.S. would have succeeded. They would have made me like them. All these years my mind had disobeyed everything they tried to inflict on it. I couldn't let them win now. Someone from behind tried to grab the dagger. I clutched it more tightly. Then I threw it as hard as I could away from the petrified family, deep into a door. I sank to the floor, sobbing.
" 'It's no good, I can't do it. I just can't, do you hear?' "
Some readers no doubt will object to this scene--arguably it is the climax of the book--as too pat and predictable. Yet it is given weight by everything that precedes it, and any suggestion of false piety that the reader may sense is eradicated by the author's subsequent admission that in Auschwitz she lost her "belief in a loving God." She arrived at her refusal to murder through terrible experience, not by contrivance.
Return to Auschwitz ends with Kitty Hart making an emotional visit to the concentration camp, as part of a television film made about her incarceration. There she recalls the friendships and the intimate, naked human ties that enabled her and others to survive, that gave them strength to resist the S.S. and to help each other. She closes by saying:
"While being interviewed . . . I said something which later sounded strange to my own ears. I declared that I thought the experience had been worthwhile. This was not at all what I meant. No horror and such slaughter of innocents could ever in any sense have been worthwhile. What I was trying to convey, and what I say now, is that if such a terrible thing had to happen, or was allowed by human negligence and human wickedness to happen, then personally I would sooner have gone through it than not gone through it. But I would not wish that anyone in the world should ever have to suffer such agonies again."
It is testimony to the integrity and clarity of this memoir that this assertion is entirely believableio; not merely does Kitty Hart make real the horror of Auschwitz, but she persuades us that her journey through it had a certain moral necessity. Return to Auschwitz is a powerful, intelligent and clear-eyed document.