THE UNLOVED: From the Diary of Perla S. By Arnost Lustig. Translated from the Czech By Vera Kalina-Levine. Arbor House. 196 pp. $14.95.awrence L. Langer
SURVIVOR OF Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, novelist and short-story writer Arnost Lustig writes about the Holocaust experience with a modest authority that is virtually unique among his peers. An earlier novel, Darkness Casts No Shadow, about two young boys who escape from a transport from Buchenwald to Dachau, and a collection of stories set in Theresienstadt, Night and Hope, have been reissued by Northwestern University Press. The most recent of Lustig's works to be translated, The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S., can only add to the stature of an author still not well-enough known for his contributions to Holocaust literature.
Lustig's genius lies in his ability to understate themes and situations which cry out for melodramatic treatment. Perla S. is a 17- year-old Jewish girl turned prostitute as a means of survival, who is quartered in an attic of one of the buildings in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Grim details of existence there infiltrate her diary entries as casually as the items she receives in exchange for her sexual favors, although some apparently visit her simply for a few moments of human intimacy.
One of these, old man O., is a painter, whom Perla describes with a few deft verbal strokes that nearly pass by the careless or innocent reader: "He's got mutilated fingers; they were scorched off at the Little Fortress because he had painted what he had seen,what his interrogation officer called Greuel Geschichten, horror stories." Were it not for details like these, we might not at first know where we are, since Little Fortress (the notorious kleine Festung at Theresienstadt) and interrogation officer awaken few echoes of atrocity for the uninformed. Horror stories are on the periphery of this fiction, in the future, toward the east, the fate of those who have gone, not the history of those who remain.
How does the reader learn about this? Together with Perla, who gradually pieces together her doom and that of her fellow Jews. She discovers, as we do, that deportation signifies more than resettlement. But the truth encroaches slowly, as it must have for the victims too. One might expect such revelations to be devastating; but in fact, as one of Perla's friends admits, they quickly seem to belong "to the normal course of things, just as much as the fact that the earth turns or that the sun rises and sets again." Part of the emotional intensity of the narrative derives from the clinical detachment with which the potential victims themselves discuss the prospects of surival.
Those prospects are not promising, and Lustig has invented some ingenious strategies for drawing his readers into the orbit of atrocity without drowning them in a language of passionate outrage. One of the Jewish camp inmates has adapted the game of Monopoly from the ideals of capitalists enterprise to the goals of the Final Solution. The instructions on one card read "Dispatch without delay two thousand stinking Jews to shovel snow at Ruynze Airport," and on another: "Return your money, bonds, jewels, watches and engagement rings to the bank, pick up a receipt, and wait to be called to a transport."
SLOWLY but insistently, the details in Perla's entries transform before our eyes memories of normal pleasures into auguries of abnormal death. The Holocaust redefines everything. Recording a dialogue with her closest friend, Perla admits that she no longer perceives light and dark as she once did. "Nowadays," she confesses, "I'm beset by dread when night sets in . . . I no longer regard darkness as more than just light, as I did back home." Perla thinks often of "back home," but since all her family members have already been deported to the east, the memories associated with it constitute roughly amputated fragments of a vanished past.
As the teen-age diarist expands her entries, she rapidly matures, turns reflective, and meditates challengingly on the implications of her experience. She decides to gather the last words everyone spoke just before leaving on a transport for the east, only to discover how trivial and unmemorable they were. She imagines proceedings against God, who for everything He has permitted, is condemned to become a man. She sets the fate of the Jews into a cosmic context: "Isn't the memory of people in fact something akin to the light of the stars that long ago became extinct?" Early in her diary Perla had written that life in Theresienstadt was not a choice between good and bad, but worse and worst, still preserving a minimal moral terminology. Much later, in a dream, she acknowledges that the only option now remains surviving or not surviving, with no assurance that actions based on these alternatives will be permanently successful.
One of Perla's clients is a Luftwaffe officer, who unconcernedly describes to her in vivid detail what awaits her at Auschwitz. Her response to the officer, once more effectively understated, is the dramatic climax of the novel. After that, Perla must confront her fate. She feels the temporary shame of children surviving their parents, but more profoundly, the shame that comes from "the impossibility of sparing someone from things he ought to be spared from." She envies the rat, who shares her garret with her, because rats don't worry about tomorrow. But in her last entry, she internalizes the people "who have gone away, are going, and are still to go." This is her final human gesture, though it leads to emptiness, terror, and an unredeemable grief.
Lustig's novel in the form of a diary provides an uncompromising vision of the small consolations and large fears that constitute daily existence in Theresienstadt. Through the sensibilities of its young Jewish protagonist, it gives us access to the inner lives of the victims as no history could possibly do.