Professor D. Olin Clements (What does the “D” stand for and what is the ultimate implication of the name?), born in Poland, but raised in America, is doing research for a monograph he is writing. He returns to Poland, a place he left as a child, and spends time at a retreat in a former concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is an outsider, attending with a group of people who have come from many countries, representing many religions, many opinions, many memories, a half century after the war’s end, to bear witness and honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
Each attendee was affected by the war in different ways, and soon, as they interact and speak about their experiences disharmony develops, and they begin to snipe at, and taunt each other, slinging insults and even questioning the right of some to share their stories, questioning their reasons for attending the retreat, questioning their self-righteousness, even the genuineness of their shame and their guilt for having survived the war. Often it was because they participated, “only following orders”, or were more aggressive as prisoners, or ignored the plight of those who were made to suffer, those who were uprooted, robbed of everything they ever had, not only of their belongings and their heritage, but of every living soul ever known to them, as well. Did they deserve the right to even attend the retreat, holding services in the mess hall and the residences and on the platforms used by the SS? Were they trying to obtain forgiveness for themselves rather than honor the memory of those that they, in their silence and acquiescence, helped lead to the slaughter. Was the escapee justified when his escape resulted in reprisals that caused the death of other innocent victims? Was his life worth the death of so many others?
They performed their services to the memories of those who died, in the shadow of the place the barracks once stood, in the shadow of the crematoria where the ghosts of the victims may still loiter, in the shadow of the overcrowded platforms that echo with the sound of the barking dogs and the German soldiers screaming Raus, Raus at the teeming masses of prisoners as they worked to accomplish Hitler’s Final Solution.
The novel is extremely blunt and outspoken. The conversations and confessions of the attendees more clearly express the horror than a simple narrative would do. In Poland, even after the war, in the effort to make the country Judenrein, the Poles, who swore they knew nothing, murdered an additional 2000 returning Jews, so that today, there are far less still living there. From 4 million, of which 3 million were murdered, there are approximately 25,000 souls today. Could those who participated, in any way at all, ever be forgiven? Could future generations ever be forgiven? Should anyone ever forget the sadistic monsters that planned, participated in and rejoiced in the prospect of a country that was Judenrein? The age old question is also, should they be forgiven or forgotten at all?
The author does not attempt to reconcile or justify any part of the Holocaust, rather he seems to be exploring the possibility of understanding it, from the point of view of the witnesses,, via confession and absolution. The hard, sharp edges that surround the border of hate and distrust, fear and resentment, jealousy and greed, are exposed. Because the information is presented in an uninhibited, raw manner, making it hard to read and absorb, at times, the information that has been presented countless times before, seems almost new again.
Clements discovers secrets about his past as he interacts with the other members of the retreat. He is descended from the aristocracy and did not realize that he had more in common with others who bore witness than he could ever have imagined. Do his ancestors bear any guilt, and if they do, does he by proxy? Having recently read “The Storyteller”, by Jodi Picoult, which has at its heart, the same theme concerning the Holocaust, I thought that this story felt more authentic and genuine. Using the same kinds of characters as Picoult did, coming from all walks of life, the Rabbinate, the Church, the atheist, Mattheissen approaches it without the artifice of a sexually charged love story, although there is a theme of self-discovery with thoughts about a forbidden romance. Every aspect of emotion behind the genocide is exposed and worked through by the characters, brutally and vigorously, laying bare the wounds and scars remembered, and yet the novel is not very long.
The Shoah can never be justified or excused, it can only be memorialized in the hope that it will never recur. Anti-Semitism still exists. It exists between Jew and Jew, Christian and Jew, Muslim and Jew. It is perpetuated by hateful teaching in homes and in schools and in houses of worship. It is handed down like a legacy from family to family. I felt that the more explanations were offered, the more questions were raised. What do sanctuaries provide for the dead victims? What do memorial services offer to the survivors? The only service the retreat and study of the Holocaust seems to provide, is a possible road to some kind of acceptance of the fact that the horror occurred, that we have to move on, but that we cannot forget, that we must always actively try to prevent this abominable anomaly from ever occurring again, anywhere. Many others suffered besides Jews, the Holocaust does not belong to them, although they have claimed it, but it destroyed the bulk of Jews, fully half their numbers, so systematically, so heartlessly, so sadistically, that it is not easily explained, understood or excused, rather it defies any sane explanation. This is a hard book to absorb, but I found it worthwhile.