Cast in an affectless narrative voice, The Last Jew of Treblinka, written in 1945, is one of the rare first-hand responses to incarceration in Treblinka. Because Treblinka was solely designed to be a death camp, it had far fewer survivors than concentration camps or work camps. Its business was strictly annihilation. We learn from Rajchman about the ruthless efficiency of what can only be called a death factory. The Nazi war machine engineered assembly-line techniques to transport, confine, torture, gas, and then bury and/or incinerate its victims. Those in charge regularly explored refinements in efficiency, even as their underlings gleefully satisfied unfathomably sadistic longings.Overwhelming deprivation and constant torture was the lot of the Jewish inmates who were forced to participate as laborers. Rajchman joined a team of untrained “dentists” stationed along the assembly line to extract false teeth, gold, and other valuable materials from the astounding number of corpses. Others had to unpack corpses from the gas chambers, convey them to be buried in pits, or load them into ovens. In the end, the corpses were dug up and incinerated in an attempt to obliterate traces of this gruesome enterprise.
Rajchman’s narrative concludes with a startling portrayal of the Treblinka rebellion that allowed him and a handful of others to escape. Illustrations, maps, preface. A remarkable project, Through a Narrow Window sets the historical, cultural, esthetic, and situational context for the amazing production of art by children that took place in the Terezín concentration camp. Terezín, a Nazi propaganda showplace, was designed to show the outside world how well its prisoner-guests were treated. Dicker-Brandeis, an accomplished Bauhaus-trained artist and theorist in art pedagogy, was brought to Terezín to work with the children. Make no mistake: she and these children were Nazi prisoners. Their lives were severely circumscribed. And yet, Dicker- Brandeis had the opportunity to teach them how to express themselves — how to find themselves — through artistic creativity.
Based on an exhibition curated by Linney Wix for the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the book reviews Dicker-Brandeis’s training and artistic career, the artistic milieu in which she flourished, and her trailblazing teaching methodology. It also recounts her successful scheme to sequester two suitcases full of her students’ art, which reached the Jewish community of Prague soon after the close of World War II. The heroic teacher had already been relocated to Auschwitz, where she was executed.
The glory of Through a Narrow Window is the generous presentation of color photographs and plates representative of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s own work as well as those of the incarcerated children whom she taught. Through their art, they are alive. Chronology, foreword, preface.
Subtitled “A Documentary Novel,” Dieter Schlesak’s achievement must be measured against its colossally ambitious goal: to balance documentary truth and the truth of the imagination. By selecting and arranging passages from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963 – 65, and intermingling them with less formal interview material, the author has already taken the first step toward uncovering the real Dr. Victor Capesius — a man convinced of his moral innocence.
Capesius, who rose from “sorter” of new detainees to a postwar life of great wealth based on exploiting his upward mobility in the Auschwitz command hierarchy, presents himself as a man making the best of a horrible situation — almost a victim. He blocks all glances into his grotesque soul, including his role in unconscionable medical experimentation, and thus stands for many of his contemporaries.
To unify the collage of voices, of interrogatory transcripts, Schlesak invents a character named Adam as a kind of central consciousness. Adam reflects the life of the Auschwitz inmate and is given a place in the range of testimony about Capesius. Sometimes discursive and cerebral, sometimes stream-of-consciousness, his voice is at once individual and choric. There is yet another narrative voice, a step removed from Adam’s, that is nameless and thus perplexing. Is it a version of the a uthor’s own voice?
A challenge for readers both in substance and experimental style, The Druggist of Auschwitz is functionally disorienting. It succeeds by not playing it safe. Biographies, sources.
Additional books featured in this review
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.