The Australian writer Clive James liked to recount that when he first arrived in Britain, in the 1960s, a feature of conversation among some of the morally serious people he soon came to know was to anguish over the question of what one would have done had one been an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. For James, always the skeptic, that was tragic, terrifying . . . and obvious.
The truly challenging moral question, he believed, was not what one would have done had one been a prisoner but what one might have done had one had the choices denied to the victims; in other words, what one would have done had one been a guard or, perhaps worse still, a Kapo, that is, one of those prisoners in the camps who in return for supervising and usually atrociously brutalizing their fellow prisoners received all sorts of privileges from the SS men who controlled the camps, first and foremost the greatest privilege in the universe of the Nazi death camps: the chance to survive.
Being a Kapo, no matter how privileged this made one in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or Jasenovac, offered no guarantees: the German guards could revoke a Kapo’s status on the merest and meanest of whims. But while this fate indeed did befall some Kapos, most survived, whereas almost everyone else did not. After that, though, their fates were as varied as their itineraries. Some, notably those who made their way to Palestine in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps, risked being recognized by former prisoners and killed. Predictably, there were also cases of mistaken identity. In one celebrated incident in Tel Aviv in 1946, a man named Asher Berlin was set upon in an alley by a group of men who thought they recognized him as a Jewish collaborator with the Gestapo.
In reality, the unfortunate Berlin had not set foot in Europe since immigrating to Mandatory Palestine in 1924. In 1950, the year after the foundation of the state, the Israeli parliament passed the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law that in practical terms—this was 11 years before the kidnapping, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann, the only Nazi actually judged under this statute—was aimed at former Kapos and at leaders of the so-called Judenräte, the Jewish Councils that administered the ghettos of Eastern Europe before the Nazis finally deported all their inhabitants to the concentration camps.
These trials went on for 22 years. In retrospect, even in the initial two years after the law came into force, former Kapos were judged severely, but with only a few exceptions their actual prison terms rarely exceeded five years, and only one death sentence, to a Kapo called Yehezkel Jungster, was ever meted out, and it was eventually commuted.
As the trials continued, the official view softened, and the Israeli judiciary passed from largely assuming the accused were guilty and should have behaved differently through to viewing those who had been Kapos as having had no choice but to act as they did. In this, as the Israeli academic Dan Porat noted in a brilliant account of these trials, the judges’ stance, contra Hannah Arendt’s severities toward the Kapos and the Judenräte in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, came surprisingly close to that of Primo Levi, who wrote that he believed that “no one is authorized to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the [camps] and even less those who did not.”
The great Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, put the question even more starkly when, in 2002, shortly after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, he told an interviewer that “Europe’s 20th-century totalitarianisms created a completely new type of human being. They forced a person to choose in a way we were never forced to choose before: to become either a victim or a perpetrator.”
But it is one thing to follow Levi in feeling that one has no right to judge a Kapo and quite another to try to inhabit a Kapo’s mind and heart. And yet this is the project of the Yugoslav writer Aleksandar Tišma’s extraordinary novel, titled, quite simply, Kapo. As far as I know, with the exception of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel The Reader, in which one of the two principal protagonists, Hanna Schmitz, had been a German camp guard, Kapo is the only major literary novel to have a perpetrator rather than a victim as a main character. But even Schlink’s novel is told not from the camp guard’s perspective but rather from that of the adolescent German boy who becomes her lover, and later, after she is condemned to a long prison sentence by a postwar German court, her one faithful friend and visitor.
When it was published, Schlink’s book was widely praised for what admirers of the novel perceived as its attempt to dramatize the process of both confrontation and reconciliation with Germany’s atrocious past (in German, this project goes under the ungainly name of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which literally means addressing the past, addressing history). But Schlink was also severely criticized for what one writer, Jeremy Adler, called his “art of generating compassion for murderers.” The great Israeli historian Omer Bartov went further, excoriating it for what he asserted was The Reader’s implicit message of “Germany as victim.” And a German journalist, Willi Winkler, reviewing the novel in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, dismissed it as “Holo-kitsch.”
This last charge seems to me unfair, and as a characterization more appropriately applied to Schindler’s List than to The Reader. But in fairness both to Schlink’s novel and to Steven Spielberg’s film, the ethical imperative of piety that the Holocaust demands of us individually as human beings and collectively as societies has translated badly into evocations of its horror in novels and films, very few of which succeed in keeping kitsch at bay, especially in the sense Milan Kundera put forward when he insisted that kitsch actually “moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.” In contrast, Tišma’s Holocaust trilogy, The Book of Blam, The Use of Man, and Kapo, is an antidote to banality and kitsch, not a purveyor of it. Not as well known, at least outside the former Yugoslavia, as Kertész’s four Holocaust novels—Fatelessness, Fiasco, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation—Tišma’s novels richly deserve to occupy an adjoining place in any literary Parnassus worthy of the name.
Interestingly, Tišma translated Fatelessness into Serbo-Croatian and helped arrange its publication in Yugoslavia, doing this long before Kertész was all that known even within Hungary, let alone internationally. Surely it is not entirely fanciful to speculate that in this, like was crying out to like. Whatever the merits of such speculation, and without falling into the snare of witless rankings, I myself am in no doubt that both sets of novels complement each other. In Kertész, the personal autobiographical dimension is undeniable, even if he always insisted that those who believed his novels were autobiographical were guilty of badly misreading him, and that his “proper place [was] at the writing desk, not in the story.”
What Kertész meant by this, I think, was that young Gyuri Köves, who undergoes Auschwitz and Buchenwald in Fatelessness, and returns home to Hungary to find it under Soviet occupation in Fiasco, is an alter ego rather than a simple fictional flag of convenience for himself. Philip Roth made similar arguments about the eponymous main character of his Zuckerman trilogy, and in both Kertész’s and Roth’s cases, it seems to me that there is simultaneously an element of truth and an element of willful denial in the claim, in short the novelist’s resonant admonition: caveat lector. And like the path of Roth’s Zuckerman novels, from The Anatomy Lesson to The Counterlife, Kertész’s path from Fatelessness to Liquidation is one of narrative certainty to an almost literary Heisenbergianism, an insistence on the unreliability of everything.
Tišma’s view of his own work was the exact opposite of Kertész’s. He believed everything he wrote was autobiographical. And yet it was Kertész who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, whereas Tišma, born in 1924 in the Yugoslav province of Vojvodina in the town of Horgoš on the Hungarian border to a Hungarian-speaking Jewish mother and an ethnic Serbian father, along with his parents, survived the war and even managed to finish his studies in Budapest before the city was taken by the Soviet army in 1944. Tišma and his family only survived because they were saved on several occasions by Gentile neighbors, and because they managed to get out of Vojvodina’s capital, Novi Sad, in very early 1942, just before a wholesale massacre of most of the city’s Jews on January 20–23, 1942, at least 1,400 of whom were shot and then pushed into the Danube, where those who were still alive drowned.
In The Book of Blam, the first of Tišma’s Holocaust novels, and the book that made his reputation in Yugoslavia as a writer, the eponymous main character, Miroslav Blam, shares Tišma’s same lucky escape, though in the book Blam is spared not because he flees Novi Sad in time but rather because he is married to a Christian and has converted to Christianity. In any case, Tišma himself saw neither the Novi Sad massacre nor Auschwitz. As he would later make clear, he had in fact largely repressed his memories of the Holocaust, and these really only were reawakened in him in 1960 after he had visited Auschwitz for the first time at the age of 26, 12 years before he published The Book of Blam.
As a novel, The Book of Blam is a work of daunting harshness, a kind of retelling of the book of Job set in the midst of the Shoah. Like Job, Miroslav Blam is innocent, a survivor whose punishment for escaping death is the desolate loneliness of a Holocaust survivor lost in its aftermath. Blam is a man utterly possessed by visions of his friends, all of whom the Germans have murdered. Yet paradoxical as it may seem, at least Blam’s blamelessness affords the reader a certain moral relief.
In Tišma’s second Holocaust novel, The Use of Man, the canvas is wider. It portrays a group of high school classmates and their destinies after the war begins. The book has its victim, the half-Jewish Vera, who is sent to a concentration camp; it has its hero, Vera’s boyfriend, Milinko, who joins Tito’s Partisans. It also has its antihero in Sredoje, another of Vera’s classmates who becomes a Partisan. And it has its monster, Vera’s cousin Sep, who becomes a Nazi. But Tišma does not make Sep his main focus. To the contrary, if there is a principal protagonist, it is Vera herself. She survives the camps but when she returns home finds, much like Blam, that she has nothing to return to. Both characters have cheated death, but, having done so, discover that they have also in a profound and non-hyperbolic sense spiritually survived themselves.
Kertész was certainly an Argonaut of desolation, but compared to Tišma he was almost cheerful. Impossible to imagine Tišma saying, even in jest, what Kertész had affirmed when he remarked to a dumb-founded interviewer and, as he then made clear, by no means in jest, that he felt lucky to have been in Auschwitz. Reading Tišma and Kertész side by side, there is an inescapable sense that where Kertész stopped, Tišma began. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any other writer who could deploy the psychological and moral harshness native to Tišma’s literary project.
“No man can stare for long at death or the sun,” La Rochefoucauld famously said. But Tišma’s work challenges that conviction in ways that have few equivalents in world literature. Such unremitting pessimism of the earned rather than the unearned sort is a rarity in great literature, which is something that perhaps we as readers should be grateful for. With Tišma, there is nothing ludic; his is a world beyond pleasure, beyond distraction. And if this highly reticent writer has a message, it is that even if one manages to escape through the gates of hell, it is only to discover that another hell awaits one outside. It is peace as moral anticlimax, and of terrors and sorrows that peace cannot begin to relieve. Indeed, the only writer of similar implacable harshness who comes to mind—and the irony is so extreme as to be morally obscene, even if accurate just the same—is the fascist Céline, and even then only in his most disgust-laden evocations of the sordidness and cruelty of abject poverty. And Kapo is by far the harshest of Tišma’s three Holocaust novels.
In Kapo, we are unremittingly in hell’s ninth circle. Abandon hope all ye who enter here? To which Tišma’s reply might as well be: Hope? You might as well be talking about unicorns. Blam in The Book of Blam, Vera in The Use of Man—these characters are victims. But as desolate as their lives are, they are not trying to survive at any cost. To the contrary, it is clear in both novels that it is this, in Tišma’s eyes, that constitutes their irreducible dignity: They see no great reason to go on, but they go on just the same. In Kapo, though, the reader enters a world without any dignity at all. Instead, its focus is on Lamian, a former Kapo who survived the war and returned to his native city of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia, but who lives in terror of having his past as a Kapo revealed. The premise will likely shock and at first alienate any reader who comes to Kapo unprepared, much as it would shock and alienate to read a novel about Eichmann in Argentina told exclusively from Eichmann’s point of view, however harshly and unsympathetically.
Kapo is not, in other words, a story of crime and punishment. Tišma is no Dostoyevsky and Lamian is certainly no Raskolnikov. He has not an ounce of guilt or, indeed, of any feeling for anyone except himself. Like Blam and Vera, Lamian is obsessed with the past, or more precisely, seems to find the past more alive than the present. But unlike Blam and Vera—for whom the present is a desolate space filled with ghosts they wish they could bring back to life, even though of course they know that they have no hope of doing so—Lamian’s terror of ghosts is rooted in the mortal fear that his past as a Kapo, and as a traitor to the Jews, finally will be revealed.
Lamian has a job but keeps to himself, constantly watchful, consumed by the wish to live and to remain unaccountable for the crimes he committed as a Kapo, the rapes and every imaginable form of brutality about which he reminisces constantly, disgustingly. But as the novel begins, it is clear that Lamian had believed his secret would never be uncovered. Then, completely by happenstance, he discovers that Helena Lifka, one of the women he dragged into his lair, a toolshed in a remote corner of the concentration camp, and raped, had been a Yugoslav Jew just like Lamian himself—something he had not known in the camp. Could she have returned to Banja Luka? Will she denounce him? “She would reveal the beast he was,” Lamian thinks, “[a] fiend, torturer, one of Hitler’s Kapos, archenemy and archtraitor hidden in his lair in the guise of a meek citizen who kept to himself.” And his fate will be terrible: Vengeful survivors, he thinks, will “spit on me, seize me, hurl me to the ground and trample on me, beat me until I’m half dead . . . then . . . they’ll nurse me back to health so I can be dragged before the court, before the people, exhibited as a monster . . . my name a symbol of evil”—and here, Tišma’s bottomless pessimism finds its way into the mouth of his protagonist—“until some greater criminal is discovered.”
At moments, Lamian thinks that he will ask Helena Lifka’s forgiveness, but as Tišma portrays Lamian, when his thoughts move in that direction, what he really wants is to forestall her revenge. Then, just as he had feared, Lamian thinks he sees her in the street. She is old, stooped, decrepit, but, he thinks, very much alive. And for the rest of the novel, Tišma takes the reader backward and forward in time: Lamian becoming a Kapo; the women he abuses and rapes; his relationship with Riegler, one of the German guards who has the power over him that Lamian has over the prisoners; and Riegler’s and Lamian’s escape as Germany’s defeat looms. His hysteria mounting, Lamian sets out to track Helena Lifka down, and toward the end of the novel believes he has found her, living in an apartment in Zagreb. Mustering all the courage he has left, Lamian goes to her flat to at last reveal to her his real identity.
But instead of resolution, Lamian finds the bitterest and most unsettling of anticlimaxes. The woman who has opened the door is not Helena Lifka but Julia Milčec, a cousin. Helena Lifka, Julia tells Lamian, had lived in the flat but had died several months earlier—horribly, she adds, of cancer. And Julia herself had never been in Auschwitz or any other camp. At first, he does not believe her. “We know each other from Auschwitz,” he insists. “You remember Kapo Furfa?… [the] Kapo of the workshop. Well, that’s me.” But confronted by her steadfast denials, Lamian eventually realizes that Julia is telling him the truth. He is beside himself, and at the same time at the end of his tether, obsessed with the fact that when he had started his quest for Helena Lifka she had still been alive. And yet he finds he can’t get up from his chair in what had been Helena Lifka’s sitting room, the place where she had lived with the ghosts of her family, every one of whom was killed in the camps, as Julia tells Lamian. Julia sees his distress, and tells him that she must go out but that he can stay for a while, an offer he gratefully accepts. And after she leaves, he finds himself even more rooted to the spot. He knows he will soon be asked to leave, but “every part of him cried out to stay.” And then Tišma ends his novel in a few terrifying sentences. “Only here was he safe,” Lamian realizes, “just as he had been safe in the toolshed at Auschwitz, the windows covered with boards and rags as he listened to the camp’s waterfall babble of death rattles and prayers and danced to frighten a prisoner named Helena Lifka.”
I know of no work in European literature that is so unrelenting in its despair. Tišma offers no hope, no consolation. In 1949, on his return from a long exile in the United States to a Germany in ruins, Theodor Adorno said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Taxed by an interviewer in the early 1960s who pointed out that German poetry had revived and flourished in the intervening years, Adorno replied that yes, it seemed poetry could be written after Auschwitz. But, he added, the question was whether life could be lived after Auschwitz. That is Tišma’s question. It should be ours as well.
Excerpted from Kapo by Aleksander Tišma, afterword by David Rieff. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New York Review of Books. Copyright © 2021 by David Rieff.