• On H.G. Adler’s Lectures from a Concentration Camp

    "For Adler there is no room for escape. . ."

    The note is small. A thin piece of paper, brown with age, of obviously poor quality, though the words typed on it remain firm, black, and clear:

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    Franz KAFKA

    60 years. Who is K? Writer, thinker, dreamer. The religious and the philosophical person. His development, the milieu. Influences and comparisons, the style, the uniqueness, the tragic romance. K. and his times—his resistance to all fashion. Not fantastic, not “interesting”. Discussion of [the stories] The Trial. Their effects and aftermath. The timeless: K. as symbol of the suffering human of these times for whom no way out exists. Atonement through death.

    Then the notation. Upper left corner, written in pencil, likely many years later: TEREZÍN. The Czech name for Theresienstadt, the enforced ghetto set up by the Nazis, who promised lifelong care and safety to Jews who signed over their apartments and worldly goods to them. Soon Theresienstadt would also become a center for deportations to the death camps of the East. Of the 141,000 who arrived on transports before April 20, 1945, less than one-sixth survived the war, while of the roughly 88,000 deported from Theresienstadt before November 1, 1944 (when the deportations ended), only 3,500 survived. Hans Günther Adler was one of them.

    It was here of all places that Adler, who had just turned 33 the previous day, stood to give a lecture on July 3, 1943, in honor of what would have been Kafka’s 60th birthday to about one hundred people in “Barracks B V,” known as the “Magdeburg Barracks.” Among the audience was Kafka’s younger (and favorite) sister Ottla, known affectionately as Ottilie, who at the conclusion of the lecture said to Adler, “I thank you on behalf of our family,” no doubt still missing the brother she had lost to tuberculosis in 1924. Since the Nazis had banned and burned his books, it is likely one of the few lectures, if not the only one, delivered on Kafka in the German-occupied countries of the time.

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    The lecture proved so successful Adler repeated it ten days later to a smaller group in the “House of the Fire Brigade, L 502,” though then without being introduced by Emil Utitz, the Prague academic, schoolmate of Kafka, and cofounder, with Rabbi Leo Baeck, of the “Committee for Leisure Activities” in Theresienstadt. A month later Adler wrote to Utitz that he would be prepared to give lectures on Jean Paul, Friedrich Hölderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Georg Büchner, and Kafka, as well as to talk on art and literature. Utitz took him up on his offer to give lectures on “The Baroque and the Modern,” “Literature in the Present Age,” “Jews in German Literature,” “The Modern in Art,” and “Idealism, Naturalism and Realism in Art.” Along with the Kafka talk, six lectures survive in manuscript, three typed as essays, the other three existing as notes.

    Yet it is the note for the Kafka lecture, no doubt held by Adler during the talk, which still attracts one’s attention. In Adler’s archive it is in a small envelope marked “Original note with key words for the lecture delivered twice by HGA in the summer of 1943 in honor of Kafka’s 60th birthday.” “HGA” is of course Hans Günther Adler, born in Prague in 1910. Because of one of many twists of fate that ruled Adler’s life, he would only use “H.G. Adler” as his pen name. The thought of perpetuating the name of Hans Günther, head of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Bohemia and Moravia, and just seven weeks younger, was too much to bear, for that Günther, who reported directly to Adolf Eichmann, had deported Adler to Theresienstadt on February 8, 1942. After surviving thirty-two months there, as well as six months divided between Auschwitz, a neighboring camp of Buchenwald called Niederorschel, and two months in an underground factory for airplane parts called Langenstein, Adler chose to erase “Hans Günther” from his public name for the rest of his life.

    “One must wait for the right moment to understand Kafka.”

    Though the note on Kafka reveals little of what Adler said about each of his points, one page marked “KAFKA-NOTES” and two more headed “Kafka” provide some quotes from his work and fleeting comments, such as, “One must wait for the right moment to understand Kafka, one must feel the same as he does inside, and be in the same place as he is.” Was Theresienstadt such a place? Undoubtedly. The notion of the “timeless” or the idea of “K. as symbol of the suffering human of these times for whom no way out exists” must have moved his audience in ways we cannot understand. As for “Atonement through death,” Ottilie soon came to know herself whether it was to be. Three months later she volunteered as one of 53 caretakers for the 1,260 children who arrived in Theresienstadt from the Bialystok ghetto in August 1943. Though she thought she and the Bialystok children were headed to Sweden or Denmark, only after their departure by train on October 5, 1943, did they learn their destination was Auschwitz.

    Almost a year to the day of Ottilie’s departure, Adler and his wife, Gertrud Klepetar, were deported to Auschwitz along with her mother on October 12, 1944. Arriving two days later, Gertrud decided to join her mother on “the bad side” when she was selected, the thought of her mother dying alone being simply too much to bear. Adler, however, was not selected and made it through. Gertrud and her mother perished. One need only read the dedication to Adler’s book on Theresienstadt to consider how much the loss of Gertrud, whom he called “Geraldine,” haunted him:


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    As if carving the memorial on a tombstone, Adler resolved that the shame of Gertrud’s horrible end would outlive her. It would take over a decade for the book to see the light of day.

    After surviving Auschwitz, Niederorschel, and Langenstein, Adler returned to Prague in June 1945, barely alive. There he wrote to his boyhood friend Franz Baermann Steiner, a poet and anthropologist who had escaped to England, saying, “I am the only one of my family and my wife’s family to have survived this terrible dream.” He then informed him that Steiner’s parents were deported to certain death in Treblinka in October 1942. A few weeks later Adler returned to Theresienstadt to retrieve from Leo Baeck the black briefcase full of documents he had collected on the camp, many of them passed on by Gertrud through her position as head of the infirmary and then hidden in her lab. With these were over one hundred poems he wrote there, as well as the manuscript for an experimental theology he had started as early as 1938, the first draft of a novel, and notes to his lectures. From this material would come the next 40 years of his writing and thinking.

    Adler took all of it with him 18 months later when he left for England in February 1947. There he was met by Bettina Gross, a childhood friend who had left Prague at his urging in 1938. Her mother remained behind, was imprisoned in Theresienstadt, and gassed in Auschwitz after being deported there on October 9, 1944, three days before Adler and Gertrud. As with Steiner, Adler felt compelled to find Bettina and write to her to report her mother’s death and to find out if she was still single. Ironically, after seven years of separation their first letters to one another crossed in the mail in November 1945, Bettina having heard through a friend that Adler was alive and in Prague. Soon they were writing to one another each day, sometimes twice a day. Adler eventually told Bettina of his own ordeal and admitted, “I am like someone who, despite all expectations, has risen from his deathbed and feels strong once again, even if he still stumbles around in a daze. Would it not be better for me to say nothing at all?”

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    But speak he did, pouring himself into letter after letter before proposing marriage to Bettina by mail two months later. She accepted immediately, yet it took another year to arrange a visa for him. At last Adler flew to London on February 11, 1947. Five days later he and Bettina were married in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, where during the war Bettina had worked as a designer in a button factory. Soon they moved to London, where Adler reunited with Steiner and Elias Canetti, whom he had met when Canetti visited Prague in 1937, as well as joining a circle of postwar German exiles that included Erich Fried and George Rapp. Work was hard to come by, and further income was needed when that fall his son Jeremy was born, but Adler refused to take any kind of menial job, choosing instead to work feverishly on the Theresienstadt study. Over the next nine years, he spent long hours of research in London’s Wiener Library while also writing six novels, dozens of short stories and parables, and some two hundred poems.

    Yet had Adler indeed left Theresienstadt and the camps, or did they remain forever with him? The answer might lie in Kafka’s brief story “The Next Village,” which Adler read in its entirety as part of the Theresienstadt lecture:

    My grandfather was fond of saying: “Life is so very short. Looking back on it now, I find it all blurs together so in memory that I can hardly comprehend, for instance, how a young man can ride over to the next village without being afraid that—terrible mishaps notwithstanding—even the span of a normal happy life is not nearly long enough for such a journey.”

    A meditation on life’s uncanny and perilous journey, the story reflects how Adler’s trajectory seems as fated as it was chosen. The only way forward was indeed the way back, and it was at that crossroads that Adler remained—the survivor, the scholar, the writer, the husband and father who, penniless, hungry, and without a job wrote across a page of his pocket calendar on February 9, 1952, a single question: “Was ist geistige Arbeit?” (“What is intellectual work?”). Three days later the daily entries ceased. Only after the publication of the Theresienstadt book brought him a glimmer of fame and modest security do they begin again in 1956, and continue until his death in 1988.

    What could Adler have meant by the question? Was he wondering why he had spent the previous day sorting and cataloging books for the German Library in London for Wilhelm Unger, as he had once sorted libraries stolen from Jews by the Nazis and deposited with the Jewish Community of Prague, where Kafka’s own library passed through his fingers? Was he asking himself what the work of the intellect really consists of? Was he wondering whether scholarship or literature was the proper way to convey what he had been through? Was he wondering about the worth of his own work, or the worth of any such work to anyone? Or was he wondering whether any of it was worth the price he had to pay?

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    The answer is impossible to know. Given that the previous day, February 8, 1952, marked the tenth anniversary of his deportation to Theresienstadt, the question takes on more gravity, especially when he observes on February 10, “5 years in England. No success at all the entire time!” Then, on February 12, Adler attends a performance of the Ralph Vaughan Williams opera “The Pilgrim’s Progress” with Elias and Veza Canetti. The burden of his own journey shows in the fact that the calendar ends there, even though his fifth wedding anniversary followed on the 16th. Without a publisher and feeling himself a failure, bereft of a career and with no prospects, the silence that ensued testifies to a life and mind held in the clutches of “Terezín.”

    For Adler there is no room for escape, neither for the tormentor nor tormented, nor humanity at large, nor even the Jews.

    Adler’s act of “self-liberation” from the ghetto’s grip took a decade to complete, culminating in the publication of Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community, but it was not an easy journey. Though he had completed a first draft as early as 1948, publisher after publisher rejected the book until Hans Siebeck of J.C. B. Mohr Verlag accepted it without even having finished reading the manuscript. Its 1955 publication brought Adler fame, but also the moniker of “Theresienstadt Adler,” making it difficult to garner any attention for his novels and poems in the years to come. Nor was the book itself free of controversy, for Adler’s willingness to address the culpability of both the SS and the Jewish administration of Theresienstadt in the corrupt running of the ghetto struck many as too harsh.

    Adler maintained that “the immorality of the accused Germans cannot excuse the immorality of the imprisoned Jews,” but as he explained to Gershom Scholem, “Besides the tragedy to which one falls victim to in the worst of times, misdeeds can occur that may tie to that same tragedy, but which nevertheless are not the same as the tragedy itself, but still remain wrong.” The system with which those individuals consciously, even at times courageously, engaged had undermined them from the start, nullifying their individual will and character and guaranteeing that they would succumb to the same abuse of power inflicted upon them. This led to a systematic malaise in which “people fell almost irretrievably into a struggle of all against all, in which only people with deeply anchored morality could keep from sacrificing their souls.”

    In the last section of the book Adler elevates his concerns to a religious plane. There he admonishes that “Humaneness is the only party that can offer moral fulfillment in the face of immorality,” and he underscores its religious roots by insisting that there is “but only one morality,” the violation of which leads inevitably to a biblical fall from grace:

    Guilt is the sum of history in a country or a camp, a manifold guilt that no one has escaped, for humanity is a community of guilt. … The guilt of humanity in the confused state that it was in even before Hitler’s rise to power; the guilt of inhumanity that, if one wishes, can also be considered godlessness; the guilt of an unkind era in which order is transformed into schematics, the organic into mechanics, life into masses, the human being into a commodity, the soul into complexes, the mind into ideology; the guilt of the misconception or devaluation of values and the confusion of concepts that led to decay; the guilt of a dull species so blinded in this transformation by foolishness, hate, self-interest, and lies that it could not see the disaster that was conjured up and would inevitably follow…

    Thus Adler arrives at an indictment of not only the Nazis and the evil carried out under them but the whole of modernity. For Adler there is no room for escape, neither for the tormentor nor tormented, nor humanity at large, nor even the Jews. This last is the argument that riles critics, as Adler expected it would, admitting to Franz Kobler that his “book will be in many respects a damned hard morsel for Germans as well as for Jews and other readers.”

    Nevertheless, the impetus to write Theresienstadt 1941–1945 stemmed from “private reasons,” as he “could not endure having the pain of the events leave an abysmal despair amid the yawning emptiness within me.” When later asked if writing it had provided the opportunity for “self-liberation” (Selbstbefreiung), Adler responded that a “liberation” (Befreiung) had been the result, but that was “small justification for my having survived.” Desire to prevent the pain of those events from devolving into despair was the only redemption in confronting the guilt he felt had tinged all. As he admits on the book’s final page, “[E]ven he who had not too badly failed the test could not, as an active human being, pass through the camp free of any implication in guilt.” The yellow star that sat upon his writing desk throughout his years in London acknowledged this burden.

    Lest one doubt the personal pain on which Adler’s book is built, one only needs to consider the extended dedication carved as a memorial to his loss and grief in the book’s opening pages. In not even clearly being referred to as his wife, “Geraldine” becomes something more, a metonym for the selflessness and dignity that Adler saw as the only defense against Nazi persecution and the delusional existence that engulfed their prisoners, standing for them, as he hopes his own study will. Underscoring this desire are the last words of the book, set in the same capitals as the dedication:


    No attribution is given, but these are words that Bertha Gross, Bettina’s mother, wrote to her children from Theresienstadt. Recorded anonymously, they become representative of the unseen deaths of millions, touching too upon Bettina’s private grief over the loss of her mother. The arc of the book traverses his own catharsis from Gertrud to Bettina, from irrevocable death to a life lived anew, albeit founded upon the past. The dedication’s private meaning is not overt, and the concluding epigraph remains obscured, a private touchstone that reinvokes the author’s need for selfless “cool” observation in the service of a “higher mission” while continuing to form the history that had formed him.


    From H. G. Adler: A Life in Many Worlds by Peter Filkins. Used with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2019 by Peter Filkins.

    Peter Filkins
    Peter Filkins
    Peter Filkins is an award-winning translator and poet. He has translated three novels by H.G. Adler, Panorama, The Journey, and The Wall, as well as the collected poems of Ingeborg Bachmann. He is the Richard B. Fisher Professor of Literature at Bard College at Simon's Rock and author of H. G. Adler A Life in Many Worlds (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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