Commentary Magazine


Contentions

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• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

That a considerable number of German artists approved of Hitler, or at least cooperated more or less willingly with the Nazi regime, is incontestable. As I wrote four years ago in COMMENTARY:

The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime. The composers Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the actor Emil Jannings, the stage designer Caspar Neher—all these and many more were perfectly prepared to make their peace with Nazism.

Gottfried Keller, the central character of The Savior, is a small fish in this big sewer, a good-but-not-great violinist who in the last weeks of World War II is forced to take part in a a grotesque “experiment” devised by the music-loving commandant of a forced-labor camp. The purpose of the experiment is to find out whether exposure to classical music will raise the spirits of the camp’s demoralized Jewish inmates high enough to increase their efficiency. Later on in the novel, we learn that Keller was once engaged to a Jewish musician who gave him the opportunity to emigrate to Palestine, but that he chose to remain in Germany instead, and by book’s end we come to realize that this fateful decision has made him an “accomplice” (Drucker’s word) to the Holocaust.

This is Drucker’s first novel, but he has written many program notes for the Emerson Quartet’s concerts, and from time to time he disgorges undigested chunks of technical language that betray his inexperience as a writer of fiction (“An accelerando leads to a Presto that plummets from the highest to the lowest registers, where the music briefly regains its repose”). For the most part, though, he tells his terrible tale with an appropriate plainness. Moreover, Drucker is well aware of the difficulty of saying anything meaningful about the Holocaust through the medium of fiction, going so far as to put the following words into the mouth of one of the inmates of the unnamed camp portrayed in The Savior:

I can’t tell anyone here what I’ve seen. It would be a useless repetition of their story, of what they’ve seen; it would be self-indulgent, a way of asking for sympathy. There’s no place for sympathy here. Only an outsider, who understands maybe one-millionth of it, could feel an emotion like sympathy.

Does The Savior add to our understanding of the camps? Not really. But what I did find striking was its author’s willingness to engage directly with the implications of Hitler’s homicidal dream of purifying German art and culture through mass murder. The commandant is made to speak for all the artists and intellectuals who allowed themselves to share that dream, whether in whole or in part: “You’re surprised to find a cultivated man in charge of such a place. But then you have no idea how closely these camps are related to the core of our culture.” And were they? That we should still be asking that question is a measure of Adolf Hitler’s dark victory over the German soul.