Imagine agony is in the rendering. Feel what I have to say and don’t be indifferent.
In the preface to his collection of short stories on the Holocaust Mathias B. Freese says it is a story that no-one could ever tell in entirety. He describes it as a “ghastly grandiosity”. It is too large, too devastating, it goes beyond all understanding and adds up to one heaving firestorm in the history of humanity. But somehow, taking a selection of different experiences and giving them a minute, poetic, imaginative treatment, he then goes ahead and does exactly that.
This collection is quite simply heartbreaking. It is stark. It holds no quarter, it does not flinch, it does not let the weak stomach or soft temperament of the reader allow her to avert her gaze. This is a story that needs to be looked in the eye, Freese almost says. To skirt its edges, to be satisfied with a sanitised version of events, is to do the history an injustice. It is to be dishonest. It is to allow the horror to escape scrutiny.
My particular favourite, and the story that hit me the hardest emotionally, is Hummingbird, in which a Holocaust survivor describes his life at 82 years.
The entire race is depressed as well as psychotic. Looking at my fellow man I recollect the early primal fear in the camps. I don’t underestimate nor am I surprised by human beings. When I look at the face of another of the species, I cringe at what potential is in him or her to maim my very being. I live in dread. The lights are always on in my small home. An antiseptic for what may reside in the dark; the Germans did their job well. I’m forever a stolen self.
That’s not to say there’s no heart or warmth in this collection. The love story between Cantor Matyas Balogh and Rebecca Katzman is as touching as it is tragic. Even humour peeks through the clouds, though it in itself is horrific, a grimace instead of a smile greets the reader during a transcript of a fictional interview with Eva Braun. But buried somewhere in the pages and the stories is a dearth of feeling. A survivor’s emotional exhaustion, a camp doctor’s inability to scrutinise surgeries administered without anesthetic. An acceptance that the world, humanity, has gone to hell. It is as if it is only the reader who craves meaning, who is stunned by the terror, the inhumanity, who seeks some kind of reason. An explanation. Some reassurance that these acts were an aberration, that humankind is in reality far better than that. But Freese seems unconvinced that that’s the case, indeed in his preface he says so plainly: “Human beings are so much less than we give them credit for.”
“I’m not ready to be consoled. Do you know what I must give up to allow myself to be consoled? I’ll answer you. I have to give up a self made from sticks, paper and dried glue. I think I’ll die in the doing of it.”
This is a tough, heartwrenching read, but well worthwhile for the art with which Freese approaches his subject. And it’s a read that we should be prepared to embark on, to learn, to bear witness, to remember.
Read it: unflinchingly and one story at a time.