I Shall Bear Witness

By Anne Sebba, Jewish Quarterly, May 2007

HG Adler and the Holocaust – King’s College Library Bequest

“One of the great intellectual scandals of our time,” wrote the Czech-born Professor of German at Yale, Peter Demetz, “is that the important books of novelist, poet and Holocaust survivor HG Adler, both the personal ones and those in search of historical truth, have yet to be translated into English…. I see Adler in the Shoah as a companion to Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.”

This scandal – highlighted by Demetz but uncomfortably familiar to many others – is about to be corrected. Adler died in 1988 in relative obscurity in England but is nowincreasingly recognized as a founder of Holocaust scholarship. Twenty years after his death, hismonumental work, Theresienstadt 1941-45 Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft*, the first fully documented account of a single camp, published in German in 1955, will finally be available to an English audience. At the same time, one of his most significant novels, Eine Reisev,** will also be published in English for the first time. In addition – and arguably most important of all – Adler’s personal reference library, a unique and important collection of printed material about the Holocaust and the history of European Jewry, some of it extremely rare, has been housed on permanent loan with King’s College, London in the Foyle Special Collections Library. Although some of the most physically vulnerable items are still in need of conservation, it has all been catalogued and can now be viewed on line.

Adler’s son, Emeritus Professor of German at King’s, Jeremy Adler described the loan as “a thank you to this country which gave my father safe haven and where I grew up happily.”

Hans Gunter Adler (he used the initials HG to avoid association with the senior SS officer, Hans Guenther, who was Eichmann’s representative in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia responsible for deportation of Jews) was born in Prague in 1910, into a family of assimilated Jews who believed more in continuous human progress than in the traditional Judaic faith. His mother was a dancer his father a bookbinder. His cultural and linguistic roots were Austrian and German rather than Czech. The worlds of Rilke, Werfel and Kafka overlapped with his. HG studied musicology, literature and philosophy at the city’s Charles University and gained his doctorate there in 1935 for a dissertation on Klopstock and Music but was prevented from pursuing an academic career by the rise of the Nazis. He made unsuccessful attempts to emigrate first to Brazil, and then to Great Britain but letters to friends already in England, including the later Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti, went unanswered and he failed to get an entry permit. Trapped in Czechoslovakia, he was sent in 1941 to a labour camp in Bohemia where he was made to work on the railways. On February 8, 1942 he was deported to Theresienstadt together with his new wife, Gertrud Klepetar, and her parents.

Almost as soon as he entered Theresienstadt, Adler’s existence was defined by poetry, both reading and writing it. He wrote over a hundred poems there and had a pocket book of Homer with him. This ability to give artistic expression to his experiences was a key factor in his survival. He said later that although at first he had not expected to survive, he decided that if he did, he wanted “to represent it in two different ways. I wanted to explore it in a scholarly manner and so separate it from myself completely, and I wanted to portray it in a literary manner. I have done both and the fact that I have done so is no great achievement but it does provide a small justification for having survived.”

But he had other survival strategies too. He often recounted how, when he was about to be beaten by a camp guard, he asked first for permission to take off his glasses. It was granted and in that moment the man was put off his stroke so that although the beating went ahead it was less harsh than it might otherwise have been. Later the glasses were broken anyway, but, significantly, still kept.

He consistently refused to play any part in the administration of the camps recognizing that to do so could easily lead to compromise. He needed to remain detached – an outsider. This decision to live as an outsider was to help him later in surviving the harsh realities of post-war London, where &#233migré artists and writers had a hard time establishing a foothold, but also explains why he was not prepared to bend the knee to the literary establishment when it held out scraps to him. He was not afraid to have differences of opinion with other writers, including Hannah Arendt. Arendt had relied heavily on Theresienstadt, which she had read in manuscript, for her own her influential book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But Adler felt she had used his research selectively, rejected Arendt’s depiction of the SS Officer as an ordinary bureaucrat and felt that her belief in “the banality of evil” had misinterpreted his central theme.

Veza Canetti, wife of Elias Canetti, once reproached Adler for having survived, for being “the one who got away.”

“Her own guilt at having survived was extreme and killed her in the end,” explained Jeremy Adler, “so when my father was there it acted as a living and constant reproach to her and others. The knowledge that they had survived and avoided the camps where others had died was difficult, if not impossible, to live with.”

HG himself recognized how much he owed his survival for two and half years in Theresienstadt to his first wife, Gertrud. As a camp doctor she was able to acquire not just morsels of food and medicine; but the intellectual and emotional sustenance they gave each other was equally vital. She was also working on understanding the nature of many strange diseases in the camps where psychological and psychosomatic factors, combined with poor diet and lack of hygiene, made diagnosis all but impossible. Much of what HG subsequently wrote in the medical sections of Theresienstadt was gleaned from her studies.

Her medical status could have ensured her own survival. But on October 12, 1944, the Adlers were transferred to Auschwitz. HG handed over all the material, now squashed into an old leather briefcase, with which he had been entrusted in the Ghetto, to fellow inmate Rabbi Leo Baeck. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Gertrude chose not to desert her mother, accompanying her along the ramp to the gas chamber so that she should not die alone. This act, demonstrating her moral superiority, remained central to HG’s understanding of humanity for the rest of his life. HG was kept in Auschwitz for two weeks before being sent on to Buchenwald from where he was liberated on April 13, 1945. He returned to Prague and collected the briefcase, from now on adding to the collection. One important addition was the Theresienstadt opera, Der Kaiser Von Atlantis, written by his friend Viktor Ullman, which was given to him after Ullman’s death in the camps. But in 1947, with the onset of communism, Adler fled to London and there resumed contact with former friends including the sculptress Bettina Gross, whose mother he had seen shortly before her death in Auschwitz. Bettina Gross became Adler’s second wife.

One of the most poignant personal pieces to have survived, on show recently at King’s but part of a private collection, is a much folded pencilled note on a scrap of paper from Gertrud offering him food. The rest of the archive comprises 1,100 books, pamphlets and journals – a wide range of material including one exceptional rarity, Bilder Aus Theresienstadt, a picture book containing eighteen hand coloured lithographs by the Dutch artist and fellow prisoner, Jo Spier. This book, grimly reminiscent of a holiday souvenir album, was probably produced as a propaganda exercise for the Red Cross inspection visit to the camp in 1944 in an edition of ten copies. Only two other examples are known to survive, neither of them in the UK. It is not hard to imagine the pain involved in producing such a bogusly beautiful work of art which depicted life in Theresienstadt with its camp orchestra, sham shop facades, its own money and coffee shop. Yet after the war Spier faced opprobrium for having produced this.

Another key document is Der Anti-Nazi, a booklet containing summaries of Nazi policies and ideology along with counter arguments to be used against them. This was published on fragile pre-war paper as a collection of loose leaves in a cardboard portfolio intended for ease of access during public meetings where a whole book such as this was banned and anyone found with such an item risked serious punishment. Restoration of this one extraordinary item, finally inserting each sheet in a Melanex pocket, cost £300.

Jeremy Adler recalled that he was 4 or 5 when he first saw some of the items in his father’s library. “I remember pulling down a book and looking at these ghastly photographs. It was part of my earliest consciousness. My parents never attempted to suppress or deny anything,” he tells me. “With my father writing seventeen or eighteen hours a day the camps were a constant presence in my life. My father referred to them as as ‘die Boese Zeit’ (Evil Times).”

Although the Adlers had little money, Jeremy insists that his parents shielded him from an awareness of material poverty. His father never behaved in the way expected of a poor refugee, which meant he never had the allure of a victim, or an exile, and was considered arrogant or difficult by some. In pre-war Prague Adler was a dandyish, poetic type. In post-war London, his nerves destroyed, he often appeared not to be listening. “But he never lost his dignity nor his pride and never looked like a refugee. He was tall, stood upright and always wore well-cut suits.” He was for many years Honorary President of the PEN Centre of German Writers in Exile group based in London.

Jeremy believes that his father’s natural facility as a teacher, both in the camps helping some of the children through their traumas and after liberation when he worked as a tutor to child survivors in Prague while helping to set up the Jewish Museum, meant he was tragically well equipped to be a father himself. But the son always understood that eventually this unique collection of documents, which has framed his own life so darkly, must be removed from the shelves of a private scholar. “I recognised that they were better off in a public library with rules. I wanted them not to be in a collection which specialised only in Holocaust studies but in a general academic environment where students from all disciplines could consult them.” Not every library understood their significance but King’s, where Jeremy himself taught, and with its magnificent new space in the former Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, is an ideal home. Somewhat ironically, Adler senior did acquire a reputation as a major literary figure in post war Germany, where he was often invited to lecture, or appear on television. Having taken seven years to find a publisher even in German, Theresienstadt, once launched was an immediate success there. It was accepted as legal evidence of the Final Solution by the German Constitutional Court when passing Germany’s Restitution laws.

There is no simple explanation for the sudden renaissance of interest in this noble intellectual, a survivor not just of the camps but of a pre-war East European culture that has done so much to shape British intellectual thought. At the root of the complex reasons why Adler failed to find an English publisher is his then unfashionable view, ultimately grounded in his Jewish faith, that a system of beliefs, ethical values and the basic political concepts of human rights and democracy do make sense, and that their abuse by the Nazis and others, however terrible, did not destroy them. “If they failed us,” explained Jeremy Adler, “he believed that they required examination historically and conceptually not condemnation whether naive, reflected or dialectical.” HG’s belief in the power of goodness, as opposed to what has been called the fallacy of negativism, to achieve even a modicum of change is a view shared by Adler’s close friend Franz Baermann Steiner, the doomed lover of Iris Murdoch, and which was at the core of her own philosophy and bestselling novels.

HG Adler owed his deeper understanding of Judaism from two encounters in the camps. In Theresienstadt he spent hours with the leader of the reform community, Rabbi Leo Baeck, and his subsequent views are so close to Baeck’s that it is inconceivable he was not deeply influenced by him. Later, when he was transferred to Auschwitz, his friendship with an orthodox Slovak Jew, Max Schiff, with whom he studied Talmud, was a deeply revelatory experience.

In the second half of the twentieth century, as the academic discipline of ‘Holocaust Studies’ grew, Adler provided a contrary voice. He opposed the nihilistic views of those such as Theodor Adorno, who famously declared that there could be no more literature after Auschwitz, their pessimism broadly stating that human beings forced to choose survival did so at the expense of their humanity. Canetti maintained that Eine Reise marked a literary turning point as it “re-introduced hope into modern literature.”

And in this argument lie the seeds of a major reason for his failure to be taken up by British publishers. It was a question of timing as well as mutual incomprehension; the inability of the English to comprehend the experiences of a survivor. With his cultural roots remaining firmly in European soil, his work appeared less than commercial. Yet, just as he had refused to compromise with the Germans, so he refused to compromise in his writing, a refusal clearly seen in his novels where he deliberately de-sexualised anything that could possibly be titillating, even for example going so far as to transform a wife into a sister. Because of his determination to bear witness, objectively, to what he had seen, his fiction carries the hallmarks of historical documentation, is never less than scholarly and contains few personal details. He made no concessions to readers who expected stereotype whereby all Germans were evil, angry monsters and all Jews brave, heroic resistance fighters. He sometimes referred to the latter as ‘the lost ones’ and their oppressors as ‘the conspirators.’ Nor did he shy away from condemnation of Jewish failures.

In rejecting his novel Eine Reise an editor at the well- known publishing house, Secker, advised him that he would have more success if he wrote a book on the death camps in the style of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead. Similarly, the respected Jewish historian Cecil Roth opposed the idea of a whole book on Theresienstadt given its ‘minuscule’ significance in the history of the Jews. In spite of reactions such as these, the message in the thousand page, carefully argued Theresienstadt, not a book for the fainthearted, was never sentimentalised. The cultural gap was, for the English at this time, impossible to bridge. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that others used his carefully researched material – and in those pre-Google days that involved many hours of searching – in a more accessible way. For example W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) freely plundered the more difficult, older volume.

The same determination to document was echoed by HG Adler’s second wife’s mother, who packed up the family possessions and sent them to England in advance of her own transportation to and death in the camps. Jeremy, an only child currently writing a long novel himself, now has the weight of guardianship of these items too on his shoulders.

“It’s a question of preserving the heritage of a whole group of people and the memory of those people,” says Jeremy. “My father gave a name, a soul and a spirit to what would otherwise remain a number.”

How did Adler senior avoid bitterness? I am not, of course, the first to ask but Jeremy Adler takes his time to answer the question on his father’s behalf. “He believed in the teachings of Maimonides that bearing a grudge harms most the person who bears it.”

Additional information:

*The Face of an Involuntary Community : History, Sociology and Psychology published by Cambridge University Press 2008.

**The Journey published by Random House 2008

The drawing of Gertrude Aldler by Peter Kien will be one of three items to go on display at the Imperial War Museum, Holocaust Exhibition this autumn.

HG Adler deposited his Theresienstadt Archive at the Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, Amsterdam. His literary estate is at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar. The Beinecke Library owns his letters to Herman Broch

The HG Adler Collection at King’s College, London can be consulted at:

Anne Sebba’s latest book, Jennie Churchill, Winston’s American Mother is published by John Murray September 2007