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Cold crematorium: report on the land of Auschwitz by József Debreczeni review – hell on earth in calm prose | History books

Inot King Lear, Confronted with the figure of his cruelly blinded father, Edgar wonders if things are as bad as they could be. He concludes, however, that “the worst is not/As long as one can say “It’s the worst.” The very fact that he has language and judgment is itself proof that he has more to lose. Edgar’s words, in the most archaic of Shakespeare’s plays, seem horribly prophetic of the slaughterhouse of modern history, as if the events of the 20th century were designed to put them to the test. Is this the worst that human beings are capable of? Is it? Is it?

József Debreczeni’s memoir of the Nazi death camps, translated from Hungarian into English for the first time, often echoes Edgar’s assertion. After being transferred from “the capital of the Great Land of Auschwitz” to one of the sub-camp networks, Eule, he discovers that he is going to be moved again: “I surely couldn’t end up in a good place worse, I thought – and how tragically wrong I was. By the end of his remarkable collection of observational writings, the word “worse” had lost all meaning; comparing the depth of human experiences of depravity and suffering seems obscene in itself. Is typhoid worse than starvation? Is being crushed to death while mining an underground tunnel worse than wasting away in a pool of your own filth?

Debreczeni, a distinguished journalist, thwarts such comparisons by letting the unfolding events hover before the reader in the astonishing balance of his prose. In an excruciating moment for which the phrase “gallows humor” seems entirely inappropriate, he tells us that the nightly cry of doctors – “Report the dead!” – the “most pleasant among us” replied: “Report if you are dead!” »

Debreczeni’s story manages to make something of this unthinkable joke, to denounce the dead and to denounce his own life in death. He captures detail after poignant detail. The old carpenter, Mr. Mandel, a former chain smoker, whose hands “still moved mechanically, as if they were holding a cigarette” in the cattle car on the way to Auschwitz. Former Czech army officer Feldmann, who held “séance-style meetings,” formulating detailed and futile escape plans. The spasm of generosity in which those who will soon be transported to a new and unknown destiny receive meager gifts, a cigarette butt and a piece of cabbage, from those who are for the moment left behind: “In the spirit of those who remain, this imperative palpitates: We have to give, give something.”

While this suggests a residual humanity, there is in this vivid flash of truth none of the implausibilities and glib moral lessons that have tormented and devalued Holocaust fiction since Life Is beautiful has The boy in the striped pajamas.

Debreczeni’s book dramatically highlights the difficult but necessary dual demands of the Holocaust and its memorialization: what we might call the demands of the universal and the particular, or the general and the specific. To restore his memory, any form of justice must mean never proclaiming again, for everyone: denounce and oppose all acts of mass violence. But the urgency of achieving this general imperative must not involve moving too quickly beyond the details of what the Nazis and their accomplices perpetrated; beyond its scale and its industrialized mechanisms, its bureaucratized subtleties, its pure massiveness and the massiveness of each life flayed, reduced and destroyed.

Only by keeping in mind both the general imperative and the specific example can we hope to respond to Debreczeni’s anguished call into the void on his first night in Dörnhau: “Come here , you visionaries who create with pen, chalk, stone or brush; all of you who have always sought to evoke the grimace of suffering and death; prophets of Dance of Deathengravers of terror, scribes of the underworld – come hither!

Cold crematorium by József Debreczeni (translated by Paul Olchvary) is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian And Observer order your copy from Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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