'Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word Is a Traitor' by Alexander Kluge: Excerpt

Marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945, Alexander Kluge’s newest work is a book about bitter fates, both already known and yet to unfold. Above all, it is about the many kinds of organized machinery built to destroy people.

Translated from the German by Alta L. Price

An Excerpt

Vanished into thin air, by some strange coincidence, like a gas

The wheels of the mixed freight-and-passenger train headed from Paris to southern Poland rolled onward. Two locomotives pulled the 26 carriages. Propaganda phrases like ‘wheels roll for victory’ were foreign to the experts overseeing all rail-related traffic throughout the German Reich.

Just outside Flörsheim am Main, a national-railway coordinator with discretionary powers stopped the transport. The plan had been for the escort team, consisting of French officials, to accompany the train to Cottbus where it would be transferred to German personnel. The French officials had a poor grasp on the German language. The German railway coordinator instead ordered that the train be unloaded here, on site, and then sent northward, empty. Apparently a crisis on the eastern front made it urgent that provisions (ham from Schleswig-Holstein) take precedence.

The goods (machinery and equipment) and detainees (Jews with French citizenship, arrested in Paris in September, en route to Auschwitz) were forcibly unloaded. The protestations of the French train attendants were duly noted. The two locomotives and carriages drove off.

With the help of the local group leader and teachers serving in the National Socialist public-welfare programme, the ‘refugees’ were accommodated in an adjacent freight yard and the station restaurant. Those who had been unloaded lay cheek-to-cheek on emergency cots and boards turned into makeshift beds.

Over the following days, many escaped. Some crossed the unguarded French border in small groups. Others were hired as unskilled labourers at nearby wineries that needed help with the harvest and were prepared to issue temporary papers. The wineries’ participation was aided by the fact that the French Jews understood just enough German to carry out the necessary tasks.

In the meantime, this transport from France to southern Poland (Auschwitz) had not been ‘forgotten’. As long as there are files, administrative processes (and those responsible for their enactment) cannot deny having a detailed memory. All subsequent investigations, however, led only to the equipment and machinery unloaded from the redeployed train, not to the people, who had been registered under a completely different hierarchical division. So a long time passed before it came to anyone’s attention at the Reich Security Main Office that the 977 detained Jews had not reached Auschwitz. Furthermore, those responsible were frequently travelling during this phase of the ‘extermination project’. In this case, every investigation had a set jurisdiction to overcome—another hurdle to clear.

By the time just what had happened at Flörsheim station was finally determined, only 18 of the unloaded detainees were picked up from the station restaurant. Those 18 people who had counted on their luck were killed at Auschwitz. All the rest—that is, the vast majority—‘vanished’ (seeped out through the countless unrecognized channels, paths and escape routes that lay within the terror system whose confused state, for those few days, lay exposed). Some made it to the suburbs of Lyon. Others went into hiding in northern France (with no papers and no contact with the French authorities, who they avoided for good reason).

First research, then kill

In the autumn of 1941, field researcher Dr Elfriede Fliethmann—of the Race and Folklore Department of the Krakow Institute for German Labour in the East (which had flourished in the two years since Poland’s occupation)—was visibly troubled. She shared the same fear as her colleague Dora Maria Kahlich—at the University of Vienna’s Anthropology Institute—namely, that (speedy as they were with their measurements and questions) they would soon be deprived of their ‘research material’ by the task force’s resettlement and extermination campaigns. Their research was being conducted in and around Tarnów.

Their subjects were large Orthodox families. According to the researchers, these families came from the original proponents of Galician Judaism, with utterly unique characteristics found nowhere else in the world. The researchers’ charts compared their findings of this ‘racial-anthropological miracle’ to the history and development of Galician-Jewish emigrants. Department VII (‘Enemy Research’) of the Reich Security Main Office had recently requested their research documents.

The researchers appealed to their superiors in Lviv, arguing against the ongoing resettlement and extermination measures taking place ‘directly next to their research area, undermining their work’. Their complaint explained the situation as follows: The effects that would result from relocation to an inhospitable area and decimation of the population have not yet been researched. Their subjects’ physical fitness in extreme conditions, i.e. selection (as shown in Table No. 15, ‘Success after emigration to the USA’), could result in qualities that turn an otherwise easily defeated enemy into a much more challenging opponent. In support of this argument, they had distilled world history and presented it on another table (No. 23). Moreover, the ‘anthropological miracle’ they had discovered was further distinguished by two unique characteristics: one, an obvious homogeneity of descent whose direct lineage could be traced back to Mesopotamia (through blood-composition analysis); two, a richly mixed linguistic heritage. The latter suggests that, over the past thousand years, members of the group in question lived in close contact with vastly different socio-anthropological systems and lifestyles, and therefore are, linguistically and culturally, virtual chameleons; and (if such a group were to be regarded as an enemy) these traits would prove advantageous for the opponent and disadvantageous for the Reich. In this regard, it is only logical that—as was the view of the Division VII Leader, Brigadier Prof Dr Franz Alfred Six—the anthropologist’s approach be: first research, then kill. Ultimately, only researching what is to be killed can yield important insights into the most efficient mode of elimination.

It all happened so fast. The researchers’ objections went unheeded. After fulfilling their task, the murder squads moved on. Soon the ‘partisan problem’ consumed all the occupying power’s attention. In any case, the Reich’s upper ranks could only ever entertain a merely superficial interest in any of the individual areas of their territory.

A touch of liveliness that surprised Proust

The eight young officers—exactly as they had left company headquarters on the front lines outside Verdun for the weekend, ‘disreputable’ in their tight uniforms insofar as they stank after the long nighttime journey, but nevertheless ready for amorous adventures—raced into the Duchess of Guermantes’ GRAND BALLROOM. Proust noted their arrival. Later on, he sought to get closer to the youngest of these senior officers, whose calling card bore the name Helbronner. Unnoticed by the latter, Proust lingered for some time, making small talk, trying to stay in the vicinity of this tall youth. The writer was intent on capturing the appearance of this war god amid these society folk in a portrayal that would last for all eternity. At the same time, he was also looking to stand out in the officer’s memory—the officer who would leave for the front, and perhaps death, the very next day. As Proust frantically jotted down scraps of conversation on the back of a menu, he lost track of the gang of sprightly pleasure-seekers who had enlivened the ballroom and then taken off. Proust looked among the dancers, the turmoil of spectators, the lounge area near the toilets and by the exits, but Helbronner was nowhere to be found.

The most French of all Jews: Jacques Helbronner

Jacques Helbronner—supporter of Marshal Pétain, friend of Cardinal Gerlier in Lyon, the most French of all Jews, top officer before Verdun, lawyer, member of the Conseil d’État, president of the Israelite Central Consistory of France (excluding foreign and immigrant Jews, who were relegated to a separate organization)—was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris on 28 October 1943. He and his wife were deported on Transport No. 62, from Drancy to Auschwitz, which left French territory on 20 November. Both were gassed immediately upon arrival.

Was he wearing his uniform? He had been when he was arrested. He had also donned all his Orders of the Republic and medals of military bravery. All those decorations had been taken from him at the barracks in Drancy; they were considered provocative, as if they would cause people to rise up against the Vichy regime at the very last moment. The protective coat of his uniform was replaced by plain civilian clothes, as if he were any other man. So did he die clothed or naked? Like all others killed in that fashion, he was unclothed at the time of death. He was no longer the GREAT HELBRONNER, who had married into old French money, making his status in France appear set for life.

President Pétain and Cardinal Gerlier were notified immediately after his arrest. He could have been rescued in the 23 days before he was loaded onto the transport train. Even at the border, French officials could have taken him from the train. Over 80 people tried to organize help. Why did the cardinal do nothing? What real risk might the Vichy authorities have run had they attempted a rescue, even if only to cleanse their consciences for the sake of appearances? It’s puzzling that nothing happened. Even just sending the Helbronners to Theresienstadt, instead of Auschwitz, would have sufficed. Leo Baeck, Paul Epstein, David Cohen, Abraham Asscher and Zvi Koretz were all deported to either Theresienstadt or Bergen-Belsen, and most of them survived.

Expulsion’s long roads

A wise man from Salamanca—doctor, theologian, jurist and forebear of Fray Luis de Léon—was a visionary. He could wind his way along the paths of the INTELLIGIBLE WORLD, parallel to the mere world of factual reality, to navigate the tunnels of the future. He never told a soul exactly how he did it. In the period prior to the 1492 edict of expulsion, it became glaring that Saint Dominic’s zealous followers posed the threat of persecution.

This sage advised several of Salamanca’s Sephardic families to emigrate to Lisbon before the forced expulsion. But they shouldn’t trust the Catholic rulers of Portugal for long, either; rather, he advised they continue their journey before 1497, moving on to the more tolerant Ottoman Empire or the Netherlands.

One of these extended families crossed the Atlantic and reached Pernambuco, which was occupied by the Dutch for some time, and then, after the Dutch lost the colony, moved on to Amsterdam. Another extended family settled in the sultanate and spent several centuries there. It wasn’t until 1943 in Salonica that some of their descendants fell into the hands of new persecutors, who no longer even bothered basing their extermination plans on religious belief. The Scholar of Salamanca’s prophetic gift had endured several hundred years, but by the end of that Platonic Year, after providing a spiritual overview of 26,000 years, it turned out to be a bit blurry.