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Adler, Theresienstadt, Sebald


In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, much of the detailed information about the concentration camp Theresienstadt came from Hans G. Adler’s massive book Theresienstadt 1941-1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Geschichte, Soziologie, Psychologie.

Random House is announcing “a major literary event” that will be of interest to any reader of W.G. Sebald.  Here’s the story of a new publication (directly from their website):

…the first-ever English translation of a lost masterpiece of Holocaust literature by acclaimed author and survivor H. G. Adler.

The story behind the story of The Journey is remarkable in itself: Award-winning translator Peter Filkins discovered an obscure German novel in a Harvard Square bookstore and, reading it, realized that it was a treasure unavailable to English speakers. It was the most powerful book by the late H. G. Adler, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, a writer whose work had been praised by authors from Elias Canetti to Heinrich Böll and yet remained unknown to international audiences.

Written in 1950 after Adler’s emigration to England, The Journey was not released in Germany until 1962. After the war, larger publishing houses stayed away from novels about the Holocaust, feeling that the tragedy could not be fictionalized and that any metaphorical interpretation was obscene. Only a small publisher was in those days willing to take on The Journey.

Yet Filkins found that Adler had depicted the event in a unique, truly modern, and deeply moving way. Avoiding specific mention of country or camps–even of Nazis and Jews–The Journey is a lyrical nightmare of a family’s ordeal and one member’s survival. Led by the doctor patriarch Leopold, the Lustig family finds itself “forbidden” to live, uprooted into a surreal and incomprehensible circumstance of deprivation and death. This cataclysm destroys father, daughter, sister, and wife and leaves only Paul, the son, to live again among those who saved or sacrificed him. The Journey reveals a world beset by an “epidemic of mental illness . . . As a result of the epidemic, everyone was crazy, and once they finally recognized what was happening it was too late.”

Linked by its innovative style to the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, The Journey is as much a revelation as other recent discoveries on the subject as the works of W. G. Sebald and Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise. It is a book proving that art can portray the unimaginable and expand people’s perceptions of it, a work anyone interested in recent history and modern literature must read.

H. G. Adler, born in Prague in 1910, was the author of twenty-six books of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and history. A survivor of Theresienstadt, Adler is best known for his studies of day-to-day life there, as documented in Theresienstadt 1941-1945 and Der verwaltete Mensch (Administrated Man). Also a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Adler lost his wife and her parents to the camps before leaving Czechoslovakia after the war to settle in England. Once there, he began writing novels about the Holocaust, The Journey being the first of five works of fiction. Working as a freelance writer and teacher throughout his life, Adler died in London in 1988.

If anyone wishes to pursue the Sebald-Adler connection further, I understand there is an essay on this topic by Marcel Atze in Ruth Vogel-Klein’s anthology W. G. Sebald. Memoire. Transferts. Images Erinnerung. Ubertragungen. Bilder (Strasbourg: Universite Marc Bloch, 2005).

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. petebyrne #

    Hi Terry:

    Your write-up of Adler’s “The Journey” brought me back to Aharon Appelfeld’s, “Badenheim 1939,” an eerie, surreal Holocaust novel in which the historical specifics; the Nazis, the Germans, the War, are, as in Adler’s book, never mentioned.


    November 19, 2008
  2. Hi Terry,
    Do you know if a copy of Adler’s book about Theresienstadt is in the Terezin ghetto museum?

    December 8, 2013
    • Cheri, Sorry, but I don’t know. I have never been there.

      December 9, 2013

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