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Witnessing, Memory, Poetics


Toward the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz tells the book’s narrator that he has just read a “heavy tome, running to almost eight hundred close-printed pages, which H.G. Adler, a name previously unknown to me, had written between 1945 and 1947 in the most difficult of circumstances, partly in Prague and partly in London, on the subject of the setting up, development, and internal organization of the Theresienstadt ghetto, and which he had revised several times before it was brought out by a German publishing house in 1955…” It was a struggle for Austerlitz to understand the difficult German and he often spent an entire day translating a single page. “I might as well say it was almost as difficult for me as deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text in hieroglyphic or cuneiform script. The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unraveled syllable by syllable.” But Austerlitz persisted until the end and “read down to the last footnote,”anxious to absorb every detail of the terrible place where he had been imprisoned and where his mother had perished. Sebald’s retelling of Adler’s seminal study Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Geschichte, Soziologie, Psychologie,embodied in a single sentence some ten pages long, has resulted in new and widespread interest in Adler’s books, most of which had languished during his lifetime before falling into oblivion.

Hans Günther Adler was born in Prague in 1910. In 1941 he and his family were sent by the Nazis to a Jewish workcamp, then to Theresienstadt, where they remained for two and a half years before being moved to Auschwitz. Adler was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust. At the end of the war, he began his immensely detailed study of Theresienstadt, which was finally published in 1955. Taking up residence in London, he eventually produced more than twenty books, including the three novels. Until recently, none of Adler’s books were available in English translation, but by the end of 2014, it will be possible to read all three of his published novels in English for the first time thanks to Modern Library: The Journey (2009), Panorama (2012), and The Wall (December 2014).

In October 2012, a conference was held in London on the subject H.G. Adler/W.G. Sebald: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, coordinated by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. Thankfully, Camden House has just published a volume of essays that emerged from the conference: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. In the first section of the book we hear from Finch and Wolff, Adler’s son Jeremy Adler, Adler’s translator Peter Filkins, and scholar Jo Catling.

Finch and Wolff set the stage in their introduction “The Adler-Sebald Intertextual Relationship as Paradigm for Intergenerational Literary Testimony.”

This volume investigates the connections between the major contributions that both writers have made in exploring the poetics of memory, asserting the ethics of witnessing, and establishing new forms of historiography….this volume reveals how, on the one hand, an earlier witness had been repeatedly dismissed as having written illegitimate literary testimonials, while on the other a contemporary author gained renown through his literary writings of Holocaust testimony, memory, and trauma.

In “Memory’s Witness – Witnessing Memory,” Jeremy Adler recalls his reaction when he read Sebald’s account of his father’s book in Austerlitz.

I read with fascination and a growing sense that he had crossed the line. What right had he to fictionalize a free agent? How could he justify his borrowings? Did his predatory witness distort a truthful memory? Sebald’s tragic death broke off the possibility of discussion, forever impeded reconciliation. And since then, I have experienced many different reactions to Austerlitz, from an anger comparable to that which Frank Auerbach voiced at the alleged theft of his personality in Die Ausgewanderten to the gratitude I now feel to Sebald for what was clearly intended as an act of homage.

Adler also summarizes how he views the connections between the two men, who never met or spoke to each other, much to Sebald’s regret.

Adler and Sebald have much in common. They are both scholar-poets -Dichter – who practice scholarship, fiction, poetry, and photography; both write as German-speaking exiles in England; and both stand in the tradition of Austrian literature defined by the work of Adalbert Stifter.

Peter Filkins, who has translated all three of Adler’s novels, writes that “Adler and Sebald are bookends to the central literary problem of our time – namely, in the face of immense suffering experienced at the hands of systematic, mechanized, and largely featureless forces acting upon largely nameless victims, what can literature do to depict, explain, evoke, or understand such suffering.” Ironically, Adler’s response, despite the loss of his family and his own personal suffering, was to erase himself from his writing, “to examine [Theresienstadt] in a scholarly manner and as such to let it remain completely free of any individual experience.” In fact, Filkins points out, it’s difficult to determine how memory might have played a role in Adler’s conception of the Holocaust since he left so few firsthand comments on his own Holocaust experiences. Sebald, on the other hand, with no personal experience of the Holocaust, saw that “his task as a writer is to get at that undiscovered truth” that witnesses choose not to see.

Jo Catling, in her essay “Writing the Medusa: A Documentation of H.G. Adler and Theresienstadt in W.G. Sebald’s Library,” tracks down and analyzes the various resources that Sebald had available to him on Adler, Theresienstadt, and the Holocaust – both in his own library and his university library.

Over the coming weeks I’ll continue to summarize the essays as I read the next three sections of Witnessing, Memory, Poetics.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Helen Finch and commented:
    Terry Pitts kindly reviews our new volume ‘Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H. G. Adler and W. G. Sebald’. I will write my own blogpost about this volume soon – thank you so much, Terry, for being among the first and kindest readers!

    September 24, 2014

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