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Posts from the ‘Poetics’ Category

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. Read more