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A Natural Curiosity :: A sentence by W.G. Sebald
Sunday, March 15, 2015

A sentence by W.G. Sebald

The slow unfolding of memory that drives W.G. Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz makes it one of the most powerful of the many Holocaust narratives I have read. Toward the end, the title character gives voice to this detailed, unhurried, and suffocatingly endless single sentence about the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.


It seems unpardonable to me today that I had blocked off the investigation of my most distant past for so many years, not on principle, to be sure, but still of my own accord, and that now it is too late for me to seek out Adler, who had lived in London until his death in the summer of 1988, and talk to him about that extra-territorial place where at the time, as I think I have mentioned before, said Austerlitz, some sixty thousand people were crammed together in an area little more than a square kilometer in size—industrialists and manufacturers, lawyers and doctors, rabbis and university professors, singers and composers, bank managers, businessmen, shorthand typists, housewives, farmers, labourers and millionaires, people from Prague and the rest of the Protectorate, from Slovakia, from Denmark and Holland, from Vienna and Munich, Cologne and Berlin, from the Palatinate, from Lower Franconia and Westphalia—each of whom had to make do with about two square meters of space in which to exist and all of them, in so far as they were in any condition to do so or until they were loaded into trucks and sent on east, obliged to work entirely without remuneration in one of the primitive factories set up, with a view to generating actual profit, by the External Trade Section, assigned to the bandage-weaving workshop, to the handbag and satchel assembly line, the production of horn buttons and other haberdashery items, the manufacturing of wooden soles for footwear and of cowhide galoshes; to the charcoal yard, the making of such board games as Nine Men’s Morris and Catch the Hat, the splitting of mica, the shearing of rabbit fur, the bottling of ink dust, or the silkworm-breeding station run under the aegis of the SS; or, alternatively, employed in one of the operations serving the ghetto’s internal economy, in the clothing store, for instance, in one of the precinct mending and darning rooms, the shredding section, the rag depot, the book reception and sorting unit, the kitchen brigade, the potato-peeling platoon, the bone-crushing mill, the glue-boiling plant, or the mattress department, as medical and nursing auxiliaries, in the disinfestation and rodent control service, the floor space allocation office, the central registration bureau, the self-administration housed in barrack block BV, known as “The Castle,” or in the transport of goods maintained within the walls of the fortress by means of a medley of carts of every conceivable kind and four dozen ancient hearses brought from the now defunct Jewish communities in the Bohemian countryside to Terezin, where they moved along the crowded streets with two men harnessed between the shafts and four to eight pushing or putting their weight against the spokes of the wheels of these oddly swaying conveyances, which were covered by ulcerations of peeling black varnish and from which, before long, the rickety superstructures, high-built coach boxes, and silver-bronzed canopies resting on turned columns had been roughly sawn away, so that the lower parts, on the sides of which rows of letters and numbers were coarsely painted in lime-wash, scarcely betrayed their former function, a function, said Austerlitz, for which they were still frequently employed even now, since much of the load carted round Theresienstadt every day was made up by the dead, of whom there were always a great many because the high population density and poor diet rendered it impossible for the course of such infectious diseases as scarlet fever, enteritis, diphtheria, jaundice, and tuberculosis to be stemmed, and because the average age of those brought from all regions of the German Reich to the ghetto was over seventy, and these people, who before they were sent away had been led to believe some tale about a pleasant resort in Bohemia called Theresienbad, with beautiful gardens, promenades, boardinghouses, and villas, and many of whom had been persuaded or forced to sign contracts, so-called Heimeinkaufsvertr√§ge, said Austerlitz, offering them, against deposits of up to eighty thousand Reichsmarks, the right of residence in what was described to them as a most salubrious place, these people, Austerlitz continued, had come to Theresienstadt, completely misled by the illusions implanted in their minds, carrying in their luggage all manner of personal items and mementoes which could be of no conceivable use in the life that awaited them in the ghetto, often arriving already ravaged in body and spirit, no longer in their right minds, delirious, frequently unable to remember their own names, surviving the procedure of being sluiced in, as it was termed, either not at all or only by a few days, in which latter case, on account of the extreme psychopathic personality changes which they had undergone and which generally resulted in a kind of infantilism divorcing them from reality and entailing an almost total loss of the ability to speak and act, they were immediately sectioned in the casemate of the Cavalier Barracks, which served as a psychiatric ward and where they usually perished within a week under the dreadful conditions prevailing there, so that although there was no shortage of doctors and surgeons in Theresienstadt who cared for their fellow prisoners as well as they could, and in spite of the steam disinfection boiler installed in the malting kiln of the former brewery, the hydrogen cyanide chamber, and other hygienic measures introduced by the Kommandantur in an all-out campaign against infestation with lice, the number of the dead—entirely in line, said Austerlitz, with the intentions of the masters of the ghetto—rose to well above twenty thousand in the ten months between August 1942 and May 1943 alone, as a result of which the joiner’s workshop in the former riding school could no longer make enough deal coffins, there were sometimes more than five hundred dead bodies stacked in layers on top of each other in the central morgue in the casemate by the gateway to the Bohusevice road, and the four naphtha-fired incinerators of the crematorium, kept going day and night in cycles of forty minutes at a time, were stretched to the utmost limits of their capacity, said Austerlitz, and this comprehensive system of internment and forced labor which, in Theresienstadt as elsewhere, was ultimately directed, so he continued, solely at the extinction of life and was built on an organizational plan regulating all functions and responsibilities, as Adler’s reconstruction shows, with a crazed administrative zeal—from the use of whole troops of workers in building the branch railway line from Bohusevice to the fort, to the one man whose job it was to keep the clock mechanism in the closed Catholic church in order—this system had to be constantly supervised and statistically accounted for, particularly with respect to the total number of inmates of the ghetto, an uncommonly time-consuming business going far beyond civilian requirements when you remember that new transports were arriving all the time, and people were regularly weeded out to be sent elsewhere with their files marked R.n.e. for Ruckkehr nicht erwunscht, Return Not Desired, a purpose for which the SS men responsible, who regarded numerical accuracy as one of their highest principles, had a census taken several times, on one occasion, if I remember correctly, said Austerlitz, on 10 November 1943 outside the gates in the open fields of the Bohusevice basin, when the entire population of the ghetto—children, old people, and any of the sick at all able to walk not excepted—was marched out after assembling in the barracks yards at dawn to be drawn up in block formation behind numbered wooden boards, and there, through the whole of this cold and damp day, as the fog drifted over the fields, they were forced to wait, guarded by armed police, and not permitted to step out of line even for a minute, for the SS men to arrive, as they eventually did on their motorbikes at three o’clock, to carry out the count of heads and then repeat it twice before they could feel convinced that the final result, including those few still within the walls, did in fact tally with the expected number of forty thousand one hundred and forty-five, whereupon they rode away again in some haste, entirely forgetting to give any orders for the inmates’ return, so that this great crowd of many thousands stood out in the Bohusevice basin on that gray tenth of November drenched to the skin and increasingly distressed until well after dark, bowed and swaying like reeds in the showers that now swept over the countryside, before finally, driven to it by a wave of panic, they poured back into the town from which most of them had never emerged except for this one time since their transfer to Theresienstadt, where soon after the beginning of the new year, said Austerlitz, what was described as a Verschonerungsaktion or general improvement campaign was undertaken, with an eye to the imminent visit in the early summer of 1944 of a Red Cross commission, an event regarded by those authorities of the Reich responsible as a good opportunity to dissimulate the true nature of their deportation policy, and consequently it was decided to organize the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up program: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over a thousand rosebushes were planted, a children’s nursery and creche or Kriechlingskrippe, as it was termed, said Austerlitz, in one of those perverse formulations, were adorned with pretty fairy-tale friezes and equipped with sandboxes, paddling pools, and merry-go-rounds, whilst the former OREL cinema, which until now had served as a dumping ground for the oldest inmates of the ghetto and where a huge chandelier still hung from the ceiling in the dark space inside, was converted within a few weeks into a concert hall and theater, and elsewhere shops stocked with goods from the SS storehouses were opened for the sale of food and household utensils, ladies’ and gentlemen’s clothing, shoes, underwear, travel requisites, and suitcases; there were also a convalescent home, a chapel, a lending library, a gymnasium, a post office, a bank where the manager’s office was furnished with a sort of field marshal’s desk and a suite of easy chairs, not to mention a coffeehouse with sun umbrellas and folding chairs outside it to suggest the agreeable atmosphere of a resort inviting all passersby to linger for a while, and indeed there was no end to the improvements and embellishments, with much sawing, hammering, and painting until the time of the visit itself approached and Theresienstadt, after another seven and a half thousand of the less presentable inmates had been sent east amidst all this busy activity, to thin out the population, so to speak, became a Potemkin village or sham Eldorado which may have dazzled even some of the inhabitants themselves and where, when the appointed day came, the commission of two Danes and one Swiss official, having been guided, in conformity with a precise plan and a timetable drawn up by the Kommandant’s office, through the streets and over the spotless pavements, scrubbed with soap early that morning, could see for themselves the friendly, happy folk who had been spared the horrors of war and were looking out of the windows, could see how smartly they were all dressed, how well the few sick people were cared for, how they were given proper meals served on plates, how the bread ration was handed out by people in white drill gloves, how posters advertising sporting events, cabarets, theatrical performances, and concerts were being put up on every corner and how, when the day’s work was over, the residents of the town flocked out in their thousands on the ramparts and bastions to take the air, almost as if they were passengers enjoying an evening stroll on the deck of an oceangoing steamer, a most reassuring spectacle, all things considered, which the Germans, whether for propaganda purposes or in order to justify their actions and conduct to themselves, thought fit after the end of the Red Cross visit to record in a film, which Adler tells us, said Austerlitz, was given a sound track of Jewish folk music in March 1945, when a considerable number of the people who had appeared in it were no longer alive, and a copy of which, again according to Adler, had apparently turned up in the British-occupied zone after the war, although he, Adler himself, said Austerlitz, never saw it, and thought it was now lost without trace.
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