SPIEGEL Interview with Author Edgar Hilsenrath "I Felt Guilty Because I Survived the Holocaust"
Jewish author Edgar Hilsenrath survived the Holocaust in a Ukrainian ghetto and then went on to become a best-selling author. He spoke with SPIEGEL about his life in the ghetto, about writing satirical Holocaust novels and about the Turkish massacre of the Armenians.
Edgar Hilsenrath survived the Holocaust and went on to become a well-known author.
Mr. Hilsenrath, in your novels you write about living and surviving in the Jewish ghetto. Some people find it unsettling that you talk about your experiences there with a certain amount of humor and satire. Can you see what they mean?
Hilsenrath: If I could, I wouldn't write like that. I just have a rather perverse take on the events of the Holocaust.
SPIEGEL: There are some people who find that attitude offensive.
Hilsenrath: In Germany people want to make up to the Jews for what happened by idealizing them. The Jews in the ghetto were every bit as imperfect as human beings anywhere else. There are people who criticize me for portraying the Jews in my novel "Night a Novel" as suspicious, miserable and mean. I can only respond by saying that in "Night a Novel" it is not the Jews that I was describing, but rather the poverty of the ghetto...
SPIEGEL: ...as well as what makes human beings human. "Night a Novel", your first novel, describes everything in such horrifying detail that it is almost a descent into hell. Did you initially set out to write a literary, rather than a factual, book?
Hilsenrath: Yes, I wanted to write a literary piece of work. At the age of 14 I had already decided that I wanted to become a novelist.
SPIEGEL: Was the ghetto which you describe in "Night a Novel" similar to where you lived in Mogilyov-Podolski in Soviet Ukraine?
Hilsenrath: It is actually the exact same ghetto. Just with a different name.
SPIEGEL: Really? In your autobiographical novel "The Adventures of Ruben Jablonski" you get the impression that your family was more privileged than most of the ghetto.
Hilsenrath: That's true. My life wasn't ever really like the lives of the characters in my novel "Night a Novel".
SPIEGEL: Why were things different for you?
Hilsenrath: I arrived there with a whole group of Jews from Siret in Bukovina (in present-day Moldavia). The leader of our group knew the commander who was in charge of the ghetto. He not only allowed us to use an old school building, but also gave us papers so that we were not transported on again. The whole group, about 40 people, lived in three classrooms. Everyone in the ghetto suffered hunger; there was absolutely nothing. But we had smuggled jewelry, fur coats, dresses and other valuables into the ghetto, even though this would have been punishable by death.
SPIEGEL: Did you trade these goods on the black market?
Hilsenrath: Yes. We would sneak out of the ghetto at night and trade the goods for food with farmers living in the area. We then sold the food to the people in the ghetto. This was how the group from Siret survived.
SPIEGEL: Was your whole family in the ghetto?
Hilsenrath: No. My father went into hiding in France. I actually grew up in (the eastern German town of) Halle and then, in 1938, I went with my mother and brother to my grandparents in Bukovina because Germany had become too dangerous for us. The whole atmosphere was impossible. My school in Halle was a real Nazi school. Every day I had to fight with the other pupils, who gave me horrible nicknames. The teachers bullied me.
SPIEGEL: Was it any better in Siret?
After World War II, Hilsenrath spent time on a kibbutz in Israel.
SPIEGEL: Also maybe because your grandparents were somewhat better off than most of the people in the shtetl?
Hilsenrath: Yes, they were well off.
SPIEGEL: When did you have to leave Siret?
Hilsenrath: In 1941, when the war broke out. All the Jews from our town were transported to Central Romania. First to Craiova, then back to the area around Siret, to a town called Radautz. We stayed there for two months and scraped by living from hand to mouth. Then all of a sudden posters sprang up all over town, saying that all the Jews from Bukovina would be deported to the east, on order of (then Romanian leader) Marshall Antonescu. We had to be at the station at six the next morning. Anyone who was found still at home would be shot. We were crowded into cattle trucks and for two days we traveled through Czernowitz and Bessarabia to a small town called Ataki, which is on the Dnister River. The ruined Ukrainian city Mogilyov-Podolski was on the other side of the river. We were brought to the ghetto there on rafts. We stayed until March 1944, when the Russians came.
SPIEGEL: Ranek, the main figure in your novel "Night a Novel", has very different experiences of the ghetto than yours. He is one of the poorest people in the ghetto and at the end doesn't survive. Why did you decide to make him the hero of the story?
Hilsenrath: I wanted to describe the ghetto's lowest social level.
Hilsenrath: I don't know. Maybe because I had a guilty conscience.
SPIEGEL: Did you really feel guilty because things weren't as bad for you as for others?
Hilsenrath: I felt guilty because I survived.
SPIEGEL: While you were living in the ghetto people were constantly being deported. Did you ever guess what was happening to these people?
Hilsenrath: Rumor had it that they were being taken to the river Bug, further out to the east. The SS were stationed on the other side of the river and shot the Jews being sent across. The Romanians did that quite a lot. We knew about all that but we didn't think that things might be worse.
SPIEGEL: So you didn't live in constant fear of death?
Hilsenrath: As far as I was concerned, as a 15 year-old, it was all a great adventure. We heard about things that were happening in Poland, but we didn't know any real details. We lived from day to day.
SPIEGEL: Were you allowed to go back to Siret when the Russians took the ghetto?
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. It is a chapter that Turkey prefers to ignore.
SPIEGEL: Just as you describe in you novel "The Adventures of Ruben Jablonski?"
Hilsenrath: Yes. I made it to Czernowitz. But there, the Russians pulled me out of bed at night and arrested me. Then, we were all to be sent to a coal-pit in Donbass (in present-day eastern Ukraine). At roll call I met a cousin of mine from Poland. He was good at Russian and also quite skilful at forging papers. He made me two years younger, went to the Russian commandant and said: "The boy is only 16. You cannot deport him." They let me go. The next day, I went to Romania, which had been liberated by then. I walked 40 kilometers from Czernowitz to Siret. Bit by bit, my entire family gathered there. After six months, a delegation of Zionists from Bucharest turned up looking for young people to go to Palestine. And I said "Okay."
- Part 1: "I Felt Guilty Because I Survived the Holocaust"
- Part 2: Part Two: "The Armenians were the Jews of the Ottoman Empire.