Unlikely Nostalgia: Auschwitz Through the Eyes of a Child

By Susanne Beyer

He was sent to Auschwitz as a boy, and never forgot the images and dreams that defined this period of his life. Now Jerusalem academic Otto Dov Kulka has written an unusual book about his life in a Nazi concentration camp.

His office window looks out over Jerusalem, where the light-colored stone buildings contrast with the fading late afternoon light. But Otto Dov Kulka's thoughts are far away. "Let's take a virtual journey," he says. On his computer, he opens black-and-white photos that depict the ruins of the crematoriums at Auschwitz -- a forest of crumbling chimneys amid tall grass.

Kulka moves the cursor across the chimneys and through the grass. "That's the landscape of my childhood," he says quietly. He was in Auschwitz between the ages of 10 and 11. There is a strange tone in his voice -- not sadness, not rage, but something that sounds like longing. It seems almost strange to ask the question: Is he homesick for Auschwitz?

"Well, yes!" he exclaims. "Auschwitz was my childhood! I learned to become a humanist at Auschwitz."

Kulka doesn't just say these kinds of things. He also writes them, and in doing so has managed to compose one of the most astonishing books ever written about Auschwitz: "Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination."

It's a cumbersome title in a genre that already has many books and eyewitness accounts. Despite a few glowing reviews, Kulka's book has not attracted the attention it deserves. First published in English in January, it was released two months later in Germany, where the first edition hasn't sold out yet.

An Act of 'Extreme Sarcasm'

In his book, Kulka doesn't empathize with the pain of the victims or the motivation of the perpetrators. Like someone looking in from the outside, he considers his childhood days in Auschwitz from the observer's perspective. He completes a self-psychoanalysis of sorts, invoking images and scenes, wondering about their significance, though he knows the questions will have to remain unanswered.

In one such passage, he describes the scene in which he watched his mother walk away for the last time. She was pregnant and being taken to another concentration camp, where she had hoped that she and the baby, conceived in Auschwitz, would survive. But they wouldn't make it; both died shortly before liberation.

"In my mind's eye I see images: one image. These are actually seconds, only seconds, seconds of a hasty farewell after which my mother turned around and started to walk into the distance toward those grey structures of the camp. She wore a thin dress that rippled in the light breeze and I watched as she walked and receded into the distance. I expected her to turn her head, expected a sign of some kind. She did not turn her head … I could not understand. … I thought about it afterwards, and think about it to this day: why did she not turn her head, at least once?"

In another scene, this time at the children's camp at Auschwitz, a Jewish man named Imre teaches the children the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "What was his intention in choosing to perform that particular text, a text that is considered a universal manifesto of everyone who believes in human dignity, in humanistic values, in the future -- facing those crematoria, in the place where the nonexistence of the future was perhaps the only definite thing? Was it a kind of protest demonstration, absurd perhaps, perhaps without any purpose, but an attempt not to forsake and not to lose … those values which ultimately only the flames could put an end to …?"

"That is one possibility, a very fine one, but there is a second possibility, which is apparently far more likely," he goes on, suggesting that it was an act of "extreme sarcasm."

Publicly Silent for Decades

In this way, Kulka strings together images and questions, mixing poems into his collage of text, along with photos he took in 1978, during his last visit to Auschwitz. The book is a frenzy of scenes and thoughts, and in that sense a reflection of the searching, associative and erratic way in which people actually experience memory.

The book is all the more astonishing when coupled with the knowledge of who the author is and what he has done until now. As a professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Kulka has spent his entire professional life searching for explanations for the Nazis' crimes.

He has split himself into two individuals: the wide-eyed child from his book, who sees but doesn't understand Auschwitz, and the academic who tries to understand and says: "We must not stop finding explanations for the course of history, because something like the extermination of the Jews can happen again."

Kulka says that he is both the child and the academic, always. "But the two dimensions of thought belong together: That we have images, primal experiences that we can't explain to ourselves, but that we supplement these images with exploration, so that we can come as close as possible to the truth."

He hardly ever showed his second self, the wide-eyed child, in public before "Landscapes," which was published on his 80th birthday. Very few of his colleagues knew that the professor was an Auschwitz survivor, and that he had testified as a witness at the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1964. He kept his child self hidden, only letting it come out at night, when he would sit in his office at the university and make recordings about Auschwitz. The book is based on those tape recordings and his diaries.

It's hard to believe that Kulka managed to remain publicly silent about Auschwitz for so long. Now, sitting in his office, he sees the questioning look on my face as I stare at the tattoo on his forearm, where the concentration camp number 148975 is clearly recognizable. He says: "I used to have thicker, blacker hair, and it wasn't as easy to see the number. You know, it was like this: I didn't say anything, and hardly anyone asked."

The Law of the 'Great Death'

It has grown dark outside, and Kulka invites me to dinner at a restaurant with a view of Jerusalem's old city. During the drive, he listens to classical music on the radio. He says that he vacations every year at a chamber music festival in Tiberias in Galilee.

In the restaurant, Palestinians are sitting at one table and Jews at another. Both groups are celebrating. Kulka is pleased by the sight, by this moment of peace. He orders and starts telling stories, doing something he doesn't do in "Landscapes." He talks about his life, from its beginnings to today, as a cohesive narrative.

He was born on April 16 in what he calls the "fateful year" of 1933, in the small Czech town of Nový Hrozenkov. The Nazis had assumed power there in January of that year, and before long they had passed the first anti-Semitic laws.

His parents, Elly and Erich, spoke Czech and German with him, and he had a German nanny. Otto completed the first grade in a Czech school. It was "a happy year," he says, but then he was expelled. Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend school.

He was sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942. "It was a salvation," he says today, in yet another of his idiosyncratic sentences. "As a child, I was happy to finally be with other children again."

His mother voluntarily signed herself and Otto up for a transport to Auschwitz, not wanting to be separated from other family members. When they left, Otto promised his friends that he would write to them if Auschwitz were better than Theresienstadt.

When they arrived in Auschwitz, on Sept. 7, 1943, it was clear that it would be the end. Only one law applied there, "the law of the Great Death," as Kulka calls it.

A New Life

Sometimes he and other children did something as a dare, which they called "trying out a little death." They grabbed the electric fence, which was almost never live during the day. Once, when he handed his uncle some food through the fence, the barbed wire was electrified, and he still has the scars from the power surge today.

He expected death to come any day. He escaped once, when the murderers left him in the infirmary because he had diphtheria. It saved his life. In January 1945, he and his father were sent on a death march toward the center of Nazi Germany.

On Jan. 24, 1945, Otto Kulka and his father managed to escape during the march. They returned to Czechoslovakia. His father remained in Prague, and in 1949 Otto boarded a ship bound for Israel.

During the voyage, he added the Hebrew name "Dov" ("Bear") to his German name Otto. He didn't know what it meant, but he liked the way it sounded. Today he finds his name choice amusing. "I look nothing like a bear," he says. Kulka is short and has a slight build.

Israel was the utopia of a new beginning. "They tried to destroy Jerusalem in Auschwitz, which is why we wanted to build it up again," he says. He went to a kibbutz at first, where he worked in agriculture. Eventually he began his studies: first early, then medieval and finally contemporary Jewish history.

His professor of early Jewish history, Menachem Stern of the Hebrew University, was murdered by a Palestinian on his way to work, which happened to be the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. The killer later testified that he had wanted to kill a Jew, any Jew.

From then on, Kulka's life was shaped by the conflicts between Palestinians and Jews, like the Six-Day War and the opening and closing of various zones of the city.

It troubles him, because, as he says, he is "open-minded" toward the Palestinians. "After all, they are our neighbors."

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1. Auschwitz through the eyes of a child
marty98 07/19/2013
Extraordinary. I'm born in 1942 so barely able to understand this period in the 1940s. But in the 1950s I learned of family who fought in WW2 but were either killed or came back so scared that the memories were expunged and to speak of it, a curse. I understand Otto's need to understand but the understanding is for want. The perennial questioning of why remains unanswered. The more I want answers, no one can never be allowed to expand on it's unholy alliance. Otto's yearning is my passion. However I can today say it could be any group, not just Jews. Over the past 65+ years the intensity of hate has overwhelmed the United States. I struggle to not only understand but to reconcile with the force of hate that eliminated over 60 million people and continues into today destroying more and more. WHY?
2. Jerusalem academic Otto Dov Kulk's Book
spon-facebook-10000011112 07/31/2013
I would recommend this book as one of the required readings for Psychology students and those who plan to teach world history.
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