May 10, 2017

Following the Signs — From“Hell’s Traces” to Kafka in Princeton

After describing Franz Kafka’s “sharp and skeletal face” as it appears in a photograph from 1924, Philip Roth observes that “chiseled skulls like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens” and that had he lived, Kafka’s “would have been among them.” He then adds, “Of course it is no more horrifying to think of Franz Kafka in Auschwitz than to think of anyone at Auschwitz — it is just horrifying in its own way.” In fact, Kafka died the year the photograph was taken, “too soon for the holocaust.” Had such a monumental literary figure actually perished in Nazi ovens it would become a horror of the horror, a legend, an historic abomination.

“Content That I Can Breathe”

According to Kafka: The Early Years (Princeton Univ. Press $35), the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s landmark biography, Franz Kafka was “newly confronted with the problems of Jewish identity” four years before he died.

In one of the first entries in Diaries 1914-1923, January 8, 1914, however, Kafka is already asking, “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” Content to live, a stranger in the strange land of the self, Kafka, a Jew, asks what he has in common with Jews. Ten years later, upon asking his doctor for a lethal dose of morphine, he says, “Kill me or else you are a murderer.”

The year before the January 1914 diary entry, Kafka had written a novella about a salesman who wakes up “from unsettling dreams” to find himself “changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin,” vermin being one of the Nazi synonyms of choice for Jew. In his introduction to The Trial, George Steiner makes the connection when he observes that “vermin” and “annihilation” in The Metamorphosis will be “actualized,” Kafka’s “seeming fantastications” a “concrete fulfillment of augury, of detailed clairvoyance,” manifested when his lover Milena Jesenská and his three sisters die in the camps.

Streets and Neighborhoods

Along with Princeton resident Stanley Corngold’s edition of The Metamorphosis (Modern Library $15), and Princeton resident Shelley Frisch’s acclaimed translation of Stach’s biography, I’ve been reading Hell’s Traces: One Murder, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials (Farrar Straus and Giroux $25) by yet another area resident, Victor Ripp, whose three-year-old cousin died at Auschwitz (the subtitle’s “one murder”). My uneasy, tentative approach to Hell’s Traces — it’s not a subject that I would go out of my way to read about — ended 12 pages into the book. At that point Ripp is describing his search for a holocaust memorial in Bayerische Viertel, an outlying district of Berlin known as the Jewish Switzerland, where as many as 16,000 Jews had once lived, among them the man who would become the most renowned Princeton resident of them all, Albert Einstein.

As Ripp walked through the “sedate middle-class neighborhood” of “four-and-five-story stucco row houses,” he would have missed the memorial but for a two-by-three-foot sign attached to a lampost displaying “a pictogram of a chalked hopscotch game”; on the other side were words he translates as “Aryan and non-Aryan children are forbidden from playing together.” On the next street another such sign shows a pictogram of a pair of swimming trunks; on the other side the sentence, Jews can no longer use Berlin pools. So it goes, street by street, sign by sign. A piece of music notation: Jews are expelled from all choral groups. A pictogram of a cat: Jews can no longer keep pets. An ashtray: Jews can no longer purchase cigarettes or cigars. A thermometer: Jewish doctors can no longer practice. Finally, around the corner from Einstein’s former residence, Ripp found the final, blacked-out pictogram (“the last exit door slammed shut”): Emigration for Jews is forbidden.

As he went from street to street, Ripp realized that while “it was odd to find a memorial dispersed throughout a neighborhood instead of standing in one spot, the arrangement nevertheless made sense. The intervals between the signs mirrored the step-by-step corruption of a nation’s soul that culminated in the view that murdering Jews was acceptable.”

According to the information given in Hell’s Traces, as many as 6,000 of the residents of the Jewish Switzerland died in the camps. Ripp also learned that some current inhabitants actually assumed that the signs were stating new government rules. They even made calls to the police asking when the rules would be go into effect. It seems far-fetched, perhaps the  memorial’s creators were stretching a truth to make a point to suggest that people in that neighborhood accepted the reality “that Nazi policies” were being “put back into practice.” In any case, it was thought necessary to attach a disc to each sign to identify it as a conceptual work of art.

Where Is It?

Whatever the author of The Trial might think of the pictogram project, he would probably relate to Jochem Gerz’s holocaust memorial in Harburg, a suburb of Hamburg. Gerz’s strategy being that “if you are representing an absence, you create an absence,” he built a “forty-foot-high lead-coated column with an attached instrument that allowed passersby to inscribe messages on the column”; as the inscriptions were added, “the column descended into the ground.” In describing his search for this Kafkaesque apparatus, Ripp creates a paradigm of the absurd: “I had assumed I would have no trouble finding the memorial, even though by this time it had completely descended into the ground.” But there’s the rub: the sculptor counted on his memorial having “the continual attention of Harburg’s citizens, a perpetual civics lesson” in spite of the fact that it could no longer be seen. No one one in Harburg knew what Ripp was talking about when he asked for directions, not until the police officers who “were excited to learn that such a memorial existed in their town.” Thus did “absence creates absence” become “out of sight out of mind.”

The End of Complacency?

Reading Hell’s Traces is a challenge to the complacency of living in Princeton in the spring of 2017, with the town in its seasonal glory, everything beautifully blooming, civilization at its most resplendent — except for the surfacing of anti-semitic grafitti and racist flyers on the campus. If nothing else, the ominous machinations in Washington have made complacency unfashionable. As noted in last week’s page one story, the Institute for Advanced Study is even now reflecting on its continuing history as a refuge for scholars and scientists in the face of travel bans, immigrant deportations, funding cuts, and other threats to “the autonomy of research and the pursuit of a dignified human life.” Meanwhile, there’s a positive reflection of the signs of Berlin’s memorial in the recent appearance here of welcome-neighbor signs in Arabic, Spanish, and English.

Kafka’s Sisters

You don’t have to read far in Kafka’s diaries and letters to connect with his doomed sisters, whether in his letters to Valerie (“Valli”), or the ones to the middle sister Gabriele (“Elli”) in which he expounds on the family dynamic with quotes from Gulliver’s Travels. Then there’s the youngest sister Ottilie (“Ottla”), who became, according to Stach, Kafka’s “ultimate confidante, the human being with whom he had the deepest lifelong bond,” a “turn of events” that toward the end of his life “struck him as an unfathomable and undeserved miracle.”

While Valli and Elli apparently never had a chance, being deported straight from Prague to the ghetto in Łódz and the “general liquidation in August and September of 1944,” Ottla had married a Catholic and raised two daughters, and might have been spared, except that in 1942, she divorced her husband, thinking that by doing so she could protect her family. When Ottla was deported to Terezin, she helped look after children who had been orphaned or abandoned. In 1943 she was selected to help care for a group of Polish children who were put on a transport destined for safety in Sweden, as some accounts have it (see Ottla went with them. The actual destination was Auschwitz, where she and the children “were murdered upon arrival.”

Kafka in Princeton

In the essay by Philip Roth that Stanley Corngold reprints in the Modern Library Metamorphosis, Roth imagines Kafka’s future had he survived TB and “found a way to execute an escape for himself.” He might have landed either at the New School in New York or “perhaps, through the influence of Thomas Mann,” found a position in the German department at Princeton. Roth pictures “a frail and bookish 55-year-old bachelor,” the author of stories “no one in America had ever heard of” — if, that is, he’d continued to keep works like The Castle and The Trial “his secret.”

Even so, it’s hard to imagine Roth’s version of Kafka living out his life in Princeton, a guest at small dinner parties hosted by Mann or John von Neumann or Jacques Maritain, at which Einstein would play the violin, as he apparently did for Kafka and his friend Max Brod in 191l-1912 Prague. Still, Kafka is here in spirit, whether you read him into Victor Ripp’s book or find him by way of Princeton’s keepers of the flame, including, among others, the University Press that published Stach’s great biography; its translator Shelley Frisch; the Kafka scholar and translator Stanley Corngold, and, for that matter, Philip Roth, who lived and taught here for two years in the 1960s.