A Parallel Universe of Pain
Benjamin, Ross, Moment
By H.G. Adler
Translated by Peter Filkins
2008, $26, pp. 320
H.G. Adler's The Journey is a Holocaust novel that contains no explicit reference to Jews, Nazis, ghettos, concentration camps or Auschwitz. Instead, Adler presents his account in a generalized, anonymous mode reminiscent of a fable or fairy tale. It begins in the second person: "No one asked you, it was decided already, you were rounded up and not one kind word was spoken." Messengers come into homes bearing a decree: "Thou shalt not dwell among us." For the recipients of this message, a litany of prohibitions made life impossible: "Shops were forbidden, doctors, hospitals, vehicles, and resting places, forbidden, all forbidden. Laundries were forbidden, libraries were forbidden.... What was and what could be were forbidden." Those whose entire world and future existence have been abolished turn into "ghosts;" there is no longer any name for "those formerly known as human beings." They are sent on a nightmarish journey, hauled away in trains, imprisoned, enslaved and killed. The authorities view this systematic project of removal as a process of "getting rid of the rubbish."
At the heart of the novel lies the fate of a doctor named Leopold Lustig and his family; only the son Paul survives. Though the place-names are fictitious, the family's story largely follows the stations of the novelist's own journey from 1942 to 1945. Born in 1910 in Prague to Jewish parents, Hans Gunther Adler studied musicology, literature and philosophy at Charles University, where he received his doctorate in 1935. Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 with his wife and her family. His father-in-law died in the camp. After more than two years confined in the sealed town, which served as a way station en route to the death camps in the east, the remaining family members were transported to Auschwitz. There, Adler was ordered to the forced labor camp Niederorschel, but his wife refused to separate from her mother, and both were murdered in the gas chambers. Eventually, Adler was transferred to the Langenstein-Zwieberge camp, from which he was liberated by the Americans in 1945. His parents and numerous other family members had perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Adler emigrated from Prague to London in 1947. In 1955 he published his study Theresienstadt, 1941-1945, which he had completed seven years earlier based on detailed notes he had taken during his internment. A comprehensive anatomy of the camp, the work served as legal evidence of the "Final Solution" in German courts. W.G. Sebald's reaction to it in his 2001 novel Austerlitz evokes a dimension that is essential to Adler's fictionalization of his experiences in The Journey: "In its almost futuristic deformation of social life, the ghetto system had something incomprehensible and unreal about it, even though Adler objectively describes it to the last detail." The Journey, which Adler wrote in 1950, conveys this sense of unreality through an array of modernist literary techniques: montage; disorienting shifts of time, place and point-of-view; stream of consciousness; and a stylistic mix of highly figurative and lyrical language, intricate symbolism, abstract philosophical reflection and pointed irony. …