There’s a chapter in Otto Dov Kulka’s memoir ‘Landscape of the Metropolis of Death’ which really struck me. I can’t reproduce it in full but the following excerpt gives a sense of what it says. The segment is sub-titled ‘The Blue Skies of Summer.’
“Another leap in time, to a different landscape and different colours. The colour is blue: clear blue skies of summer. Silver-coloured toy aeroplanes carrying greetings from distant worlds pass slowly across the azure skies while around them explode what look like white bubbles. The aeroplanes pass by and the skies remain blue and lovely, and far off, far off on that clear summer day, distant blue hills as though not of this world make their presence felt. That was the Auschwitz of that eleven-year-old boy. And when this boy, the one who is now recording this, asks himself — and he asks himself many times — what the most beautiful experience in your childhood landscapes was, where you escape to in pursuit of the beauty and the innocence of your childhood landscapes, the answer is: to those blue skies and silver aeroplanes, those toys, and the quiet and tranquillity that seemed to exist all around; because I took in nothing but that beauty and those colours and so they have remained imprinted in my memory.
This contrast is an integral element of the black columns that are swallowed up in the crematoria, the barbed-wire fences that are stretched tight all around by the concrete pillars. But in that experience all this seemingly did not exist, only in the background and not consciously.
Consciousness has internalised and submerged the sensation of the bold summer colours of that immense space; of the cerulean skies, the aeroplanes — and of the boy gazing at them and forgetting everything around him. There is almost no return to that Metropolis, with its sombre colours, with the sense of the immutable law that encloses all its beings within confines of allotted time and of death; that is, there is almost no sense of a return to that world without a sense of return to those wonderful colours, to that tranquil, magical and beckoning experience of those blue skies of the summer of 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
“These images of skies of blue and ‘columns of people in black being swallowed into the confines of the crematoria and disappearing clouds of smoke, the corridors of lights leading to the Metropolis of Death, the terms ‘Metropolis of Death’ and ‘Homeland of Death’, all of which are so close to me; landscapes to which I escape as one escaping into the landscapes of childhood, feeling in them a sense of freedom, protected by that immutable law of the all-pervasive dominion of death, by the beauty of summer landscapes – all these things are part of a private mythology which I am conscious of, a mythology that I forged, that I created, with which I amuse myself and in which – I will not even say I am tormented, I am not tormented — I find an escape when other things haunt me, and even when they don’t. This Homeland exists and is available to me always. But it is a myth, it has its own mythological language…”
“For George Lukács, ‘the “world-historical individual” must never be the protagonist of the historical novel, but only viewed from afar, by the average or mediocre witness.’ In other words, those historic events written about in books, are best discovered through the eyes of those who are missing from the text, people who at best are either given the epithet ‘mob’ or ‘masses’ or are bundled into numbers and tables of statistics. It’s through the eyes of these people that I want to see the past.”
Kulka’s words reminded me of this quote. The horrors of Auschwitz are pushed to the background but as such they are all the more graspable to the present-day imagination. To re-witness the Holocaust, we have to become like that 11 year old boy, standing in the midst of unimaginable horror, but absorbed nonetheless by the vastness a beautiful blue summer’s day sky.