His work has been compared to Primo Levi and last week he was awarded the prestigious Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize. He tells Jonathan Freedland why, 70 years on, he finally decided to write a book about his experience in Auschwitz
Among the 48 pictures that illustrate Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the short, truly extraordinary book that won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize last week, is a photograph of the author visiting Auschwitz in 1978. In fact, he is hardly visible: he is off at the far left of the picture, with only half his face and body in shot. The photo was taken by a taxi driver unfamiliar with the camera his passenger had handed him and the effect is to depict Otto Dov Kulka as a man split in two.
For all the driver's amateurism, it is an apt image: as Kulka, who will soon turn 81, tells me within a minute of our meeting: "I lived a double life." He is referring to the fact that for decades he was known as a historian of the Holocaust, specialising in the close study of German documents, writing cool, scholarly analysis. What few of his colleagues knew, and what he did not volunteer, was that this was no abstract field of academic interest. Kulka had been a child of Auschwitz, arriving in the death camp as a 10-year-old in September 1943 and remaining imprisoned there until January 1945.
For many years this experience remained locked away. He gave lectures on the Holocaust without mentioning his own connection; he attended a conference in Poland where a fellow scholar gave him advice as to which part of the camp he should visit to be sure to see "the real Auschwitz". He nodded and said nothing.
Yet in his diaries, thousands of pages of them, scribbled in cafes or, since 1991, recorded on tape at night in his office at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he would give voice to his earlier self. He would recall and probe moments, images and fragments of childhood memory. Two decades passed before the British historian Ian Kershaw got a glimpse of those recollections and persuaded Kulka to turn them into a manuscript. The result is a book scarcely more than 100 pages long, yet which has already been compared to the work of Primo Levi, a book that one suspects will only grow in importance – that may indeed come to be seen as one of the great works of art created in the aftermath of the Shoah.
In person, Kulka is courteous, warm and gently amazed by the sudden interest in him and his work. He is also impeccably well dressed, complete with natty cravat – and short. Those last two attributes are relevant. So many of the world's remaining Holocaust survivors are small: the grim truth is that starvation stunted their growth as children or teenagers. As for the elegant look, that too might be no coincidence. Visit London's Holocaust Survivors Centre, for example, and you will notice how exceptionally well turned out the regulars are. In the camps, keeping up appearances was a matter of life and death: if you looked ill, you would be deemed unfit for work and selected for the gas chambers.
Not that Kulka's experience had much in common with most of those who somehow survived Auschwitz. Moved there from Theresienstadt, Kulka and his mother were kept in a place that defied all the usual Auschwitz rules. They were untouched by the initial selection that doomed most new arrivals; they were allowed to stay together, to wear their own clothes; their heads were not shaved. This camp within a camp was known as the Familienlager, the family camp. "What was the meaning of this 'miracle'?" Kulka writes. "What was the purpose of this camp? No one ever found out, not even after the camp was liquidated."
The answer to the riddle only came decades later, revealed in the early 1980s to Kulka the historian (who then wrote an academic paper on the topic, reproduced as an appendix in the book, a text pointedly written in the detached third person, with no hint that this was something the author had experienced first-hand). Working through documents of the Third Reich, Kulka saw that the Familienlager was a ploy. Like Theresienstadt itself, it had been designed as a showpiece, a macabre Potemkin village that could be displayed before the inspectors of the International Red Cross as proof that rumours of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews were untrue.
The plan was hatched in the office of Adolf Eichmann, but was to prove unnecessary. The men from the Red Cross were so impressed by what they had seen at Theresienstadt, they declared there was no need to probe further or see for themselves this place - Auschwitz – in the east to which the Jews were being deported. The model family camp now had no purpose – and so its 5,000 inhabitants were promptly gassed. Kulka survived that liquidation by a stroke of luck: he was ill in the infirmary at the time.
All this makes his memories singular indeed. While others endured Auschwitz as a place of either immediate murder or slave labour, Kulka remembers classes, drama rehearsals and music, activities organised by the Jewish inmates of the Familienlager. Looking back, the very existence of such activities intrigues and baffles the adult Kulka. All this education and preparation for the future going on in a place where, as he puts it to me in an English that is his fourth language and yet which is precise and eloquent: "The future is the only certain thing that does not exist."
The classes took place a matter of yards away from the crematoria, which burned day and night, their chimneys turning Jews into ash. Each day a pile of skeletons was deposited outside the barracks where he and his mother lived. Yet still young Otto listened and learned of the great events and achievements of European history and culture, of the battle of Thermopylae and of Dostoyevsky, and was taught literature by young, charismatic youth leaders who recited the books they didn't have by heart.
In an episode that haunts him still, Kulka recalls performing Schiller's "Ode to Joy", "a song of praise to joy and the brotherhood of man", directly opposite the crematoria, "a few hundred metres from the place of execution". He wonders now what Imre the choirmaster, "a large, awkward figure in the blue-grey prisoner's uniform and the big wooden shoes, with the big hands of a conductor", was thinking. Was it a declaration of idealism, of faith in humanity despite everything, or was it "an act of extreme sarcasm", having children sing of values whose hollowness was being exposed just yards away?
Kulka does not have a single answer. He tells me that as a university teacher he favoured the first, humanistic reading. "But when thinking and talking to myself, it's more and more this sarcasm and the situation of despair and no way out" that he believes was at work. Once again, there are two Kulkas, the public scholar and the inner man.
Is one version more reliable than the other? When writing history, Kulka would prefer documents over memory every time. "But there are matters of meaning that go beyond that." In trying to reach the deeper truth of the Shoah, his book suggests, somehow a single image, poem or dream can get closer.
A persistent theme is the uniqueness, the particularity, of memory, which Kulka seems to feel especially keenly. Perhaps it is because his own Auschwitz experience was so exceptional, but he resists any attempt to generalise what happened there. He does not read many Holocaust memoirs; he has not seen the epic documentary film Shoah. He says he feels "alienated" from accounts that were not his, that he fears corroding his own recollections, swamping them with images that are not his own. "I felt I had to defend genuine memories and pictures, for them not to be overshadowed."
It is in these that the book's power lies. Some of them are fleeting – the black stains on the snow as he leaves Auschwitz on what became known as the death march, stains that he only later realises are corpses. Some are enduring – what he describes as the immutable law of the great death, the permanent, non-negotiable certainty that death is coming soon and cannot be diverted. Together they form what he calls his own private mythology, a place known only to him: the metropolis of death, whose landscape this book explores and charts.
Some of those memories are surprising. Of course, there is hideous brutality, a prisoner whipped to death, a transport of orphans that ends in the gas chambers. But unexpected are the rare fond memories – chief among them a brief moment of pause, when Kulka gazed upward one day in 1944 and caught the blue of a summer sky, a sight that remains "imprinted on my memory as the colour of summer, the colour of tranquillity, the colour of forgetting."
And that, incredibly, is not the only happy memory. He loved the classes in ancient history and literature. And his eyes sparkle as he tells me of an experience not included in the book: "Something like first love. In the afternoon, after the work, women and men were walking on the main street, the only street [the path between the barracks], watching the crematoria burn quietly – and not taking in what was happening. I went with a girl of 12 and we were walking among the adults. I don't remember her face but I remember her existence. She didn't survive, of course. But that was a marvellous experience to which I can return."
That recollection captures the surreality of Kulka's past. A childhood romance, set against the backdrop of genocide. Yet this was the morbid reality of the family camp and, as the author explains, like it or not, this was where his childhood happened. As he writes: "This was the first world and the first order I had ever known."
Tellingly, his book does not use the word "Holocaust". Like other scholars, he rejects it because its original Greek root implies that the Jewish victims of the Nazis were some kind of religious sacrifice. Less commonly, Kulka also rejects the word "Shoah" for being "amorphous" and vague. He speaks instead of "the final solution to the Jewish question". But doesn't that accept a Nazi premise, as if the Jews were a problem to be solved? "Yes, but it was a Nazi deed. It was not a [natural] catastrophe like in the Bible."
Mostly, Kulka's preferred language is abstract: the metropolis of death is the place he is describing, the inner landscape of his memory. I ask what we should read into the fact that he took so long to make these recollections public. He moved to Israel in 1949, aged 15, taking the new name Dov (though keeping Otto too, to signify that he regards himself as both an Israeli and a diaspora Jew). Is he perhaps an example of the well-documented tendency of Holocaust survivors in Israel to keep quiet, partly because the new country was reluctant to hear from those who reminded them of past Jewish weakness? Was he one of those silently scolded by the new Israelis for going to their deaths – like sheep to the slaughter, in the phrase of the time – when the new Israel was all about resistance and strength?
Kulka has some time for that explanation but prefers another. He joined a kibbutz with some 40 other young people. "Each and every one of us had his or her own story of survival. Either in the camps or in hiding or in the mountains. But we never talked about it. It was immaterial. Because we were participating in this great historical event of a people returning after 2,000 years and building a new culture and new language and new society – it was so overwhelming that we regarded our past as something irrelevant. It's not completely true that people didn't want to hear. We were emerging from [a period of] the utmost inability to take fate in our hands and suddenly we were masters of our own [destiny] … People did not regard [the past] as essential. It was behind them. But in my dreams and diaries I lived a double life."
One of those recollections describes a conversation among inmates engaged in some gallows humour, fantasising about what revenge they would one day inflict on their tormentors: "The solution to the German question." Does he ever dream of revenge against those who killed his sister, mother and father?
No, he says. His interest is in understanding: "I wish to enter the mind of Eichmann so that I can understand." He believes that the key element at work among the Nazis was not rampant hatred but a totalitarian ideology that convinced its adherents that they were doing good. "They believed that they wished to save human society from this plague, this threat … When Eichmann said he believed that his deeds were good, I believed him. I think he thought he was doing good", ridding the world not only of Jews' physical existence – but of the Jewish idea, which Kulka defines as "the unity of the world and the equality of man".
Once the ideological tide went out, Germans and others "went back to being normal human beings, liberal citizens". Ideology was the key – and it still is. He sees no reason why such an ideological turn could not come again. "It is part of our history. It has its precedent … It's not only possible, it was possible."
That is Kulka the scholar talking, but Otto the child of Auschwitz is never far away, his voice no longer confined to private moments with a tape recorder. I ask him about the recurring dreams he sets down in the book, including one in which he is summoned to Prague town hall to face the punishment he somehow eluded seven decades ago.
He tells me he had the dream again just a few nights ago. "I was there once more. I have to go to the town hall, where it is my duty to go. I was wondering whether it's to the gas chamber or if I will be hanged. But that was my duty, that was my fate. I have to go and fulfil it."