Living with the Holocaust

A compelling biography of the ‘non-non-Jew,’ Jean Améry, who pitilessly analyzed the fragile foundations of modern Western civilization.

Jean Amery 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Jean Amery 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The Philosopher of Auschwitz: Jean Améry and Living with the HolocaustBy Irène Heidelberger-LeonardI. B. Tauris304 pages;20 pounds sterling
Jean Améry was one of the first post-war writers to powerfully communicate to a universal audience the searing pain and suffering of the Holocaust camp experience. Like his fellow Auschwitz inmate Primo Levi, the Austrian intellectual Améry (his original name was Hans Maier) was no less passionately committed to the Enlightenment idea of moral reason; but he was also driven by a deep skepticism and anguished resentment, which precluded any facile efforts at German-Jewish dialogue.
Born in Vienna in 1912, the half-Jewish Améry became conscious of his Jewishness largely as a result of the Nuremberg Race Laws and their subsequent application to his homeland, following the Nazi annexation of Austria. In his classic autobiographical and philosophical work “At the Mind’s Limits” (the German original was first published in 1966), Améry explored the problem of Jewish fate as well as the utter helplessness of the agnostic intellectual in the camps. In such extreme situations, doubt, self-questioning and tolerance were virtually useless.
Indeed, few writers have ever described so compellingly the excruciating pain of body and soul, induced by torture; or the resulting self-contempt and loss of trust in the world.
Irène Heidelberger-Leonard’s carefully researched biography (translated by Anthea Bell from the German) notes the remarkable influence of Améry’s essays in the 1960s, when they first came out. At the same time, she also explains that for Améry, all of the resultant fame and popularity was never enough to make him feel that he had really arrived as a writer. True, the prizes and honors kept coming from post-war Germany – a country that he would avoid visiting for many years. Recognition even came from Austria, which had forced him to flee in 1938 and to which he would return in order to take his own life forty years later. In addition, Améry was constantly called upon from the mid-1960s to represent Holocaust survivors in public debate in his German mother tongue, a language that, he believed, the Nazis had radically perverted by their misuse of it.
But Améry, in any case, remained deeply ambivalent about the “lessons” of the camp experience, which he believed was wholly negative and destructive. Increasingly, he also despaired about the indifference and lack of remorse of the broader German public towards his and other testimony, despite the apparent “success” of his writings. Germans, in his view, had never truly faced up to their Nazi past.
Their constantly expressed desire to “forget” was highly suspect and the swift reintegration of Nazi perpetrators in post-war German (and Austrian) society remained a public stain that he never forgave.
One of the virtues of Heidelberger- Leonard’s biography is to reveal just how much Améry resented being reduced to the sum of his life experiences in the camps and being defined as an “Auschwitz survivor” or an “expert” on Jewish identity. By drawing on a wide range of previously unpublished personal documents, the author, a professor of German literature at the Free University of Brussels, manages to illuminate the course of this turbulent life that began in inter-war Vienna, where he was studying philosophy and literature just when the Nazis in neighboring Germany came to power.
As an Austrian who had been raised a Catholic (but never felt like one), he was overnight excluded from the Christian-German culture in which he had grown up. To add to this discomfort, Améry also experienced Orthodox Judaism as well as the wider Jewish community as being thoroughly alien to him.
Escaping from Vienna, he eventually joined the Belgian resistance and was arrested in July 1943 for spreading anti-Nazi propaganda.
Imprisoned and severely tortured at Fort Breedonk, he was deported to Auschwitz III labor camp in Poland, once the Gestapo realized that he was of Jewish ancestry. Subsequently liberated by the British Army from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, Améry began to write journalistic articles in German under his new French pseudonym, while continuing to live in Belgium until his death. Significantly, in the early post-war years he would be profoundly influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s “humanist” existentialism, which also helped him to shape a little more coherently his chronically fragmented sense of Jewish identity.
Améry later sought to explain that as a result of his Holocaust experience he had became a kind of “catastrophe Jew” or a “non-non-Jew” who had never shared any common childhood memories, language or cultural traditions with most of his Jewish contemporaries. But “without the feeling of belonging to the threatened,” as he once wrote, “I would be a self-surrendering fugitive from reality.” Améry had only become a person by grasping and simultaneously rebelling against the wartime social reality – namely, that to be a Jew meant to be sentenced to death – to be “a dead man on leave.”
In his post-Holocaust thinking, the Jewish victim must become the subject of his own history. Humanity, as a whole, also had to recognize that the liberal foundations of modern Western civilization were fragile indeed and that even the right to live could be all-too-easily revoked.
It was partly for this reason that Améry was so aghast at the “anti-Zionism” of the New Left in the late 1960s, which he presciently recognized as a new form of anti- Semitism. Although never a Zionist in the formal sense, he warned that the destruction of Israel would be tantamount to another Holocaust. Heidelberger-Leonard has relatively little to say on this aspect of Améry’s public journalism, which is a pity. But for Améry, as a veteran of the Left, his disillusion with the French and German student rebels of 1968 had a great deal to do with their obsessive harping on the sins of Israel and predilection for abstruse historical dialectics.
The blindness of the German Left to Israel’s need for security and their obliviousness to the vital role that the Jewish State necessarily played in modern Jews’ sense of identity, deeply shocked him. So, too, did the international New Left cult of violence and identification with Palestinian terror. With some bitterness, he observed that West Germany had been swiftly “normalized” and rejoined the international community while Israel surely but steadily was being turned into a “pariah” nation.
Heidelberger-Leonard’s biography not surprisingly shows that her subject was hardly an easygoing man. Twice married, even his close working relationship with his second wife suffered increasing strains towards the end of his life. Nor was Améry a conciliatory spirit.
Indeed, it could scarcely have been otherwise.
Améry’s restlessly questioning and often mordant style comes out in most of his books, including “On Ageing” (1968) – a masterly literary inquiry into bodily and mental decline. It also confirms the truth of a remark made by his childhood friend, Ernst Mayer, that all of Améry’s books were “stages in an uncommonly painful self-analysis.” The same pitilessly analytic approach can be found in his premonitory work “On Suicide” (1976), which offers more than just a few glimpses into Améry’s dark inner world. Heidelberger- Leonard is particularly adroit in weaving together in these and other instances the connections between her subject’s literary production, his personal torments and shifting cultural-political milieu.
It is worth noting that Améry’s introspective analysis of suicide as a free act (deserving respect rather than condemnation) did cause something of a sensation at the time. The book starkly reflected its author’s lifelong obsession with suicide and death – themes that underlay much of Austrian literature and society since the end of the 19th century. At the same time, for Améry to choose a voluntary death was (in his own eyes) a logical and legitimate path to freedom.
In the last years of his tortured existence, Améry desperately sought recognition (with only modest success) as a major writer of fiction, rather than as a philosopher or essayist.
But even in his fiction he could never escape the morbidus austriacus. In 1978, in a Salzburg hotel room, Améry finally took his own life. He was buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. The gravestone included the bare details – his name, dates of birth and death, and his Auschwitz number: 172364. The wandering exile had, in a manner of speaking, come “home” to the country which, forty years earlier, had unceremoniously driven him out of Austria like “a hunted hare.” The obituaries were even more glowing than the book reviews.

Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger Professor of Modern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of ‘A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad’ (Random House, 2010).