Book Review: Disbelieving of his own survival

H.G. Adler, the Holocaust-survivor writer who died in 1988, shows us how he was forced to live in two universes.

H.G. Adler (photo credit: COURTESY RANDOM HOUSE)
H.G. Adler
I felt instantly drawn to H.G. Adler’s thinly disguised autobiographical story, The Wall: A Novel, and never really recovered from the audaciousness of this brilliant writer – who allows us unfettered access to the deepest crevices of his tortured mind.
Arthur Landau is a Holocaust survivor living quietly in England, which he refers to only as the “metropolis,” where he has fled after the war. He has suffered heinous losses and speaks to us directly, though we sense he is really only talking to himself.
There are no chapter breaks, and many abrupt changes in time and place that can catch the reader off-guard. There are quiet moments when Landau is gardening outside with his children playing nearby, which are suddenly interrupted by blurry images of dead people he used to know flashing before his eyes. Sometimes he is even able to travel backwards in time, and it feels like he is almost trying to change the past.
He begs old neighbors to tell him where his parents are, though he knows they are dead. He walks the streets of his old neighborhood in Prague looking for clues, but never finds any of substance and is soon back in the present – or as present as he is ever able to be.
Landau feels driven to write a book about the “Sociology of the Oppressed People,” whom he never identifies by name but we understand to be all the Jews that have been lost, including his wife, parents and almost everyone he has ever known. He seeks help for this endeavor from a few friends he knew back there, who fled early and arrived in the metropolis unscathed, and they pretend they will help him. But they soon grow weary of his obsession and stop answering his phone calls; some of them chastise him for refusing to fit in – they are unable to handle his perpetual unrest.
Yet he somehow manages to protect himself from abandoning all hope, though the threads that hold him together are torn and ragged.
Landau doesn’t trust the present. He is fearful when policeman pass him in the street; has anxiety attacks when forced to enter any bureaucratic institution; is polite with his neighbors but aloof. Uncertainty lies everywhere, as it did back then. He wrote about this in an earlier book “The Journey,” remembering how, “no one asked you, it was decided already – you were rounded up and not one kind word was spoken… Thou shalt not dwell upon us. 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.”
He feels guilty, too. Landau doesn’t really believe in his own survival, or understand it. He says simply, “I avoided them and stayed out of the front row, if I wasn’t able to crouch in a corner somewhere. I just didn’t want to attract attention and hoped through fate, through some invisible entity and sheer luck, to escape my own murder.
Did I in fact succeed? Doubt still eats at me today. Others around me died because they were killed; I died because no one noticed me. Is there any difference?” He tells his new wife she is lucky – because although she lost her parents like he did, she has pictures of them. He has none and can no longer envision his mother’s face, which fills him with an empty longing.
His new wife is his only sanctuary; she showers him with unconditional love and allows him to time travel when he feels he must, never complaining about his perpetual disorientation. She helps him with their children when he feels misguided. She loves him.
H.G. Adler died in 1988. He was born in Prague, the son of an assimilated German- speaking father named Emil who was a bookbinder; his mother, Alice, was a dancer. In 1941, Adler was sent to a labor camp in Bohemia to work on a railroad; he spent two years in Theresienstadt, was then sent to Auschwitz, then to another labor camp near Buchenwald. His first wife was a doctor who helped him stay alive in Theresienstadt. She chose to go to the gas chambers with her mother so her mother would not have to die alone – an act of morality and bravery of which Landau remained in awe for his entire life.
But this act left him alone – until he found a second wife in England, who had arrived from Prague before the war. She eventually gave birth to their only child, Jeremy.
So why don’t we know more about Adler? His body of work includes 26 novels and several works of nonfiction, including a monograph on Theresienstadt that became recognized as the most detailed and reliable description of the camp’s design and operation, used as evidence in German courts after the war as proof of the Final Solution.
Is there something about his writing that unnerves us? Does he destabilize the narratives we have become accustomed to about the Holocaust, and those who have survived? His work is masterful and utterly unique. This is not Elie Wiesel or Yoram Kaniuk, but an entirely different creation.
Adler was a man who suffered greatly, but never looked for God – or salvation, redemption or revenge. Nor did he fake forgiveness. He doesn’t present himself as any sort of heroic figure.
Instead, he shows us how he is forced to live in two universes always, the past and present. If he attempted to integrate them it would be fatal for him; each universe is essential to his shaky survival.
There could be tender moments with his new beloved wife and son, but the ghosts and nightmares of the past would always hover nearby... and the invisibility of his mother’s face.