A late victim of the Nazis

Writer Jean Amery survived Auschwitz but succumbed to the unrelenting obsession with suicide he acquired in the camp.

Aushwitz 521 (photo credit: Frank D. Smith)
Aushwitz 521
(photo credit: Frank D. Smith)
Written by a professor of German Literature at the Free University of Brussels, this biography was named the Book of the Year by the German Cultural Foundation in 2004. It also won the Raymond Aron Prize for translation into French in 2004, and was awarded the Einhard Prize for Outstanding European Biography in 2005. It was finally translated into English in 2010. It is the story of Jean Amery’s life and a review of his writings, two topics that go parallel, as most of his writings were autobiographical.
Amery was born in Vienna in 1912 as Hans Mayer. He was born to a Jewish father, who lost his life while defending the Austrian Empire in World War I, and a non-Jewish mother, who as a widow had a hard time bringing him up. He left school in his teens, never matriculated, never attended university, yet became a master of the German language and multilingual. In his early 20s, he became an assistant to a schoolteacher and wrote his first novel, The Shipwrecks, to be enlarged and completed as his first postwar book.
Hans Meyer left Austria after its annexation into the Third Reich in 1938, and after a period of wandering, he settled in Belgium. He was involved in the resistance against the invading Germans, and was arrested by the SS with an anti-fascist pamphlet in his pocket. He was severely tortured, hung by his hands until his shoulders dislocated.
Soon recognized as a half Jew, Mayer was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 and was marched to Belsen in 1945. He was liberated by the British as a skeleton of 47 kg. He returned to Belgium in search of his wife, learning only years later that she had died of heart disease, rather than being killed by the Germans.
His friendship with his wife’s best friend gradually turned to love, and it ended with a successful marriage of some 30 years.
Mayer settled in Belgium as Jean Amery. At first, to make a living, he was obliged to move into journalism, writing for Swiss papers. This was a necessity as he was unable to be in contact with Germany for 16 years, when “suddenly everything weighing on my soul had to be told.” His first postwar essay was “Living on, but how and where?” The writing of essay-novels, a new genre, was slow to provide a stable living, particularly as many were his own life experiences. His principal book, translated as At Mind’s Limits, was about his experiences as an intellectual in Auschwitz, a topic also dealt with by his fellow inmate Primo Levi.
Indeed, it seems that intellectuals suffered more in the camps than others and as a result his entire life remained “an existence only,” a topic mentioned in his book Years of Wanderings. Apart from his medical problems and physical pain (heart, very severe nicotine addiction, dependence on sedatives and stimulants and probably also lupus), Amery suffered serious psychic pain. His most severe illness as stated remained “the tattoo on my forearm.”
In his essay on “The Necessity and Impossibility to Be a Jew,” Amery remained resistant, unforgiving and not forgetting. He raised his voice in 1967 against the reemergence of anti-Semitism and he remained “a vehemently protesting Jew.” He stated that “one cannot be a German and a Jew” (a topic also raised by Martin Buber as a false symbiosis).
He was deeply influenced by Jean Paul Sartre and Thomas Mann.
His later essays were “On Aging,” both a physical and a cultural maturity, a premature topic for that time, very in vogue today. He also wrote a book called On Suicide, a topic with which he was preoccupied in early life, but permanently only after the camps.
Despite his eventual literary successes, various publications and multilingual translations, lectureships and numerous awards received from Germany, France and even his native Austria, Amery could not remain above the “surface.” He was “shipwrecked” after Auschwitz (just as Primo Levi had “drowned”). His physical decline led eventually to his third and successful suicide attempt, which he called an “exit to freedom,” at the age of 66, an act he considered as an “individual human right.”
He was a late victim of the Nazis, as were nine other successful Jewish writers surviving the Holocaust.
His trust in the world was shattered when he was compelled as a victim of torture to recognize that the contract protecting the weak could be breached with impunity. Despite worldwide success, friendships and happiness in family, he remained “lonely,” a state into which he was plunged by the Nazis, while the world stood silent.
Amery succumbed to a state which I call a delayed decompensation, a “secondary guilt syndrome.”
His affections toward Israel were repeatedly expressed, being concerned that the surrounding countries would try to transform it into a “big concentration camp.” These feelings are a comfort for the reader of this heavy book. He was a literary giant; he was not a simple narrator of stories but, as called by the author of this book, a philosopher.
It is a great book, harsh and at times hard to read, but it is riveting.