In a restrained and startlingly beautiful new memoir called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the historian Otto Dov Kulka allows himself, after 70 years of reticence, to recall his life as a little boy in the grotesque quasi-normality of the “family camp” Auschwitz-Birkenau – an institution designed to provide Red Cross officials with living evidence that the inmates of Polish camps were happy and healthy and well looked after, though in reality they were destined for extermination like everyone else.
In a pivotal chapter Kulka prints translations of three poems, written in Czech from the point of view of a young female prisoner. One of them declares that “I’d sooner die a coward than have blood on my hands,” and others speak of the prospect of leaving nothing to be remembered by: there will be no “wreaths or wrought-metal grilles” for those about to die, or for “betrayed youth” – but perhaps “no monument is needed.” These are fine poems, but more than that too. They were written, as Kulka explains, on flimsy letter paper and thrust into the hands of a Kapo by a girl about to walk into a gas chamber. Later they were passed to Kulka’s father, and, by a series of chances, saved from the destruction that engulfed almost everything else.
No one will ever know who the poet was, what she looked like, who she loved or where she came from: her name has been wiped from the historical record, along with any facts or memories or anecdotes that might distinguish her from six million other victims of mass murder. Maybe it’s because I’m a sentimentalist that I feel twinges of reverence for the words on those frail pieces of paper. Maybe my fellow atheists will accuse me of religion-envy, but I cannot help lamenting the impossibility of an individual commemoration for the lost poet. The fact that no trace remains seems like an aggravation of a crime against humanity, a gratuitous exacerbation of injustice."