‘The saddest coffeehouse in the world:’ On H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945

‘The saddest coffeehouse in the world:’ On H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945

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Theresienstadt concentration camp. WIKIPEDIA

Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz contains the remarkable proposition that stories of the German camps, “all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity,” might constitute the “stories of a new Bible.”

This stringent demand, the call for a retooling of tradition and for a new set of canonical texts based on the war, was not heeded, even as the Holocaust attained a central position in postwar Jewish identity.

Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face
of a Coerced Community by H.G. Adler. Trans. Belinda Cooper. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS

If the postwar cultural ferment had thrown up such a “new Bible,” H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community would have served as a primary text. Working in the immediate moment of post-liberation western Europe, first as an overseer of documents being gathered for a Jewish museum in Prague, Adler completed his magnum opus in 1947. The goal of having it published in Europe and the U.S. eluded him for a number of years.

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Writing to a friend in the 1940s, Adler described his work as a “comprehensive book on Theresienstadt, the outline of which is almost finished. Nobody has yet written a book like this on a camp. I have tackled it in a strictly scholarly way, based on the really immense trove of documents I collected. At the same time, it is readable, lively, a Kafka novel with the terms reversed, transcribed according to reality. Whoever takes the trouble to read through the roughly 1,000 printed pages will really have been in the camp himself.”

Reading the newly available English translation of Adler’s work, one is astonished to recognize how absolutely fresh and necessary his efforts are today.  Like so many crucial topics associated with the Holocaust, Terezin – as the Czech town and military encampment was known before the Germans transformed it into a camp – is familiar, though we do not understand the historical and human issues it raises. Worse, we lack the analytical skills to muster more than familiar, even clichéd responses, which cannot begin to explain the subject at hand.

Adler had attained a foothold in Czech-German intellectual circles when he was deported, with his wife and her parents, to Terezin in February 1942. He spent two-and-a-half years there, in what he prefers to call a “coerced community,” protected from transports to Auschwitz by his wife’s role as the overseer of the camp’s “central medical laboratory.”

Adler’s detailed depiction of Terezin highlights the corrupting nature of Jewish “self-administration” under SS supervision. He writes with grim judgement of much of the camp’s leadership and of the degrading impact of privilege and hierarchies among the camp’s tens of thousands of incarcerated Jews. Adler’s son, who contributes an afterword to the book, argues that Adler made a conscious decision to remove himself from positions of influence over others in the circle of Jewish “camp elders.” He worked as a mason, keeping with him, for spare moments, his copy of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer.

This detail seems to link Adler’s response to historical catastrophe with Survival in Auschwitz, where Levi describes himself energetically recovering his memories of Dante’s “Canto of Ulysses” for a co-worker who shared no Italian language.

But as with all other topics – health care, leadership, Jewish ideals in response to the German assault on Jewish life – Adler’s view of the efflorescence of cultural expression in Terezin is presented without uplifting sentiment. It was, in his mind, a contributing factor in the “coerced community’s” total demoralization.

This comes as a shock. In the mainstream postwar reception of the Holocaust, art made at Terezin – especially by children – was second only to the diary of Anne Frank in its power to offer succour, sweetness and some human face in response to German atrocity. Among the coffee table books of choice in the 1970s and ’80s, was a large-format presentation of drawings and poetry by children from Terezin, chosen from material seen publicly, as early as 1946 (Adler prepared the introduction for an exhibition mounted by the Prague Jewish Museum).

Adler knew many of the artists, musicians and writers who were transported to Terezin. In a chapter called “Cultural Life,” Adler portrays these creative people with deep and sad sympathy, acknowledging their artistic strengths and accomplishments.

Yet, he sees art in Terezin no differently than he does other forms of response to the “coerced community,” characterizing it as an outcome of SS manipulation of people who would be sent to their death in the gas chamber at Auschwitz (Adler’s wife, along with her mother, died this way in the fall of 1944).

Initially, artistic undertakings such as musical performances were prohibited.  But increasingly, as Terezin took on the sinister character of a “show” camp and a guarantor to international organizations like the Red Cross that there were Jewish children alive in central Europe, artistic and intellectual life was promoted. An array of undertakings – refurbished theatres, extensive lecture series, children’s operas and a coffeehouse that Adler dubs “the saddest coffeehouse in the world” – appeared in time for the arrival of representatives of the Danish Red Cross in the summer of 1944.

Adler views the high point of cultural output through late 1943 into 1944 as an expression of Terezin’s delusional nature.  The Red Cross visit participated in this delusion – its report was not made public since it was “deemed too favourable and thus harmed” the International Red Cross in Geneva.

In Adler’s presentation, the camp’s character flares up in all its grotesquerie and its peculiarly muted horror. Not like the camps in Poland, and not properly a “ghetto,” as the SS referred to it, Terezin was unique.

Adler did contribute to daily life in Terezin, in a few cases by offering public lectures, and in one instance by organizing a memorial celebration of Franz Kafka’s 60th birthday. In attendance was Kafka’s favourite sister, Ottla, who shortly thereafter volunteered to accompany a transport of children, which was sent to Auschwitz.

There is so much in the book that some readers will be intimidated. But alongside Levi’s work, and that of a few others who wrote early and with great intimacy, Adler’s book is necessary reading.