Dalkey Archive Press
“Necropolis – Excerpt”
This week’s story is an excerpt from Boris Pahor’s remarkable memoir, Necropolis (Dalkey Archive Press), a masterpiece of Holocaust literature that occupies a place alongside the work of Primo Levi.
The Nazis arrested Boris Pahor in January 1944 for his involvement with the anti-fascist Slovenian resistance and they held him as a political prisoner in the camps at Dachau, Natzweiler, Harzungen, and Bergen-Belsen until April 1945. Originally published in Slovenian in 1967, Necropolis subsequently appeared in an English translation by Michael Biggins that is now back in print.
The story is this: In the mid-1960s, twenty years after his release, Pahor visits a camp in the Vosges Mountains where he was held prisoner and has been preserved as a historical monument. The summer sun is shining and on this day, two decades after the Nazis held him captive, the tourists that surround him are healthy and strong. He observes these people with ambivalence. They do not know him or his story. They interfere with the memories of what happened there. Their vitality and their comfort are profane in a place where death has left its mark on every square inch. Images of his captivity – emaciated prisoners, zebra-striped uniforms, the dead stacked like cordwood – return to him, almost absurdly, as Pahor tours the camp in their company.
Casey O’Neil, reviewing Necropolis in the Los Angeles Review of Book, says: Pahor is certain that the tourists will be unable to see the depth of what happened in the camp. But watching them as they follow the guided tour also gives Pahor satisfaction. Their presence is visible proof that the camp has stopped producing death and has become, instead, the destination of endless crowds which, naïve and guileless though they may be, are sincere in their wish to experience just a hint of the inconceivable fate of their lost brothers.
Time has changed this place but, just as accurately, time could never change this place. He walks among the tourists, and at the same time he is separated from them by a gulf of flames. Amidst these conflicting veils of reality and unbridgeable gaps, Boris Pahor begins to remember.
What he describes in Necropolis, though, is more than memory. He sees the past walking right in front of him. “I just saw Tolya coming down the steps in front of me, grumbling because an emaciated corpse had slid forward in the canvas groove of the stretcher we were carrying, its shaved head bumping him in the small of his back.” Pahor is once again a prisoner meditating on how he is accustomed to handling the bodies of the dead, but hates it when a corpse comes into contact with him on its own. Then, returning to the present, he tries to imagine what the tourists can see in this landscape.
By placing his account within this frame of past and present, witness and tourist, Pahor poses questions that are not easily answered. To what extent can the truth of this camp be communicated to those who did not experience it? The strain applies to the witness trying to describe the indescribable, but also applies to the listener who is trying to understand. To what extent are these tourists ready to hear? Pahor’s attention to the tourists extends implicitly to his readers. There is an unavoidable invitation for us as his listeners to interrogate the limits of our own understanding and imagination.
Pahor’s treatment of time acknowledges some of these limits, and he emphasizes the impossibility of a factually complete account by not attempting one. His avoidance of a straightforward chronology draws attention to the gaps. He starts in the middle, immersed in the camp at a point when brutality and death are already established facts.
Unattached to a recognizable narrative arc, the shock of violence is jarring. Prisoners huddle naked outside the shower room, and their relief from the cold comes from water heated by the oven in the crematorium. Huge tongs are clamped onto the necks of corpses so they can more easily be stacked into piles, and then moved into the oven. The narrative becomes disorienting as such images emerge and recede without warning. This disorientation illuminates how the deadly atmosphere of the camp has infected both what came before and what comes after.
Pahor’s commitment and attention to his fellow prisoners is most evident in the passages that describe his work as a medic. He immerses himself in caring for the brutalized bodies of his patients, thus resisting the deadly logic of the camp. The medics, through incredible determination and organization, provide the best medical care they can with the meager supplies available. In the face of typhus, gangrene, edema, dysentery and the other afflictions of the camp, Pahor knows that the care they are able to provide often only amounts to making death a little more comfortable.
Within the cruel contradictions of survival, however, Pahor’s position as a medic later becomes a source of guilt. He works in the barracks and avoids the destructive conditions of the work details. He is able to eat the bread of the patients who die. All the instances where he is able to gain small advantages while others die come flooding back to him. Throughout the book Pahor imagines the ghosts of the dead all around him. He seeks recognition from them, and instead they ignore him. The evil he has experienced separates him from the world of the living, but he is too alive to be a part of this world of ghosts. On one level he knows there is nothing else he could have done, but at the same time he feels the ghosts are right to ignore him. He did not do enough.
Pahor’s account is an attempt to bear witness for those who did not survive. He eloquently approaches this impossible task. In the end, though, there is no closure. He must leave the ghosts and return to his life among the living. There is no way he can fully bridge the gaps, and he circles back to the questions he started with.
(Adapted from Casey O’Neil’s review in the Los Angeles Times.)