Tale revisits Holocaust horrors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 12:00am

SO MUCH HAS BEEN written about the Holocaust that anyone writing a new account increasingly faces the struggle of presenting it in a fresh way so future generations continue to learn of man's capacity for evil.

In that respect Gila Lustiger's attempt should be applauded for trying to break new ground with her collection of ordinary people whose lives are shattered by the rise to power of Hitler and his quest for a racially 'pure' Germany comprising blond, blue-eyed Aryans.

Significantly, she embraces a collection of minorities such as gays, those with mental disabilities, blacks, gypsies and so on - which together with their belongings comprise the title of the book - making the point that it was not just Germany's Jews who suffered.

And all the while, there is the insidious and appalling realisation - although irritatingly Lustiger never really explains why this was the case - of how many Germans colluded and were complicit in sealing the fate of their countrymen.

In doing so, however, she encounters the problem of trying to combine reportage with her imagination. It is annoying for the simple reason that such a grey area potentially plays into the hands of those who in recent years have sought to discredit the Holocaust.

At the outset, Lustiger, who was born in 1963 in Germany and attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes that all the events she describes are based on historical fact, that many characters are freely invented, but that 'their fate resembles that of thousands of others'.

She adds that 'biographical details of some of the protagonists correspond to reality, while individual sequences of events, thoughts and motives are fictitious'.

As a result, the reader cannot help but wonder how true to life or distorted the events really are. In such an account, which has been translated from German, it is inevitable that the inhumanity is prolific and Lustiger does not flinch from describing it, although the language she uses is always controlled. Several scenes, though not the most graphic, particularly stand out in the way that this brutality is chillingly conveyed. One concerns an accounts officer who watches the shooting of a group of Jews in a forest almost as it were a spectator sport.

He makes the comment that he is starting to get cold, which the reader initially thinks is a reference to the fear that it strikes in him until there is the realisation he is simply chilled from being outside. All the while, children barely out of nappies and clutching dolls and toys are mown down in cold blood in front of him and their waiting parents who are unable to comfort their offspring in their moment of true need.

Another takes the form of an SS soldier writing home to his family, including his wife and young children. From the way that it is written, he is a loving father and devoted husband and yet he just happens to say, 'Don't worry, Daddy does not often go to the forest to shoot, only when he really has to'. It is as if he is referring to a hunting game rather than slaughtering people.

Commendably, Lustiger also manages to point out new facts, of interest even to those who may feel that they are knowledgeable about the Holocaust. For example, one chapter outlines how some Germans were allowed to pay a nominal sum to buy goods confiscated from Jews. In a letter from a housewife to the Ghetto Administration, Frau Pfeifer asks if she may acquire three penknives as she has had to sacrifice some afternoons trying to find any for her sons without success.

But what of the supreme sacrifice made by the former owners of such possessions? And then perhaps there is the supreme irony that once the most feared components of the Third Reich - the Gestapo - as it consolidated its grip on power, moved into a building that had formerly housed Berlin's College of Arts and Crafts.

Presumably, the powers-that-be considered it a fitting place for the Gestapo to practise its own art and craft for which it was renowned - that of torture.

The Inventory

by Gila Lustiger

Arcade $250