A Belgian Sojourn
Translation by Peter Waugh
In her story 'Drei Wege zum See' ('Three Paths to the Lake'), Ingeborg Bachmann refers to Jean Améry's essay 'Die Tortur' ('On Torture'). I was staying in Klagenfurt when I received a call from the Austrian Cultural Forum, inviting me, on behalf of the Passaporta International House of Literature, to spend some time as a writer-in-residence in Brussels. Since the author Jean Améry had lived there in exile, and his work had been of inestimable significance for Ingeborg Bachmann, I decided to accept and in May embarked upon my own trail in search of an encounter with the work of Améry.
I discovered that I was living in the mundane Rue Dansaert, in the centre of the capital of the EU, not far from the Stock Exchange, where the homeless camp out, hiding in the building's niches, which they also use as a toilet. The next day I travelled by train to the neighbouring town of Mechelen, from where I took a bus to the smaller town of Willebroek, and then walked the rest of the way. The path led to a cemetery, past a panel beater's workshop, to Breendonck, to the Fort, which dated from the time of the First World War, had formerly been a concentration camp, and was today a memorial. To the right hung a sign which read: 'Go further and you will be shot'.
Drizzle. Belgium. Flat countryside. An avenue of poplars alongside the "A21" highway. Looming against the horizon is the roughly hewn sculpture of a man, head raised in defiance, but forced to his knees, squatting on a plinth, his clenched fist gesticulating towards the sky. Clenched fist? I write from memory. Jean Améry criticises the figure as being declamatory and the head as being peculiarly Slavic. Was he right about 'Slavic'? I am annoyed by the pigeonholing involved in using such a term, although this does help me to obtain a certain distance from the influential writer and thinker Jean Améry. In Breendonck, 'Die Tortur' was playing. Playing? The essay forms part of the book Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne ('Beyond Guilt and Atonement') – "an attempt at empowerment by one who has been overpowered". The essays were published in 1966 and are still of great topicality even today.
Jean Améry was born as Hans Mayer in 1912 and grew up in Bad Ischl and Vienna. In 1938 he was chased out of the country as a Jew. Brussels was his first place of exile, until the 'homeland' expanded, encroaching ever closer. There then followed the internment camps for "hostile foreigners": St. Cyprien and Gurs in the Pyrenees. In 1941 he managed to escape and to return to Brussels. On 23 July 1943 Jean Améry was arrested by the Gestapo as a resistance fighter. For distributing leaflets. He was taken off to the Breendonck concentration camp.
"It is situated halfway between Brussels and Antwerp". Between 1940 and 1944, the Nazis used it as a 'reception camp' "as it was called in the cant of the Third Reich". From Breendonck, Améry was deported to Auschwitz, Mittelbau-Dora and Bergen-Belsen. He survived the extermination camps (?) and lived on until 1978, in his place of exile, Brussels. He took his own (?) life in the exclusive hotel Österreichischer Hof in Salzburg.
The smell of crypt and cellar overpowered me. A dim light dotted the chasm. The lamps, the corridor, the concrete, the old wooden doors leading to the cells, and the locks were all original. To the right was the so-called "business room". A windowless, vault-like space – a room of which Améry wrote that the table in it was covered with a swastika flag for a tablecloth.
On 3 May 2005 the room looked like a junk room. The light fell on wooden chairs and benches, piled up behind a lectern. The eagle of the Third Reich was painted on the wall, and under it was written the SS motto still used by Austrian far right (?)politicians even today: Meine Ehre ist meine Treue ('My Honour is my Loyalty'). In the guide pamphlet to the memorial site it was written that the name of the torturer was Prauss. As a concentration camp tourist, I walk down the long corridor, the chasm, which leads me deeper inside, to the side corridors, where I turn left and inspect the huts. Arrest Cell 13. Three-tier bunk beds. 48 prisoners per cell. Straw mattresses The straw was changed every six months. Breendonck is my first and very probably my last visit to a concentration camp memorial – to perceive the reality it is essential to read Améry: "In my unremitting efforts to investigate the fundamental condition of being a victim, on collision course with the involuntary and impossible nature of being Jewish, I believe I have experienced that the most extreme presumptions and demands made upon us are of a physical and social nature."
Elsewhere he writes: "It is not being that plagued me, nor the night. nor God, nor the absence of God, only society: it and only it has caused the existential disturbance of my balance against which I try to struggle with my head held high."
Older men guide us through the memorial, informing us about the prisoners' everyday life. School classes crowd round the guide. Arching above me are the primeval innards of a black concrete bulwark eaten by mould. The concentration camp is surrounded by a flooded moat. The prisoners fortified the embankment, digging around the monstrosity – "a single monolithic spawn of ugliness" (as W.G. Sebald describes Breendonck in his novel Austerlitz) – and creating courtyards by taking away 250,000 tons of soil by hand. Forced labour destroys body and spirit of a human being (?). What gets destroyed first? Jean Améry emphasises the parity of the body and the (?)mspirit in every person. In the place of execution at the back of the fort, I cannot help but associate the sandy soil and wooden posts with the child-friendly timber constructions of Viennese playgrounds.
Breendonck was not a death camp – from here, this lesser hell, as one might say, the road led to the greater hells – Auschwitz, Dora-Mittelbau, Bergen-Belsen. Weighing 45 kg and dressed in a zebra suit, Améry was finally freed by the Allied British forces in 1945. He wasn't able (?) to return to Austria. "You never go back to a gasthouse (?) you've been chucked out of", wrote the native of Bad Ischl and chose Brussels as his place of exile.
Whom did Améry write for? For people like me, born later, generation of afterborns all over the world and especially in Germany and Austria, people, (?) who received too little instruction in their history lessons and would like to get some more genuine and enlightnening (?) information directly and about the state of being a victim. The age of the contemporary witnesses is coming to an end. The entertainment industry makes films in which one can identify with the victims. Améry does not pretend to be friendly. He demands responsibility. The author is not dead. "Life is short. Shake yourself." Améry's work makes us an offer: "The process of degradation initiated against us, the Jews, which commenced with the proclamation of the Nuremberg laws and led with logical consistency to Treblinka, corresponded on our (my) side to a symmetrical process of regaining some dignity. To this day, the matter is not closed for me. This is a testimony to my efforts to clarify for myself its stages and its interim result, combined with the favour that I ask of the reader to accompany me along this path for a while."
October 1978, schooldays. My history teacher was the son of the head of the Gauleiter of the Villach branch of the NSDAP (NAZI-Party) and a co-founder of the FPÖ (a far-right xenophobic Austrian Party). In a biography, he described his father, the former National Socialist, as a genuine but abused idealist who had been led astray. The son of this history teacher was also a teacher and taught my relatives in chemistry. His jokes about Zyklon B (which was the tradename of the cyanide-based gas, used during Holocaust by Nazi Germany against civilians in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek) were well-known among the pupils. Until recently, this man was president of the regional schools committee under the auspices of the Governor of Carinthia and is today deputy head of the FPÖ party in Carinthia – representing the far rightest wing and therefore relativating and minimalizing the guilt laden past of his fathers (?) . "As a philosopher, novelist, writer for radio and the stage – all in one", my former history teacher was proposed for the Carinthian Prize for Culture in 2000. Thanks to the SPÖ (the social democrats), the prize was instead awarded to the internationally acclaimed artist Cornelius Kolig, against whom the FPÖ whipped up a repulsive campaign.
For myself, Améry's ideas are fresh and chilling and passionate. To remember means to invoke, writes Ruth Klüger. I have found and still do find enlightenment in literature.
In a further hut, photographs of German and Belgian SS Kommandants are exhibited, enlarged to life-size. Praust, the tormenter. Ex-butcher. Améry quotes Proust. "Rien n'arrive ni comme on l'espčre, ni comme on le craint". ('Nothing happens as we hope it will, nor as we fear it will.') Proust. Praust. I noticed the similarity of the names even while I was reading Beyond Guilt and Atonement. It annoyed me that I had to think of the mark of Cain. After all, that would mean that the guy were still living among us. In the exhibition room, the thug becomes de-mystified – his name is written here: Prauss – he is dead, one of the fallen. An American woman was the wife of the SS Sturmbannführer Schmitt, head of Breendonck concentration camp, famous for his cruelty even among Auschwitz Commanders. She was regarded as a passionate Nazi wife.
In the memorial room, the names of the victims stand out in relief upon the walls, grey on grey. In the publication about the camp, reference is made to Jean Améry by the inclusion of quotations from his works. I seek for signs of official remembrance from the Republic of Austria. In vain. What does a sign of remembrance mean to me? Proof of some attempt to come to terms with the history of 'my' Austria? Améry's work is a dialogue and it is sometimes written in the pluralis majestatis. I am a listener and a later traveller, and also avail myself of the word. I can peep into my own abysses, where my resentment simmers, because I suspect myself of voyeurism. I find the formula 'Never forget!' hackneyed and yet at the same time feel it is necessary to repeat it. The protective architecture, the fort as a brake block against occupying forces, was immediately usable as a place of torture and prison, and today is visited as a memorial. Basically, I felt protected inside a concrete monstrosity that had not disappeared.
A coffin has been placed against the wall as an illustration of the mortuary room. The wood is greyish, the light has caused the colour to fade. The irreversibility of experience cannot often be achieved through reading. Kafka writes that a book should be an axe for the frozen ice within us. Améry wrote such incisive texts. I admit I want to see reality, yet I do not want to be blinded in the process of seeing it. The written material provides protection, or a filter, through which Amery reports the reality. For me, the parity of body and spirit is brought to a head in the essay 'Torture'. Breendonck's walls make me shudder, just like the prisons in the Doges' Palace, or the dungeon at the Tower of London. The difference between Breendonck and the Doges' Palace or the dungeon in the Tower lies in the "historical, philosophical and existential mediation of what happened to the innocent victims here: torture was not an invention of National Socialism. Yet it was its apotheosis."
Breendonck was intended to provide me with a way to go deeper in my studies of Améry. I looked round about me and saw nothing wrong, even though everything that had happened here was wrong. "No-one can appeal to the victim", wrote Bachmann. However, she was doing just that. If I identify with the victim, that is wrong. I might be of the opinion that the crime has been atoned for and forget the responsibility towards today's reality and towards the victims.
A zigzag corridor leads through thick walls into the remote bulge of a concrete bunker. I enter the corridor leading to the notorious torture chamber, the ground plan of which I had already studied in Vienna. The hooks. The horse-whip. A schoolboy plays the victim. He stands beneath the rope tackle in the middle of the torture chamber. The memorial attendant indicates what happened here. "Torquere, to dislocate". He lets go of the hook. Taps the young boy in a comradely way on the shoulder and says something intended to be ironic. The other pupils laugh, the play victim too. On the floor, a channel runs in a semicircle towards the drainhole beneath the hook. A cylindrical iron stove stands right at the back against the wall. Upon a table lie pokers. In the walls are sockets for electrical plugs. A double pyramidal wooden block stands beneath the rope tackle.
The thirty or so young people stood there huddled together. The room was not large, but not small. The torture that occurred was intimate, from person to person. "I would not like to know what happens in prisons" here, there and anywhere else. The anti-human, for example, is a Nazi, a bearish Berliner, or an Austrian like a Carinthian*), someone who is expansive and unbridled, who lets the others sense what he can become, "flesh and death". In reference to Wittgenstein, Améry writes: "The limits of my body are the limits of my 'I'. The surface of the skin closes me off from the foreign world: towards it I may, if I have trust, only sense what I want to sense." Can forced feeding, as provided for by the new asylum laws, also be seen as torture when used against deportees who go on hunger strike in protest at their repatriation? One can very soon become anti-human – as a politician, voter, force feeder, repatriator, traumatiser, causer of grievous bodily harm, demagogue.
Was the sudden laughter of the young people inappropriate? After all, we were standing in a torture chamber. The term 'fish-eyed lung' occurred to me. Writing from memory, this cave pulsed in front of my eyes, inflated itself and then shrank again. Shrank, yet did not melt away, but grew larger again. Architecture is materialised identity, says an art expert I know, who regards manipulative restoration as an abomination and argues in favour of adequate conservation. According to her, Breendonck is part of our identity, just as palaces, castles and motorways, the highway (Autobahn) are.
In his elucidations, Améry does not beat about the bush with his resentments. It seems to me that, since I am a teachers' child, he is often too teacherly. Améry does not speak in parables. He is mistrustful of those who were born later, although he is not without hope. I do not know who I would have been in his times.
If 'evil' is banal, then what is 'good'? Complicated? Why do we not create a tolerable asylum law, since the number of applications for asylum are declining and the old law is already regarded as being restrictive? The 'good' is not unimaginable. I have to picture to myself which reality I want to live in and which reality I do not want to live in. Améry is a reliable witness and admonisher. I sat in the cafes in Brussels reading and became envious of Améry's precision, his knowledge, his radicalness. Améry, a teacher? Will marks be given? Naturally, our studies continue.
To conclude my stay in Belgium, I visited the last house in which Améry had lived. Thanks to the house owner's feelings of reverence, the original nameplates still remain. Mayer–Améry. As a result of the fame that he achieved abroad during his own lifetime, Améry was granted a grave of honour in Vienna's Central Cemetery: Group 20 , Gate 4.
60 years after the country was liberated by the allies, and 27 years after his suicide, in the commemorative year 2005, the embassy of the Republic of Austria in Brussels declared themselves willing to put up an official commemorative plaque at Améry's last place of residence.
As a valuable re-minder of the admonishment to fight for human rights – it is Améry's prose that is relevant to us today.
This essay is based on the reading of the following information and books:
*) I'm alludig to Odilo Globocnik who was born into an Austrian/Carinthian family of Slovenien descent in Trieste during the Hapsburgian Austria. Became Nazi Member in 1930 and quickly climbed the ladder of NSDAP-Nazi-Party. Became Gauleiter of Vienna 1938. 1939 he was appointes SS and Police Leader in Lublin. He was responsible for liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto, Bialystok Ghetto, ethnic vleansing and resettling Poles. Globocnik was responsible for killing more1.5 million Polish, Czech, Dutch, French, Russian, Slovak, German and Austrian Jews and non-Jews in Belzec, Sobibor, Maidanek, Treblinka and was responsible for the "Operation Reinhard". In September 1943 he was stationed as Higher SS and Police leader in Trieste to combat partisans. After WarII he was arrested as a war criminal by British troops and committed suicide.
Ingeborg Bachmann | Simultan | Erzählungen, Piper, Serie Piper 1296, Munich 1982
Irčne Heidelberger-Leonard | Ingeborg Bachmann und Jean Améry: 'Zur Differenz zwischen der Ästhetisierung des Leidens und der Authentizität traumatischer Erfahrung' | In: Ingeborg Bachmann – Neue Beiträge zu ihrem Werk, Ed. Dirk Göttsche und Hubert Ohl, Königshausen & Neumann, Münster 1991
Irčne Heidelberger-Leonard | Jean Améry. Revolte in der Resignation | Biographie, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2004
Jean Améry | Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre. Örtlichkeiten | Works in 9 volumes, vol. 2, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2002
Jean Améry | Über das Altern. Revolte und Resignation. Hand an sich legen. Diskurs über den Freitod | Works in 9 volumes, vol. 3, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2005
Jean Améry | Aufsätze zur Literatur und zum Film | Works in 9 volumes, vol. 5, Ed. Hans Höller, Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2003
Jean Améry | Aufsätze zur Philosophie | Works in 9 volumes, vol. 6, Ed. Gerhard Scheit, Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2004
Ruth Klüger | Weiter leben – Eine Jugend | Wallstein-Verlag, Göttingen 1992
W.G. Sebald | Austerlitz | S. Fischer paperback, TB 14864, Frankfurt 2003
Leaflet The Fort Breendonck, published by the Board of Directors of the Fort Breendonck Memorial.