Monday, August 4, 2014


The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H. by George Steiner

On April 30th, 1945 Adolph Hitler and his newly married bride, Eva Braun, had a quiet lunch, then met with Hitler’s inner circle in the anteroom chamber of his personal bunker in Berlin to say their farewells. Included among the staff members were Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels. Earlier, Hitler had given instructions to his personal adjunct, Otto Gunsche, that once he and his wife were dead their bodies were to be burned to ashes. Despite Hitler’s claim that the war would “one day go down in history as the most glorious and heroic manifestation of a people’s will to live,” he’d known by then that the German cause was lost and had ordered two hydrogen cyanide capsules to be prepared for him and his wife. As a typical precaution, he first had the dosage tested on his beloved dog Blondi and her puppies, all of which died. At round 14:30 that day, Hitler and Eva retreated to his sitting room and closed the door. Staff witnesses report hearing a single shot. When they entered the room they found Hitler slumped on the sofa where he sat, blood dripping from his right temple where he had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65. On the sofa beside him, his young wife Eva sat slumped away from him, dead from the capsule she had swallowed. In the air was the telltale scent of burnt almonds.

As per Hitler’s instructions, their bodies were carried outside, doused with gasoline and burned to ashes. What little remained of them was covered up in a shallow bomb crater just hours before the advancing Soviet Army seized control of Berlin. 

Stalin, wary about accepting the news that his nemesis was dead, indeed sensing a trick, was the first to suggest the possibility that Hitler was still alive and in hiding somewhere. In the years to follow, the Soviets helped to spawn a variety of international theories regarding Hitler’s fate, most of them ridiculous, some of them cynical Cold War ploys: that he was given refuge by Western allies bent on destroying the Soviet Union, that he and Eva had escaped to Argentina or Brazil, that the Nazis had a secret moon base, that Hitler was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and could never—no matter the weapon—be killed.

Now imagine yourself one of the many Jewish Nazi-hunters who went to work after the war. For there were dozens of them (most notably the relentless and successful Simon Wiesenthal), each of them hell-bent on tracking down such infamous Nazis as Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Josef Mengele. Imagine yourself one of these men, these hunters, at your wit’s end deep in the Brazilian jungle where you have been wandering for months with little contact with the outside world. Imagine one morning—hungry, delirious, stung to madness by the midges and gnats—stumbling upon a clearing in the swamp through which you’ve been slogging for days, a ring of charred stumps, a sudden blue break of sky, and suddenly finding yourself face to face with him, an old man now, der Führer himself, in the flesh.

Such is the engaging premise of George Steiner’s 1979 novel, The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H.. Yet Steiner is no conspiracy theorist, to be sure, but uses the idea of Hitler still living as a means of getting at more pressing, more philosophical things. A Jew himself, he was more interested in the larger implications of what it would mean to find Hitler, capture him, and bring him to justice. While not the least bit didactic, the novel raises an array of compelling and provocative questions: What would you feel when you first saw him, this butcher, this monster, this all but mythical man? How would you react to the sight of him before you? Would you kick him, curse him, punch him in the face? What, if anything, would you say? And what about justice, revenge? What, once you’d found him, caught him, and seen him tried, would be the significance of your efforts—to Jews, to History, to humanity at large? Would it have any real impact at all? Finally, the novel presses one to wonder how, if ever, a person, a people can comes to terms with such profound and extraordinary grief. Would the killing of Hitler be enough?

As one might imagine, the novel gave rise to instant and bitter controversy, so that for a time its translation into Hebrew and German was strictly forbidden. Clearly Steiner’s aim was to be provocative, to complicate (for Jews especially) what already threatened to become a fixed, hidebound understanding of Hitler and the horror he’d wrought. “The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H is a parable about pain,” explains Steiner himself in his 1999 Afterword to the novel, “about the abyss of pain endured by the victims of Nazism.” If as a parable it pushed the limits of what was acceptable at the time, it did  so with a wisdom, courage, and conviction we could stand to see more of today.

George Steiner is a French-born American polyglot and polymath philosopher, literary critic, academic, and writer who has taught Comparative Literature and Poetry at Oxford, Harvard, and the University of Geneva. He now lives in Cambridge, England where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. His best known works include Heidegger, The Death of Tragedy, Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky, Language and Silence, and the extraordinary After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 

Peter Adam Nash

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