Wednesday, September 2, 2015

“Soul Swallower”

Götz and Meyer by David Albahari

How Götz, or was it Meyer, loved children!

The photograph above features one of the converted buses that the Nazis used in their initial  experiments in the large-scale asphyxiation of prisoners, of Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians, mostly of the handicapped and Jews. As carbon monoxide canisters quickly proved too expensive for the job, the developers soon settled upon a simpler, more cost-effective method, requiring only that bus driver get out of the tightly sealed cab and reconnect the exhaust hose to a special outlet in the bottom of the bus. After about 15-20 minutes of idle driving about the countryside all of the prisoners would be dead. Not long thereafter, such jury-rigged buses were replaced by custom manufactured vans, the compact Diamond and Opelblitz, as well as the 5-ton Saurer, the most efficient of them all.   

It is a 5-ton Saurer that looms at the heart of this spare, if devastating novel by the Jewish Serbian writer, David Albahari. Based on an actual Saurer van that operated in and around the city of Belgrade during WWII, a van in which—so the narrator discovers—many of his relatives had perished. Through his research he learns in addition that the drivers of this van were two young men, two actual SS non-commissioned officers, identified plainly in the records as “Wilhelm Götz” and “Erwin Meyer”:

I never saw them, Götz and Meyer, so I can only imagine them. My interest in the two of them came at a time when I was trying to fill in the empty slots in my family tree. I had just turned fifty, I knew where I was going with my life, so that all that was left was to figure out where I came from. I went round the archives, visited museums, brought books home from the library. That is how Götz and Meyer came into my life.

What ensues in the novel is the narrator’s determined, finally desperate attempt to imagine these two men, to slip into their minds, their skins, to understand—as so many have sought to understand—what Hannah Arendt famously called, “the banality of evil,” the fact that such cruelty and violence, as was perpetrated by the Nazis, was less the product of a handful of psychotic, diabolical freaks (whom we could safely dismiss as aberrational) than the logical, rational, even inexorable outcome of an abiding ideological faith, a cultural, national creed embraced and embodied, not by monsters, but by average, often expressly “normal” men. Writes Albahari, the two young officers were altogether indifferent as killers, with no apparent stake in the matter at all:

Once you become a part of the mechanism, you assume the same responsibility as every other part. Götz and Meyer didn’t know about that. The truck was theirs to drive, and they drove, always smiling, even when the wind blew dust in their faces, and they couldn’t care less what was going on in the back, whether the load was Jews or sugar beets.

Führerprinzip, the foundation of political authority upon which the Third Reich was based, consisted essentially of the simple, incontestable belief that Hitler’s word was law. Everything followed from that. It was a principle to which Hitler’s chief henchman, SS-Obergruppenführer, Adolph Eichmann, made frequent reference during his trial in Jerusalem when defending himself and his comrades against the charges of genocide and mass murder, insisting, as he had, that they had only been “following orders.” While by now an argument that has been thoroughly discredited, and while Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann himself as “banal” has been shaken to its core, and while some violence and cruelty is indeed aberrational, the central mystery of this novel remains: How does one explain the methodical, bureaucratic murder of six million Jews?

David Albahari is a Serbian writer of Sephardic Jewish origin. He lives in Canada. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Götz and Meyer is published by Dalkey Archive.

Peter Adam Nash

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