Monday, March 01, 2010

Jewish Book Week: Philipp Manes: A Theresienstadt Chronicle

A session chaired by Victoria Glendinning, in which editors Ben Barkow and Klaus Leist read from and discussed As If It Were Life, an account by Pilipp Manes of life in the Czech ghetto of Theresienstadt.

Asked to blog for Jewish Book Week, I instantly chose to cover this session. The Jewish ghetto Theresienstadt had haunted me since reading WG Sebold's Austerlitz, and then last month, on my trip to Prague, I visited the place, isolated among the flat fields, and was overcome, as was Sebold's narrator, and as were my companions, by an oppressive desolation which seems to hang over the place. Built in the late eighteenth century as a garrison town for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was emptied in October 1941, its population relocated, and designated as a collection point for Jews from Bohemia and Moravia (today's Czech Republic) and from Germany and German-occupied territories. It is remarkable for having been used by the Nazis as an apparently (I use the word 'apparently' advisedly) model ghetto to disguise the Nazi's extermination plans, in particular to receive an investigatory visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and for its seemingly deliberate concentration of Jews who were well-known outside the Jewish community, members of the professional, intellectual and artistic elites.

Philipp Manes, a Berlin furrier in his sixties, and his wife were taken to Theresienstadt in July 1942, and were there until October 1944 when they were transported to Auschwitz and were two of the last people to enter the gas chambers. During his time in Theresienstadt, Manes, who had always been an enthusiastic diarist, wrote in nine notebooks his detailed account of life in the ghetto where he played a key role as an artistic impresario, developing an intellectual and artistic community which served as a kind of spiritual resistance against imprisonment and debilitating conditions. He seems to have intended the account for publication after the war, and once his final deportation was due he handed it secretly for safe keeping to a fellow inmate who survived. Tragically, the memoir ends in mid-sentence when Manes was deported. After some difficulties and delays, in 1948 the manuscript finally reached his daughter Eva in London. Eventually the manuscript was deposited, along with others of Manes' writings, in the Wiener Library in London, but only in 2005 did it find a publisher and only in 2009 was it translated into English.

The book, which I am half-way through reading, is a fascinating and contradictory expression of fear and hope, of critical reportage and German-patriotic pride in hard work and achievement, and of descriptions of harsh conditions alongside those of soaring artistic and intellectual pursuit - a remarkable expression, in fact, of the reality conundrum that Theresienstadt must have been.

I'm afraid I was a little late arriving at this session, and it had already begun as I entered. There was a deep hush over the room, and a quiet dignity about the three-person panel. Editor Ben Barkow, director of The Wiener Library, was providing an account of Pilipp Manes' life before he entered Theresienstadt: his childhood love of the theatrical, the travel and connection with the artistic community he enjoyed as an employee of the New Photographic Society, the later necessity of taking over his father's furrier firm, the loss of freedom and property as the Nazis put pressure on the Jews, and the consolation he found in writing.

Editor Klaus Leist then read from the very moving account Manes wrote at this time, Last Days in Berlin, which forms the Prologue to this book and describes the preparations Manes and his wife were forced to make for departure, and their feelings of grief as they did so.

The Theresienstadt account takes up where this prologue leaves off, and Ben Barkow outlined its main events - Klaus Leist reading relevant sections - from the first horrible experience, the Schleuse (sluice) when newcomers were deprived of all possessions they had brought, afterwards being put to sleep without cover on the floor of bare stables and later of barracks. However, Manes was very soon put in charge of the 'Orientation Service', meant to direct those who were lost in the ghetto. This was necessary because although Theresienstadt was a small town, built for a population of 7,000, it now held over 50,000, many of whom were disorientated and traumatised: there are, as Barkow said, many heartbreaking stories in the book. Manes was proud of his work in the Orientation Service, which he developed into a kind of adult education centre and cultural agency, organising over 500 lectures, play readings and music concerts in two years. German officers were rarely seen in the ghetto - the place was policed by Czech gendarmes - as the administration tried to keep up an appearance of normality, which the prisoners tended to support 'for the good of the ghetto'. Many, however, sensed an air of unreality which reached its peak in the 'beautification' of the town in preparation for the Red Cross visit of June 1944. Manes's attitude, Barkow said, was realistic, if not cynical. He knew that the measures were meant to cover up the truth, but accepted them. As he wrote: 'Whatever the reasons, they make our life better.'

The main problem Manes had to contend with for his cultural project was the loss of his contributors through transport to the east or the collapse of their morale or health. No one was murdered in Theresienstadt [EB: there were no gas chambers there, though on my visit there I learned that some had begun to be built and then abandoned], but many died, so Manes always had an eye on the hospital and on departing and arriving transports. By the date of his last event, in August 1944, he had lost most of his audience and speakers.

The account describes in stark detail the horrible conditions - the bedbugs and lice, the delousing sessions, the inequities between the German and Czech Jews - and is a fascinating insight into the maintenance of the place. There was no doubt, though, said Barkow, that Manes was starstruck by the intellectual elite among his inmates, and that he felt fulfilled by his role there as a cultural impresario. Even by the end he appeared to have no complete notion of what Auschwitz really was [EB: and it's true that every so often he appears to entertain the German propaganda that it's the place of a new and perfect life for Jews].

Victoria Glendinning now opened up a discussion between the panel members, drawing attention to the peculiar conflict Manes had between being a German and a Jew. He was very much a German patriot and his attitudes, in fact, are often those of a conservative German Christian. Barkow commented that Manes' sense of cultural (rather than religious) Jewishness grew in the ghetto, and while some of his patriotic statements about the SS are troubling, it's possible that they were inserted to protect him should the memoir be discovered [a point which seems valid to me, since some of these patriotic statements follow directly on from harsh criticism of conditions]. He was in fact very proud of Jewish self-sufficiency and capacity to work in the ghetto and thus could be said to be reaching towards a notion of Zionism.

Victoria Glendinning drew attention to Manes's attitude to the Czech Jews in the ghetto [he writes with sadness and possible bitterness of the greater privileges of the Czech Jews, but with almost sentimental admiration of their youth and beauty], and Klaus Leist talked about the snobbery of Germans towards eastern Jews and the anti-German feeling on the Czech side. Czech Jews, as the first to be brought to Theresienstadt, had originally envisaged building a self-sustaining and economically viable community there and thus, by being indispensable to the Germans, ride out the war, but once older Jews were brought in from elsewhere, that dream expired. Glendinning also pointed to the paradox that Manes was perhaps more fulfilled in his role as a cultural impresario there than he perhaps had ever been before in his life - that he even seems smug about it, with which Barkow agreed. She stressed the lack of clarity in the memoir about how much Manes knew of the truth - he did after all get his children out of the country before the war, and he makes quite clear at one point [elsewhere I think] that he understands that the aim of National Socialism is the destruction of Judaism. What about this ambivalence? Was it shared by a lot of Jews? Klaus Leist said that he thought it was, and this may have been a function of wishful thinking [EB: which I think it's possible to detect in Manes's document], and maybe anyway people didn't guess that destruction meant death. Ben Barkow added that very little was known about Auschwitz; Theresienstadt was very sealed off from the world (although someone, I think Glendinning, commented that Leo Baeck knew the truth, but deliberately decided to keep it secret). Possibly Manes chose not to believe: he was, after all, a very conforming individual.

I found that perhaps for me the most moving part of this session came now, when Victoria Glendinning opened it up to two or three questions from the floor. A white-haired woman across the room said that she had been in Theresienstadt and that she didn't recognize this description of people's knowledge about Auschwitz. Some people certainly knew: if a postcard arrived from a relative in a concentration camp and they had marked it with a cross, it meant that there were gas chambers there. But then, she said, in a statement that for me summed up everything, such things operate according to denial mechanisms.


Ben Barkow is the author of Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library and editor of Testaments of the Holocaust.

Dr Klaus Leist works at The Wiener Library, concentrating on deciphering and translating old documents. He edited As If It Were Life, A WWII Diary from the Theresienstadt Ghetto by Philipp Manes with Ben Barkow.

Jewish Book Week runs until Sunday March 7th, and you can book for events here.

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