Just the other day I remarked on how unusual it is to read a new book that is both important and exciting. And then two come along at once. Strictly speaking, Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well is only ‘new to us’ – it was published in (East) Germany in 1971, where apparently it sank like a stone. Republished in 2005, a year before Wander’s death, it has found a deserved audience and been translated into English by the redoubtable Michael Hofmann, who once again has provided an essential afterword. It is the best new book I have read so far this year.
The cover image shows clearly enough that this is a new (‘to us’) entry in that vast body of work, Holocaust literature. This in itself presents certain problems of preconception. I want to like the book because it is a book on an important subject by a good man. But also, it deserves a harsher eye because of its important subject, to justify its addition to the literature. Hofmann in his afterword observes that “the welter of extreme and unbearable content demands an exceptional awareness and use of form to master it.”
The form which Wander adopts is, first, fiction so heavily informed by memory that the distinction seems to dissolve. He wrote the book a quarter of a century after his liberation from Auschwitz, following the death of his daughter. Second, it contains individual episodes, linked but distinct, drawing together the lives of Jews before the war and their existence in the concentration camps.
“Did you know my Zikmund?” I heard a Jew ask the man in the next bunk to him. “No, you didn’t know my Zikmund, because he was not himself when he came with me to the camp. Because he lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore…”
Lyricism, savagely inappropriate to the camp setting, risks artificially romanticising the prisoners’ former lives. But Wander knows restraint (as that 25 year period, holding his breath and his thoughts, showed). He only rarely resorts to expressions of high emotion, and even then, there is a certain reserve.
Something in him is driven to yell out: I am human! I have known respect! he wants to cry out. I was loved, I had a home, a wife and children, friends. I have performed kindnesses and not asked for reward. I have seen marvellous things, I know the smell of old cities. I could have done anything, achieved everything, and if I didn’t do or achieve, then it was only because I didn’t know, I couldn’t sense…
Here, as elsewhere, Wander’s task is to tell the stories of his (or his narrator’s) fellow prisoners: the first episode, ‘How to Tell a Story’, uses as inspiration Mendel, an inmate who regarded the camp guards “not with hate or accusation, but with curiosity. What is driving this man, those eyes wanted to know.” His other question is, What keeps a man alive? This, inevitably, is balanced by unavoidable details of how a man can die in the concentration camps. “Now they just pushed the victims over the edge.” Or: “Open wagons stuffed full of men, bent double with cold. Only when they die do they stretch out in something resembling dignity.” Or:
When Yossl keeled over at his work in the lumberyard, and the sentries shovelled snow over him as a joke, and the little heap of snow stirred and a small hand emerged from it, and they went on chucking snow over him and laughing and smoking cigarettes, and when we dragged him back to the camp that evening, then Yossl was still not yet dead. He was frozen stiff and his face was as pale as marble, and they stood around him at night in the barracks … and they talked to him, cajoled him and flattered him and screamed at him: “Yossl, listen, you must live, Yossl, don’t go, your mother is waiting, your father is waiting, Yossl, stay with us, keep us company…” And they stroked him and kissed him and rubbed his body with cloths and with snow, they wrapped him in blankets, and they sat him up on the table like a doll, he didn’t keel over, he was frozen stiff, but he wasn’t yet dead. He was frozen, but deep within him there was still a little ember of life, and they stoked it with their affectionate words, with their prayers and their charms, crying and weeping the while: “Yossl, stay!”
Here, then, we have the sort of book which I just want to retype here more or less in full. It does, effortlessly, do justice to its subject matter, which is not the Holocaust generally or the concentration camps specifically. It is what the Jews in the camps spent their existence exhibiting, and which the Nazis in the camps utterly failed to fulfil: what Wander calls “the expression of the vast effort to be human.”