Book Review

How do we memorialize twentieth century atrocities? And who decides what, why, and how we remember?  As James Young, a professor of English and Judaic Studies whose scholarly work has focused on memorials to atrocities, writes in The Texture of Memory (Yale University Press, 1993), “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives are never pure. Both the reasons given for the Holocaust memorial and the kinds of memory they generate are as various as the sites themselves.” The Czech writer Jáchym Topol’s slender and unsettling novel The Devil’s Workshop, translated by Alex Zucker and winner of an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation, brings its readers to sites of horror and asks us to consider how historical memory is created.

The first half of the novel is largely set in postwar Terezín (Theresienstadt), located in what is now the Czech Republic. Terezín was the site of an infamous concentration camp, which was used by the Nazis as a holding place for approximately 140,000 Jews before most were deported further East, and as a sometime showcase for visiting Red Cross observers inspecting the welfare of Jewish prisoners. The unnamed, first person narrator of The Devil’s Workshop serves as a seemingly indifferent guide to this site where atrocities were perpetrated, trauma was inflicted, and the Nazis occasionally created a false image of the camp’s reality.

All the characters in the novel’s first pages have been shaped by memories of what happened in Terezín, even if, as is the case for Topol’s narrator, to be shaped by Terezín means that memories are deeply submerged. The narrator’s mother is a survivor of Terezín, rescued from a pit of corpses by the narrator’s father, a drum major who arrived with the Red Army to liberate the concentration camp. As he grows up in the postwar town of Terezín, the narrator crawls with other children through tunnels, where they find “forgotten stores of planks and gas masks, passageways and crawl spaces, and it didn’t put us off one bit when we found an execution chamber filled with spent bullet shells buried in the sand.” Historical memory is, to the narrator, as ignorable as execution chambers in underground tunnels.

Some time after the fall of the Soviet Bloc – time is somewhat indeterminate in The Devil’s Workshop, as is the narrator’s age – tourists begin visiting Terezín in larger numbers: the “ordinary tourists,” who “[stroll] through Terezín like it was a medieval castle, taking snapshots, shooting videos of the dungeons and torture chambers to show the family afterwards”; and those tourists who come because Terezín is “an abyss where the world had been torn apart, a place without mercy or compassion, where anything was possible.” It is from the anguish of the second group of tourists, whom Young calls “memory-tourists” and Topol calls “bunk seekers,” that the narrator’s friend Lebo devises a money-making plan to maintain Terezín by appealing for donations. Lebo, a man born in the concentration camp, thinks “every splinter of every bunk should be preserved, every battered brick, every corner of the old fortress. Every inch of Terezín should exist always and for ever, and, as [the journalist] Rolf would later write, feed the memory of the world.”

If Terezín should feed the memory of the world, the narrator insists it doesn’t nourish his own. “I didn’t care about memory,” he says. “I just needed a place to live.” By living in a place so saturated with the memories of atrocity and not caring about them, however, the narrator is both alienated from his surroundings and alienating to the reader. He appears to have lulled himself into numbness, which reveals itself in the terse, often disjointed prose of the narrator’s account, in what he chooses to show us and when the narrative’s threads are broken. There is numbness in his reaction to the deaths of his parents and to the deaths of tens of thousands in the concentration camp in whose shadow he grew up. And he is numb to Lebo’s plan to memorialize Terezín; he serves as Lebo’s assistant not from conviction but in order to live.

The money flows from donors. More “memory-tourists” come. Some stay. A tent city is established. The press follows. T-shirts printed with the image of Kafka and the slogan “Theresienstadt: If Franz Kafka hadn’t died, they would have killed him here” are sold. Lebo speaks to tourists “about the horror of the world and how to live with it.” But soon a battle over how to memorialize Terezín is on. A division arises between Lebo’s tent city of “bunk seekers” and the official, government-funded memorial site at Terezín called the Monument, which maintains “a few trails of genocide.” The Monument brings in police and bulldozers to destroy the tent city. After annihilating his office with fire, the narrator flees to Belarus.

Invited as a “foreign expert in the revitalization of burial sites” and the keeper of the donor list, the narrator arrives in the capital city Minsk to protests and martial law, and then contends with the planners of a grotesque chamber of atrocity horrors at the site of the very real memorial at Khatyn. The Khatyn memorial was built in the sixties to commemorate Belarusian villages brutally destroyed by the Nazis or perhaps, as some think, to draw attention away from the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at the similarly named Katyn and of Belarusians in the Kurapaty Forest just outside Minsk. Belarus lies at the heart of what historian Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands (Basic Books, 2010), a region between central Poland and western Russia, where, Snyder estimates, fourteen million people were killed either by murder or deliberate starvation by the Nazis and the Soviets between the years 1933 to 1945. “The devil had his workshop here in Belarus,” the narrator is told. “The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them.” It is in Belarus that the narrator comes as close as he can to confronting the memory of atrocity.

And we, who have also grown up in the shadow of the questions about humanity raised by these atrocities? How do we remember? Although the prose of The Devil’s Workshop left me dissatisfied with it as compelling fiction, the novel is a potent illustration of Young’s observations cited above: The motives of the novel’s memorializers are not pure; the kind of historical memory generated, both in its characters and in its readers, is, at times horrifyingly, varied. Yet the unnamed narrator serves to warn us that we ignore memory at our peril. Topol sets an epigraph by the Polish writer Dorota Masłowska at the beginning of the novel: “Look, I’ve got someone else’s scars, how did they get there?” If we are alienated from historical memory, we, like the narrator, will not know whose scars we bear or even remember that we bear them. Topol prods us to examine how historical memory of atrocity and its meaning are shaped at a time when memory itself seems to become increasingly shorter.

In his translator’s afterword, Zucker writes of working on The Devil’s Workshop while the Occupy Movement set up tents near his home in New York. He compares it to the Arab Spring and the Czech Velvet Revolution and connects them all to the novel’s tent cities in Terezín and Minsk. “There is always a continuity, of varying visibility,” Zucker says, “that sneaks from the past into literature, and back again.” As I wrote this review, I periodically watched a livestream from the center of Kiev, Ukraine, 300 miles from Minsk and also in Snyder’s Bloodlands. There were tents, flags flying, flames and black smoke rising from barricades of burning tires and scavenged wood over Independence Square. The exchanges between past and literature continue, as long as we choose to see them.

About the Reviewer

Lisa Harries Schumann has a degree in history from the University of Hamburg, Germany. She currently lives outside Boston, Massachusetts, and is, among other things, a translator from German to English of texts whose subjects range from penguins to Heidegger and Walter Benjamin.