Staying human in the face of horror

May 2, 2008

The Seventh Well

By Fred Wander, translated from the German by Michael Hoffman

WW Norton & Co, 2008

160 pages, $37.95 (hb)

Like that other great work of Holocaust literature, Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, Fred Wander's brief volume, first published in the German Democratic Republic in 1971, might be described as "a memoir with interludes of fantasy". The Seventh Well consists of 12 interconnected chapters, all based on Wander's experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Although it is primarily autobiographical, the book is described as a novel: although the characters are real figures from Wander's time in the camps, he brings them vividly to life by freely constructing their inner lives and memories. As the translator Michael Hoffman puts it in an afterword: "The book has a subtle but undeniable activist streak and implication. What, in different hands, might have been a protocol of hardiness and victimisation and chance becomes, amazingly, a tale of personal development and learning. The Seventh Well is the struggle to maintain an inner life from what Wander took from others. It is a work of absorption. If he is to exist at all, he exists with reference to, and by virtue of what he can learn."

The overall result is a set of tales of immense power, in which the main character — although starving, beaten and frequently on the edge of total collapse — by the use of his imagination and capacity to absorb, prevents the Nazis from stealing the "talents, stories, beliefs and hopes" of those they shoot or consign to the gas chambers.

Wander was born to poor Jewish immigrants in Vienna in 1916, and during WWII was a prisoner in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and several other less well-known but even more brutal concentration camps. He survived a number of the notorious "death marches" to which the Nazis subjected the prisoners as they moved them between camps on foot as the Allied forces closed in on Germany in the latter stages of the war. In these (which Wander describes in detail), the starving prisoners had to march for days on end, often pushing wagons or carrying goods, and the immediate punishment for not keeping up or falling by the wayside was a bullet in the head.

Like Primo Levi in If This Is a Man and The Truce, Wander details the horror of the camps in a remarkably calm and dignified voice, and the stories about his companions — Mendel Teichmann the master storyteller, Antonio the tenor, Karel the nurse, Tadeusz Moll the child prodigy and many others — are conveyed in prose whose exquisite elegance is all the more remarkable given its horrific subject matter.

A life-long left-winger, Wander chose the German Democratic Republic as his home in the 1950s. Translator Hoffman comments that "No doubt, publication in the Communist East Germany at the height of the cold war did much to stifle the impact of the book in the West", and although the book was republished in reunified Germany in 2005, it is only now made available in English. I hope that an English translation of Wander's full autobiography Das gute Leben is, too, in the pipeline.

With the Israeli deputy defence minister recently threatening the Palestinians encircled in Gaza with a shoah (or "Holocaust"), the belated translation of The Seventh Well into English is a timely and eloquent reminder of the horrors of collective punishment imposed on a defenceless civilian population.

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