Atrocity (Karu Lo Piepel)

views updated

ATROCITY (Karu lo Piepel)

Novel by Ka-Tzetnik 135633, 1961

In his book The Seventh Million Tom Segev writes, "I was a boy when I first read Piepel [the Hebrew title of Atrocity ]. I have never read anything about the Holocaust that so disturbed me." More striking was Haim Shorer's 1961 plea to Gideon Hausner, the state prosecutor in the trial of Adolf Eichmann:

Leave aside your concluding speech and take Ka-Tzetnik's latest book Piepel and read it out loud to the court and its listeners and don't stop … Read in a loud voice and we will listen and cry for two-three days and nights. All of us, all of Israel, we will cry and wail without end; perhaps we could wipe away with the sea of tears the great horror, whose depth we yet do not know. We will cry until we faint with our dear Ka-Tzetnik, with his pure and holy book.

A layered mosaic of unimaginable, inconceivably traumatic vignettes, this novel by Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (published in 1961 in Hebrew as Karu lo Piepel and in English as Piepel before its publication in 1963 as Atrocity ) has as its main subject the sexual exploitation of children in the concentration camps. The nub of the narrative follows Moni, a seven-yearold boy who is forced to become a child prostitute, a Piepel, to serve the homosexual needs of the older guards and section orderlies. First appearing in House of Dolls, the naïf, tender, and refined child, modeled after the author's own brother, arrives at Auschwitz and is immediately noticed by the block ruler Franzel because of his gentle, tempting eyes. Traversing familiar territory, Ka-Tzetnik manages to brilliantly transcribe, from the perspective of a youthful hero, the horrifying crimes committed against children in the Holocaust and to embed the story's fabric with illuminating insights about the torture and destruction of innocent lives.

At its epicenter the book is a rite-of-passage tale unfolding in an insane universe where cruelty and subjugation go hand in hand. The story is also about the struggle of children to grasp the intolerable reality they are thrust into and to behave heroically in a corrupt, abnormal world. In many respects Atrocity 's keynote theme is Moni's attempt to preserve his sanity and integrity even as he is ceaselessly preyed upon by the vicious, evil men of the block.

Looming large among the pages of Atrocity are consuming images of the sadistic debasement of human life that chillingly flash throughout. In one disturbing passage Fruchtenbaum, a Jew and scion of a Zionist family who was once a Piepel himself but who now runs one of the blocks, hacks to death a fellow Jew for recognizing him and reminding him of his suppressed heritage. Ka-Tzetnik repeatedly hammers home the idea that perversity and murder were polymorphous in the Nazi phenomenon. In a terrifying catalog of scenes a Nazi officer chokes a young boy to death after his rape, an old Piepel is seesawed from side to side with a cane laid across his neck, a cell block master smothers one his captives by pushing his head into the latrine hole, and an adolescent is punished with death for stealing jam for the rabbi who yearns for the sweet taste.

In common with Ka-Tzetnik's other texts, the Mussulmen (living skeletons) once again comprise a central part of the symbology of depravity and expunction of life. At one point Moni, escaping the unprecedented savagery of Robert, seeks shelter among the Mussulmen and is hardly noticed by them, for they have had any trace of life snuffed out by the debauchery of their enslavers. Notably, the Mussulmen are entrusted with safeguarding the food rations, for it is known that their desire to eat has dissipated and that they no longer possess any consciousness of their surroundings. Above all, the blank, hollowed-out, spiritually emaciated corpses, slowly crawling toward their liberating death, personify the surreal and subhuman depths a person can be reduced to.

As is to be expected, Moni's odyssey into the netherworld is graphically charted, emphasizing his inability to shake off the "fetters" of his Judaic past. Doubtless, Moni is acutely aware of the fate that awaits him if he allows those values to surface, as they are in direct opposition to the demands of Robert, the block chief. For instance, Moni refuses to eat, though he has access to all of the food he craves and though he knows that this act will surely lead to death, since his tormentors like their sexual objects to be of supple and round flesh. Inevitably, the sensitive young protagonist, who longs for his parents, grows too thin to continue his function as a Piepel and is replaced by Lolek. Still, he cannot hate his substitute, because he believes that Lolek, just like him, yearns to see his mother, who is interned at the women's camp. Indeed, despite the relentless suffering and pervasive anguish around him, Moni never loses his humanity. We reflect, for instance, that he embraces the Talmudic teachings of the rabbi of Shilev, who through his Yom Kippur prayer and mere presence in the camp is able to infuse Moni's wretched existence with a modicum of meaning and hope.

In the end, after stealing a turnip and receiving a ruthless beating for his "sin," Moni finds release when he valiantly attempts to escape by lunging at the barbed wire. Significantly, his brave, life-affirming act elicits unexpected praise from Robert and Vatzek, a German kapo, who recognize his courageous refusal to succumb to the impending death from starvation that awaits the others: "'Bravo, old whore' he cried out as though to cheer him on." Perhaps the deepest message of the book is that it is only in the world of Auschwitz, where all values had been so overtly inverted, where all moral prescriptions were eclipsed by ritualized monstrosity, where the usual distinctions between right and wrong had vanished, that the death of a little boy is preferable to life.

—Dvir Abramovich