The Forest of the Dead (Der Totenwald: Ein Bericht)

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THE FOREST OF THE DEAD (Der Totenwald: Ein Bericht)

Novel by Ernst Wiechert, 1945

In the spring of 1938, in protest against the re-arrest of Martin Niemöller , the head of the Confessional Church and an outspoken critic of the regime, Ernst Wiechert, one of the leading German novelists, informed the branch office of the Nazi Party that hereafter his contributions to the party's welfare agencies would be diverted to help Niemöller's family. This was not, in fact, Wiechert's only offense. In the February plebiscite preceding the Anschluss, Wiechert, as the party very well knew, had failed to vote (the explicit naysayers were half-beaten to death within half an hour after the polls had closed).

Wiechert was arrested on 6 May. For the first two months he was detained in "protective custody" in the Wittelsbach Palace in Munich—"all revolutions," he wrote, "have a hankering after palaces"—and here the first half of the book takes place. In early July he was deported to Buchenwald, which gives his report its title. (In the original the title reads Der Totenwald, the name given to the camp by its inmates in a spirit of near-literal gallows humor). Written in 1939 (and concealed at night beneath a red currant bush in Wiechert's garden), the book owes its importance not least to being nearly the earliest insider's account of the concentration camp—strictly speaking, the first, the actor-director Wolfgang Langhoff's Dachau-based Die Moorsoldaten, appeared as early as 1935.

The Forest of the Dead, published in 1945 and in English translation in 1947, has sometimes been unfairly dismissed as tame stuff compared with the littérature concentrationaire that has been prevalent since the 1960s. Readers who are steeped in the more recent texts tend to disparage the brevity of Wiechert's sentence and the relatively light tasks he performed. What needs to be remembered is that while Wiechert himself escaped physical torture, he witnessed degrees of sadism that nearly matched those of the death camps. By 1938 a crematorium had been installed; prisoners were hanged as examples to rookies, always on Mondays and Thursdays, or flogged to death; the camp physician seized the day by tossing stones at his patients; the personnel observed Christmas by hanging a prisoner from a Christmas tree. A sympathetic commentator, writing in 1945, noted (without the least political animus, years before David Irving was heard from) that if these scenes had appeared in a work of fiction, nobody would have believed them. In the first half of the book Wiechert is initiated into these horrors by his cellmates—one, an alleged criminal, the other, a homosexual; in the second half he delivers an eyewitness account of the "high horrible screams … that dwindled to the voiceless rattle of an animal whose lifeblood evaporates" and the fun and games of the guards who, on a hunting spree, enlivened the game by picking on human targets. Since World War II plenty of documentaries have "acclimated" viewers to the sight of "skeletons with phantom arms and legs, covered with sores and stained with clotted blood"; but Wiechert, when he wrote those words, had not been treated to so much as the clips shown at the Nuremberg trials.

Nor was Wiechert exempt from hard labor. For some 13 hours a day he carried limestone blocks in 95˚F heat, forbidden to straighten up or, under penalty of flogging, to drink a drop of water (on the pretext that the water was cholera-suspect). Wiechert, then nearly 50 years old, already suffered from severe cardiac complications and contracted edema and dysentery during his days in camp—though the days were to run their course by the end of August. Perhaps Goebbels, who summoned Wiechert after his release to tell him that one more publication by him would lead to a terminal vacation in camp, couldn't afford to have anybody of Wiechert's prominence die of heart failure just then. Toward the end of his stay, in an incident he himself called "grotesquely funny," Wiechert received permission to order all his books for the camp library—in duplicate. (One of the guards asked him if he had really written them "all by himself.") Perhaps Sidrah Ezrahi, who cites this incident, cannot be blamed for calling Wiechert's account "an autobiographical novel." Nor, after Charlotte Delbo and Primo Levi , is it easy to listen to Wiechert's jeremiads about his sloppy looks at the Wittelsbach Palace or really appreciate his complacency in "tak[ing] care of his body by buying lard and chocolate." But we should look for the deeper truths on which the book ends: that "No leave-taking is harder than the leave-taking from a concentration camp," and the comment about him by an inmate: "A queer man. When he first came, his face was just like stone. Now that he goes, it looks the same."

—Edgar Rosenberg

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The Forest of the Dead (Der Totenwald: Ein Bericht)

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