Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen Aus Einem Erdloch: Roman

views updated


Novel by Wolfgang Koeppen, 1948

In the preface to the 1993 edition of his novel Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch, Wolfgang Koeppen states that in 1946-47 his friend the publisher Herbert Kluger told him about the fate of Jakob Littner. Based on his friend's narration, Koeppen reconstructed Littner's story: "I had dreamed of it." Littner was born in 1883 in Oświęcim (Auschwitz) and died in 1950 in New York City. A Polish citizen, he had escaped from Munich to Prague and then to Kraków, remaining there until the German army marched on the city and he was forced to go further east. He lived in the ghetto in the Polish-Ukranian city of Zbaraz until it was demolished on 8 June 1943. Littner and his longtime companion, Janina, were able to hide in a hole in the cellar of an impoverished Polish noble only by paying him immense sums of money. His narration is one of the few authentic documents of the German policies against the Jews before they were killed.

Returning to his hometown—which, as Koeppen writes in his preface, "was destroyed by the bombs of his saviors"—Littner believed that he had "seen murderers. He wanted to scream, but he only choked. He wanted to speak and look in the faces that had tolerated everything." He emigrated to the United States and, after his arrival, began sending CARE packages to Koeppen as payment for writing the book. Koeppen says, "I ate food from American cans and wrote down the woeful story of a German Jew. This is how it became my story." The book was issued by Kluger's publishing house in 1948 and was reissued in 1985. In 1993 the book was issued again by Jüdischer Verlag, a branch of the publishing house Suhrkamp, and a paperback edition followed in 1994, this time without the subtitle "Novel." Meanwhile, a public debate had begun over the authorship of Koeppen, with some critics attacking him on the issue of copyright. Littner's heirs had found a manuscript, of 183 pages, entitled Mein Weg durch die Nacht ("My Way through the Night"), which apparently had served as Koeppen's model.

Littner's introduction is dated 9 November 1945. He says that with this document he wanted to provide evidence, to "find out facts in the interest of truth," and to offer an example "for the innumerable and nameless who have shown their noble ethos." To this end Littner tried to depict his experiences as accurately as possible, and his work is striking in its attention to detail. At the same time Littner repeatedly emphasizes his faith in God's leadership. Even as a child he was filled with the fear of God and with faith in God: "Due to the disastrous events I was only confirmed in my faith of God." In his book he sets his faith against the dominant "spirit of unbelief and materialism."

While Koeppen copied a number of passages from Littner's manuscript, he also generalized and mythologized Littner's factual account and turned it into literature. As the critic Roland Ulrich has said, "an inner diary" was created "reminiscent of Hiob, Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky." In his version of Littner's story Koeppen focuses on symbols of death, and Littner's life becomes a parable for modern existence in a dark world, the metaphors for which are the prison and the ghetto. Littner appears as a new Ahasver, the victim of a kafkaesque bureaucracy of evil. Only gradually does he find his way from doubt to faith in God. But Koeppen also stresses the role of the so-called good Germans: "They have withstood the slogan of inhumanity." In the end Koeppen's Littner emphasizes that he does not hate those who were guilty. He will not forgive them, however, because what has happened cannot be judged by man but only by God. The interpretation of Littner's manuscript as a poetic work and the identification with the victim are actually Koeppen's reflections on his own guilt: he was in opposition but without the courage to stand up to the Nazis for his beliefs. In this way Littner becomes an image projected by Koeppen, a reinterpretation that has been widely criticized.

—Walter Schmitz