At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities (Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten)

views updated

AT THE MIND'S LIMITS: CONTEMPLATIONS BY A SURVIVOR ON AUSCHWITZ AND ITS REALITIES (Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten)

Autobiographical essays by Jean Améry, 1966

The collection of essays At the Mind's Limits, published in English in 1980, is probably Jean Améry's best-known book. The first of three autobiographical works (followed by Über das Altern and Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre ), it was explicitly written for a German radio audience and broadcast before publication. Améry reflects in five essays on his experiences as an intellectual and cultural German Jew during the Nazi period and examines the consequences of the Holocaust for his self-understanding after the war.

In its German original, the title reads Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten and suggests that Améry did not believe in the possibility of reconciliation. The subtitle is an ironic word play on the German term for "coming to terms with the Nazi time," V ergangenheitsbewältigung. The essays are compiled in the order in which they were written, rather than according to the chronology of the events they describe. The reader is thereby able to follow Améry's own development of thought and journey in memory and reflection. Beginning with "At the Mind's Limits" which deals with the (nonreligious) intellectual in Auschwitz, Améry moves on to describe his experience of being tortured by the Gestapo and the consequence of having lost trust in the world. He reflects on the notion of Heimat (Home), particularly to a German-Jewish refugee and Auschwitz survivor. In "Ressentiments" Améry deals with his disillusionment with the developments in West Germany's political left. The collection closes with an essay on his Jewishness.

All essays are characterized by sharp observations and a disarming sense of honesty and irony about his own life. In particular, when addressing the consequences of the Holocaust on his relationship to German culture, Améry's observations about his alienation from both contexts and his struggle to identify are clearly reflected in his style. He defines Heimat as "security," a context that can be taken for granted. Living in a different cultural context, especially when that was not chosen freely but had been enforced, means the loss of one's entire cultural system of reference. In particular, German-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were thrown into an existential crisis different from the crisis of other survivors, since they had no other cultural context to fall back on and in which to feel at home. The alienation from one's origins was particularly poignant in relation to the German language. Overnight German had become the language of the enemy. The violence done to the German language by its misuse during the period of National Socialism was felt particularly in the camps, where the German-Jewish prisoner was identified by fellow inmates as part of the enemy culture while being tortured by representatives of that same culture.

Améry contends that the number tattooed on his arm tells more about his Jewishness than any religious text or tradition could. The tattoo stamped a forced identity on him, and merely looking at it makes him realize the loss of Heimat all over again, regularly shattering his trust in the world. His Jewishness was forced on him rather than being naturally part of his self-understanding, and it is bound up with fear of renewed persecution and loneliness. Because Améry grew up assimilated with no positive awareness of his Jewish roots, he could not invent a positive relationship to this part of his heritage once the Nuremberg Laws expelled him from German culture. He subsequently identified with Jean-Paul Sartre's (negative) definition of Jewishness, which relied on being identified as Jewish by others. This was not necessary for Jews who, with or without assimilation, had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish community. Yet Améry, once identified as a Jew, did not resign himself to this fate. He accepted this identification and rebelled against it, struggling to find his own identification in the one that was forced on him by distinguishing between "being Jewish" and "Judaism."

The autobiographical essays in the collection are more than memories of a contemporary witness. They remain relevant, reflecting on the human consequences of atrocity. The theme uniting the essays is Améry's concern for a "radical humanism," which communicates the consequences of inhumane behavior in order to prevent its reoccurrence.

—K. Hannah Holtschneider

About this article

At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities (Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten)

Updated About content Print Article