Soul of Wood ("Eine Seele Aus Holz")

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SOUL OF WOOD ("Eine Seele aus Holz")

Short Story by Jakov Lind, 1962

Born in 1927 to Jewish parents, Jakov Lind endured formative years shaped by the experience of overwhelming danger and fear. In 1938, shortly after Austria's Anschluss with Nazi Germany, the 11-year-old was forced to leave his parents and his home in Vienna to find safety with various foster families in The Netherlands. Following the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, Lind together with the Dutch Jewish population was moved to the Amsterdam ghetto, where he escaped deportation by hiding in an attic. After being provided with false papers and a new identity, that of a young Dutchman named Jan Overbeek, Lind decided that he would be safer in enemy territory and went to work in Nazi Germany. There he worked as a sailor on a large barge, barely escaping the Allied bombings. During the final stages of the war, Lind worked for the director of a metallurgical institute in Marburg. He was 18 when the war ended.

Lind's early traumatic experiences had a profound impact on him, and they surface, in various ways, in his literary works, particularly in his early writings. These include the prose collections Soul of Wood (1964; first published as Eine Seele aus Holz in 1962) and The Stove (originally written in English but first published in German in 1973) as well as the novels Landscape in Concrete (1963) and Ergo (1966), which are set during the Nazi period, including the war years, and examine human behavior in the face of life-threatening danger. In these works Lind creates an absurd, nightmarish, and unpredictable world in which fear and guilt are the primary human experiences.

The initial, title story of Lind's first publication, Soul of Wood, a collection of short prose, includes the subject of opportunism as part of the author's exploration of central human experiences. In this story the grotesque atmosphere is created not only by the Nazi regime of terror but by the opportunistic compliance of its followers and bystanders. The main character is Wohlbrecht, a World War I veteran with a wooden leg who, although he does not subscribe to the Nazi ideology, nevertheless seeks to profit from it. After promising his Jewish employers he will hide their paraplegic son after their deportation in exchange for the deed to their apartment, Wohlbrecht transports the helpless Anton Barth to a mountain hut and leaves him there to die. When his plans to sell the apartment are thwarted by a Nazi, Wohlbrecht finds himself an inmate in an insane asylum. He survives by currying favor from the Nazi doctors who are administering fatal "special treatments" to the patients of the asylum. With the end of the war in sight and the Russians advancing on Vienna, Wohlbrecht and the doctors set off on a bizarre race to retrieve the remains of Anton Barth, whose body they hope will exonerate them by providing evidence that they had once attempted to save a Jew. Wohlbrecht, who does not want to share "his Jew," is shot and left on the mountainside.

While Wohlbrecht appears to personify the opportunistic bystander who adapts easily to whoever is in power and acts only in his own self-interest, Lind's text actually blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. Wohlbrecht has little or no control over his fate and repeatedly falls victim to men more unscrupulous than he. His victim status is indicated by his physical handicap, which connects him with the totally paralyzed Anton Barth, the true victim in the story. On the other hand, his wooden leg can be understood as the outer manifestation of his inner deformation, to which the title "Soul of Wood" refers.

Anton Barth's miraculous cure on the mountaintop after he is abandoned by Wohlbrecht and his existence as the mythical "Wild Man" on the mountain take Lind's text into the realm of the fantastic. As is the case with the grotesque elements in the story, the fantastic and bizarre inhibit reader identification, which detract from the central intention of the work: the exploration of the relationship between victims and perpetrators and the gray area where the difference between the two is blurred.

—Helga Schreckenberger