Sunrise Over Hell (Salamandra)

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Novel by Ka-Tzetnik 135633, 1947

After escaping from the death marches in 1945, Ka-Tzetnik 135633, then known as Yehiel Finer, was taken to a hospital in Italy to recover. Compelled to record the unspeakable brutalities of his tormentors and fearing that he might not live long, he feverishly wrote Salamandra over a period of two and a half weeks. Close to the bone and swathed in scenes of devastating violence, the work, published in Hebrew in 1947 and in English as Sunrise over Hell in 1977, is painful to read. Yet in rendering the seemingly unreal, it is a blow to the solar plexus of indifference, for it leads the reader to ponder the palpable, unforgettable sorrow of the victims and prevents a turning away from the distressing and confronting material.

At the outset it is important to explicate the meaning of the Hebrew title, as it underpins the thematic matrix upon which most of the author's concerns can be mapped out. According to Hebrew lore, the salamandra is a phantasmagorical animal that emerges from a fire that has burning in one place for seven years. In essence, the name denotes a being that has been born of fire and out of destruction, one whose threads to the past have been bluntly severed and whose entire being has been crafted out of the flames. (It is interesting to observe that in Israel Ka-Tzetnik changed his family name to Dinur, meaning "of fire.") More broadly, it is this central trope that frames the dramatic backbone of the author's sextet of novels, Sunrise over Hell being the first in the series. Like the salamandra, some of the heroes who populate Ka-Tzetnik's literary landscape have survived the total mayhem of concentration camp life but have come through spiritually and physically demolished, re-created from the maelstrom of anarchy into another person. On another level it has been suggested that, since the cycle of six novels is entitled Salamander, the ur-message knotted throughout is that without the individual salamandra, those brave souls who preserved and endured the mind-numbing assault, the truth would not have been transmitted to future generations.

Cut from a cloth splashed in blood, the nucleus narrative of Sunrise over Hell takes place in the ghetto and in Auschwitz and tells the story of Harry Preleshnik, a talented and brilliant musician who is the author's alter ego. (This fact is undisputed; in the book Harry is given the same inmate number—135633—the author adopted for his pseudonym.) The time is just before the war, and the place is Poland. Watching the surfacing of rampant anti-Semitism with dismay, Harry senses the looming danger about to engulf Polish Jewry. In response he decides to emigrate to Palestine, where his future father-in-law, Schmidt, has settled. When the elderly industrialist hears of Harry's plans, however, he informs him through a letter that better he drown his daughter, Sonia, in the sea than bring her to the inhospitable land. Reluctantly, the Zionist Harry agrees.

A few days later the narrative surges headlong into the world of the irrational and the grotesque as the Germans invade Metropoli, rounding up Jews in the street, burning books and prayer shawls, and throwing into the fire beards that have been torn off the men's faces. Before long the Jewish councils are established, followed by the establishment of the ghetto. The author shows the wretched, imprisoned existence of slavery, humiliation, and public executions in the ghetto, as well as the extreme starvation in the work camp to which Harry is transferred. Arriving at a camp in Germany, Harry is struck by the thousands of bony men, their heads shaved and their jawbones protruding, greeting the newcomers with a plea for bread. In a telling moment Harry whispers, "I am in another world." Ultimately Harry is transported to Auschwitz without Sonia, where he is assigned the duty of removing the gold teeth from the mouths of the charred corpses. In addition to the daily savagery there are the Mussulmen (living skeletons), those emaciated, half dead prisoners who are the touchstone, the reflexive marker, for the unsettling dehumanization of Auschwitz. Unable to eat or feel hunger, the Mussulmen eject any food they ingest because of their ravaged intestines and, once identified by the camp doctor, are immediately dispatched to the gas chambers. Not surprisingly, at one point Harry is reduced to the state of the Mussulmen, joining the row of the totally skeletonized group marching toward the crematorium. Yet he is able to draw on his last nugget of internal strength to attempt escape. And although they capture him, the SS men, impressed by his daring act, decide to spare him immediate eradication and send him back to work.

Through the Harry and Sonia dyad the book lays particular emphasis on the notion of love, glaringly absent among the chimneys of Auschwitz. Against incredible odds the couple manages to remain devoted to each other in spite of the fact that they are separated and can communicate only through a fragmented exchange of letters. It is significant that, in complete opposition to the stereotypically erroneous image of the Diaspora Jew held by many Israelis in the 1950s, the author repeatedly underscores Sonia's heroism, painting her as the exemplar of the proud Jew, suffused with pride and dignity, constantly on the guard for her loved ones, and unwilling to bend to Nazi rule. In fact, she is the one who fights in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and later joins the partisans. Indeed, throughout the book her fierce determination to fight rather than surrender is on display front and center. For instance, she tells Rabbi Fromkin, who opposes armed resistance, that, while he has chosen for himself and his disciples a shameful death, she and her comrades are sanctifying the name of Israel and that they are the ones acting in accordance with the law of Israel and the name of God.

Lamentably, Sonia is ultimately trapped by a Gestapo operative when she boards a train destined for Auschwitz that she believes is headed for Switzerland. Thrust into the belly of the beast, Sonia quickly becomes like the Mussulmen and is discovered by Harry, who recognizes his wife's corpse by the mole on her cheek. Given her construction as a woman of valor and by the fact that throughout the tale she is adumbrated as a woman of action who is able to elude the Nazis time and again and who defies her inevitable fate with all the cunning she can muster, we find Sonia's death all the more shocking because of the state in which she is found and the fact that it is the gentle, passive Harry who endures. Above all, Harry survives the annihilating smokestacks so that he can testify to the truth and tell of the calamity to those who were not there. It is only then that we can truly and tangibly incubate the dead in our memory and in our soul.

—Dvir Abramovich