When Hannah Arendt wrote "The Origins of Totalitarianism" in the years just after the Holocaust, she struggled to explain what made the Nazi genocide so unprecedentedly evil. What separated this atrocity from all previous atrocities, she decided, was not the number of victims. It was, rather, the new institution of the concentration camp, which Arendt described as the supreme expression of the monstrous ambition of totalitarianism: to eradicate the individual human being.
"The murder of the moral person in man," Arendt wrote, was "the real masterpiece of the SS." This moral murder was accomplished by placing the victim beyond the reach of imagination, and therefore of sympathy and solidarity. What happened in Auschwitz was literally unimaginable because, like a black hole, what the camp consumed could never be recovered: No one outside the gates could ever know what happened inside. "The human masses sealed off in [the camps] are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody," Arendt wrote. "The inmates, even if they happen to keep alive, are more effectively cut off from the world of the living than if they had died, because terror enforces oblivion."
Twenty years later, however, when Arendt went to Jerusalem to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she was forced to revise her earlier conclusion. "The holes of oblivion do not exist," she now believed. "Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story." This insight of Arendt's helps to explain why writing the history of the Holocaust is different from writing the history of other events, even the most terrible. If the Holocaust was, as Arendt said, an attempt to enforce oblivion, then writing its history is a way not just of understanding it but of revoking it. Every shred of evidence retrieved from the camps is another proof that oblivion is impossible, that no human life can be utterly purged from the remembrance of humanity.
"The Terezin Album of Marianka Zadikow" (University of Chicago Press, 280 pages, $35) is the latest remarkable demonstration of Arendt's principle. The book itself could not be more ordinary: It is a high-quality facsimile, with translations, of an autograph album belonging to a teenage girl. As usual with such albums, it is full of her friends' signatures and messages, along with the occasional poem or drawing. For page after page, reading it is just like reading a high school yearbook: "All the very best for the future, little cousin!" writes Marianka's cousin Lotte; "Marianka! Should you be bored, remember your colleague," writes Regina; "I wish you lots of happiness, Marianka!" writes Hana.
What makes all this ordinariness so gripping is the fact that this particular album was kept by a Jewish prisoner in the Nazi camp at Terezin, known in German as Theresienstadt. Marianka Zadikow was born in Munich in 1923, to a highly assimilated German Jewish family. She was 10 years old when Hitler took power in Germany, and her parents, more prescient than many Jews, took advantage of their international connections to flee the country. Her father, Arnold, a well-established artist, went to Paris to work, while Marianka went with her mother Hilda to live with relatives in Prague.
This move bought the family a six-year reprieve. But in 1939, when Germany swallowed up the remains of Czechoslovakia, the Zadikows were brought under Nazi rule at last. For the next three years, Deborah Dwork writes in her introduction to this volume, they suffered the increasing persecutions inflicted on Prague's Jews: They were forbidden to work, denied ration cards, and forced to wear the yellow star. Finally, on May 15, 1942, at six o'clock in the morning, the Zadikows were ordered to board a train for the concentration camp at Terezin.
Terezin occupied a unique place in the concentration-camp system. It was used by Hitler as a kind of Potemkin village, to demonstrate to the outside world that his treatment of the Jews was benign. Prominent Western European Jews were sent there, and a semblance of cultural life was permitted. There was even a propaganda film made about the camp, with the horribly ironic title "The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Town."
In fact, as Ms. Dwork makes clear, Terezin was simply a dressed-up transit camp, where Jews from Western Europe were kept, in dangerous conditions, until they could be deported to the death factories in Poland. "Of the 141,162 Jews shipped in," she writes, "88,202 were subsequently deported east [and] 33,456 died" on-site. At the end of the war, about 17,000 Jews remained alive in Terezin, a survival rate of about 12%.
Among them was Marianka Zadikow, who by then was 21 years old. Her youth and strength, her ability to work and survive on low rations, helped to account for her survival, but sheer chance was equally important. Ms. Dwork quotes Marianka's own opinion that it was "clerical error" that spared her from joining virtually "all the young people" in Terezin on the last transport to Auschwitz, in October 1944. Whatever the reason, Marianka — and, more surprisingly, her mother, too — were alive to greet the Red Army when it liberated the camp in April 1945.
She also managed to preserve her Poesiealbum. In September 1944, Marianka had been given a stack of good office paper by a fellow inmate — "each a little bit different in color, a little yellowish or all white...a treasure," she recalled. She asked another prisoner, a bookbinder named Emil Lowenstern, to make a small book out of it. Lowenstern's inscription is found on the second page of the album: "In the beautiful Bohemian land a ghetto came to be by chance. Here are assembled different nations and people of all different occupations, artists, musicians, craftsmen, workers. With simple means, without any 'title,' may this book remain a memory for you."
The wistful irony of this message, which sounds like the start of a fairy tale, is hard to parse at first. How could someone in a concentration camp, facing deportation or death every day, conjure this elegant fiction? But as you read further, it becomes clear that this sort of irony was the only possible strategy for Terezin's inmates. Almost never do Marianka's friends refer explicitly to their situation. They keep to ordinary formulas of affection, knowing that just the name of the camp is enough to reveal the abyss on which they are standing.
"My dear little one! May we survive the bad times without being separated and may we remain such heartfelt friends in good times! Your Mother — Terezin, 10.28.1944": What an unspeakable tale, what fears and hopes, are concealed in these few lines, which, except for the dateline, could be read as a mere platitude. "To dear Marianka to remember the famous times in Terezin," writes Walter Windholz on September 25, 1944: The word "famous" pushes past black comedy to a kind of ineffable irony, even before you learn, from the footnote, that Windholz was killed in Auschwitz just three weeks after writing this message.
The power of these plain jottings is all the greater when they are contrasted with the sententious messages of the few "public figures" who wrote in Marianka's album. Leo Baeck used his inscription to deliver a miniature sermon: "Within human hearts the millennia from which man has arisen struggle with those in which he lives. Neither these, the years, much less those, the millennia, should ever be thrust aside," he writes, and the pulpit language seems pompously incomprehensible.
There is a gulf separating Baeck's message from the one that appears two pages later, by the 18-year-old Eva Wittlerova: "In memory of times spent together in school as well as in Terezin!" In these lines, you can already see the principle that writers like Primo Levi would establish as the cardinal rule of writing about the Holocaust. Only directness and simplicity are eloquent in this context; the more "impressive" the language, the less of an impression it makes. Eva's curt message forces the reader to imagine what it meant to go from high school to Terezin; Baeck's obscures that human truth in a cloud of vague profundity.
Eva's inscription, like several in the album, was actually written after the war had ended. Marianka spent the next two years in Prague, where she saw some of her fellow Terezin inmates, before emigrating to America, where she has lived ever since. She raised two children, worked as a poultry farmer and a school custodian, and now lives in retirement in upstate New York. By sharing the treasure of her album with the world, she has added an invaluable piece to our understanding of the Holocaust, and reminded us once again that there is no more ethical act than to preserve ordinariness from oblivion.