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  • The Myth of the Salamander in the Work of Ka-Tzetnik
  • Yechiel Szeintuch
    Translated by Daniella Tourgeman and Maayan Zigdon


In 1945, while recovering from the ordeal of Nazi concentration camps in an Italian hospital and awaiting his passage to Palestine, a survivor who called himself Karl Tzetinski and would become famous under the pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik, composed, in Yiddish, a novel based on his experience. Its title was Salamandra ("Salamander"), and this was also the title of the poem that he composed at the same period. In English the novel appeared under the title Sunrise over Hell (1977). Salamandra was also used by Ka-Tzetnik as the general title of his series of six novels about the Holocaust —"Salamandra: Chronicle of a Jewish Family in the Twentieth-Century."1 [End Page 101]

This paper will study the uses of the word salamander in Ka-Tzetnik's poem and his first novel, ranging from a reference to a mythological creature, through metaphor, to symbol. Like the four letter code E.D'M.A,2salamander is a motif rooted in the history of Jewish culture, as well as in Yiddish literature, and the culture and literature of other nations. I shall argue that the connotations that the image of the salamander has accumulated throughout its rich history explain and enrich its significance in Ka-Tzetnik's texts.

1. The Legend of the Salamander

The salamander is a big, smooth, slippery-skinned lizard. Numerous varieties of salamander are known to herpetologists. They are amphibian; some live on land and enter the water only to reproduce; others spend most of their time in the water. However, in ancient legends the salamander lives in the fire without burning.3 The reason for such a polar transformation of this animal's natural environment (natural history vs. legend) may be associated with the fact that certain salamanders live in wood chips, and when these are tossed into fire, they escape, as if rising from the fire.4 The imaginary association between Salamanders and fire (see Löw 1909: 399-402) ranges from the Talmud, through [End Page 102] medieval and modern European symbolism, to names of kitchen utensils.5

In ancient Greece and Rome the salamander was believed to be a spirit that lived in the fire. Aristotle and Plynius the Elder mention a legendary lizard that dwells in the fire: the heat of the fire is neutralized by the cold of the salamander's body. Plynius the Elder, the firstcentury AD Roman scholar of nature, reports that he tried to prove this belief experimentally —and failed: the salamander burned up (X.67; XXIX.4 as quoted in Brewer, cf. Plinio 2002). The Latin and Greek word salamandra migrated and was absorbed into several Eastern cultures, such as Jewish, Syrian, Persian, and Arab. In ancient literature there were some cases of confusion when the salamander was considered a bird because, like the Phoenix, it is associated with coming out of the fire. However, whereas the salamander comes out of the fire and extinguishes it, the Phoenix rejuvenates in the burned nest, and rises from the ashes.6 In the various descriptions of the connection between the salamander and the fire, it is also mentioned that when the salamander is repeatedly persecuted and is near an open fire, it can save itself by hiding in it without harm (Ka-Tzetnik's protagonist, Harry Preleshnik, is kept from burning in the crematorium by working in the crematorium Sonderkommando).

In medieval and modern Europe, the motif of the salamander was often but not exclusively associated with military glory and the fight for freedom. The name of the salamander was assumed in 1397 by an association of noblemen of the town of Chelm who resisted a Teutonic invasion (see Marszalek —Wiśniewska 1989: 39). In the sixteenth century a lizard within flames appears on the arms of François I, King of France (see Brewer 1093-94). In Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, whose mock-heroic "machinery" was borrowed from the Rosicrucian lore, the salamander was associated with fire as one of the four elements; Pope jocularly turned it into an after-death avatar of...


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