- Das bittere Brot: H. G. Adler, Elias Canetti und Franz Baermann Steiner im Londoner Exil by Jeremy Adler
Das bittere Brot is a slim volume that is divided into three parts: The first is a very general treatment of the plight of exiled poets and thinkers, with a focus on Germans and German Jews forced into American and British diaspora by the Nazis. The second is what one might have expected from the book’s title: a hands-on exploration of the fascinating relationships among the figures named in the subtitle. The third is a passionate, if partisan, apologia for H. G. Adler mounted by his son, Jeremy. Each part might have become a book in its own right, and, in the case of the latter two, probably needed that kind of space to make their case adequately. Still, this little book is one that gets progressively better. So let’s begin at the end.
Without warning, part 3 veers off from the émigré triumvirate announced in the book’s title into another, unexpected, but nevertheless quite interesting direction. The sense of disjuncture is not accidental: This is a German translation of an essay that appeared fifteen years ago under the title “Good Against Evil? H. G. Adler, T. W. Adorno, and the Representation of the Holocaust.” No matter, it remains of interest today. The younger Adler—who for some reason never identifies himself as his subject’s son—offers a convincing explanation as to why H. G. Adler (and other authors like him) would have been not only overlooked but also actively marginalized by the high priests of Holocaust representation. Jeremy Adler makes Adorno the chief culprit but adds Lawrence Langer and Saul Friedländer into the mix. These are the best-known exponents of an orthodoxy that, he says, esteemed nihilism and the impossibility of representation as the Holocaust’s ultimate “lesson” (when of [End Page 172] course no lesson whatsoever was to be gleaned from the camps) and actively belittled as trivializing any mode of aesthetic representation that hinted at transcendence, hope, or even partial recovery from the great catastrophe. All that kind of thing, Langer warned, was a cheap form of “mental comfort,” part of the “culture of consolation” threatening to undermine the “true” Holocaust narrative of ultimate despair. But this view—one that indeed dominated academic discussion for several decades but did not much affect broader arenas of popular culture—leaves little room for one Hans Günther Adler, who survived internment in both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and gradually began to reflect on those formative years in a rich array of poetry, novels, and, of course, the massive sociological study Theresienstadt 1941–1945 while in his postwar British “exile.”
The author is right to point out that it is not simply a matter of personal sentiment (H. G. Adler remained committed to Enlightenment ideals, ethics, and a spiritual conception of the human being even after the Holocaust) but also of philosophical consistency. If we were to take seriously some of the nihilistic Holocaust scholarship of the time, he says, we would deprive ourselves of the very underpinnings that permit us to see it as an immoral genocide: “Besäßen wir nämlich nicht genau diese [philosophischen] Kategorien, hätten wir keine Möglichkeiten, überhaupt zu beurteilen, dass ein Verbrechen stattgefunden hat, geschweige denn ein Verbrechen dieses Ausmaßes.” All to the good.
Jeremy Adler is at his best, I think, when he explains why the work of his father, which includes one hundred poems written during his internment in Theresienstadt, was bound to be ignored or undervalued, given the regnant academic paradigms of the day. He is poignant in his defense of H. G. Adler’s narrative efforts to return dignity to Holocaust victims and absolutely convincing in his argument about the unintended consequence of the so-called aesthetics of nihilism—namely, the effective disenfranchising of “dissident” survivor poets and thinkers such as his father. Making the positive case, however, is more of a challenge. He argues that...