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Apr 2007 Journal

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H.G. Adler: scholar, poet, survivor

An exhibition devoted to H.G. Adler, writer on and historian of the Holocaust, is currently showing at the Maughan Library, King’s College London (in the former Public Records Office building, Chancery Lane, until 20 April). The title, ‘I Will Bear Witness’: H.G. Adler and the Holocaust, describes it very aptly.

Born in Prague in 1910, Adler emerged from that crucible of German-speaking Jewish culture that produced Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Max Brod, Egon Erwin Kisch, Leo Perutz and Ernst Weiß. He was a close friend of the Prague-born ethnologist and poet Franz Baermann Steiner; he had Steiner’s works published after the latter’s early death in exile in Britain. Adler studied literature, musicology and philosophy at Charles University, the prelude to his career as a scholar, poet and novelist. But in February 1942 he was deported to Terezín with his wife, Gertrud Klepetar. As part of his strategy of survival, he determined to write a scholarly account of the camp, which became his pioneering study Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft.

In October 1944, Adler and his wife were deported to Auschwitz. He was selected for labour, but his wife refused to let her mother die alone and went with her to the gas chamber - one of those acts of selfless devotion by which Jews could assert their moral superiority over their persecutors even at the very end. At Auschwitz, Adler, who came from an assimilated background, learnt about Judaism; he also became aware of the extent to which the state could misuse its power, a central theme in his study of Terezín, and beyond.

After liberation, Adler returned to Prague, but in 1947, with a Communist takeover looming, he left for England, where he spent the rest of his life, dying there in 1988. Shamefully, no British university ever offered him an academic post, and he refused to take one in Germany. His first major work was his meticulously detailed study of life in Terezín, which appeared in 1955. This was followed by Der verwaltete Mensch: Studien zur Deportation der Juden aus Deutschland (1974), another important contribution to the young discipline of the history of the Holocaust. Among his many literary works, the novel Panorama (1968) is perhaps the best known.

Regrettably, such early historical studies of the Holocaust as Adler’s book on Terezín or Gerald Reitlinger’s book on the Final Solution are now largely overlooked. So it is to the credit of Cambridge University Press that at last an English translation of the book on Terezín is to appear in 2008.

Adler’s works on the Holocaust made a considerable impact when they appeared. Theresienstadt formed an important part of the legal evidence that was presented to the Bundesverfassungsgericht, West Germany’s Supreme Court, when it came to pass the Restitution Laws of the 1950s. Adler also advised the prosecution in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann; Eichmann himself read Adler’s study of Terezín in prison, to remind himself of the facts. Hannah Arendt’s controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, with its notorious concept of the ‘banality of evil’, also owed much to Adler, though he disapproved of Arendt’s selective use of his work. He is also cited as a respected source in W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz.

On 30 January, a reception was held in conjunction with the exhibition, at which the highlight was an address by Jeremy Adler, H.G. Adler’s son by his second marriage and Emeritus Professor of German at King’s College. Professor Adler spoke movingly about his father’s Holocaust experiences and his decision to make their description and analysis his life’s work. Professor Adler – der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm – is an eminent scholar who has written on subjects ranging from Goethe and Kafka to Erich Fried and the Expressionist poet August Stramm. He occupies a place of honour among the children of exiles from the German-speaking lands in Britain who have distinguished themselves as scholars specialising in German literature
Anthony Grenville

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