by Don Ani Shalom Singer
This book is the true testimony of a man who knocked on the gates of Hell in order to reenter and discover the meaning of the events he lived through many years before in the Auschwitz death camp. He wrote his first testimony a few months after World War II in a transit camp in Italy, still wearing his “Auschwitz shrouds.” He was not expected to live. Racing death he wrote as in a trance, completing the book Salamander in exactly two and a half weeks. But he could not pen his own name to the manuscript. The book was written by those who had become fire in the ovens of the crematorium. He chose for author the name shared by all the captives: Ka-Tzetnik 135633, “Concentration Camp Inmate,” and the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm. In Israel he changed his personal name to De Nur. De Nur means “Of the fire.”
Salamander was one of the first books published in Israel on the Holocaust. The horrifying chronicle of daily life and death in the camps, along with his later writings, helped shape the vision of a whole generation of Israelis. Yet the author remained anonymous, refusing correspondence or interviews. He resided in a cellar in Tel Aviv, spending most of his days and nights on a park bench. His nights were a torment of memories. A young poet, Nina Asherman (“Nike”), read his works and was drawn to him. The publisher refused to reveal his name. It took her a year to find him. “Even then you would not tell me your name,” she once said. He did not want her to have to endure his torments. But she shared his sense of mission, and she wanted to “infuse” this man she would marry “with the joy of living.”
He was born Yehiel Finer in 1917, and grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Poland, close to the German border. Before the Nazi invasion the Jews of Eastern Europe were a vast cultural entity, a nation within nations, speaking and writing in their own languages: Yiddish and Hebrew. For more than a century a modern Eastern European Jewish culture evolved alongside a still vital contemplative religious tradition. De Nur embodied this new / old world. He studied the Hebrew classics at a traditional Yeshiva in Lublin, and wrote stories and poems and played the violin. His writings appeared in modern secular Yiddish publications.
The trial of Adolph Eichmann, the head of the Nazi death project, was a national catharsis for Israel. Israelis had never as a nation faced the Holocaust. De Nur was one of a hundred witnesses called to testify. But when the prosecuting attorneys asked him if he, De Nur, was Ka-Tzetnik, the man who had written Salamander, he fell into shock and fainted. He was physically and psychologically unable to allow the connection between his private self and his Auschwitz testimony to be made public. Yet the haunting sound of his voice speaking of Auschwitz as “another planet,” and his subsequent collapse, is one of the most memorable moments of the trial. Captured by Israeli television, the event is replayed almost every year on Holocaust memorial day.
It grieved this man that it was impossible for him to acknowledge that he was Ka-Tzetnik, even to help friends in their own efforts to bear witness. He was unable to speak out in the first person, as Ka-Tzetnik / De Nur, as a whole “I.” He was compelled to write in the third person, even though it felt inauthentic: “I substitute he for I. God forgive me. I felt like a writer of literature.” Also, there was something unsaid that he knew must be said about Auschwitz, but he could not find the words. “I am mute, deprived of the word.” There was more to the events in the death camp than he could understand. “The Holocaust is not Auschwitz.” Then what is Auschwitz? What was the “hidden light” he had seen in the eyes of some of the captives? Only in Auschwitz had he seen that light. And what was still waiting for him in the darkness? He had no choice; he must bear witness. But the gates to his inner Auschwitz were closed to him.
In Leiden, Holland, Professor Jan Bastiaans, who specialized in treating victims of the Nazi camps, had discovered what he called “KZ” or “concentration-camp syndrome,” an extreme form of a post-traumatic phenomenon known since the First World War. The victims seem normal but they often feel isolated and suffer in silence. They live on inner reserves which are exhausted over the years, a condition which leads to sickness or suicide. By the 1960’s, LSD had gained acceptance among a number of leading psychologists and psychiatrists in Europe and America as a way to “open the doors of perception.” Dr. Bastiaans realized the therapeutic value of this drug, which sharpens the awareness and enables the patient, in the presence of the therapist, to relive the events that were the source of the traumas. His remarkable success treating victims of the concentration camps led the Dutch government to sanction his continued work and research with LSD.
When Nike discovered Dr. Bastiaan’s treatment she was filled with hope. “Your suffering is over my love.” De Nur resisted for two years. “What could the doctor know about Auschwitz?” In the end he entered treatment for his own reasons. It was not a “cure” he sought, but a deeper testimony, a clearer view of the darkness. He tells the doctor “I have not come here as a patient, but because I’ve heard that you hold a key to a gate that I’ve been trying to get through. So please open that gate for me, but once I’m in, kindly leave me there on my own, to myself.”
The content of this book of testimony is Ka-Tzetnik / De Nur’s profound realization, his experiences and visions at the treatment center n Holland, and ten more years of contemplation and integration, until he was finally able to write Shaviti. He wrote, totally absorbed in his task, with the same concentration that had seized him when he wrote his first testimony.
The original title of this book is Shaviti, the Hebrew name of a pictorial symbol, a mandala that is placed on the prayer wall of most traditional Synagogues and in homes of the pious. There is no set form for the mandala except the word Shaviti, which is the key word to the phrase from Psalm 16: I keep God continually before me. In some of De Nur’s visions, Auschwitz and the skies above become an ever-changing and contorting Shaviti mandala. Sometimes the letters YHVH, the ineffable, never-pronounced name of God, give way to images of the kabbalistic god of the “other side,” evil Ashmadei, and his sinister retinue, Shamhazai and Azael. Sometimes it is replaced by the face of a yawning SS guard or De Nur’s own face. Sometimes it is the face of Shekina, lover and beloved, the feminine presence of God.
This whole book is a Shaviti. Beyond indifference, we begin to see ourselves in the mandala: “Auschwitz is a primal phenomenon… Auschwitz is us.” We see the will to life in De Nur’s own unaccountable desire to live, expressed by four Hebrew letters: E.D’M.A. A meaningless, unpronounceable word, perhaps a call to awake, that would come to him at the moment he was about to be killed. His would-be murderers cannot resist his passion. They are distracted by the insistence in his eyes or in his words: “I am a human being.”
Once, after a vision, he runs through the streets of Leiden weeping for those he has seen again. Those who give their lives rather than betray their humanity; and even more, the simple integrity in the eyes of the people he saw walking naked to the gas chambers. Eyes that met his eyes and never left them. He runs and weeps. He says it is “God’s weeping from a hidden place.” He has found the hidden place. The hidden place is himself, is us. The hidden place of God is each human being, compassionate and awake, bearing witness.