To the world at large, none of the death camps is better known than is Auschwitz. There is now in existence a very large volume of literature regarding the atrocities committed in that infamous place, much of it written by its survivors. This literature is often reflective as well as descriptive as it recounts, not only the day-to-day horror of life and death but the destructive effects of relentless and senseless violence on human understanding. In this respect, the books of both Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi must stand as premier examples of intellectual and spiritual revelation as well as personal witness.
Jean Amery's At the Mind's Limit: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities must join the works of Wiesel and Levi as indispensable reading for anyone seeking to grasp the deepest range of emotions and implications the name Auschwitz should evoke. In this book Amery stresses the negative and shows on virtually every page how futile it would be to scrutinize the experience of a Holocaust survivor for anything even remotely redemptive. Auschwitz was destruction without deliverance, a place of inexplicable and implacable hostility against the very definition of humanity. As a consequence, a mind that searches Auschwitz, or any of the other camps, for reasonable and rational explanations will only be confronted with its own impotence. As Amery puts it, "In the camp the intellect in its totality declared itself to be incompetent...Beauty: that was an illusion. Knowledge: that turned out to be a game with ideas." The intellect, Amery tells us, was robbed of its transcendence, rendering the intellectual the most vulnerable of victims.
The five autobiographical essays that make up this remarkable book are models of intellectual sobriety, lucidity and moral earnestness. Amery's experiences at Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and other camps, detailed in the first essay, brought him to the realization that all of his previously-held aesthetic concepts and analytic capabilities were rendered useless. "The aesthetic view of death had revealed itself to the intellectual as part of an aesthetic mode of life; where the latter had been all but forgotten, the former was nothing but an elegant trifle. In the camp no Tristan music accompanied death, only the roaring of the SS and the Kapos." Spiritually disarmed and intellectually disoriented, "the intellectual faced death defenselessly."
The book's second essay, which is unusually vivid, concerns the genesis and nature of sadistic physical torture. Torture was an essential component of Nazism and not a peripheral aspect. It was the determinant that defined and coalesced the basically depraved and destructive character of Nazism, an ideology "that expressly established...the role of the antiman...as a principle." Nihilistic principles have always existed, but German National Socialism distilled and purified them. They tortured, not to gain advantages, but because they were torturers.
The remaining three essays deal with a variety of topics, all related to and all centering on the ordeals Amery endured during the Holocaust as well as its aftermath. The book's concluding essay, "On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew," is a culminating statement that defines in wretchedly painful terms a dilemma that is far more than Amery's alone.
As Amery both felt and lived with the Holocaust, his awareness demanded that he contend with all manifestations of postwar anti-Semitism, something he did with increasing frequency during the final years of his life. Although his own Judaism was, to him, highly problematic, he was uncompromising in his opposition to those who attacked the ideological concept of the State of Israel. "The impossibility of being a Jew," he said, "becomes the necessity to be one, and that means: a vehemently protesting Jew."
Amery, however, worried that in any newfound prosperity the events of the Third Reich would be forgotten or simply submerged in accounts of the general historical epoch. And, indeed, even the young survivors of the camps have now reached their seventh decade of life. What will preserve the memory of the camps once the last survivor is gone? For, "Remembering," said Amery. "That is the cue."
The entire world was, and is, affected by the atrocities of the Holocaust. It therefore becomes incumbent upon every human being alive, and not just every Jew, as well as those human beings yet to be born, to bear the imprint of the Holocaust upon his heart. In this way, mankind will never cease to do what is so very essential. Remember.