Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The House of Dolls

My friend Shimon was telling me about music, and he mentioned the band Joy Division because of his love for the song, "Ceremony." I had never heard of Joy Division. "What does it mean?" I asked innocently. "It's the name they gave to the part of the camp where they housed the Jewish women whom they turned into prostitutes for the Germans," he answered me.

Could such a thing be possible? I wondered. I had never heard of the Joy Divisions. Arbeit macht frei, work makes free, is the motto that I have always heard. But whoever heard of labour via joy? And yet, apparently they existed, these nightmarish places where the sterilized women were made to service the Nazis, their lives at the mercy of the Germans, their smiles feigned as they begged for their lives with every movement of their hands, their legs.

Thus it was that I discovered House of Dolls by Ka-tzetznik. Having originally seen only the cover of the book, I imagined a nightmarish thriller-type novel, something sickening and sensationalist. But that is not what this is. House of Dolls is a gentle, lyrical novel, beautiful and haunting. If it were music, it would be the strains of pain rising from the pure touch of the bow to the violin. It touches the heart in a much deeper place than a merely sensationalist, graphic depiction of events would have, because it tells a story. The characters are given context; the book mostly revolves around Harry and Daniella, brother and sister. It is Daniella who is eventually taken to join the Doll's House, the Joy Division...

I will reproduce several excerpts below, but I warn you in advance, this is not for the faint-hearted.


Joy Division.

Here, in the rose-tinted blocks, there was no flogging. Here they kept close watch over the girls' bodies to keep them whole, undamaged. Here, when a girl was flogged she was not permitted to return to the Joy Division. She was immediately tossed on the van and- Off to the crematorium!

Here every girl got a new outfit. Every week- clean underwear. Compared to the food in the Labor Division it really was paradise here, as Renya Zeidner had said. But the girls who lapsed into sin in this paradise received a "report." Just a "report." Sinners with three such "reports" were led out, usually with teh arrival of a new transport, to the Execution Square, where Elsa, the Master-Kalefactress, cleansed the sin out of their bodies. Sin Purgation it was called. Upon which the purgated bodies were tossed on the van: Let the other maidens of paradise behold and beware of sin.

Here, every day, at two o'clock, German soldiers, on their way to the Russian front, came from the nearby transit depots to entertain themselves with the girls of the Doll House. The girls had to put their all into the satisfaction of their esteemed guests. If such a guest was not satisfied with the "enjoyment," he had only to report it, on leaving, in the orderly room and give the girl's breast number. After three such "reports" the girl was automatically doomed: She hadn't duly appreciated the great honor bestowed upon her; she had made light of the honor of a German warrior!



Enjoyment Duty.

There is not a sound in the block. The girls sit, each on her bed, legs propped on the floor. Fifty beds, in two single files, with fifty girls seated backs to each other. No one had decreed this seating arrangement. They seem to be sitting this way deliberately, so their glances should not meet. Fear is contagious. Soon they will be called upon to smile. The smile is not optional. The smile attests to the girl's attitude to Enjoyment. Her life depends on the smile. Soon they will be called upon to be happy.

There is not a sound in the block.

For a while yet they are permitted to commune with fear, with this thing about to take place here. Now they are still permitted to feel the horror of what awaits them. And they abandon themselves to the opean arms of fear, which any moment will have to give way to the Germans. Soon their faces will wear smiles. The noble German guest hasn't come here to look at sad eyes. He has come to Enjoy! To get his bucketful of joy! That clear to the Doll? If not, he'll make it clear to her! First of all, let's have the number! He wants a copy of th enumber in his pocket. Just for the heck of it. Afterwards, when he passes by the orderly room, he'll think it over. But just now, with her brand number already jotted down in his pocket, let the Doll be so good as to love him up! The way he likes it! With gusto! Gay does it! He wants to get his fill of her just the way he washes down a mug of Prussian bear, white foam and all.

Outside, the gong booms-

Two o'clock.

It's time.

There is not a sound in the block. Fifty girls- as if they had nothing to say to each other. Fifty beds- like ffity stools arrayed on the Execution Square before the naked bodies are strapped to them.

Outside, German voices are approaching. Elsa is screeching final orders to the kalefactresses, drowning out the Germans' ribaldry. Maybe that will help draw their attention and serve them notice just who and what she is here. Even Yaga lingers on the square in front of the blocks. They hustle and bustle and shout outside like stage directors before curtain time on opening night. Any moment now the block gate will open, and the Germans will come in.

Fifty beds- like fifty before the firing squad, standing motionless in a straight row, staring into the gun muzzles, waiting for the bullet to pierce the heart-silent. They have nothing to say to each other.

Every day. At exactly two o'clock.


Enjoyment Duty.

At Daniella's bed, the German hangs his jacket in the closet. In the adjacent bed, the girl looks right into the German's eyes. She smiles- but her smile weeps, as though she had drawn it out of a jar of tears where it had been soaking. The girl's eyes rake through the German's countenance, trying to divine as by face-reading: What does this face have in store for her today? Is there a human spark hidden behind it? She searches for the spark. She wants so to find it, hold on to it, reach out a hand to it like a drowner. Her life is now in his hands. She now belongs to him, all of her. He will express his opinion about her. His opinion- an irrevocable verdict. Will he sate himself, like the beast gorging down its prey, grunting and going on its way, or will he let her have a "report" just for kicks, so as not to miss out on this extra pleasure?


In a nearby bed, the German gets up, makes ready to leave. The girl's arms, white and naked, cling to him. Her face twists into a smile as her lips whisper, "Please sir, was the gentleman satisfied?"

The German shoves her away, spits, walks off. The girl sits there, her naked white arms hanging spiritlessly from her knees. She looks to him. He is going away, carrying in his pocket the fate of her polluted life. The Execution Square looms before her eyes. She looks, looks. The German is already gone, and she is still looking to him-

Was he?...



Suddenly, he felt an awful pain around his eyes. From every limb of his body, from his skin, from the roots of his hair, the pain converged upon his eyes and all started beseeching him:

"A tear- a tear- please, just one..."

He rolled off the white sheet. The searing pain around the eyes grew more agonizing, more excruciating. A roaring blaze. The pupils of his eyes flared up like two seething volcanoes, and the pain erupted and streamed into his every bone. He dragged himself to the table, let himself into the Mussulman seat. Queer sounds started escaping from his throat. The weird cheeping of an ailing bird. His arms reached out to the empty chair opposite.

"A tear- Please, only one- just one..."

He lifted his gnarled, calcified hands and pointed to his eyelids: There....he...he feels something there, something he's never felt before...He twittered and breathed his plea to the empty chair:

"...tear...only....only one..."

Hippocrates of Concentration Camp Universe! Prescribe this patient his cure!



It may be wrong of me, but one of my first thoughts upon completing this book was, "How lucky am I!" God of the Universe has blessed me with millions of blessings, and so few of them do I actually realize. How lucky am I, who cannot conceive of the horror of such a place; how lucky am I who was never a girl as these girls were, how lucky am I, who has the privilege and the advantage to study here and to learn and who shall never be touched by anyone against my will, let alone forced; how lucky, how lucky! For this I may compose a fervent prayer of thanks, that I am so blessed and I am so lucky; my life is charmed, free from every horror. From the depths of their suffering, these women beg us to acknowledge our own blessings, and this I do, for I am so lucky, so lucky; God has blessed me far beyond my capacity to imagine.


Anonymous said...

lucky - interesting choice of word. Perhaps privileged or fortunate?
but remember "noblesse oblige" implies that with wealth, power and prestige (yes and with chosenness) come greater responsibilities.
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

we visited Matthausen and heard about this

Uri said...

This post makes a tremendous impact on a reader. NEVER AGAIN! should be on everyone's mind.

Thank you.

jewish blogger said...

You might want to read Everleigh Club by Markus Zusak and Sophie's choice by William Styrone.

Great post!

Elisabeth said...

I know this must be shocking, but House of Dolls was fiction, written by a man.

"House of Dolls is essentially the Israeli equivalent to The Diary of Anne Frank in the United States and Elie Wiesel’s Night in Western Europe. Ka-Tzetnik 135633 became Israel’s official literary witness to the Holocaust, similar to the role Elie Wiesel has in Europe and America. House of Dolls is required reading in the Israeli school curriculum, and gives students their first exposure to the Holocaust. But there is a problem. Considered a Holocaust classic for many years, scholars now consider House of Dolls to be pornography and made up.
Ka-Tzetnik 135633's work now considered "fiction" and "graphic and barbaric"
Na’ama Shik, a researcher at Yad Vashem, says, “It was fiction. There were no Jewish whores in Auschwitz.” House of Dolls, however, is treated as historical fact throughout Israel. “His books were so graphic and barbaric,” says Sidra Ezrahi, professor of comparative Jewish literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “…if this is what they have chosen to leave in the Israel curriculum, it’s a scandal.” It was House of Dolls that inspired the 'Stalag' genre.
The Stalags were an Israeli genre of erotic pulp fiction that employed Nazi characters. These books, which were very popular in the early 1960s, had graphic scenes of domination, torture and sadism between female SS guards and Allied soldiers in German POW camps. The readership of these Stalags were primarily teenage boys, a majority of whom were the children of Holocaust survivors. These pulp fictions are an example of the international post-war cultural trend of presenting Nazism as intrinsically decadent. The introduction of the genre coincided with the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem."

Better read Anne Frank...

Unknown said...

Daniella becomes a prostitute in a women’s labor camp: She is forced to join the camp’s Freudenabteilung or “Joy Division,” which services German soldiers (yes, that’s where the pallid, death-obsessed British band got its name—from Ka-Tzetnik’s book). The girls selected for the Joy Division have Feld-Hure (military whore) tattooed between their breasts. (The tattooing really happened, although the brothel at Auschwitz was frequented only by Kapos and other privileged prisoners, not by the SS.) The girls suffer under an ardent and brutal lesbian boss named Elsa, who forces them to strip naked, then bends them over a chair and lashes them. [Actually they were clubbed to death in this position in front of the other inmates as a warning for them for getting three complaints from the clients...]
David Mikics

The real name was "Block 24" located in Auschwitz

Anonymous said...

This is hopeless, but ... it is FICTION, people. Nothing more. And really rotten, trashy fiction at that.

I cannot imagine a more venomous slur on Jews than saying that they trust this work.

Anonymous said...

I know this post is quite old but after coming across it I felt I should leave a comment. The book is very difficult to understand because it is in a sense a mix of fact and fiction. Part of the trouble is that the cover and the way the book is presented makes it seem like a memoir, when in fact it was written by a man who survived Auschwitz. He channeled his own experience into it, yes, but the exact story of the novel is not his own story or the precise story of any one individual as far as we know. This is not helped by the fact that he presented his work as non-fiction during the Eichmann trial in 1961 when he said that he saw his work as a chronicle and did not consider himself a fiction writer. There were brothels in some of the camps including Auschwitz, but they did not serve Germans. They were used as a reward for Kapos and privileged prisoners, and the women came from Ravensbruck women's camp. They were not called Joy Divisions. There were also military brothels separate from the camps but Jewish women were not forced into these brothels because German law at the time prohibited Germans from having sexual relationships with Jews. Nevertheless, German soldiers, SS officers and others did subject Jews and many other ethnicities to sexual violence during the war, as did the Soviets. This is a complicated topic which requires more research, but I would urge anyone interested in this topic not to take Ka-Tzetnik's work as fact.