The narrator of this extraordinary novel is a teacher, a single man of middle years attempting to make sense of the loss of his entire family in the Holocaust. The narrator has come across two names in his research: Gotz and Meyer, non-commissioned SS officers who are in charge of a specially designed truck, a Sauer, that travels from a camp - the Fairgrounds - near Belgrade, carrying human cargo.
The truck is hermetically sealed and can hold up to a hundred people at a time. The passengers believe they are finally being moved to a more comfortable place. Instead, the occupants are gassed on their journey, death their only release. Climbing into the vehicle, the passengers are cooperative in this great deception, one that can lead only to their deaths.
Reaching the destination, the corpses are unloaded by seven Serbians who drag them unceremoniously to a mass grave, already prepared to receive them: “Death is not a balloon but an anchor.” By this time, most of the passengers are women and children, the Serbian Jewish men long since murdered, save a few to keep order in the camps.
Gotz and Meyer are nondescript, interchangeable, almost featureless: blonde-haired, and blue-eyed, loyal to the Reich and the Fuhrer. The Nazis have developed a cost-effective, carefully regulated system to dispose of their charges, complete with the deception of the victims. Given permission for a Jewish Administration to regulate the camp, the Jews follow rules suggested by the German commander. Convinced that the camps are reception centers before transportation to an undesignated country, none of the incarcerated ever tries to run away, so thoroughly entrenched in the deception, willing participants in their cogent and orderly extermination.
Gassing is the most humane and least costly manner of death, considering the price of ammunition. Carbon monoxide is psychologically advantageous for all concerned. It is, in fact, this very efficiency that eats at the narrator, sifting through information about Gotz and Meyer’s particular assignment: the amount of food and milk allotted to each prisoner, the harvesting of false hope to assure compliance, the stoic resolve of the commanders, the helpful Jewish Administration always willing to alleviate the suffering in the camp.
The narrator’s imagination at times paralyzed by conjured images, the bland, dutiful Gotz and Meyer become the stuff of nightmare. The author’s construct is all the more powerful from the perspective of the two faceless men, their surgical precision a contrast to the humanity they deliver to death day after day. The banality of evil achieves a curious balance, the horrors more chilling for their impersonal exactitude: “In the tangible world you have no choice.”
In a most ingenious manner, the narrator rejoins his lost relatives, turning a bus of his students into Gotz and Meyer’s symbolic truck, the class weeping by the end of the journey. At a time when historical revisionists seek to deny the existence of the Holocaust, Gotz and Meyer is a reminder that “memory is the only way to conquer death.”