The Wedding in Auschwitz
Erich Hackl
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Buy *The Wedding in Auschwitz* by Erich Hackl online

The Wedding in Auschwitz
Erich Hackl
Serpent's Tail
160 pages
April 2010
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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To best appreciate the taste of food, it is important to first experience hunger. The full man has less to enjoy from his next mouthful than the man who has not eaten all day. Absence, or negativity, makes the positive stronger. We appreciate a cool drink more on a hot day than on one that is cold, and so on. So it is with the simple things in love, and so, too, with love – a touch of loneliness makes that next embrace all the sweeter. The reversal, perhaps, is also true; to properly understand the depths of evil, depravity, cynicism and negativity to which a nation can fall, we must look not only to its tragedies but also its triumphs. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will remains, eighty years on, a watershed of cinematic history and a serious aesthetic achievement. That its subject – its glorification – is Nazi Germany, we of course cannot forget. But by the artistic achievements of monsters, perhaps we can understand them better.

Erich Hackl's novel, The Wedding in Auschwitz, is certainly not the work of a monster. Rather it portrays them, through and through, a vast catalogue of the trauma the Nazis caused much of Europe and the personal tragedies they engendered by the millions.

The novel is written without a great deal of dialogue, and much of it is portrayed as being from memory. In its essence, it is the recollection of a man seen through various characters, and it is the story of his life when seen through the reflection of a terrible situation – that of the concentration camps. The lack of dialogue seems to suggest that a place such as Auschwitz cannot be talked about so much as described, experienced, and contemplated. It is not for bragging, or pleading, or begging, or laughing – it is simply for remembering. And yet – and it is certain that the title of the novel gives the climax of the story away – Hackl answers all this misery by saying No!, good can be found amid horror, light is still possible in the dark of night.

The primary figure of the novel is Rudi, and the event to which all is focused, the wedding, in Auschwitz. We follow Rudi through his formative years as a restless youth, often arrested, his ideas radical and actions wild. He falls in love, but due to the war, his personality and the difficulty of the time, they do not marry and are eventually forced apart. Rudi is eventually interned in Auschwitz; it is there that he begins his petitions to the SS to let him marry his love. They met while young, and their love came quite suddenly:

“Margarita was in love too. She already admitted it to me on the drive back. So Cupid had shot two arrows. One at Rudi, the other at my sister. He scored two bull's eyes. I can't think of any other explanation for a love that is kindled in the space of four hours. Although it wasn't so surprising. You looked like a film star. Always a smile on your lips, friendly, strong, not too tall, but not short either. Why didn't you just stay in France afterwards? You were fit, you had work, the two of you would have got by.”
Hackl rapidly establishes his main character through recollection, through letters, through dispassionate narrative and from Rudi's own perspective. He acclimatizes us to his character, and then the nightmares begin. Auschwitz, the sheer brutality of the Nazis and the utter helpless terror of the Jewish prisoners are captured with clarity and empathy.
“We had to line up in ranks, SS men in front of us, among them one who was a good six foot six inches, and behind them barracks and sheds, and between and in front of the barracks figures were scurrying around, shadowy, with shaven heads, a men's camp, I thought, they've brought us to a men's camp, and gradually it grew light, gradually I grew weak, stick it out, in a moment they'll dismiss us, and then a hill emerged in the pale greyness, almost as tall as one of these huts, and the hill was made of brushwood, strange, all these branches, and the grey grew brighter, I saw, something was moving in the brushwood, there's something stirring, I whisper, and the lips of the girl beside me are trembling, silently, and then I see the brushwood, the branches, the mountain of corpses, scrawny, bony corpses, stacked up, no, thrown on top of each other, but now they were all dead, nothing has moved.”
It is difficult to imagine a worse nightmare, yet for many, this was their life. From around fifty or so pages into the novel, the horror doesn't let up. We see, in clear, stark, unflinching detail the immensity of evil that comprised the goings-on of the concentration camps.
“Our hardest work, clearing the trucks of the children, who have suffocated and been trampled to death, the cripples and the old. The equanimity with which we grab the little corpses by the neck, arm or leg and toss them out onto the ramp. The satisfaction that everything is going so smoothly...Then back to the bending down and pulling, corpses, pieces of luggage, children, running about the ramp like stray dogs.”
But let's not forget the love. It exists, and it shines within the darkness of the camps. Rudi and Margarita met while younger, and their love stayed strong, somehow. Perhaps because it kept Rudi alive while in Auschwitz – perhaps that is why his love stayed strong. Hackl doesn't know, but he can show it; a random conversation overhead has this passing comment: “Getting married in a concentration camp. Where everyone just dies.” But this is Rudi's choice, and Margarita's.

The novel is constructed such that different techniques are used as appropriate to best capture the panorama of Rudi's situation. When a letter is needed, Hackl includes a letter. When an unattributed piece of dialogue is required, that, too, is included. When someone else needs to remember, they do; when Rudi needs to remember, he does. We see it all, from many angles, with the approaching climax of the wedding becoming slowly perceptible as the novel progresses. We understand why Rudi must have this wedding - “In hell everything is possible, even heaven.”

This is what Rudi must believe. Without it, he is dead, one more Jew among the millions. But with it, there is a future, even if it's just for a second. With it, there is hope, even if the hope is for the life of another. Rudi can live beyond the concentration camp, even if his physical body does not.

I mentioned at the very start of the review that food is best appreciated by the hungry, and the warmth of a hug is best felt after a sleepless night in a lonely bed. This is true, and Hackl's novel shows it to be the case on a grand scale. The wedding is a beautiful event, made more beautiful by the tragedy of the preceding pages. We feel its positive effect as a cleansing balm after the endless murders and terror. Just as when we are about to slip into a world made permanently dark by the evil of the camps, Hackl pulls us back by showing us that the goodness of humanity can still find a spark amongst even the worst of floods.

The Wedding in Auschwitz is a relentlessly violent novel and not for the fainthearted. The violence is never shown in a glorified light, but it is there and it is described in visceral detail. Hackl adds layer after layer to the horror of the concentration camp, but he is equally adept at showing the intellectual milieu in the decade approaching the war. Rudi is a full character, not 'just' a Holocaust victim. His wedding, when it comes, is a triumph, both for him and for Erich Hackl.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Damian Kelleher, 2010

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