At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities

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"These are pages that one reads with almost physical pain...all the way to its stoic conclusion." -Primo Levi

"The testimony of a profoundly serious man.... In its every turn and crease, it bears the marks of the true." -Irving Howe, New Republic

"This remarkable memoir...is the autobiography of an extraordinarily acute conscience. With the ear of a poet and the eye of a novelist, Amery vividly communicates the wonder of a philosopher-a wonder here aroused by the 'dark riddle' of the Nazi regime and its systematic sadism." -Jim Miller, Newsweek

"Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained. That one's fellow man was experienced as the antiman remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror. It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules. One who was martyred is a defenseless prisoner of fear. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him." -Jean Amery

At the Mind's Limits is the story of one man's incredible struggle to understand the reality of horror. In five autobiographical essays, Amery describes his survival-mental, moral, and physical-through the enormity of the Holocaust. Above all, this masterful record of introspection tells of a young Viennese intellectual's fervent vision of human nature and the betrayal of that vision.

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Preface to the Reissue, 1977

ePub

Between the time this book was written and today, more than thirteen years have passed. They were not good years. One need only follow the reports from Amnesty International to see that in horror this period matches the worst epochs of a history that is as real as it is inimical to reason. Sometimes it seems as though Hitler has gained a posthumous triumph. Invasions, aggressions, torture, destruction of man in his essence. A few indications will suffice: Czechoslovakia 1968, Chile, the forced evacuation of Pnom-Penh, the psychiatric wards of the USSR, the murder squads in Brazil and Argentina, the self-unmasking of the Third World states that call themselves “socialist,” Ethiopia, Uganda. Given this, what is the good of my attempt to reflect on the conditio inhumana of the victims of the Third Reich? Isn’t it all outdated? Or is not at least a revision of my text called for?

But when I read through what I wrote at that time, I discover that a revised edition would be nothing but a trick, a journalistic tribute to actuality, that I am unwilling to retract anything I have said here and have but little to add to it. No doubt: whatever abominations we may have experienced still do not offset the fact that between 1933 and 1945 those things of which I speak in my writings took place among the German people, a people of high intelligence, industrial capability, and unequaled cultural wealth—among the people of “Poets and Thinkers.” For me this is a fact that until this day remains un-clarified and, despite all the diligent historical, psychological, sociological, and political studies that have appeared and will yet appear, at bottom probably cannot be clarified.

 

Preface to the First Edition, 1966

ePub

When the big Auschwitz trial began in Frankfurt in 1964, I wrote the first essay on my experiences in the Third Reich, after twenty years of silence. At first I did not consider a continuation; I merely wanted to become clear about a special problem: the situation of the intellectual in the concentration camp. But when this essay was completed, I felt that it was impossible to leave it at that. For how had I gotten to Auschwitz? What had taken place before that? What was to happen afterward? What is my situation today?

I cannot say that during the time I was silent I had forgotten or “repressed” the twelve years of German fate, or of my own. For two decades I had been in search of the time that was impossible to lose, only it had been difficult for me to talk about it. Then, however, once a gloomy spell appeared to be broken by the writing of the essay on Auschwitz, suddenly everything demanded telling. That is how this book came about. At the same time, I discovered that while I had contemplated a good many questions, I had not articulated them with nearly enough clarity. Only in the process of writing did I recognize what it was that until then I had indistinctly caught sight of in half-conscious intellectual rumination and that hesitated at the threshold of verbal expression.

 

At the Mind’s Limits

ePub

Take care, a well-meaning friend advised me when he heard of my plan to speak on the intellectual in Auschwitz. He emphatically recommended that I deal as little as possible with Auschwitz and as much as possible with the intellectual problems. He said further that I should be discreet and, if at all feasible, avoid including Auschwitz in the title. The public, he felt, was allergic to this geographical, historical, and political term. There were, after all, enough books and documents of every kind on Auschwitz already, and to report on the horrors would not be to relate anything new. I am not certain that my friend is right and for that reason I will hardly be able to follow his advice. I don’t have the feeling that as much has been written about Auschwitz as, let’s say, about electronic music or the Chamber of Deputies in Bonn. Also, I still wonder whether it perhaps would not be a good idea to introduce certain Auschwitz books into the upper classes of secondary schools as compulsory reading, and in general whether quite a few niceties must not be disregarded if one wants to pursue the history of political ideas. It is true that here I do not want to talk purely about Auschwitz, to give a documentary report, but rather I have determined to talk about the confrontation of Auschwitz and intellect. In the process, however, I cannot bypass what one calls the horrors, those occurrences before which, as Brecht once put it, hearts are strong but the nerves are weak. My subject is: At the Mind’s Limits. That these limits happen to run alongside the so unpopular horrors is not my fault.

 

Torture

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Whoever visits Belgium as a tourist may perhaps chance upon Fort Breendonk, which lies halfway between Brussels and Antwerp. The compound is a fortress from the First World War, and what its fate was at that time I don’t know. In the Second World War, during the short eighteen days of resistance by the Belgian army in May 1940, Breendonk was the last headquarters of King Leopold. Then, under German occupation, it became a kind of small concentration camp, a “reception camp,” as it was called in the cant of the Third Reich. Today it is a Belgian National Museum.

At first glance, the fortress Breendonk makes a very old, almost historic impression. As it lies there under the eternally rain-gray sky of Flanders, with its grass-covered domes and black-gray walls, it gives the feeling of a melancholy engraving from the 1870s war. One thinks of Gravelotte and Sedan and is convinced that the defeated Emperor Napoleon III, with kepi in hand, will immediately appear in one of the massive, low gates. One must step closer, in order that the fleeting picture from past times be replaced by another, which is more familiar to us. Watchtowers arise along the moat that rings the castle. Barbed-wire fences wrap around them. The copperplate of 1870 is abruptly obscured by horror photos from the world that David Rousset has called “l’Univers Concentrationnaire.” The creators of the National Museum have left everything the way it was between 1940 and 1944. Yellowed wall cards: “Whoever goes beyond this point will be shot.” The pathetic monument to the resistance movement that was erected in front of the fortress shows a man forced to his knees, but defiantly raising his head with its oddly Slavic lines. This monument would not at all have been necessary to make clear to the visitor where he is and what is recollected there.

 

How Much Home Does a Person Need?

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The road led through the wintry night in the Eifel, on smugglers’ routes to Belgium, whose custom officials and policemen would have refused us a legal crossing of the border, for we were coming into the country as refugees, without passport and visa, without any valid national identity. It was a long way through the night. The snow lay knee-high; the black firs did not look any different from their sisters back home, but they were already Belgian firs; we knew that they did not want us. An old Jew in rubber overshoes, which he was constantly losing, clung to the belt of my coat, groaned and promised me all the riches of the world if only I allowed him to hold on to me now; his brother in Antwerp was an important and powerful man, he said. Somewhere, perhaps in the vicinity of the city Eupen, a truck picked us up and drove us deeper into the country. The next morning my young wife and I stood in the post office at the railway station of Antwerp and telegraphed in faulty school French that we had arrived safely. Heureusement arrivé—that was in the beginning of January 1939. Thereafter I crossed so many borders illegally that even now it still seems strange and wondrous to me when I pass a customs post in my car, well provided with all the necessary travel papers. In the process, my heart always beats rather heavily, obeying a Pavlovian reflex.

 

Resentments

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Sometimes it happens that in the summer I travel through a thriving land. It is hardly necessary to tell of the model cleanliness of its large cities, of its idyllic towns and villages, to point out the quality of the goods to be bought there, the unfailing perfection of its handicrafts, or the impressive combination of cosmopolitan modernity and wistful historical consciousness that is evidenced everywhere. All this has long since been legendary and is a delight to the world. One scarcely need dwell on it. Statistics show that the man on the street is faring as well as I have always wished that he and everyone everywhere could, and for years his situation has been considered exemplary. What remains to be said, perhaps, is that I do not find much to talk about with the people I meet there on highways, in trains, in hotel lobbies, and who always show extreme politeness—and for that reason I cannot judge how far and how deep their apparent urbanity goes.

Now and then I have something to do with intellectuals. One cannot wish them more refined, modest, and tolerant. Nor more modern; and it always seems unreal to me when I think how many of them, who belong to my generation, only yesterday swore by Blunck and Griese.11 Because not a trace of it can be found in our conversations on Adorno or Saul Bellow or Nathalie Sarraute.

 

On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew

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Not seldom, when in conversation my partner draws me into a plural—that is, as soon as he includes my person in whatever connection and says to me: “We Jews …”—I feel a not exactly tormenting, but nonetheless deep-seated discomfort. I have long tried to get to the bottom of this disconcerting psychic state, and it has not been very easy for me. Can it be, is it thinkable that I, the former Auschwitz inmate, who truly has not lacked occasion to recognize what he is and what he must be, still did not want to be a Jew, as decades ago, when I wore white half socks and leather breeches and nervously eyed myself in the mirror, hoping it would show me an impressive German youth? Naturally not. The foolishness of my masquerading in Austrian dress—although it was, after all, part of my heritage—belongs to the distant past. It is all right with me that I was not a German youth and am not a German man. No matter how the disguise may have looked on me, it now lies in the attic. If today discomfort arises in me when a Jew takes it for granted, legitimately, that I am part of his community, then it is not because I don’t want to be a Jew, but only because I cannot be one. And yet must be one. And I do not merely submit to this necessity, but expressly claim it as part of my person. The necessity and impossibility of being a Jew, that is what causes me indistinct pain. It is with this necessity, this impossibility, this oppression, this inability that I must deal here, and in doing so I can only hope, without certainty, that my individual story is exemplary enough also to reach those who neither are nor have to be Jews.

 

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