Ryback on Dachau -- the obsession of evil

August 08, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"The Last Survivor: In Search of Martin Zaidenstadt," by Timothy W. Ryback. Pantheon Books. 208 pages. $21.

In 1992, when Timothy W. Ryback first visited Dachau on assignment for the New Yorker, his purpose was to explore what it was like to live in a city whose very name is a synonym for hell. Here was the first Nazi concentration camp, the first gas chamber, the first crematorium and the first Nazi medical experiments on human beings.

Since then, Ryback has returned to Dachau over and over again. The city has become an obsession. Ostensibly, the book focuses on an 87-year-old Polish Jew, Martin Zaidenstadt, who claims to be a Dachau survivor, and who every day stands before the gas chambers insisting, contrary to town officials and Holocaust revisionist scholars, that they were indeed used. Zaidenstadt also sells his personal cards to guilt-ridden tourists. The man is only semi-coherent, and at one point even threatens Ryback with a gun.

After nearly four years in the camp, during which his wife and children were burnt alive by anti-Semitic Poles, Zaidenstadt returned to Dachau, found a job, a new German wife, and fathered three children. Only a few years ago, he started his demonic vigil in front of the gas chambers.

While Ryback conducts disturbing interviews with people in the town, Zaidenstadt haunts him. Ryback finds most people unwilling to accept any responsibility for what their parents or grandparents did during the war, although he is ambivalent throughout the book whether they should or not.

Why should Dachau, 50 years after the war, be any different from any other German city? Why should it be haunted by its terrible name?

Ryback depicts the town's indifferent youth who blithely attend dances in the shadow of Dachau's crematoria, city officials who wish to put the town's history behind them, or, alternatively, use its history to draw tourism, and one of the town's prominent doctors, who signed death warrants for defective children, escaped punishment and today seemingly has no regrets.

But Ryback returns again and again to Zaidenstadt. For fully a third of the book, Ryback tries to authenticate the fact that Zaidenstadt actually was a survivor of the camp, only to ask, "Does it really matter who he was or what he had done before this?" Zaidenstadt's name is not in the camp's records, and only after an exhaustive search, does Ryback find his family listed in the small Polish town Zaidenstadt had described.

Ryback would seem to have personal reasons for his obsession. Parts of Ryback's family, he relates, were Nazis soldiers, who committed atrocities, or Nazi sympathizers. Throughout the book, the reader is struck by Ryback's fascination with violence, with lurid sexual imagery, and with the ambiguity of memory.

Is Zaidenstadt himself real? He probably is, but this reader began to suspect he is a stand-in for the author himself, and his obsession with the imagery of horror. Ryback suggests that Zaidenstadt has returned to the gas chamber because, horrible as it is, it is less horrible than the image of his family consumed in Poland, but again, the writing is ambiguous.

The book reads not as a piece of reportage, which is what it purports to be, and partially is, but a brilliantly written tone poem in which identities and facts slip and slide into the abyss of memory, and the writer emerges not altogether in control but obsessed by a nightmare that 50 years has not been able to erase.

Craig Eisendrath, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, has given a score of workshops in Philadelphia on the Holocaust, and with his wife, Roberta Spivek, is the author of "The Angel of History," a play about resistance during the Holocaust.

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