In the introduction of The Journey the translator writes, “Neither Germany nor the world was ready for novels about the Holocaust in the 1950s.” This book, the work of H.G. Adler, a German Jew writer, philosopher, and poet, is the translation of one of only four novels written by survivors of the Holocaust. It was not published in Germany until 1961. Based on his personal experiences in the “slave community” of Theresienstadt and in Auschwitz, the novel tells the heartbreaking story of the Lustig family: Leopold, a hardworking doctor; his kind-hearted wife, Caroline; their children, Zerlina and Paul; and Caroline’s sister, Ida. The novel opens when they are told that they must leave their home to work in the fictitious slave community of Ruhenthal. Adler writes: “No one asked you, it was decided already. You were rounded up and not one kind word was spoken… Yet the tight-lipped grins remain unforgettable.”
Delving beyond the particular hardships of this family, Adler also describes life in the little towns around Ruhenthal and the progressive breakdown of the society at large when in the hands of a totalitarian state. Civility and justice are destroyed first. Denial is pervasive, in and out of the camps. With their wills broken, the condemned cling to the hope that “only the stupid ones are beaten,” that “only the bad ones are shot.” The people in the towns regard them as “loafers… led by a military honor guard.” Adler makes you squirm in disgust and discomfort, when he switches tenses, narrative voices, pointing fingers at the readers, addressing us as victims or as executioners, and throwing Kafkaesque twists of metamorphosis and madness. After Auschwitz, the introduction reminds us, critics believed that literature was no longer possible. Adler believed that it was not only possible, but necessary. Writing this astounding novel, Adler amply proved his point.