Cold Crematorium: Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz by József Debreczeni review – hell on earth in poised prose

<span>József Debreczeni, pictured with his nephew c1958-59.</span><span>Photograph: from publisher</span>
József Debreczeni, pictured with his nephew c1958-59.Photograph: from publisher

In King Lear, confronted with the figure of his cruelly blinded father, Edgar wonders whether matters are as bad as they imaginably could be. He concludes, however, that “the worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ The very fact that he has language, and the capacity for judgment, is itself proof that he has more to lose. Edgar’s words, in this most archaic of Shakespeare’s plays, feel horribly prophetic of the slaughter bench of modern history, as if the events of the 20th century were designed to test them. Is this the worst of which human beings are capable? Is this? Is this?

József Debreczeni’s memoir of the Nazi death camps, translated into English from Hungarian for the first time, frequently echoes Edgar’s claim. After being moved from “the capital of the Great Land of Auschwitz” to one of the networks of sub-camps, Eule, he discovers that he is to be moved again: “Surely I couldn’t end up in a place much worse, I thought – and how tragically wrong I was.” By the end of his remarkable set of observational writings, the word “worse” has lost all meaning; comparing the depths of human experiences of depravity and suffering feels obscene in itself. Is typhoid worse than starvation? Is being crushed to death while mining a subterranean tunnel worse than wasting away in a pool of one’s own filth?

By the end of his remarkable set of observational writings, the word 'worse' has lost all meaning

Debreczeni, an eminent journalist, thwarts any such comparisons by allowing the events that unfold to hover before the reader in the astonishing equipoise of his prose. In an excruciating moment for which the phrase “gallows humour” seems entirely inadequate, he tells us that the doctors’ nightly cry – “Report the dead!” – was responded to by “the more jocular among us” with “Report if you’re dead!”

Debreczeni’s account manages to make something of this unthinkable jocularity, to report the dead and to report his own life-in-death. He captures detail after harrowing detail. The old carpenter, Mr Mandel, an erstwhile chain-smoker whose hands still “moved mechanically, as if holding a cigarette” in the cattle car en route to Auschwitz. The former Czech army officer, Feldmann, who held “séance-like gatherings”, formulating detailed and futile plans for escape. The spasm of generosity in which those soon to be transported to a new and unknown fate are given meagre gifts, a cigarette stub and a chunk of cabbage, by those who are left behind for the time being: “In the minds of those staying behind, this imperative throbs away: We’ve got to give, to give something.”

If this suggests residual humanity, there are in this coruscating bolt of truth none of the implausibilities and glib moral take-homes that have plagued and devalued Holocaust fictions, from Life Is Beautiful to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Debreczeni’s book makes spectacularly clear the difficult but necessary double demand of the Holocaust and its memorialisation: what we might call the demands of the universal and the particular, or the general and the specific. To do its memory any kind of justice must mean to proclaim never again, for anyone: to decry and oppose all acts of mass violence. But the urgency of deriving this general imperative must not mean rushing too quickly past the particulars of what the Nazis and their enablers perpetrated; past its industrialised scale and mechanisms, its bureaucratised intricacies, its sheer massiveness and the massiveness of each life flayed, reduced, and destroyed.

Only through the difficult act of keeping both the general imperative and the specific example in mind at once can we hope to answer Debreczeni’s anguished call into the void on his first night at Dörnhau: “Come here, you visionaries who create with pen, chalk, stone, or paintbrush; all of you who’ve ever sought to conjure up the grimace of suffering and death; prophets of the danse macabre, engravers of terror, scribes of hells – come here!”

• Cold Crematorium by József Debreczeni (translated by Paul Olchvary) is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply