The Ashes that Remain: Boris Pahor's "Necropolis"

August 16, 2011   •   By Casey O'Neil

It’s absurd, but I almost feel that the tourists walking back to their cars can see the striped jacket wrapped around my shoulders and hear my wooden clogs crunch on the gravel of the path. This is a sudden flash, the kind that confuses past and present.

SUCH ARE BORIS PAHOR’S thoughts as he visits the memorial at the Natzweiler concentration camp built on terraced steps in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. The summer sun is shining and on this day, two decades after the Nazis held him captive here, the people that surround him are healthy and strong. He observes these tourists with ambivalence. They do not know him or his story. They interfere with the memories of what happened here. Their vitality and their comfort are profane in a place where death has left its mark on every square inch. 

The Nazis arrested Pahor in January 1944 for his involvement with the antifascist Slovenian resistance and they held him as a political prisoner in the camps at Dachau, Natzweiler, Harzungen, and Bergen-Belsen until April 1945. Originally published in Slovenian in 1967, Necropolis subsequently appeared in a superb English translation by Michael Biggins that has been out of print for over a decade. In his introduction to Dalkey Archive Press’s new edition (published in September 2010, as part of its Slovenian Literature series), Pahor, now 97, explains that the main themes of his life’s work address the absence of freedom. As a member of the Slovenian minority in the Italian city of Trieste, he experienced the Italian Fascist repression following World War I, “Totalitarianism of the Slovenian Communist variety” after World War II, and the Nazi camps where the lack of freedom found its most terrifying and complete expression. 

On his return to the camp in the mid-1960s, Pahor is certain that these tourists will be unable to see the depth of what happened here. But watching them as they follow a guided tour also gives Pahor satisfaction. Their presence is visible proof that the camp has stopped producing death and 

has become, instead, the destination of endless crowds which, naïve and guileless though they may be, are sincere in their wish to experience just a hint of the inconceivable fate of their lost brothers.

Time has changed this place but, just as accurately, time could never change this place. He walks among the tourists, and at the same time he is separated from them by a gulf of flames. Amidst these conflicting veils of reality and unbridgeable gaps, Boris Pahor begins to remember.

What he describes, though, is more than memory. He sees the past walking right in front of him. “I just saw Tolya coming down the steps in front of me, grumbling because an emaciated corpse had slid forward in the canvas groove of the stretcher we were carrying, its shaved head bumping him in the small of his back.” Pahor is once again a prisoner meditating on how he is accustomed to handling the bodies of the dead, but hates it when a corpse comes into contact with him on its own. Then, returning to the present, he tries to imagine what the tourists can see in this landscape.

By placing his account within this frame of past and present, witness and tourist, Pahor poses questions that are not easily answered. To what extent can the truth of this camp be communicated to those who did not experience it? The strain applies to the witness trying to describe the indescribable, but also applies to the listener who is trying to understand. To what extent are these tourists ready to hear? Pahor’s attention to the tourists extends implicitly to his readers. There is an unavoidable invitation for us as his listeners to interrogate the limits of our own understanding and imagination. 

Pahor’s treatment of time acknowledges some of these limits, and he emphasizes the impossibility of a factually complete account by not attempting one. His avoidance of a straightforward chronology draws attention to the gaps. He starts in the middle, immersed in the camp at a point when brutality and death are already established facts.

Unattached to a recognizable narrative arc, the shock of violence is jarring. Prisoners huddle naked outside the shower room, and their relief from the cold comes from water heated by the oven in the crematorium. Huge tongs are clamped onto the necks of corpses so they can more easily be stacked into piles, and then moved into the oven. The narrative becomes disorienting as such images emerge and recede without warning. This disorientation illuminates how the deadly atmosphere of the camp has infected both what came before and what comes after.

In this environment hope is not to be trusted, and any connections among prisoners are constantly ruptured. By evoking the personalities and histories of his fellow prisoners with precise strokes, Pahor movingly depicts the unique lives threatened and crushed all around him. Some of these glimpses appear suddenly like astonishing, impossible snapshots, incongruous with everything that surrounds them. His friend Franc inexplicably finds a tuxedo in the clothing storeroom and wears it as he walks along the highest terrace. “He paraded through the doomed air, grinning, waving his arms, and waiting for the center of the universe to fly apart.”

Pahor’s commitment and attention to his fellow prisoners is most evident in the passages that describe his work as a medic. He immerses himself in caring for the brutalized bodies of his patients, thus resisting the deadly logic of the camp. The medics, through incredible determination and organization, provide the best medical care they can with the meager supplies available. In the face of typhus, gangrene, edema, dysentery and the other afflictions of the camp, Pahor knows that the care they are able to provide often only amounts to making death a little more comfortable. But he sees his position as not only a way to endure by focusing on work, but also as an opportunity to feel human concern, the need for which he compares to the need for oxygen and intelligent thought. He is able to spare the patients under his care from debilitating work details, and while he knows this may only prolong a sick prisoner’s life by a few days, “Who knows…,” he says, “…maybe one or two people would survive. Even that small hope is worth an entire life’s work.” 

Within the cruel contradictions of survival, however, Pahor’s position as a medic later becomes a source of guilt. He works in the barracks and avoids the destructive conditions of the work details. He is able to eat the bread of the patients who die. All the instances where he is able to gain small advantages while others die come flooding back to him. Throughout the book Pahor imagines the ghosts of the dead all around him. He seeks recognition from them, and instead they ignore him. The evil he has experienced separates him from the world of the living, but he is too alive to be a part of this world of ghosts. On one level he knows there is nothing else he could have done, but at the same time he feels the ghosts are right to ignore him. He did not do enough. 

Pahor acknowledges that his camp experience pales in comparison to the stories of places like Auschwitz, where death did not come only as a result of brutality, sickness, and torture, but as part of a planned extermination on the broadest scale. In The Drowned and the Saved, Jewish Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi speaks to how the history of the camps has mainly been written by those who did not experience them to their fullest depths. Those who reached all the way to the bottom did not come back.

In a way, Pahor’s entire account is an attempt to bear witness for those who did not survive. His eloquence in approaching this impossible task is profound. In the end, though, there is no closure. He must leave the ghosts and return to his life among the living. There is no way he can fully bridge the gaps, and he circles back to the questions he started with.

In his introduction, Pahor expresses his hope that Necropolis will continue to be discovered by the young. He questions his ability to “present those humiliated bones, those humiliated ashes,” but he never doubts the importance of this communication. His determination to provide the most truthful account possible brings him to question continually, and to examine every complication and contradiction. This is a testimony all of us would do well to discover.