Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2013


"Holocaust Imagery in Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution" by Gustavo Sánchez Canales

Gustavo Sánchez Canales teaches English at The Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). His interests in research include contemporary Jewish American fiction, Holocaust literature, comparative literature and literary theory. He has published numerous articles, book chapters and reviews in Spanish and English on the work of authors including Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Cynthia Ozick, Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldman and Jonathan Safran Foer. Email:

I.

In her well-known Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction (1997), Sara R. Horowitz explains that “[t]he trope of muteness, predominant in Holocaust narratives of all sorts, functions in fiction deliberately and explicitly to raise and explore connections and disjunctures among fictional constructs, textual omissions, and historical events” (Horowitz 1-2). In effect, muteness symbolises the source of trauma—the Holocaust itself—and the effect of such trauma throughout a character’s life. Significantly, Jerzy Kosinkski’s The Painted Bird (1965) and Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution (2004) introduce children—an unnamed 6-year-old Pole and 9-year-old German-Jewish refugee Linus Steinman, respectively—who are unlikely to recover their voices after losing them. In my view, it seems as if the speakability/muteness dichotomy, a major feature of Holocaust narratives, tried to reveal ambivalence, a struggle between the impossibility to express the horrors of the Holocaust and the obligation to do so.

Although the plot of The Final Solution has apparently little, if any connection with Holocaust fiction—the murder of a British foreign officer named Mr. Shane and the disappearance of a parrot whose utterance of numbers in German is believed by some characters to be a military code—Chabon’s novella has many of the elements of the Holocaust story. Bearing in mind the child’s background and, as explained below, the Holocaust imagery used by Chabon throughout The Final Solution, it is self-evident that the title not only points to the central plot of the story, Mr. Shane’s assassination and the resolution of his murder case, but also to the euphemistic phrase the Nazis used to refer to the extermination of the Jews. As Anna Richardson explains in connection with Holocaust imagery,

the structure of a Holocaust testimony is indeed highly conventionalized, grounded in the ‘before-during-after’ of the narrator’s Holocaust experience. Embedded within this not necessarily chronological narrative progression are a series of Holocaust symbols (the train, the camp, hunger, thirst, fire, smoke and so on) that serve as signposts for the reader, narrative milestones that counteract the lack of chronological markers inherent in an experience where every day is more or less the same. (Richardson 160)

In this paper, I will explore the significance of four Holocaust images that are a reminder of the Nazi horror through the story of little Linus’s life. These images are: (1) trains; (2) electrified fence/barbed wire; (3) heat and burning; (4) numbers in German uttered by the parrot.

II.

Set in an English country village, The Final Solution introduces “the old man”, an 89-year-old former detective in the guise of Sherlock Holmes who, after getting retired, becomes a beekeeper. The story opens in the summer of 1944 when the old man sees a boy walking along the train tracks with a parrot on his shoulder. The reader eventually learns that the boy, a German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany called Linus Steinman, has a close relationship with the bird. (Before addressing the issue of Holocaust imagery in the novella, it is noteworthy to talk about the intriguing character of Linus Steinman.)

Linus is a 9-year-old mute German-Jewish refugee who at the last minute is saved from an almost sure death on a deportation train. (Similarly, in Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the unnamed protagonist is a 6-year-old mute child whose parents decide to send him far away to spare him an almost sure death.)

To my mind, Linus—and Kosinski’s protagonist—could be considered members of The National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS) because both of them are like “those who were children or teenagers during 1938-1945” (qtd. Suleiman 281). Linus and Kosinski’s unnamed child character also fit into what Susan R. Suleiman calls “the 1.5 Generation” which she defines as “child survivors of the Holocaust, too young to have had an adult understanding of what was happening to them, but old enough to have been there during the Nazi persecution of Jews” (Suleiman 277). As she explains, this generation, which shares the terrible experience of bewilderment and helplessness, underwent the transformation of their world from some degree of stability and security to some degree of chaos. Probably, here lies one of the keys to both children’s most shocking feature, their muteness. In my opinion, this symptom, which accounts for the traumatic experience of the tragedy of the Shoah,1 can be interpreted as an epitome of the view held by many scholars that there is no appropriate language to explain what happened during the Holocaust. In reference to the centrality of the issue of muteness in The Painted Bird, Sara R. Horowitz explains that

Jerzy Kosinski utilizes the perspective of a mute protagonist to put words to something usually kept outside the boundaries of language: the experience of a self undone by atrocity, told from the perspective of the undone self. As an object of ongoing atrocity, the protagonist’s narration comes from outside the linguistic system, outside of the self-defining and world-defining power of words. (Horowitz 71)

Although Chabon does not give descriptions as crude as Kosinski, it is quite clear that Linus Steinman’s speechlessness also points to the atrocities suffered by the kid. In this sense, the child’s muteness is probably, like in the case of The Painted Bird, a synecdoche for the inadequacy of language to express the horror of Auschwitz. In Aharon Appelfeld’s words, “[t]he inability to express your experience and the feeling of guilt combined together and created silence” (Appelfeld 86). Linus’s communication problems can be better understood in light of Hass’s explanation of the difficulties encountered by (very) young inmates to build natural relationships with other people:

People who were children as opposed to late adolescents or adults during the war appear to have more internal obstacles to establishing emotional ties with others. A child’s personality was not only less developed in a global sense, lacking in adequate coping mechanisms, but that very basic establishment of trust that must occur in the first few critical years of life was retarded. (Hass 13)

As explained above, on account of his age at the time of the Jews’ persecution by the Nazis, Linus can be regarded as a member of NAHOS and as a “1.5 generation” child. Also, he seems to fit into what clinical psychologists and therapists call the “second generation.” Typically, this term refers to “the children of Holocaust survivors who have in various ways been affected by the after-effects of their parents’ experience of deportation, forced labor, imprisonment in a concentration camp, or other forms of persecution by the Nazis” (Sicher 133). The train is one of the recurring leitmotifs in The Final Solution.

In spite of being spared the harrowing experience of the death trains and the concentration camps, the children of Holocaust survivors like Linus were transmitted their parents’ fears, anxieties and other traumatic experiences. This probably accounts for Linus’s muteness. Kestenberg explains the child survivors’ arrival in England by train in the following terms:

Ten thousand children were sent to England from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and a few from other countries. Some were three year olds and even younger. Some went alone, others with sisters or brothers. They were brought to the train by mothers and fathers who did not cry, but smiled instead. And off they went into the unknown. All were scared. Accompanying them were young men or women who took care of them and told them what to do at the border. (Kestenberg 169)

It seems that Linus Steinman arrived in England from Germany as a deportee. Linus was one of the ten thousand child refugees brought on the Kindertransporte (Children’s transports).

Master Steinman came to us from Germany. […] He formed part of a small group of children, most of them Jewish, whose emigration to Britain was negotiated by Mr. Wilkes, the vicar of the English Church in Berlin.2
[…] the boy and his parents were spared deportation in 1938. Taken off the train at the last moment, I gather. (Final Solution 68)

As is commonly known, the so-called “Holocaust trains” were used to transport Jews to forced labour or concentration camps. Without the mass transportation of Jews on these trains, the scale of the “Final Solution” would have been totally different. Raul Hilberg goes further when he claims that “[t]he European Jews could not be destroyed without the participation of the Reichsbahn [German railroads].” (Hilberg 163)

The allusions to trains in the story seem to underscore the presence of a traumatic event—i.e. the often called “cattle car” experience—in Linus Steinman’s life. Gigliotti points out that “[d]eportation transports by train were experiential breaks from the ghettos and camps, which scholars have studied as the principal locations of victims’ suffering and memory.” (Gigliotti 2)

Many Jewish children sent to Britain on the Kindertransporte trains were often adopted by Protestant families. Soon after, they began to forget their origins and started their lives afresh. Although, generally speaking, they were happy and well adjusted to their new lives, more often than not these children felt that something inside them had died. This might account for Linus’s loneliness and aloofness.

Some time after an adult—let alone a kid—has experienced a traumatic event, he/she begins to relive it through flashbacks, nightmares or, as in the case of The Final Solution, through repetitive images. In my view, the constant replay of these images reveals certain inability to overcome the horror of the Holocaust. As a consequence of this kind of traumatic experience, child survivors like Linus, who seem to have adopted defences such as numbing of affect and love towards others, can develop an emotional attachment towards anybody or anything that has been close to them prior to their deportation.

Children born before or during the Holocaust suffered from drastic changes in their environment. Many of these children were separated from their parents and, as a consequence of this, they attached themselves to anything that they felt belonged to their own world. While in Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” (1980), the protagonist Rosa, a Holocaust survivor whose 18-month-old daughter Magda was killed by an SS officer, is attached to her daughter’s shawl, Linus is attached to his parrot Bruno, who plays a crucial role in the kid’s post-Holocaust life. This is probably due to the fact that, by keeping a beloved object which the survivor associates with the deceased, the (child-) survivor feels a sense of relief. In this way, the object enables the survivor to establish a link between the deceased and him/her. To some extent, it is a form to create a space of belonging. “The basic trust that accounts for dependability in a relationship is the mainstay of a permanent sense of belonging, while empathy is the requisite for altruism” (Kestenberg & Kestenberg 538; emphasis in the original). Hence, the emphasis on the issue of friendship at prepubescence placed by Kestenberg & Kestenberg: “True friendships become even more important than they were during latency, and the loss of a friend is felt like the loss of part of oneself” (543).

In The Final Solution, it is clear that, after Linus’s parents’ disappearance, the kid can only find comfort in his parrot. Every single evening, Linus listens to Bruno’s train song, a traumatic event as proved by the fact that his performance of the song is only delivered at night, when the trains packed with Jews were transported to the concentration camps:

If he sang the train song, which had lingered far longer and more vividly in his mind than any of the thousand other songs he could sing, for reasons unclear even to him but having to do with sadness, with the sadness of his captivity, of his wanderings, of his finding the boy, of the rolling trains, of the boy’s mama and papa and the mad silence that had come over the boy when he was banished from them, then the rawness would be soothed. It was bliss to sing the train song. (Final Solution 115)
The sound of the train song, arising in the middle of the night, would jar the man from his slumber, send him scrabbling for his pencil and pad. When at last he was awake, sitting in a circle of light from the lamp with pencil clutched in his fingers, then—of course—Bruno would leave off singing. Night after night, this performance was repeated. (Final Solution 117)

Although this article focuses on the significance of Holocaust imagery within The Final Solution, the novel, written in the detective story style, revolves around the violent murder of Richard Woolsey Shane. The reader finds that Mr. Shane’s skull is smashed and the kid’s parrot is missing. Thanks to the boy’s mirror writing, the old man finds the murderer. Curiously, the detective has travelled to London to try to find out more about the murderer. In a clear allusion to “Holocaust trains”, he returns from London by train: “The old man stood on the top of the carriage stairs with the wire cage, hooded, at his feet. The train swayed slowly toward the end of the platform.” (Final Solution 125)

A second prominent example of “Holocaust imagery” is the references made to the electrified (barbed-wire) fence. Early in the narrative, when the old detective sees the boy trying to cross the fence, he shouts at him and says “For pity’s sake, you’d be fried like a smelt! […] One can only imagine the stench(Final Solution 4). Later in the story, the boy catches his hand on barbed wire. While the man is helping him get the wire out of his hand, the boy bursts into tears: “He took hold of the boy’s hand. On the back, just below the wrist, a puffy nipple of flesh, tipped with the black filament of the barb. […] The boy wept freely during this procedure” (Final Solution 78). Significantly, the boy “wept freely” and finally “The barb tumbled free” (Final Solution 79). The child’s entrapment of his hand in the fence does not only account for his incapacity—as epitome of the survivor’s—to escape the horrors of his background, but it is also a reminder of the impossibility of leaving history aside.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was encircled by a high concrete wall and surrounded by a double row of barbed-wire fencing, which covered a perimeter of approximately 16 kilometres. The barbed-wire fence, an effective way to prevent inmates from escaping, was closely guarded by SS soldiers armed with rifles and machine guns. There were also watchtowers around the perimeter of the concentration camp which enabled the Nazis to keep the prisoners under control. If a prisoner was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he/she was immediately shot to death. Needless to say, very few prisoners managed to escape the camp alive.

To my view, although Linus was spared the awful experience of Auschwitz at the last moment, traumatic Holocaust memories are activated through external cues like the trains or the electrified fence which bring the narrator back to the horrors of the concentration camps. The mere presence of the wire clearly provokes anxiety, fear and conflict within the kid as if he had lived through the Holocaust hell. Similarly, in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, Rosa’s memories of the Nazi horror are also activated through external cues. Her daughter Magda was killed by an SS officer, who flung her against an electrified fence. The fact that this has been her most traumatic experience is revealed by her obsession with barbed wire throughout the tale. (“Rosa” 48, 49, 51, 52 and 53)

While the images of the trains and the electrified fence are two prominent elements in The Final Solution, the use of fire and heat imagery is not less important in this narrative.

As mentioned above, the long-ago detective keeps bees in his retirement. The narrator’s allusions to his fear of heat and fire as a way to die an undignified death clearly point to the awful death suffered by the millions of Jews who were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau, among others: “He did not fear death exactly, but he had evaded it for so many years that it had come to seem formidable simply by virtue of that long act of evasion. In particular he feared dying in some undignified way, on the jakes or with his face on the porridge.” (Final Solution 75-77)

It is commonly known that the Nazis used Zyklon B poison gas to kill thousands of Jews in the crematoria. Before going to the gas chambers and then to the crematoria, the inmates went through a selection process (“Selektion.”) Typically, selected inmates to go to the gas chambers and then to the crematoria were those in the hospital who were not likely to recover quickly or who were terminally ill patients. As Primo Levi explains in the chapter entitled “Ka-Be” included in Se Questo È un Uomo (If This Is a Man, 1958), “Chi ha la tendenza alla guarigione, in Ka-Be viene curato; chi ha tendenza ad aggravarsi, dal Ka-Be viene mandato alle camera a gas.”3

After the establishment of two provisional gas chambers in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, it was decided that the mass murder of the Jews was going to be carried out there and the first gas chamber stopped being used. After the completion of four crematoria (II, III, IV and V) with gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the burning of bodies in Crematorium I was discontinued in the autumn of 1942.

It is quite clear to me that the references to the heat of the day made in The Final Solution, which contribute to a sense of suffocation through the story, inevitably bring back horrendous memories of the extermination camps.

It was going to be a hot day, and hot bees were discontented bees. For now at least there was still a nocturnal chill in the air, fog on the high ground, a heavy taste of the sea. So he wasted another five minutes enjoying his pipe. The morning cool, the burning shag, the drowse of the late summer, honey-sated bees: until this recent adventure of the learned parrot these were the pleasures of his life. They were animal pleasures, as he recognized. (Final Solution 74)

Cynthia Ozick uses a similar trope in her depiction of a Miami summer, when she identifies a burning (dying) Miami―as a symbol of those old, retired people awaiting death―and the hot, burning camps where many people were also waiting to die.

The Human Race was all they cared for. Retired workers, they went to lectures, they frequented the damp and shadowy little branch library. She saw them walking with Tolstoy under their arms, with Dostoyevsky. They knew good material. (“Rosa” 15-16)

The last prominent “Holocaust image” used within Chabon’s narrative is the numbers in German uttered by the parrot. The first reference in the story is when the old man hears Bruno utter a series of numbers in German: 2175473 (“Zwei eins sieben fünf vier sieben drei” Final Solution 3), 4849117 (“Vier acht vier neun eins eins sieben”, Final Solution 3) and 9938267. (“Neun neun drei acht zwei sechs sieben” Final Solution 9)

When Mrs. Dunn tells Mr. Kalb, the murderer, that the police have come along to have a word with him, the reader learns that Bruno has been put in a bag not to be discovered. It is during the conversation between the police and Kalb that the parrot’s situation becomes unbearable for him. There is an obvious connection between his difficulty to breathe and the reference to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

It grew increasingly difficult to breathe; there was not enough air in the sack. And then for a moment arrived when Bruno felt that he might just stop breathing, giving it up, allow all the sad wandering and cruelty of his captivity to come at last to a gentle dark finale. (Final Solution 120-121)

Fortunately, Bruno manages to escape from his captor, but he encounters himself in complete darkness.

Bruno struggled, flapping and scrabbling, to free the remainder of his body from the sack. […] Using the shaft as purchase on the darkness he launched himself against the wardrobe door, prepared when it swung open to fly at the throat of the man and expose the red meat within. (Final Solution 122-123)

Although the narrator cannot explain the meaning of the numbers, it is obvious to the attentive reader that the numbers Bruno repeats throughout the story refer to the registration numbers Auschwitz inmates were tattooed upon their arrival at the camp.

One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems—the false leads and the cold cases—that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might conclude; really, he thought, one might. (Final Solution 131)

In connection with the Nazi practice of tattooing inmates, Aharon Appelfeld points out that “[m]an as a number is one of the horrors of dehumanization. They never asked anyone who he was or what he was. They tattooed a number on his arm.” (Appelfeld 83-84)

The tattooed numbers on the left forearms of prisoners held and killed at Auschwitz do not only evidence “the horrors of dehumanization” but they have also become a symbol of hatred. Victims were tattooed with a serial number for identification purposes. For instance, Primo Levi explains in If This Is a Man that, as soon as a prisoner arrived at Auschwitz, his/her name was no longer used. Instead, he/she was tattooed a number which served as the only way to identify the inmate. Levi’s prisoner number was 174517. (Se Questo È un Uomo 21, 42, 48, etc.)4

These numbers, far from being randomly chosen, were part of a coded system. From the moment a prisoner entered the camp, his/her name was effaced and became a number. (“Häftling: ho imparato che io sono uno Häftling. Il mio nome è 174 517; siamo stati battezzati, porteremo finché vivremo il marchio tatuato sul braccio sinistro Se Questo È un Uomo 21.)5 Levi’s use of the sentence “siamo stati battezzati” (“we have been baptized”) is very appropriate because the Nazis were fully conscious of the fact that tattooing the Jews was a violation of their religious laws. Consequently, these tattoos were both a form of identification and a way to inflict psychological torture on the inmates.

Throughout this article, I have referred to Michael Chabon’s choice of Conan Doyle’s detective story in The Final Solution to address the issue of the Holocaust. Probably, Chabon finds it most interesting how Doyle deals with—and manages—the psychological and logical elements of this kind of narrative. Anna Richardson appropriately points out that “[t]he intricacy of Doyle’s plots in many ways parallels the complexity of the Holocaust; read in this way, Chabon’s choice of generic framework is a subtle attempt to represent the unknowability of the Holocaust in narrative form” (Richardson 163). The reader seems to be confronted with the appropriateness or not of resorting to fiction in order to approach the Nazi horror.

 

Works Cited

  • Appelfeld, Aharon. “After the Holocaust.” In Writing and the Holocaust. Ed. Berel Lang. New York & London: Holmes & Meier, 1988. 83-92.
  • Chabon, Michael. The Final Solution. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005 [2004].
  • Gigliotti, Simone. The Train Journey: Transit, Captivity, and Witnessing in the Holocaust. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009.
  • Hass, Aaron. In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Second Generation. Cambridge University Press, 2001 [1996].
  • Hilberg, Raul. “German Railroads/Jewish Souls.” Society 35.2 (January/February 1998): 162-174.
  • Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. State University of New York Press, 1997.
  • Kestenberg, Judith S. “Kindertransport: A Case Study.” In Children Surviving Persecution: An International Study of Trauma & Healing. Ed. Judith S. Kestenberg. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998. 169-172.
  • Kestenberg, Milton & Judith S. Kestenberg. “The Sense of Belonging and Altruism in Children Who Survived the Holocaust.” Psychoanalytic Review 75.4 (Winter 1988): 533-560.
  • Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. New York: Modern Library, 1983 [1965].
  • Levi, Primo. Se Questo È un Uomo. In Opere I. Torino: Einaudi, 1987 [1958]. 1-212. (If This Is a Man. Trans. Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1987 [1958]. 13-179.)
  • Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. New York: Vintage International, 1990 [1989].
  • Richardson, Anna. “In Search of the Final Solution: Crime Narrative As a Paradigm for Exploring Responses to the Holocaust.” European Journal of English Studies 14. 2 (August 2010): 159-171.
  • Sicher, Ephraim. The Holocaust Novel. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking About Child Survivors and the Holocaust.” American Imago 59.3 (2002): 277-295.
  • Wardi, Dina. Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust. London: Routledge, 1992.

 

Notes

1 To my mind, Linus’s muteness can be greatly understood in light of Dina Wardi’s explanation of the story of Mina, a girl who witnessed how her mother was killed by the Nazis: “[h]er physical muteness lasted for a month, but her emotional muteness is still with her: ‘we never came back to ourselves.’” (Wardi 1992: 11)

2 Chabon, Michael. The Final Solution (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005 [2004]): 15. Subsequent references to this edition are given parenthetically.

3 Levi, Primo. Se Questo È un Uomo (Torino: Einaudi, 1987 [1958]): 41. “Those who show signs of improvement are cured in Ka-Be, those who seem to get worse are sent from Ka-Be to the gas chambers.” If This Is a Man (Trans. Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1987 [1958]): 52.

4 If This Is a Man, p. 33, 53, 58, etc.

5Häftling” [prisoner]: I have learnt that I am Häftling. My number is 174517; we have been baptized, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.” If This Is a Man, 33.