Essay / 3 January 2019

The Quarry

"The past is never dead. It's not even the past."

The assigned topic is ‘tradition’. That’s a tough one – precisely because there’s so much to say about this word. Of course, I perused what my fellow speakers had said in previous years: Very fine things, of course, very dignified, and of course some of them took high culture as the occasion to reflect on barbarism – that is appropriate, and it is also a topos with a history. The terrible Twentieth Century, the ‘wolfhound age’, as Osip Mandelstam called it before he himself fell victim to it, taught us to make this connection almost reflexively: The height of civilisation, the depths of barbarism. Sometimes, a peculiar sort of new folklore arises from this confrontation.

It’s eighteen years ago now. A friend of mine had gotten some tickets as a gift, we were curious, and so we drove to Mauthausen. A few of those present here might remember: A group of well-meaning people – I use the word without an ironic overtone, because they really did mean well, and that is no small thing – that is, a group of well-meaning people had decided to hold a memorial concert in the Mauthausen camp. Wanting to maintain a balance where the horror had been worst, the Vienna Philharmonic was going to reach for the highest cultural heritage by playing Beethoven’s Ninth.

We came by car from Vienna and parked in one of the lots provided. Ushers who warned the audience to be careful climbing down the steps escorted us into the stone quarry, and so there we stood. Far away from the stage on which, after a few speeches, the Vienna Philharmonic began to play, which they did very, very well. And Beethoven’s music was as magnificent as, well, Beethoven’s music. And meanwhile it grew dark – a cloudless springtime sunset came to pass, as theatrical as could be.

Tremendously high-performance loudspeakers delivered first-class sound, and since the company that provided the electrical equipment apparently wanted to offer their full range of services, there was also a show of coloured lights on the quarry wall, synchronised with the music: From dark red to violet to turquoise; this was simply a normal thing at open-air concerts, and apparently no one had given the instruction that in this case it might have been better to make an exception.

The most fascinating thing, though, was the birds. I had never heard a classical symphony performed outdoors before, and so I was in no way prepared for how, in the stillness between movements, the songbirds repeated motifs we had just heard – a response from springtime, from nature, from flourishing life, to Beethoven’s art. It was enchanting. But of course, we didn’t know whether we even had the right to notice anything like that – whether we, all in all, were permitted to be enchanted by it.

And there was something else, too. Wherever there are so many people crowded together, of course a security service is required. I don’t remember if the guards on duty belonged to a private company, or if they were police, but I still remember clearly that to perform their task better, they made use of the infrastructure that, appropriately enough, was already present for that purpose.

Do you understand what I’m getting at? I mean they were standing on the watchtowers. So, while it was getting dark, while Beethoven’s choirs were rising jubilantly into the night, and while the wall of the quarry shone with shifting colours, up there on the towers we could make out the silhouettes of men standing motionless in...well, in the posture of guards.

When the symphony was over, it was night. The guards up there could no longer be seen. I felt uplifted and happy. Beethoven’s Ninth, played by one of the best orchestras, is going to have that effect. At the same time, of course, I knew this was not intended; I wasn’t supposed to feel uplifted, or happy, but...well, how was I supposed to feel? I could tell that the people around me were experiencing something similar. We were confused. But even more than confused, we were really just uplifted and happy. There was nothing we could do about it. Because it was Beethoven’s Ninth, we couldn’t help it. And so, the final chords sounded, and then there was silence – it’s possible, but I no longer remember, that we had been expressly asked at the beginning not to applaud. And right at this moment, equally euphoric and unsettling, which was already stretching out too long, one of the most famous actresses in the country stepped onstage and said in a sharp voice, into a microphone: ‘Niemals vergessen’! Then for some reason she repeated it in English: ‘Never forget’! And left the stage again.

It took us all a while to realise that it was now over. There wouldn’t be anything else. The memorial event was done. If you stood on your tiptoes, you could see that the Philharmonic had already departed. And so, we left too.

At least we tried to. But it was not so easy. Anyone who has ever attended an open-air concert as one among thousands knows this situation: You can’t get out right away. It takes a while before a crowd like that disperses. In this case, however, it took longer than usual. Considerably longer. Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, then thirty. And soon it was forty-five, and we were still standing in the same spot, and the crowd around us was hardly less dense than before. I was starting to get angry. Memorial or no memorial, we were all getting angry. That’s also hard to suppress. It’s a reaction that comes over you just as reliably as the sublimity that accompanies ‘Joy, exquisite spark of godheads’ – if it’s late and you want to go home and everything’s moving too slowly, you get angry. ‘Why is this organised so stupidly?’ I thought – or maybe, shamefully enough, I even said it aloud: ‘Why can’t we get out of here?’ Yes, and then I realised why we weren’t getting out.

When I tell about it, it’s a weak tagline, I’m aware of that, but at the time, at night, I really did arrive at a moment of understanding that took my breath away: We couldn’t get out of there because it was the Mauthausen quarry. We couldn’t get out because the Mauthausen quarry is set up on purpose, in the most insidious way, to make it extremely difficult to get out of.

Suddenly it was clear to me that some part of me had considered this quarry a metaphor, in some way just an abstract concept that stood for many things and signified this and that. But now this place was nothing but itself. It was the steeply rising stone walls between which there was no emergency exit, no back door through which the audience could have been manoeuvred outside, and only the one stairway on which so many people had been killed merely by giving them a push – this stairway which, unlike all the stairs we use day to day, is not aligned so it can be safely mounted, but has no other purpose than to make you stumble. Well, of course nobody was getting out! This was not a concert ground. This was a concentration camp. It was a chilling moment. It was also a moment of clarity. And it was the moment in which the memorial event unexpectedly fulfilled its purpose. If I remember correctly, it took almost two hours before we could walk up the steps to the parking lot and drive away.

The truth is, I wasn’t there just by chance back then, eighteen years ago. It was by chance that I got a ticket, but it wasn’t by chance that I thought my presence could help me understand something. Eighteen years ago, my father was still alive. And fifty-five years before that he was himself an inmate of a satellite camp of Mauthausen. The Maria Lanzendorf camp – a name that has not taken its place in the topography of terror, like Dachau or Mauthausen or Sobibor or Auschwitz, because there were more of them than we are capable of holding in our collective memory.

My father had been arrested at age seventeen, in the last year of the war, for a number of reasons, first as a half-Jew – the term at the time – which he was only because my grandfather and his wife, using shrewdly counterfeited documents and well-placed bribes, had turned themselves from whole Jews into half ones. As half-Jews, my grandparents and their children survived, while the rest of the family, all the cousins and uncles and aunts that my father talked about later when he described his childhood, were carted off and never came back, so that for me, my family was always defined by absence – a lot of names, a lot of stories that my father knew how to tell with infectious cheerfulness – but all of them no longer existed.

Of course, no one knew for sure at the time that half-Jews had a better chance of survival – this was my grandfather’s attempt, in the darkness they were all groping through, to find a path to survival. In retrospect, conditions become clearer, but as long as the present is still the present, one can only guess and grope and do one’s best, and then some people have good luck and others – the majority – just don’t.

Of course, my half-Jewish grandfather now lost his job, his house was Aryanised, that is: Taken over by his neighbour, who had suddenly begun to peer over the fence and call out, in a deep voice, ‘Jewww’ – and my father could no longer go to the preparatory school, but had to go work in a factory, at which he turned out to be so inept that the workers (years ago I used this anecdote in a novel) thought he was an infiltrated Communist saboteur and assured him his secret was safe with them, and they wouldn’t give him away.

It was also pure chance that led to my father’s arrest on that fateful evening: He had been at a party attended by several members of the resistance movement – somebody had reported them, and somebody else had decided to ‘bust’ all suspicious persons, which by definition included so-called jüdisch Versippte, anyone related to a Jew by marriage. All his life, it was important to my father that even if he was arrested as one, he really wasn’t a resistance fighter. So, he ended up in Maria Lanzendorf, the satellite camp of Mauthausen.

Only today, thinking back, is it clear to me how little my father talked about the months of his imprisonment and that he must have been – to use a modern word that was unknown at the time – traumatised. But he told about the commandant who had two large dogs beside him while he inspected the row of new inmates and in passing said to my father– deeply frightened and a head taller than those standing next to him – ‘Well, you won’t get out of here alive’! He told about having to watch as people were beaten to death with metal clubs. And he told how the prisoners were not taken to the air-raid shelter while British aircraft bombed the industrial plant next door. In mortal fear, they stood at their cell windows, listening to the explosions and waiting for the fatal direct hit, and singing the ‘Internationale’, which normally would have been a death sentence, but at this moment no one could hear it, because the guards were not suicidal and so they were cowering in their bunkers.

He had been arrested by chance, and he survived by chance. Already earmarked for transport to a death camp, without his own doing, he got onto a list of names that some NSDAP functionary had earmarked for release, because he, like many at the time, could already foresee that the war was lost, and that pretty soon it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have people who could testify that they had been set free.

And so, one morning my father was informed without further ado that he could go. He left the camp and took the streetcar home, to his parents’ apartment in the Schwindgasse in Vienna, and a coincidence that was really too dramatic – one you couldn’t make up – had decided that, on this of all days, my grandmother would visit the camp with a package of food, to drop it off for her son – such packages were always gladly accepted, even if they rarely made it to the prisoners. But this time, the official on duty looked at his register, leafed through the pages, looked, leafed some more, paused, and said: ‘We don’t have a Michael Kehlmann anymore. He must have died’.

This matter almost took the most tragic turn possible. My grandmother started screaming. She could have suffered a heart attack on the spot, or worse yet, insulted the henchmen present, which of course would have gotten her arrested. Other visitors hauled her outside and held her mouth shut, and then my grandmother took the same long streetcar ride from Maria Lanzendorf to the Schwindgasse that my father had taken before her, transferring several times, believing the whole time her son was dead. That son was waiting for her at home – and once again she could have had a heart attack, but by good luck she didn’t.

After that, my father spent the last weeks of the war hidden in the coal cellar, because no one knew if he wouldn’t suddenly get arrested again. Where mere arbitrariness prevails, you’re not free even if you’ve been set free. Down there among the piles of coal, he could eavesdrop on the conversations of passers-by – again and again he told about the morning he heard the word ‘Austria’, and how he almost fainted from relief and joy, not out of patriotism – there really was no reason for that – but simply because, if someone dared to utter this forbidden word on the street, it meant that the reign of the monsters was past.

I’ve gotten off the subject. It was ‘tradition’, wasn’t it? The topic was artistic beauty and music and the sublime and high culture, right? So, what was I getting at anyway? Maybe this: Mauthausen is not far from here. Not in space, and not in time. It really isn’t so long ago. The ‘Never forget’ that, with a grand gesture, the famous actress cried out over the heads of the audience who were slightly ashamed of their own musical elation – it’s not just a catchphrase.

All those relatives my father told us about when he talked about his childhood, everyone in my family who was later killed, would have liked to leave this country. And God knows they tried. And they didn’t get visas. The only visa my grandfather could have gotten was one for Serbia. A vague instinct held him back, and thus in all probability he saved their lives, because going there would have led them into the worst atrocities of that region of the partisan war that Timothy Snyder has called the ‘bloodlands’. This too is known today, but back then no one knew about it and they were dependent on their instincts and, most of all, on their luck.

The simple realisation that came over me then in the quarry was this: The quarry was real. It was made of stone. It was not a symbol. It was as real, as solid, as could be. And everything that happened in there really happened, and it had happened just now. After all, the phrase is ‘just now’. This means that something we first thought was off in the distance and seemed to have become an abstraction is actually quite close to us, and has a continuing significance for our lives, and in the simplest, most practical way. This is true of the past of music and art, and it is just as true of political decisions. William Faulkner’s sentence, which has almost been quoted to death, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even the past’, is an extremely effective bon mot, not just for the well-turned paradox, but it is also a very simple truth: What once was is not only not dead, it isn’t even past, it is with us, even if we resolve to ignore it.

If one keeps in mind that the Third Reich is not some pale fabrication of solemn vigils, but that only a short time ago, starting in this country of ours, the realest floods of refugees poured out over Europe, floods of desperate, uprooted people deprived of any rights, who had been expelled from here and whom no one out there wanted to accept, then one might form a different judgment of a young chancellor whose greatest pride lies in the fact that he was able, in alliance with the would-be dictator of Hungary, to keep out of our wealthy Europe desperate people without homelands, passports, and rights, who were able to just barely escape, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Yes, and now I’m on topic. Maybe you saw it coming – and I’m sorry that I too, like all the other writers who’ve given speeches in the last few days, have to return to it. It’s possible that soon a day will dawn when we in Austria can again speak about music, art, and beautiful things without talking about emigrants and our troubling government. I ardently hope that this day will come. But it is not here yet.

I have just written a play about how, in 1939, a ship with nearly a thousand refugees, and many Austrians among them, was prohibited from landing in Cuba and then in the USA – with arguments that are exactly like the ones we read in the newspapers today: The boat is full, our capacity is used up, the cultures of these people are too foreign. Of course, it looks absurd today: The United States of America is incapable of accepting a thousand people? But at the time it did not sound like a joke, it sounded like realpolitik.

My father could have been on that ship. Luckily, he wasn’t. That he, unlike most of our family, survived, is something he owed to highly improbable accidents. If they hadn’t happened – and for most people, there were no such fortuitous rescues – I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today. That, too, is not a metaphor. It’s the plain truth, and tradition really does mean mainly what the famous actress exclaimed into the microphone back then, a touch too dramatically, while the birds repeated scraps of Beethoven’s music: ‘Never forget’!

Do not forget what happened. This doesn’t just mean making beautiful music in concentration camps on anniversaries. It also means this: Helping people who need help, even if they have a different religion, a different culture, or a different skin colour, and doing it in memory of the displaced persons and the dead from our own country, not so long ago.

Translated from German by Geoffrey C. Howes


Daniel Kehlmann

, born in 1975, is one of the most celebrated writers of our time. Kehlmann was born in Munich and grew up in Vienna, where he studied philosophy. His novels have been translated into many languages. “Die Vermessung der Welt“ (“Measuring The World“), published in 2005, has sold six million copies. Kehlmann has been awarded many prizes, including the “Welt-Literaturpreis” (2007) or the “Friedrich-Hölderlin-Preis” (2018). His work comprises novels, essays, and plays. His latest novel “Tyll” was published in 2017. Kehlmann lives in New York and Berlin. This is the text of the speech Kehlmann gave at the opening of the International Bruckner Festival on September 9th, 2018.

Photo by Nate Abbott