David Albahari

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"Götz and Meyer"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 29, 2006)

"What kind of man would…consent to do a job that meant putting five or six thousand souls to death?  I find it hard to give a student a bad grade at the end of the semester, let alone at the end of the year, but that is nothing compared to the way [SS guards]Götz and Meyer must have felt.  Or what if they felt nothing at all?"

The speaker of this long monologue by Serbian author David Albahari is a teacher of Serbo-Croatian language and literature, a 50-year-old Jewish man who has been trying to fill in the spaces in his family tree after World War II in Yugoslavia.  Of sixty-seven immediate relatives, only six have survived, all because they left Yugoslavia for other places—Argentina, Israel, America, Australia—or, like the speaker and his mother, escaped to rural areas where they could be hidden before the extermination of the Jews started.  "I wanted to discover who I was and what I was, and where I had come from," he says.

In Yugoslavia the extermination of Jews started early and was almost totally successful within a matter of months, with most of the Jewish men of Serbia shot to death by the fall of 1941, and "the Jewish Question in Serbia almost completely solved" by April, 1942, when virtually all Jewish men, women, and children were dead.  Imagining the lives of Götz and Meyer, two SS guards who were responsible for over 5000 Jewish deaths, the speaker examines the events for which Götz and Meyer were responsible between November, 1941, and April, 1942—the executions of one thousand Jews per month in the Belgrade Saurer truck they drove daily.  The truck, with its hermetically sealed rear compartment, had a hole in the floor into which the exhaust was pumped as prisoners were being taken from the Belgrade Fairgrounds camp, where they were housed, to "better" accommodations elsewhere, "a concern of the German government for the good of the prisoners" that the speaker finds "touching." 

Albahari exhibits a mordant humor as his speaker imagines the inner lives of Götz and Meyer.  Often juxtaposing atrocities against simple, folksy observation, the speaker fantasizes about "Götz, or was it Meyer," a phrase which echoes throughout the narrative because of their interchangeability.  As he puts himself into their minds, he wonders if they had nicknames, if their wives had pet names for them, and if they ever regretted what they were doing, since they were so good at their jobs.  Particularly "successful" in their relationships with the prisoners who unloaded trucks and buried the corpses, they created an environment in which the prisoners could bury a truckload of dead bodies in less than an hour.  "Killing, too, is an art," the speaker says, "and it has its own rules." 

The speaker's life, like the book itself, is "split in an orderly and painless fashion into three parallel lives."  His first "life" belongs only to him—getting up, shaving, reading the mail, watching television.  His second life is "one of constant transformations"—in which he stares at the family tree and imagines himself as one of his vanished cousins or aunts or uncles.  His third life "had two heads"—"I was…the angel of death and the driver, a soldier and a simple man, the pretend savior and the real executioner," and he admits that there were moments when "I did not know who I was."

Throughout the novel, as Albahari includes the terrible statistics, he also exhibits the ironies of the circumstances, setting the facts into sharp relief and increasing the shock.  The camp at which Götz and Meyer work had once been used for international games, and he remarks on the coincidence of having the camp "baths" located in what was once the Turkish compound.  He imagines reports on the load distribution of the bodies in the truck and how they might have contributed to a broken rear axle, contemplates the comforting effects of a lightbulb in the truck as the bodies start to fall, and "worries" about all the red tape in co-ordinating the details. 

Gradually Götz and Meyer become more human for the reader, and when the speaker takes his class on a field trip to the site of the Fairgrounds camp, he asks them to imagine themselves as one of his relatives.  One student remarks that she would not have gone to the camp if she had to leave her pets at home, deciding that this would have been "inhuman."  Another sees life at the Fairgrounds as "the greatest adventure of his lifetime."  As the horror of the events gradually sink in, the teacher comments that "Memory is the only way to conquer death, even when the body merely goes the way of all matter and spins in an endless circle of transformations, while the spirit remains in a transparent cloud of mental energy moving slowly through the world and pouring, randomly as it first may seem, into restored matter, so that no one knows what they'll find in themselves when they look within.

A strange novel of the Holocaust, all the more shocking because of the contrasts between the facts and the dark humor, Götz and Meyer is a memorable short novel and worthy addition to Holocaust literature. (Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac.)

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Götz and Meyer at Random House of Canada

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

David Albahari was born in Serbia in 1948. He founded, and for many years was the editor of, Pismo, a magazine of world literature. He is also an accomplished translator of Anglo-American literature.

In 1991 he became the chair of the Federation of Jewish Communes of Yugoslavia, and worked on evacuation of the Jewish population from Sarajevo.

In 1994, he moved with his family to Calgary. He continues to write and publish in the Serbian language.

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