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Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination


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Speaker(s): Otto Dov Kulka, Sir Ian Kershaw
Chair: The Revd Dr James Walters

Recorded on 28 January 2013 in Old Theatre, Old Building.

In this event Otto Dov Kulka will discuss his new book Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination in conversation with historian Sir Ian Kershaw.

Auschwitz is for Otto Dov Kulka a vast repository of images, memories, and reveries: “the Metropolis of Death” over which rules the immutable Law of Death. Amidst so much death Kulka finds moments of haunting, almost unbearable beauty (for beauty, too, says Kulka, is an inescapable law). But what does it mean to find beauty in Auschwitz? For him, “the blue of the sky in this land is many times stronger than any blue one can see anywhere else.”

Kulka here breaks years of silence, bringing together the personal and historical in a devastating, at times poetic, account of the concentration camps. Returning to the sites of his childhood, Kulka struggles to overcome the obfuscations of memory, unpick the euphemistic language of the camp, and interpret history as he experienced it. These haunting memories – of his mother, who doesn’t look back as she marches towards her death, the sounds of ‘Ode to Joy’ being sung by a children’s choir opposite the crematoria, and the “black stains” along the roadside during the winter death march - instigate forbidden, unanswerable questions. As the author maps his interior world, in a way reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, readers gain a new sense of what it was to experience the Shoah from inside the camps— both at the time, and long afterward.

A renowned historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, Otto Dov Kulka is Rosenbloom Professor Emeritus in Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933. As a child, he was sent first to the ghetto of Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. As one of the few survivors he has spent much of his life studying Nazism and the Holocaust, but always as a discipline requiring the greatest coldness and objectivity, with his personal story set to one side.

Ian Kershaw is the author of Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris; Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis; Making Friends with Hitler; and Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-4. Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis received the Wolfson History Prize and the Bruno Kreisky Prize in Austria for Political Book of the Year, and was joint winner of the inaugural British Academy Book Prize. Until his retirement in 2008, Ian Kershaw was professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield. For services to history he was given the German award of the Federal Cross of Merit in 1994. He was knighted in 2002 and awarded the Norton Medlicott Medal by the Historical Association in 2004. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and was the winner of the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding 2012.

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