By Heimrad Bäcker
Translated by Vincent Kling, professor of German and comparative literature at La Salle University in Philadelphia; and Patrick Greaney, assistant professor of German and comparative literature at CU-Boulder
‘transcript’ is a disturbing document. Using the techniques of concrete and visual poetry, Heimrad Bäcker presents quotations from the Holocaust’s planners, perpetrators, and victims.
The book offers a startling collection of documents that confront us with details from the bureaucratic world of the Nazis and the intimate worlds they destroyed. Bäcker’s sources range from victims’ letters and medical charts to train schedules and the telephone records of Auschwitz. His transcriptions and reworkings of these sources serve as a reminder that everything about the Shoah was spoken about in great detail, from the most banal to the most monstrous.
‘transcript’ shows us that the Holocaust was not “unspeakable,” but was an eminently describable and described act spoken about by thousands of people concerned with the precision and even the beauty of their language.
“The cumulative effect of these fragments is harrowing. A letter says: “i probably won’t ever see you again, won’t hear your voice, won’t kiss you. but how i want to see you, if only once!” In the long lists of names, one or two stick out. What did the tailor Zoltan Fleishmann look like? What sort of life did the shopkeeper Bernhard Herskovits have? We read about a camp inmate who was punished with death for not executing with total accuracy the motion of taking off his cap and putting it back on, of another who was shot because he was no longer capable of performing certain kinds of heavy labor owing to his physical condition, and of a little 4-year-old Jewish boy who distributed short pieces of string to men and women on the way to the gas chamber—presumably by way of reassurance. Poetry is in the details, we usually say, but so is cruelty.”
“Thus while ‘transcript’ is extremely effective both as literature and a warning against the horrors of Nazism, it simultaneously leads the readers to question their ability to fully apprehend ‘reality’ because of the ways in which our experience is filtered through prior ‘knowledge’ that may be of either a ‘documentary’ or a ‘fictional’ nature.”
“With ‘transcript,’ a new chapter began for concrete and visual poetry.”
“I consider ‘transcript’ to be a major work of concrete poetry and, beyond that, proof that its methods can convey reality much more intensively than the methods of description.”