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Martin POLLACK: “What surprises me most is that criminals were normal people”

Martin Pollack is a well-known Austrian writer, journalist, and translator. He studied phi­lology and history of East Euro­pean countries at universities of Vienna, Warsaw, and Yugoslavia
04 April, 10:15
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Martin Pollack is a well-known Austrian writer, journalist, and translator. He studied phi­lology and history of East Euro­pean countries at universities of Vienna, Warsaw, and Yugoslavia. In 1987 he became a con­tri­butor of German Der Spiegel news magazine; he was a reporter of the magazine in Vienna and Warsaw. At the same time he was working as a translator from Polish. In 1998 he became a free litterateur. His main works in one way or another refer to the problems of Central and Eastern Europe, including East European Jews.

Pollack is an illegitimate son of SS Sturmbannfuehrer Gerhard Bast, who served in Einsatzgruppe H in Slovakia, later headed Sonder­kom­mando 7A in Warsaw, and took an active part in deportation and mass extermination of Jews. After the war, when Bast tried to cross the Austro-Italian border in order to immigrate to Latin America, he was murdered by a conductor who wanted to rob him. Pollack’s research-book The Dead Man in the Bunker (2004) is by far the most famous of his works.

Recently the writer has been to Ukraine for the second time and for the first time he came to Kyiv. The Day met with Pollack in order to ask him a few questions.

Mr. Pollack, you were born in 1944. What do you remember about after-war Austria?

“Yes, I belong to the last generation that survived the war. I was staying in our house when it was bombed and for the next 48 hours remained under the debris. I don’t recall any of this and always say that it did not have any effect on me. However, my wife disagrees: she says this fact is very meaningful (chuck­ling). I remember the after-war period very well. I grew up in the city of Linz, which was divided between Russians and Americans after the war. My grandfather and my father’s mother lived in the Soviet occupation zone, my stepfather and mother – in the Ame­rican occupation zone.”

How did the war affect your fa­mily on the whole?

“Linz is a very interesting town. There used to be a popular opinion in Austria that we had little to do with Nazism. But my father studied in the same secondary school in Linz as Hit­ler, only Hitler was one year se­nior. Adolf Eichmann and Gestapo Chief Kaltenbrunner came from Linz, too. This is too many famous people for such a small city. I come from a fa­mi­ly of radical Nazis. My father was a Gestapo and SS officer and all of the members of my father’s family were staunch National Socialists. I descri­be the story of my family in my book The Dead Man in the Bunker. In 1947 my father was murdered when he tried to escape. When I was writing the book, I learned that he had false documents for immigration to Para­guay. So, the Austrian past is very important for me, because it is my past. This is the reason why I write so much about this.”

Was there any concrete point of time when you suddenly became fully aware of your family story?

“I cannot say there was a speci­fic moment. My father was a great hero for my grandparents. They raised me as a National Socialist. When I came to see my grandparents, they brought me from one staunch old Nazi to another, pointed at me and said: this is Gerhard Bast’s son, the follower of our tradition. But I was lucky. At the age of 10 I found myself in a very liberal boarding school. My peers included Russians, Ukrainians, Yugo­slavs, Belarusians, Bulgarians, the children of the so-called deported people. The school was founded by a Russian emigre, an aristocrat, a Cossack by origin, so we sang Cossack songs, although I did not know Rus­sian.”

Apparently, the USSR did not have any influence there?

“No. We were speaking quite openly about the problems of Natio­nal Socialism, but there were anti-Communist sentiments as well.”

Did you experience any kind of inner crisis when you understood that Nazism was a crime and that your family was involved in it? How did you overcome it?

“I have always been aware of the fact that we were involved in it. Therefore I did not feel any crisis whatsoever. I was 13 or 14 when my mother told me what my father was involved in. Even in spite of the environment, I understood in general features what Nazism was. And I revealed the whole depth of this crime for myself while I was working on The Dead Man in the Bunker: blood, millions of victims, partially unnamed. This is a very important moment, when you start to investigate and collect the details of the atrocities: there is a completely different understanding. Incidentally, the book contains a scene based on real events, when my father led Sonder­kommando in Slovakia to the mountains to kill the Jews who were hiding there. They hunted after them and killed them. Later in protocols not all of them were recognized. The bodies of a man and two children were not identified. And then, two years ago, many years after the book was published a lady from Prague sent me a letter: it turned out that the man was her uncle. She even sent me some photos. Thus, the dead ones acquire names and faces and it is very important to find out who they were.”

Actually, the question about the crisis is a question about literature. There is an opinion that writer is crea­ted by severe trials and sufferings. Do you agree with this?

“I think there is something about this. I cannot say about other writers, but in my case it is close to the truth. When I started to research this topic, I had only one option: either accomplish everything, or leave and forget about it. This is extremely painful, but namely your decision not to pity yourself, but tell and accomplish everything is what makes you the author. But as a result I started having problems with sleep. I used to sleep very well before, but since I started to collect the materials for The Dead Man in the Bunker, I have not been able to sleep for longer than four or five hours.”

The situation when the writer is the chief and leader of the nation, like Sienkiewicz in Poland of the 19th century is long in the past. As for me a mission is too loud a word.

As far as I understand, you have been involved in many spheres: you have worked as a carpenter and as a reporter. How come you became a litterateur?

“This started back in school. I have always taken interest in literature and back in those years understood that my life would be connected with books. When I was about 16 years old, I started writing my first works. I recall that in school I ini­tia­ted the creation of a literary society. My first report was about Ezra Pound, whose poetry was completely unknown to me, but I did succeed with the report.”

Why did you take up the East European direction in literature?

“Surely, this choice was not accidental, but at first I did not make it deliberately. When I went to study in the university in 1963, Austria had very scarce information about Eastern Europe and its literature. My stepfather had a great library, but from Russian literature there was only Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, from Po­lish – probably Sienkiewicz, and that was all. Later my decision to study in Poland came as a protest against my family. My grandmo­ther, the mother of my biological father, was the main ideologue of Nazism in our family. She wanted me very much to take up German studies, but I said, ‘No way! Only Slavic studies!’ In fact it was not a very well-weighed decision to study something with an only purpose to spite my grandmother (chuckling).”

When did your acquaintance with Ukraine start?

“That was also a story of sorts. In 1984 I wrote a book about an ima­ginary journey across Galicia, a kind of a guide across Western Uk­raine at the turn of 19th centu­ry. For na­mely Galician German-language li­te­rature is known in German space: Joseph Roth, Sacher-Masoch, but Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish literary schools of Galicia are completely unknown. Unfortunately, it is too late for me to take Ukrainian studies. But I fami­liarize Europe with Uk­rai­nian literature. For example, the book of essays Sarmatische Land­schaften (Sarmatian Landscapes) published in 2005 in Germany and Poland in German and Polish simultaneously has been sold out. At that time one of the greatest German publishing houses offered me to make a German-Polish anthology. I replied, ‘Why would I do this? I am an Austrian. Let Poles and Germans publish it. I will do so only if we extent the format, involving Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania as well.’ That was how we came to the name Sarmatian Land­scapes. Its authors include Yurii Andrukhovych, Yurko Pro­khasko, Andrii Bondar, Yaroslav Hrytsak, and Oksana Zabuzhko. This is a wonderful opportunity to present good authors and invite them to our space.”

In the past 1.5 centuries your country has been regularly supplying the world with writers of genius. In your opinion, what is the phenomenon of the Austrian literature?

“I think it is connected with the fact that our identity is not clear-cut and we have the problem with our own past. This problematic situation gives rise to good literature. The si­tuation of comfort when we put our legs on the table and drink beer won’t do here. Let’s take for instance Joseph Winkler [one of the most interesting Austrian writers, who recently came to Ukraine. – Author] – he comes from a poor family of pea­sants, and his creative work is connected with the conflict between Germans and Slavs – as a result, a very interesting writer emerged. And Thomas Bernhard [Austrian prose writer of the after-war period. – Author] writes about the permanent conflict with his own country.”

What do you read?

“I have the following problem: I always lack time for reading namely literature, because I have much to read concerning my work: reports, travel notes, documentation – these are the genres in which I myself work. But I have hobbies other than literature, like kitchen garden. Fortunately, this activity is in no way connected with literature.”

Incredible! Which plants are your favorite ones?

“I have a big garden where old apple-trees are growing. I like apples very much. I also have a vineyard, which is almost 100 years.”

You translate much. What is the greatest difficulty in the work of a translator?

“In the necessity to correspond to the original. You cannot make a lite­ral translation from Polish into German and at the same time you cannot leave aside the whole bunch of meanings present there. The challenge is about avoiding literalness, but at the same time being close to the original and writing well. The reader should not notice this is a translation.”

Previously writer was consi­dered a prophet, a spiritual leader of the nation. What is the place of literature today?

“The situation when the writer is the chief and leader of the nation, like Sienkiewicz in Poland of the 19th cen­tury is long in the past. As for me a mission is too loud a word. My The Dead Man in the Bunker had a clear function in Austria: it had to show that it is possible to speak about the past without mutual accusations and offences, that literature is a medium which is able to rise above the past, despite how hard it was. I don’t blame my father. I am not a judge. I just try to write about the events of those days in an unbiased manner.”

Your words bring us back to the beginning of our interview, so I want to ask you a question, to which I personally cannot find an answer: in your opinion, why the Holocaust was possible?

“This question troubles me very much, because I come from a family involved in it. What surprises me the most is that the perpetrators were normal people, like my uncle and father. In the Austrian literature there have already been attempts to describe those events in the stylistics of Hieronymus Bosch: the hell opened wide and the monsters attacked us. But this is not true. Most of those who were invol­ved in extermination of Jews were not mentally diseased. Otherwise the problem would have been quickly resolved: it would have been gi­ven to psychiatrists, and that would be the end of it. The very fact that it was done by normal people turns the whole situation into a very proble­matic one. For instance, my father was an athlete, a good friend, he liked to drink at times, he was popular with women, and in spite of that he was doing what he was doing. I have recently published an article in Austria dedicated to the Anschluss anniversary. In our country the Ho­lo­caust started when Jews were for­ced to wash the street pavements with their hands. I have found photos which have never been published before. These photos are dated 1938. They show Jews washing pavements with their hands and Vienna residents who surround them look abso­lutely normal. They are nicely dress­ed, they have normal faces. They are simply standing and looking at the beginning of Holocaust. That was the way they looked at extermi­nation and nothing happened to them. This is what researcher of the Holocaust and totalitarianism Hannah Arendt writes about: it is not about the banality of evil, but its simplicity.”

So, haven’t you found the ans­wer?

“In The Dead Man in the Bunker I keep asking: how could it happen that namely my father became a murde­rer? And the only answer I found is: I don’t know what I would have done in that situation.”

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