The “Borderland”: Representing the “Third Realm” of Auschwitz in Literature and Understanding Trauma, Realism, and Modernity in the Concentrationary Universe

By Mirabella McDowell

“Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘the response’ to Auschwitz; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.”—Elie Wiesel


In his insightful essay “Realism in the Concentrationary Universe,” Michael Rothberg astutely references Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” which proposes, “that catastrophic events are generated from within a matrix of the everyday, and thus the extremity is just a particularly volatile mixture of quotidian elements” (117).[1] This profound concept encapsulates the monumental task authors, educators, philosophers, etc. are faced with in contemporary society when both confronting and representing the Holocaust, or “Shoah,” the inconceivable genocide and “relapse into barbarism” that has defined the 20th century and on (Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” 191). The challenge arises from the notion that “the concentrationary universe emerges as a contradictory phenomenon,” a Modernist project of unparalleled savagery and “universal coldness” unfolding in a time in which modern innovation, efficiency, technology, and essentially “civilization” was at a peak (Adorno 203; Rothberg “Realism” 116). Subsequently, the allegory of Auschwitz poses precisely the paradoxical conundrum that challenges the realm of typical modern literary representations and “genres” suitable for the “Concentrationary Universe”: on the one hand, “it is a place beyond the bounds of normality where ‘everything is possible’” and is an “experience impossible to communicate,” yet “those very extreme qualities reveal a sheer fact of the living, in itself, brutal, entirely stripped of all superstructures” (Rothberg 116). Thus, the Holocaust necessarily requires new modes of representation apart from traditional realist methods.

Two of the most well known Auschwitz survivors and prolific Holocaust writers, Charlotte Delbo and Primo Levi, are able to answer this call for new representation by inventing new forms “of narration to capture the trauma of genocide” (Rothberg, “Unbearable Witness” 114). In this paper, I will concentrate on Charlotte Delbo’s gripping survivor account Auschwitz and After and suggest that this novel ties together all of the aforementioned ideas: that it is precisely this “banality of evil” that Delbo (and Levi) struggles to express that consequently embodies the idea of traumatic modernity through constant repetition of ideas, thoughts, and events, ultimately signifying this return to and reopening of “the wound.” Furthermore, Delbo’s testimony demonstrates an example of “traumatic realism” in that it “seeks to produce a new understanding of history and a new vision of community by… disrupting the fetishized separation of the everyday and the extreme, the individual and history, then and now” (Rothberg, “Unbearable Witness” 145). I will further argue that while Delbo defies Adorno’s notion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” by providing a unique amalgam of poetry and prose that allows her to “freeze [the] horror,” her intended purpose of “they must be made to see” links her work back to Adorno with the primary concern of educating people after Auschwitz and making sure Auschwitz never happens again, raising the stakes of her work to be both “epistemological and pedagogical” and elevating her memoir to be of the utmost importance (Langer x; Rothberg, “Realism” 103). Ultimately, through the use of melodic repetitions, metaphorical language, and poetic prose, Delbo “invites us to see the unthinkable,” utilizing techniques that capture images of this borderland of bare life and of the homo sacer that epitomize this paradoxical third realm that distinguishes and defines the horror of the “Concentrationary Universe” (Langer xvii).

One of the most prominent techniques Delbo employs throughout her work is that of constant repetition of words and phrases, which reflects the idea that most, if not all, representations of the Holocaust have a traumatic structure, trauma being defined as “an event in the subject’s life defined by it’s intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization” (Laplanche, “Trauma” 465). As Rothberg confirms, “There is no gradual developmental progress in the working through of genocide,” and claims, “post-Holocaust history has a traumatic structure—it is repetitive, discontinuous, and characterized by obsessive returns to the past and the troubling of simple chronology” (“Modernism After Auschwitz”19). In accordance with these ideas, in her section titled “Thirst,” Delbo delves into the “obsession to drink,” and portrays the overwhelming, innate, and animalistic instincts that take control of a person who has been deprived of basic human needs (Delbo 71). “The thirst of the marsh is more searing than that of the desert” she contends, using a metaphorical description to evoke this feeling of the extreme condition that normal representation fails to convey, noting that while “reason is able to overcome most everything, it succumbs to thirst” (this type of metaphorical language is similarly crucial in Levi’s novel) (Delbo 70). While thirst is considered something commonplace, perhaps something we wouldn’t immediately recognize or acknowledge as a sensation potentially manipulated for torture or control, it is this deficiency of primal human necessities such as warmth, food, and rest that Delbo returns to over and over and indicates to be the cause of the “death” of her consciousness and humanity in the camps.

Likewise, this mechanism of producing musilmen, or as Levi puts it, “the drowned” or “the men in decay,” is precisely how the Nazis thrived, through this prolongment of their power by bringing prisoners to the edge of the “abyss” but not allowing them the solace, or perhaps the dignity, of death, as death would hinder the Nazis in exercising their supremacy (Levi 89). This means of absolute power, of willfully and knowingly reducing human life and consciousness to nearly nothing, exemplifies, too, Adorno’s notion of the “coldness,” the complete disregard for human life in favor of self-interest and reward from the institution (“Education” 203). “Reason no longer exercises control” Delbo repeats in an empty, detached voice, “Thirst. Am I breathing? I’m thirsty. It is colder, or less cold, I cannot feel it” (Delbo 71). This aching, powerful repetition demonstrates Delbo’s inability to abreact and “liberate” herself from the trauma, trauma which remains within her “like a foreign body,” as she returns over and over to “the thirst of the morning and the thirst of the day,” “the thirst of the day and the thirst of the evening” (Delbo 73, 74). Moreover, the everyday sensation of thirst when stretched to its utmost limits, a sensation so insurmountable it causes her “willpower to collapse” and for her to be reduced to “the full awareness of the state of being dead,” demonstrates the triumph of total power over the human being by the Nazis (Delbo 70). Levi generates this idea in Survival in Auschwitz as well, describing “an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen” engendering this image in which Delbo more indirectly, though just as effectively, describes through her “aesthetics of agitation” (Levi 90; Langer xvi). These ideas encapsulate the reproduction of a new type of modernist “society” within the camps themselves, with their own regulated power dynamic and systemized procedures that were meant strictly to oppress and dehumanize the prisoners, a mass example of reification. The ironic, ambiguous simplicity of the titles of each section—“Morning,” “Roll Call,” and “The Next Day,” for instance—are examples of synecdoche, of parts that represent the whole, and function in such a way that once again combines the ordinariness of routine, order, and the familiar with the extreme terror and torment each word conjures within the realm of Auschwitz (which is itself a synecdoche). Thus, Delbo’s intricate work, in its rethinking of space and time, not only “marks the invasion of modernism by trauma… by returning again and again to the space of the concentration camp” but displays the traumatized discourse of the survivor, reflecting the overall traumatic structure of both modernity and realism by bringing together the notions of the “everyday” and the “extreme” in Auschwitz (Rothberg, “Modernism” 21).

However, Adorno raises the idea that poetry, and by extension artistic production, is barbaric after Auschwitz because to represent something as momentous as the Holocaust with this type of language would, in some way, validate the culture that produced it; as George Steiner reflects of the “status of poetry and language” after Auschwitz, “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning” (Rothberg, “After Adorno,” 31). Yet, Delbo resists and refutes this idea by writing in a poetic prose that fundamentally “seeks visual images equivalent to the rhythmic phrases of sound” in order to “challenge our ability and willingness to see,” which enriches and enhances our understanding of the severity and paradox of Auschwitz (Langer xvii). A particularly poignant example of the ability of Delbo’s poetry to inimitably allow us to gain access to the inconceivable, and of expressing ideas of trauma and constant repetition, is found within one of Delbo’s poems in Useless Knowledge, which presents the lines:

“As far as I’m concerned

I’m still there

Dying there

A little more each day

Dying over again

The death of those who died” (Delbo 204).

This concept of continuously undergoing the process of dying, even after the victim has been displaced from the site of trauma, again represents an inability to abreact. Moreover, the juxtaposition of past and present in the poem leaves us in this “third realm” once again of living and dying, of being both dead and alive simultaneously and remaining in this “borderland” despite being physically freed. Through her broken, unpunctuated sentences that appear throughout the text, Delbo mirrors the experience of struggling to articulate her “deep memory” through “a genre of discourse” that exposes “the naked self divested of its heroic garments, a self cold, filthy, gaunt, the victim of unbearable pain” (Langer xiii). This irreparable brokenness and the idea of being the homo sacer, the individual “who can be killed but not sacrificed… because they’re defined as outside the recognized terrain of valued life,” are revisited again and again, causing the reader to catch a glimpse of “the unimaginable anguish leading to this death” (Agamben “In Theory”; Langer xiv). “I thought of nothing” she states, “the will to resist was doubtlessly buried in some deep, hidden spring which is now broken, I will never know,” a statement signifying the profound pain she endured that caused this traumatic break in her psyche, and therefore, a need for a new way of describing her post-Holocaust consciousness (Delbo 64). This capacity to allow the reader to see this individualistic memory and history of the Holocaust through imagery created by diction and form, yet to depict an alternate reality so corrupt and barbaric it is nearly unimaginable, embodies the idea of traumatic realism. Delbo thus unifies the individual and history as interconnected rather than separate, but also implicates the reader as a part of this history too, a history that is continually unfurling and whose importance lives on. Likewise, because in Delbo’s work, the “category of reality that it seeks to register and produce demands an alternate account of the relationship between writer, reader, and the event,” and there is “an attempt to produce the traumatic event as an object of knowledge and to program and thus transform its readers so that they are forced to acknowledge their relationship to posttraumatic culture,” her lyrical prose can be considered a form of traumatic realism (Rothberg, “Realism” 103). Thus, Delbo’s employment of stylistic amenities, such as anaphora, metaphor, and fragmentary language within her poetic prose serve to further illustrate her experiences with the atrocities of Auschwitz through this lens of traumatic realism, for Delbo “understood that before one could speak of the renewal of the human image after Auschwitz, one had to crystallize its disfigured form and the horror that had defaced it” (Langer xvi).

Finally, Delbo’s novel should undeniably be considered important for educating people after Auschwitz because it serves as a constant reminder of what has been, and what must never be again. Just as Theodor Adorno begins his critical essay “Education After Auschwitz” with the words, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again,” Delbo’s book “reminds us that the Auschwitz past is not really past and never will be,” imploring us to explore the causes of the event so that we may prevent them from ever happening again (Adorno 191; Langer xi). As a representation of the Holocaust, Delbo’s work embodies ideas of reification, repression, and the ideal of being “hard” mentioned in Adorno that contributed to this wound in modernity. Through its chillingly beautiful style and language, Delbo’s novel leaves a deep impression on the reader, constructing their historical imaginary and constituting the basis of their knowledge of what the Holocaust really means, and to whom. Therefore, by reading Delbo and understanding the Holocaust’s overwhelming effect upon modern culture, we can gain an astounding new perspective, avert any future existence of this “third realm” of bare human life, and use the past as a foundation to constantly be redeeming and bettering ourselves from so that the atrocity of the Holocaust is not for nothing—as Levi puts it, these stories of survival can become “stories for a new bible” (Levi 64).

Ultimately, Delbo’s representation of the Holocaust eloquently and articulately forces readers to directly confront the horrors, sorrows, and sufferings of life in Auschwitz and within the Concentrationary Universe. Through her painful repetitions, striking use of figurative language, and seemingly contradictory yet seamless utilization of prose and poetry, Delbo encapsulates the paradoxical nature of the Holocaust as the joining of the most banal with the most extreme, consequently reflecting both of the notions of traumatic modernity and traumatic realism. As Rothberg reminds us, “it was the combination of growing potency of means and the unconstrained determination to use it in the service of an artificial designed order, that gave human cruelty its distinctly modern touch and made [Auschwitz] possible, perhaps even unavoidable” (Modernism After Auschwitz, 21). Yet, Delbo’s memoir serves as a beacon of potential hope for the future, and as a consistent aide-mémoire for “those who came after her [who] might prefer not to think about it at all” (Langer xi). Thus, Delbo’s account demonstrates that there is no definitive, “right” way to represent or respond to the Holocaust, but that, in some way or another, it is critical that every work portray the notion that “Auschwitz should never happen again” (Adorno 203).



[1] Rothberg, Michael. “Chapter 4: Unbearable Witness—Charlotte Delbo’s Traumatic Timescapes.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. 144.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Education After Auschwitz,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford. Columbia University Press, 1967.

Agamben, Giorgio. “In Theory: The State and the Concentration Camp.” Ceasefire Magazine RSS, 7 Jan. 2011, Accessed 2 June 2016.

Delbo, Charlotte, Rosette C. Lamont, and Lawrence L. Langer. Auschwitz and After. Yale University Press, 1995.

Laplanche, Jean, Pontalis, J.B. “Trauma.” The Language of Psychoanalysis. WW Norton & Co, 1973.

Levi, Primo, S. J. Woolf, and Philip Roth. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Rothberg, Michael. “After Adorno.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.

–. “Modernism After Auschwitz.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.

–. “Realism in the Concentrationary Universe.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.

–. “Unbearable Witness: Charlotte Delbo’s Traumatic Timescapes.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.