Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer is a long stream of conscious meditation on history and historiography. In this novella, we visit the mind of an unnamed Holocaust survivor living in Belgrade. This survivor hid with his mother during the war, so he did not have direct experience with the worst of what happened to most of his extended family. Consequently, the narrator is obsessed with learning about the eponymous Götz and Meyer. Götz and Meyer were the SS soldiers responsible for killing most of the narrator’s relatives between 1941 and 1943.
Götz and Meyer begins in a straightforward fashion. Our narrator combs through records at Belgrade’s Jewish Museum and bribes family members for names and memories. In his research, he comes across the names of Götz and Meyer. These two SS soldiers drove a truck that was fitted to redirect exhaust into a sealed compartment, poisoning anyone in that compartment with carbon monoxide. Sadly, but perhaps not surprising, our narrator is able to find more information about Götz and Meyer, statistics about the camp where his family were interned, and the carbon monoxide trucks than about his actual family members. This is the cruel thing about history. Documents are saved at the time because someone thought they were valuable or because of orders or because of pure chance. What historians and genealogists and researchers want later is based on purely on a capricious decision.
Over time, our narrator becomes untethered from his reality. His research has gotten to him. He often imagines what Götz and Meyer said or thought or did. Sometimes he even imagines that he is Götz or Meyer. Because he is a literature teacher, our narrator is used to using his imagination to fill in gaps. The problem is that he has no one to ground him in the real world.
Towards the end of the book, there is an extraordinary sequence in which our narrator takes his literature students on a field trip to the place where the concentration camp was, just outside of Belgrade. He assigns each student the name of a victim (much like the US Holocaust Museum does) and tells the students a story about what might have happened to one of his relatives. The trip is deeply affecting. The students completely succumb to the narrator’s story, weeping and gasping as the narrator tells them about what happened in the carbon monoxide trucks. To a large extent, the narrator succumbs, too.
Götz and Meyer investigates the great unknown about the Holocaust. Only survivors knew what it was like to be in the camps. Everything the rest of us know comes from documents, interviews, films, and other secondhand sources. We can never know what it was like, but we keep coming back to the question because we want to understand the greatest crime in human history. Götz and Meyer explores this question in a unique and disconcerting manner. The stream of conscious style works extremely well to convey the deep emotional upset and compulsion to study the Holocaust some of us have. I’ve never read anything like Götz and Meyer. And I kind of hope I never do again. This book makes emotional distance impossible.