Fictions on holocaust are often shocking because they depict murders by the Nazi prosecutions and cold-blooded massacre of Jews. Such stories are full of unsparing depiction of human sufferings and genocide to such an effect that, one fails to see perpetrators as humans, who used to be viewed as faceless entities that were programmed to commit murders.
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The book Götz and Meyer, written by David Albahari, tries to prove the fact that the perpetrators have a human face. It is emphasized that the protagonists in the novel, who are two Nazi drivers of the gas trucks, are not mere murder machines. The author humanizes the characters in order to present a different way of perceiving the nature of evil. Through the humor and empathy implemented in the novel, the characters that embody two Nazi soldiers are given human faces instead of the sole image of a murderer.
A nameless teacher from Belgrade narrates the story about the destruction of the Serbian Jews during the war. He was obsessed with reconstructing his family tree, therefore, he toiled endlessly in the archives to gather information, but failed miserably for he could find only a few members of his family while there were sixty of them killed.
The narrator says, “For me to truly understand real people like my relatives, I had first to understand real people like Götz and Meyer.” . The novel is about these two characters, who were Nazi soldiers, being unknown to the narrator though.
When the narrator begins his narration, he knows nothing about William Götz and Erwin Meyer except for their names: “Götz and Meyer. Having never seen them, I can only imagine them.” Initially he describes them as unknown people or characters as described in a tale. They were German soldiers, they were SS commissioned, who were assigned the duty of driving a large truck for a “special purpose”. Their duty was to drive the truck every day to and from the fairground in Belgrade. The narrator constantly repeats the following line, “Having never seen them, I can only imagine them” (1) in order to imprint their images in the mind of the listeners, as well as in his own mind. One might say the narrator plays a dangerous game by trying to understand the characters at the risk of becoming them.
At this point, one must note the importance of memory in the novel. Robert Eaglestone in the book The Holocaust and the Postmodern highlights the fact that “memory” helps to “evoke nearly everything there is to a person and to a society.” (74) Eaglestone also believes that the way “we remember the past” helps in framing our identity.
Like most of the Holocaust fictions, the narrator too is nostalgic of his destroyed past and tells the story from memory. However, unlike most Holocaust fictions, Albahari does not depict an ugly picture of the time. His stories deal with death, killing, mass murders in gas chamber, but they do not describe all the sufferings in detail to haunt the reader’s imagination of the Nazi carnage. Rather, the “memory narration” of the novel builds a humane figure for the two people who were Nazis.
Albahari describes the two protagonists, playing with children on the ground before they go back to work. He further underlines that both of them are married and worry about the children at home. One of them, maybe Meyer (again the narrator is unsure which one of them) is fond of children and like presenting them chocolates.
Now these children could easily be Jewish youngsters at Belgrade Fairground whom he had to transport in his truck. Such a scene shows that these two men were the victims. They were there to perform their duty, in reality, they were not monsters with evil eyes and poisonous fangs.
The narrator talks of the ambitions and desires of the protagonists. One of them, (again the narrator is unsure which one), wanted to be a pilot, and the other one has other dreams in his mind.
The narrator is often unsure how to differentiate between them, and often forgets to stress out who was doing some particular things in this or that scene, but these characters are not presented to the readers as caricature of evil villains. Rather, they are presented as individuals committed towards one task. The narrator describes the truck that the protagonists drive:
The truck was a Saurer, a five-tonner with a boxlike body, 1.7 meters high and 5.8 meters long … A full hundred people could stand in the back … During these trips, the souls became real souls, no longer human in form. Götz and Meyer most certainly knew what was happening in the back of the truck…After all, the people they were driving had no souls, that, at least, was a commonly known fact! Jews were nothing more than milder on the face of the world! And so, day in and day out, they would repeat their practiced routine.
This paragraph shows two protagonists in a bad light to the readers, showing that they were carriers of death to men, women, and children they carried in their truck and believed that they were soulless and faceless creatures. The routine involved the protagonists in the destruction of the Serbian Jews.
The novel shows a host of killings that were conducted by SS squads; they shot hundreds of people face to face. However, such mass killings made the German soldiers weary and took a toll on their morale. Therefore, a less personal means of massacre was employed through these mobile gas vans. For the first time, the readers view Götz and Meyer as murderers who helped in asphyxiation of many women and children in their truck.
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The narration of the killings makes the narrator more involved, he describes how the protagonists would drive the truck into the distance, and one of them would put the exhaust pipe into the truck. After that, they were never involved in killing. Then, the dead bodies were driven to the Serbian prison where the bodies were dumped. While this gruesome process is being put into effect, the narrator imagines Gotz and Meyer “chatting with their commander”, again enabling the readers to look at these two bearers of death as humans.
The memory of the narrator plays a major role in the description of the biographical or historical fiction, especially that of the Holocaust . This piece of fiction is also drawn from the memory, but the narrator is truthful enough to say that he has not met the characters Goth and Meyer, and therefore, he is obliged to draw from his imagination, which of course has been discoursed with stereotypes.
Individual memory exists in a collective form, adhering to the social norms and framework . For example, in the story, the memory of the narrator was reconstructed by events and incidents that had been externally infused in his mind by those groups that influenced his memory.
Consequently, it is obvious that he will embitter feelings towards the two German soldiers he describes. His imagination is bound to have the stereotypes, and Jewish constructs influence his description of the story as well as the characters. This has helped in humanizing the characters as well.
The novel can be called humorous due to the deadpan tone of the narrator, presenting the story to the readers in a satirical tone. This gives the novel an uncanny comical feature. Once the readers pick a book on holocaust, the prevalent stereotypes play in their mind and eventually they expect a horror story of human atrocities and sufferings.
The element of empathy and humor present in the story is evident in the way the narrator describes the two Nazi protagonists. In a non-committal voice, as if he was narrating the story of any other man, he described how Götz and Meyer were performing their work and duties. He tried to imagine these men, having with their personal lives, full of concerns and problems. The implementation of humor in describing an act of atrocity makes it more tragic .
Humor in holocaust fiction does not imply that the whole story becomes a “carnival”; what is strives to portray is a different perspective of life at the time when it seems it can only be filled with death . Presence of puns and double meaning in dialogues is the essence of Holocaust fiction that is reiterated in Götz and Meyer.
The episode when the narrator describes his untimely desire to itch in the classroom and the episode where he subsequently visits a dermatologist is full of dark humor. After school, the narrator visits a doctor to get the problem of his itching examined. The doctor inquires of any past complaint of skin disease in the narrator’s family. To this query, the narrator sarcastically answers, “Most of them died of poisoning” .
Another instance where the narrator presents a case of dark, double edged humor was when he asked his students to imagine a journey to the camp and when he tells one of his students that she will not be allowed take her pet to the camp. She then contemptuously says “Why, this is inhuman” . Even the protagonists Götz and Meyer are subjected to dark humor as the narrator, making them human as well as inhuman at the same time.
The story uses various tropes to show Götz and Meyer as humans. One of them is when the narrator directly questions the readers:
What kind of man would … consent to do a job that meant putting five or six thousand souls to death? I find it hard to give a student a bad grade at the end of the semester, let alone at the end of the year, but that is nothing compared to the way Götz and Meyer must have felt.
The narrator at once makes the protagonists human and the very next moment brings out the ugly side of their work. By comparing his work as a teacher and their job as killers, the narrator puts two juxtaposing professions to bring out the satire in it. Thus, through interplay of human and inhuman characters to demonstrate the protagonists, Albahari has actually made Götz and Meyer two ordinary men rather than Nazi soldiers.
Albahari, David. Gotz & Meyer. London: Random House, 2005. Print.
Eaglestone, Robert. The Holocaust and the Postmodern . London: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Pres, Terrence Des. “Holocaust Laughter.” Pres, Terrence Des. Writings into the World. London: Viking, 1991. 279-286. Print.