Illustration Moa Thelander

Illustration Moa Thelander

Essays The missing of history in heritage H.G. Adler's novel The Wall

The property of the disappeared first becomes mere “things” without name, use, or status. Then they turn into museum artifacts of ethnographic, aesthetic, or historical value (at least those of them that are not stolen by the “conquerors” nor rejected by the experts). Then, again, with the collapse of the museum project, what used to be displayed as cultural heritage turns again into “just things”. They burden their custodians who only wish to get rid of them.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 52-57
Published on on December 30, 2019

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“… every transformation of the forgotten leads to error. No direction provides a reliable sense of things to come, and the roads of time continue to become lost in confusion; dreams gnaw away at them and mock the certainty of hours. Then there are no more hours, the realms of past and future are shattered, not to be recovered or put back together, nor do they lie agape before each other, for only a demented mind would still cling to the idea of them. The run of things is twisted and destroyed; there is nothing left to retrieve.”


This is a quote from the novel The Wall (Die Unsichtbare Wand) by Hans Günter Adler (1910—1988). Written in 1956 and then reworked several times in many attempts to get it published, the book only reached the German reading public in 1989, a year after the author’s death. The Wall is the concluding work in Adler’s triptych of Holocaust novels. Rounded up together with other Jews in Prague in 1940, Adler was deported to Theresienstadt where he lost his parents, then further on to Auschwitz, where his first wife was gassed, and then to Buchenwald. His days and works after the liberation were dedicated to the historical, sociological, and artistic reflection on these experiences and their aftermaths. As a writer of fiction, both prose and poetry, he was not very successful, at least not during his lifetime. All of these novels in the Shoah trilogy were published too late to become classics of the genre. Even nowadays, although the blurb on the English language paperback edition describes the novel as “majestic” and “masterful and utterly unique”, one still cannot say that its author has gained recognition as a creative writer. Panorama, the first novel in the trilogy from 1948, a story about a Jewish boy in Prague before, during, and after the war, was only first published in German in 1968. The Journey, based on his and his family’s experiences in Theresienstadt, written in 1950—51, was published eleven years later, in 1962, i.e., earlier than the first novel. The Wall, as already mentioned, had to wait for publication for almost 30 years.

However, Adler’s non-fiction writing was acknowledged already during his lifetime, namely his meticulously documented research of the Nazis’ administration of the mass extermination of the Jews.  His work was highly valued by Adler’s contemporaries like Adorno and Canetti, while Hannah Arendt used his material in her critique of the Eichmann trial. However, his books still remained practically unknown to international readers.

Even his masterpiece, the volume about the history, sociology, and psychology of the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp, a foundational work in Holocaust studies, Theresienstadt 1941—1945: The Face of a Coerced Community , a treatise of over 800 pages, was not translated into English until 2017 — even though Adler lived in exile in England until his death in 1988 and all of his books were written there. Adler’s name would have probably remained unknown to the general public had it not been for W. G. Sebald who wrote about the Theresienstadt book in his world-famous novel Austerlitz. In search of his family history, Sebald’s main character discovers Adler’s writing quite soon after Adler’s death (just like the reader of The Wall, too late). The reading of the Theresienstadt book proves for him to be difficult as if it were written in Babylonian cuneiform, as he unravels, syllable by syllable, the technical jargon of the ghetto’s bureaucracy and reconstructs in his mind the unimaginable reality behind it: “… such terms and concepts as Barackenbestandteillager, Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein, Bagatellreparaturwerkstätte, Menage-transportkolonnen, Küchenbeschwerdeorgane, Reinlichkeitsreihenuntersuchung, and Entwesungsübersiedlung.”

Yet, even though sanctioned by a literary authority like Sebald, Adler the fiction writer and the poet still remains largely unread. In the meantime, The Wall fits perfectly with the subject of the property of missing persons and how this property, once in the ownership of one group of people, with time transforms into cultural heritage collectively owned by an entirely different group of people who administer and manage the victims’ past for their own purposes and in their own interests. As a result of such re-appropriation, material monuments of collective memory remain — such as museums, for instance — but there remains, at the same time, no memory. Or, as Adler concludes, of the past “there is nothing left to retrieve”.

The novel is narrated on behalf of the main character, a returnee from a concentration camp, now officially categorized as a missing person. The book represents a meticulous investigation of this curious legal and bureaucratic-administrative status and the human condition it produces. It is a life of being existentially missing from the world of human relations, a reality gaping with an emptiness left after disappeared humans and destroyed families, surrounded by a chaos of missing bits and pieces that remained after.

On being missing as being missed (by no one)

After the war, the narrator, Herr Doktor Arthur Landau, lives a quiet humble life in emigration in a metropolitan suburb with his wife and children. In the opening pages of the novel and at the very end of the volume, we find him at the same moment of time: standing in his tiny garden, watering his plants, and struggling with a hallucination. In his daydreaming, two individuals, Mike and Brian, both pallbearers, come to him regularly to take him away and bury him alive. No one but Arthur knows about these visits. The novel consists of Arthur’s flashbacks, apparently chaotic and disjointed — now, he is back in his native city upon his return in the status of a missing person, looking for his missing family and property; now, after his return, he is at a museum storage facility employed as a keeper inventorying the museum’s collection of family portraits left after their disappeared owners; now, he is among the intellectuals in the Metropolis where he has moved hoping to start a new life and to do research. It is not always easy to make sense of these disordered and disjointed time frames.

Immediately after the end of the war, he is back in his native city, back from somewhere where multitudes have drowned and only a few were saved. It was from here that he and his family had disappeared some years before, without a trace of memory left behind them. Before the catastrophe, he had much that used to be properly his — his birthplace, his friends and neighbors, his family and home and all the property in it. Now, Arthur has to learn the truth about being a missing person — “missing” means, simply, “being missed by nobody”. Not only is property lost for the missing person, but also the missing person is lost for the world, never to be recognized or remembered.

A missing person — der Verschollene, as in the title of Kafka’s unfinished novel — is a 19th-century legal term and a euphemism for someone who disappeared traceless; someone whose death can only be legally declared based on indirect evidence, but can never be certain as an accomplished fact. The term belongs to an official classification assigned by the administrative system that does not know how to deal with someone who vanished — and then suddenly returns. Arthur is not real because he is present only in his physical and not his legal person. He realizes that being missing is worse than being dead; the dead have a closure, they can return, even though merely as proper names on official death certificates or grave stones. But what is proper to a missing person? Even his name is no longer his proper name. Missing persons do not come back; they remain suspended in uncertainty, without the fact of their being alive or dead ever being attested — or cared about. This is what Arthur argues in a conversation with a woman, a widow whose husband had been tortured to death by the Gestapo:

“With Arno (the murdered husband) it’s not as bad as it could be, Frau Meisenbach. The authorities at least let you know that he is dead. Terrible that he’s dead, and yet good that he’s dead, something certain around which different ideas can form. … [His] end is certain, it is recorded, it can’t be changed. …But how when there is nothing, neither an end nor a continuance?”

The structure of the story has the same pattern as a missing person trying to regain his missing life: a life that has no end (in both meanings of “end”) but without a continuation, too. It is this uncertainty that informs Adler as he writes his narrative. Having no structure, no organization — no Selbstverwaltung (self-management, self-administration), one could even say — its language unfolds in endless periods, without divisions into parts or chapters, without boundaries drawn between now and then, here and there, or reality and hallucination. Throughout the novel’s over 600 pages, the narration just rolls out like a roaring torrent to flood the reader. As a missing person, Arthur misses (or is missed from) time and space, and in general everything that is proper to man: a name, a fate, a death — was his life a fate at all? “For it was without name, and I was not at all certain if the nameless could have a fate.” Nor is he suitable for, or capable of bearing witness; apart from remaining legally a non-person, the missing person is also speechless:

If one (who is killed — I.S.) turns up and is there, then he will speak. But the condition of the missing who have gone away is that they are away, far away, not a word from them, even the place where they have been taken unknowable, whether they have been shot or poisoned and the bodies burned and the pulverized ashes scattered; no one wrote it down and preserved the names, because it is memory that has been murdered more and more thoroughly than a speaking life.

But even in the way of going missing, there is a gradation: a missing civilian ….

… is worse than the missing in action. A marked departure into the unknown. A war memorial will have a name that one can think about. But the ones I mean are never even allowed to be called missing. They are the non-missing, of whom there is no account. Completely and utterly done away with. Unwanted and therefore not missed. Disappeared, the loss of their memory met with derisive laughter. Released from all fates, expelled from the worst of fates. People who existed until a certain yet unknown date, then no longer, no longer people, not even dead people but, rather, nothing at all.”

Suffering missing knowledge

When once asked about the cause behind his amazing military successes, Napoleon is reported to have replied, “There is no fate [in this], only organization.” For the missing person, a person without properties (or property), there is no fate either — only the organization of the system that disappears, dehumanizes, and annihilates him. Adler himself was a great scholar of such organizations, a historian, sociologist, and psychologist of the 20th century political subject, “the administered man” in modernity’s most radical cases of administration, such as deportations, ghettoes, and concentration camps.  In his historical writing, Adler came forward with two principles underlying the management of human life in machines of extermination, Zwangsgemeinschaft (an enforced community, or a community of coercion) and Selbstverwaltung (self-administration). Zwangsgemeinschaft is an oxymoron reflecting the dark irony and ambiguity of human cohabitation under terror — communities in principle cannot be enforced but should result from the political will of their members. Similarly, Selbstverwaltung is the term to denote the very method that the SS applied to manipulate the Jewish Council in governing the ghetto, the object of Hannah Arendt’s analysis in her criticism of the Eichmann trial. This is another of those terminological inventions in Nazi social engineering, implying that the “administration” of the victims’ lives and deaths would be implemented by an authority elected and empowered by the victims themselves. The hypocrisy of such administrative euphemisms in the administration of life and death was fully transparent to all who had gone through the system — and appeared as incomprehensible as Babylonian cuneiform to the outsiders.

Herr Doktor Arthur Landau is also a master of euphemism. He comes to the Metropolis as an independent researcher working on “a study that I plan to call ‘The Position of the Creative Artist in the Age of the Large-Scale Social Organization That Threatens Culture’.”  However, the investigation by a missing person about administration, i.e., the apparatus that produces him as a missing person, is now subject to new censorship, this time from the lips of someone who is on Arthur’s side, a comrade in struggle rather than his imprisoner who shut him up earlier. This is a venerated colleague, the world-famous sociologist Professor Kratzenstein (modelled after a prototype who is believed to be Adorno). Professor Kratzenstein supports the project but does not believe in the ability of the victim to be “objective” as a sociologist. According to him,

Whoever was unlucky enough to have been condemned to such isolation, such a one couldn’t understand matters correctly, even if he was stuck in the middle of it. Because, as a result, not only had one lost contact with life; one had also lost the proper standards. … That I (Arthur — I.S. ) had been a witness to the catastrophe was all well and good, but I had long since lost any inherent right to research such material, rather than only be a part of it.”

Thus, it is no longer the system of Zwangsgemeinschaft but another one, that of objective social science, which confirms and seals the non-identity of the missing person as a missing one in the community of free thinking and reflecting, progressive individuals. “My convoluted sorrow”, as Adler described his own novel, is also a definition of the “convoluted sufferings” of his character — from one labyrinth he steps into another, in which a different system of principles deprives him of what is his proper, an ability of and a right to thinking, a critical reflection of his time and experience. Suffer he can, but reflection on the machines that produced his suffering is better left to others.

The property of missing persons

“Only one who possesses things can be.” Or, only one who is possessed by things can be. Things that belong to us define who we are as subjects. In this sense, we belong to them. In the world of missing persons, there are too many things compared to too few of those who have returned. People are missing while things are in excess — there are too many of them, not owned by, nor owning, anybody. Friends and neighbors do not recognize the returnee, but numberless strangers are leaving someone else’s property with him, cheap useful things, household items once left by the victims to those who remained to be kept until the owners came back. Like any other Tower of Babel, even the perfectly administered project of extermination cannot be complete, something always remains. Only the dead people’s memory is complete — for those who returned having “… only passed through … the extermination was not successful and therefore there is no complete memory. In short, memory is unattainable.”

Abandoned artifacts in their frightening overabundance also haunt the storage facility of the local museum where Arthur is employed to make a catalogue of the “collection” — in fact, a storage of looted goods from Jewish homes and religious communities. The “collection” is lying in chaos — the wartime museum (where the loot had been displayed) has been uninstalled, but the exhibits are still there. They are to be inventoried and re-installed in a new museum to represent a new narrative as dictated by the winners. Ancient cult objects, works of art, family relics, and other things of artistic, historical, or ethnographic value. However, these, too, belong to the economy of the “missing” — they are not owned by nor do they own anybody, not even the marauders. It is in the midst of these unowned valuable objects that Arthur finds a place to hide the worthless ones, those left to him by the good neighbors of the missing ones.

The prototype is the Jewish museum in Prague organized by the Nazis immediately after rounding up Prague’s Jews: the Nazis were, according to Adler, “well informed conquerors”, “the overlords” who

… not only made history; they also loved the old history and tried to conserve it .… Here the conquerors have provided an indisputable service. The living were killed, and their past in stones, images, books, and objects, as set down by their ancestors, was collected, taken care of, and brought to life.

Adler returned to Prague in order to work on the history of the Theresienstadt ghetto. When the ghetto was abolished, all documentation was transferred to the archives of the (former) SS Jewish museum, by that time also closed down by the new administration. While working there on his Theresienstadt study, Adler also researched this eerie institution. The SS project to museumify Jewish history and culture had been conceived and implemented at the same time as the living Jews of Prague were being robbed and deported right next to the museum’s medieval walls. Jewish property seized by the “conquerors” got stuck inside the “convolutes” of the scientific project of the Nazi Geistwissenschaften, whose institutional traces were now to be erased by a new Jewish museum being erected instead of the SS project. Thus, historical and aesthetic objects first lose their identities, then are assigned new ones, only to lose them again and to be reassigned anew in accordance with a new nomenclature. Owned by no one, they go through cycles of consecutive museumification, demuseumification, and remuseumification. Adler calls these agonies of memorialization “the transformation of the forgotten”.

Just as the ghetto, the SS Jewish museum was administered on the same principles of Selbstverwaltung. The perfectly systematized storage and informative displays that Arthur finds there were produced by Jewish museum experts and workers whom the Prague Jewish elders sent to work there under orders from the SS. These people performed their tasks as best they could and thus postponed, but did not escape, the common fate at the end. “… Most of the ones who worked here back then were hauled off. You know, of course, that the workers were not here of their own choice but were forced laborers. Only a few escaped being sent off …. ” “Hauled off”, “sent off”, “sent away”: without a destination and like inanimate objects, looted goods themselves rather than human beings.

History: the transformation of the forgotten

What is history? The director of Arthur’s museum knows the answer: “When it [an event] occurs but has already happened and is already over, then it is history. But, of course, it has to be designated as such at some point in order to be known.” Museums are means of designation — they stand there, with all the goods inside them, to put an end to historical events, to represent them as “already over” and thus to certify that what has happened is no longer there and can be safely forgotten. Yet Arthur, the missing person, cannot achieve closure so easily, “hanging between history and an event, a fragile condition.”

The museum is an institution whose techniques, routines, and competencies are effective in the transformation of the forgotten. In this case, the museum with all its treasures of cultural heritage evolves simultaneously, in parallel to, and out of the destruction of what it is supposed to historicize. Museum images — installations and exhibits — literally take over the lives, places, and narratives of the disappeared human beings.

Just like memories in the transformation of the forgotten, these artifacts — whether works of art, religious objects, or old pots and warm clothes from somebody’s household — also undergo a number of transformations. The property of the disappeared first becomes mere “things” without name, use, or status. Then they turn into museum artifacts of ethnographic, aesthetic, or historical value (at least those of them that are not stolen by the “conquerors” nor rejected by the experts). Then, again, with the collapse of the museum project, what used to be displayed as cultural heritage turns again into “just things”. They burden their custodians who only wish to get rid of them. Arthur inspects family portraits among which the museum selects pieces of higher market value; sometimes they have addresses of the last owners written on the back side (the orderly routines of the “conquerors”) to which they are not going to be delivered. People are expendable — which is “awful” (Arthur is told by one of the bystanders, an idealist young man) but such is life; everyone dies sooner or later. But with things, it is different, things need to be saved, “… things of value that are lost are irreplaceable. Burned-out galleries, Gothic domes, Baroque palaces — these are the true losses.”

In the final analysis, selected to be included in the “conquerors’” private collections, or to be displayed in the museum to represent the “conquerors’” cult of knowledge, or hidden in private homes, things were, indeed, saved — as distinct from their owners, who were not. Such substitution of things for people would become a recurrent motif in the novel — on the one hand, things standing as representatives and witnesses for dead people, but also things participating in a conspiracy against the missing ones, helping survivors to deny the traceless disappearance of the disappeared, both the fact itself of the disappearance and their own knowledge of the circumstances, the reasons why, and the faces of the perpetrators.

There will be no restitution, for there is no one to make a claim or to return the goods to. Yet for Arthur, it is not he who chooses the things he hides, but rather the things that want to be with him. This is a Nachlass, the true heritage — things that choose him and that he himself belongs to, that obligate him against his will. The museum is a proud institution of heritage preservation, the place where a new national identity and a new future for the liberated nation are being forged out of the destruction and oblivion of the very recent past. The museum becomes a mere parody, an evil travesty of Arthur’s own custody of abandoned and worthless objects; the new institution, in all justice capitalizing on property once already stolen and then abandoned by the robber. Galleries, Gothic domes, Baroque palaces, and other true losses were “saved” precisely because those who needed saving — the human beings who once populated and cultivated these domes and palaces — had been abandoned to their fates. As Arthur sums up, “We were not the ones to be sorry for, we only needed help. Meaning rescue … There was much too sorrow for us and too little help. Sorrow, compassion, and help that never came.” This is the truth that the new museum seeks to hide — a new forgetting following in the footsteps and reaping the material fruits of the Nazi destruction.

Saving, preserving, protecting: the end of history

“The dead are gone, crushed and scattered, but their things speak the language of the dead, and so it will be until we get rid of the things or the shadows that cling to them.”

How can one get rid of those shadows? Adler’s novel ends with an episode that evokes once again Kafka’s America, the unfinished novel about a disappeared man, a missing person. In his wanderings, Karl Rossler finds a place for himself where he feels wanted and no longer missing, the Natural Theater of Oklahoma, “the greatest theater in the world”, where there are jobs for everyone and anyone without an exception. At the end of Adler’s novel, Arthur’s hallucinated pallbearers take him away on a long journey at the end of which he finds himself at a conference organized by the International Society of Sociologists — that very scholarly organization on behalf of which Professor Kratzenstein earlier rejected his research. Now, the society is celebrating him, Dr. Arthur Landau, for his contributions to the sociology of oppressed people. The venue is a weird entertainment park where conference participants are entertained with various festivities and attractions, among which the most popular one is “the panopticon — the contemporary museum”. It implements an entirely new concept of museum science, better than the previous principle of selection by historical or aesthetic value. There is no selection — anything can be included in its collections. No more remainders, no more unwanted memories — literally everything will be consumed by the display. Complete utilization, nothing to retrieve in the past. A panoptical memory means there is nothing to remember or to revise, and no ownerless objects are to be left to rot in storage any longer, and everything is to find a significance for itself — a history of complete freedom that has “everything for anyone”. No longer objects speaking the language of the dead, no more things unable to find a purpose; whatever junk that was surrendered to Arthur by the uneasy keepers is now represented much more vividly, “free of dust, the frames repaired and everywhere useful labels that could not have been more informative.” In the park of entertainment with its panopticon, history comes to its end in the form of perfectly preserved and protected heritage. It is a totally transparent, fully available, visible, and knowable past, a past that in the panopticon will be forever saved from reflection, interpretation, and critique. ≈



  1. H.G. Adler, The Wall. A novel. Transl. By Peter Filkins. (New York : The Modern Library, 2015): 615.
  2. For Adler’s biography, see Franz Hocheneder, ,H.G. Adler (1910–1988): Privatgelehrter und freier Schriftsteller : eine Monographie (Wien: Böhlau Verlag Wien, 2009) and the recently published Peter Filkins, H.G. Adler: a Life in Many Worlds, (New York : Oxford University Press, 2019).
  3.  Die Juden in Deutschland. Von der Aufklärung bis zum Nationalsozialismus (München: Kösel, 1960); Der verwaltete Mensch — Studien zur Deportation der Juden aus Deutschland (Tübingen: Mohr-Verlag, 1974).
  4.  Theresienstadt. 1941–1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft, Geschichte Soziologie Psychologie. First published (Tübingen: Mohr-Verlag, 1955). In English, Adler, Hans Günther & Adler, Jeremy D., Theresienstadt, 1941—1945: the Face of a Coerced Community, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  5. Sebald, W. G., Austerlitz, (New York: Random House, 2001): 233.
  6. G. Adler, The Wall, 78
  7.  Ibid., 78.
  8. Ibid., 79
  9. Ibid., 79.
  10.  Both concepts are adaptations of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy. The idea of the administered world, die verwaltete Welt, was first introduced by Adorno and developed by the Frankfurt School. Adler’s theoretical work based on experience from inside the systems of such administration is of special interest. On theoretical work ”from within”, Irina Sandomirskaja, ”The Ghetto of Leningrad, the Siege of Theresienstadt: A Comparative Reading”, forthcoming.
  11. G. Adler, The Wall, 96–98.
  12. Ibid., 98
  13. Ibid., 218.
  14. Ibid., 186—187.
  15. Ibid., 394. On the SS Jewish Museum, see H. G. Adler, “Die Geschichte des Prager Jüdischen Museums.” Monatshefte 103 (2) (2011):161–72; Dirk Rupnow, “‘Ihr müßt sein, auch wenn ihr nicht mehr seid’. The Jewish Central Museum in Prague and Historical Memory in the Third Reich,” Holocaust Genocide Studies 16 (1) (2002): 23–53; Potthast, Jan Björn, Das jüdische Zentralmuseum der SS in Prag. Gegnerforschung und Völkermord im Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2002).
  16. H.G. Adler, The Wall, 169
  17. Ibid., 384.
  18.  Ibid., 385.
  19.  Ibid., 79
  20. Ibid., 188.
  21. Ibid., 518.
  22. Ibid., 606.
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