A text for performance

In memoriam Walter Benjamin

"Human beings live emotionally on the surface with their surface appearance. In order to get to the core where the natural, the normal, the healthy is, you have to get through to the middle layer. And in that middle layer there is terror. There is severe terror. All that Freud tried to subsume under the death instinct is in that middle layer. He thought it was biological. It wasn't. It is an artifact of culture. It is a structural malignancy of the human animal. Therefore before you can get through to what Freud called Eros, you have to go through hell." - WILHELM REICH INTERVIEW 1952


For Nicholas Lathouris & Anna Zabawski


NOTE for performance:

Terrible Knowledge was originally written as a companion text to Ulrike Meinhof Sings (1983). I had in mind a duologue. Its first incarnation was as a filmtext in 1987. I have worked on it intermittently for five years, 'reading' the text in a performance environment. I wanted to have this gestation period for the work for moral as well as technical reasons. As with Ulrike Meinhof Sings I know I am going beyond the conventional norm for a monologue in every sense & it is crucial for me to test my transgression under the gaze of rigorous colleagues & audience. Clearly I am not dealing with 'character' but presence and given the material of this text I wanted as accurate a blueprint for performance as I could possibly construct. Each & every text has a time to utter & it has been clear to me for some time that I had reached this point with this particular text.


The final draft of this text was completed in Paris, France 1992



Excerpt 1






HEIMANN: There's rats in hell. There can be no doubt about that. Some of them were up in the air. All the time. They were confused. Yes. Certainly. Others served themselves. I remember his name. Chaim Bukowski. In the Great War. We made use of our Chaim Bukowski. We made him king over his people. That made him happy. He was master over his tribe. The chosen ones. Bukowski grabbed quickly the power we gave him. Power made him happy in his environment. Make no mistake. He was more sordid than I. I gave him power to be judge and executioner. He was the judge of high and low. He raised taxes. Coined money. This Bukowski surrounded himself with courtiers and flatterers. He had singers and poets dedicate their work to him. He commissioned homages to himself. What kind of man was this. He was a slave. Like the others. He was our slave. That's the simple truth. This man could not or did not want to understand his condition. On anything other than day to day business he had already closed his old eyes. He was good enough to command others but he was also chief amongst those we gave a good beating. Bukowski displayed all the pomp and ceremony of a head of state under his ridiculous beard. He struck off postage stamps with his own face imprinted on them. Our Bukowski appeared in public in a white coat and cap that he kept for his personal use. He had the power to arrest and pardon his subjects. This man interested me — not because he was rare — there were many Bukowski's — it was because he rushed to serve us quicker than we went to him.


I talked to this old fool over some ersatz coffee one night in what he would call his palace which was in actuality a small hovel in the ghetto. It was once the hall of a Roman Catholic Church I believe. He said his aim was to achieve peace in hell. He would say — my children, my slaves — I have a mission — to save the slaves in hell. This Bukowski had taken on the airs of an old prophet. He thought he was going to take them through every peril. He truly though this. When he was deported with the last of them — he was shoved into the cattle trucks like the most anonymous of his subjects. King of the chosen ones. Soon this tribe walked like ghosts. When they ended up in the camps they soon stopped walking. They were incapable of movement. Nothing mattered to them. They were without thought. They were without reactions. Without souls you might say. Strangely, their smell and sound I remember more clearly today than I did when I was there.


Body pyramid


It has taken me many years to remember those days. The others have tried to forget them. An old comrade who has lived here as long as I has shown me some films he had taken in the East. They built large pits for them there. There was no time to build monuments. They had to go about their business quickly and brutally. In this film they were running — running towards a pit as if they were going for a swim. I was there — in the East for a time — these mounds of flesh could be seen in almost every place our men had held firm. Mound after mound. Symmetry. Symmetry in Poland. Or the Ukraine. The same smell. The same sounds. These were almost perfect pyramids of flesh. The smell was overwhelming. The only way to eliminate this smell was by setting fire and turning to ash these little mountains. The flames jumped very high. I had never seen anything like it. This was a skyscraper of skin in flame. During the fires it began to smell of chicken. Rotting chicken. A sweet but powerful smell. It lasted a short time. In that moment it seemed to linger over the continent. God be with us — what a smell. I always felt a strange excitement when I was on site of these events. Watching some ancient and sacred act.


I spent too much time with papers. Numbers and dates. Timetables and deadlines. I spent too much time talking. But to be on site and see what those numbers meant. That was glory. It gave me a sense of myself I had not felt before — certainly I have only rarely felt it since. I'm not ashamed. One had to be there. We nearly rid ourselves of our misfortune in such a short time. Who, ten years earlier could even start to imagine how effectively we would deal with the problem. That's for sure. We nearly wiped Europe clean. Observing those neat pyramids — who wouldn't feel pride in that order. There hadn't been order articulated in this way for centuries. If ever. This flame we set up all over Europe.


We always had help from the locals. They were only too eager to help us with our problem. They had already drawn up their own lists of the ones who had to go. They added fuel to the flame. Sometimes they even started before we got there. Taking them from barns and attics. They would take the hunted and put them to the flame. Now these vermin join forces with their old enemies and lay all the blame at my door. Well, I didn't shrug off my responsibility then and I will not now. What do they really know of our task. Nothing. Nothing. My task began too late. Who would have dreamed we would get so close. So close to finishing off our problem. So many of them had entered our world when I was a young man. All seats of power fell under their sway. Rats who laughed in the face of our beauty. Thinkers, book learners the lot of them. At school these effetes would spend all their time in the library. A group of lads would often wait for them to run home and help with papa's business. So when they come out of the library we would jump out and give the little rats a hiding.


Seeing my father go to them with money it had taken him a long time to earn and he would always come back with next to nothing. I can still see him crying at the dinner table. I wanted them all gone then. These longnoses carried grief with them like it was an adornment. So many in our nation were caught up with them in one way or another. I could see this so clearly. I became a man who wanted to change the world. What a world. Men who had worked hard all their lives pushing a wheelbarrow full of money to buy food for the family. There wasn't enough. Families had their life savings go up in smoke. In one day. In one week. Well, the cause of our misery went up in smoke. In one day. In one week. I paid them back in full.


I worked once for these longnoses after I left school. I couldn't get a decent wage from them and while you were working you'd see them in a group all huddled up babbling away in an unheard of tongue. I worked for them for nearly two years. Selling furniture. I was a travelling salesman. I was a good talker and I made these bastards a pot of money. I was as good as them with my tongue. I had people buying furniture they couldn't afford to put in their shabby little houses. When the hard times came — they threw me out of work. On to the streets. They looked after their own. They threw me out. I'd made these rascals a handsome living from my talk. Threw me out. In those days there was ways to get back at them. I joined a political grouping. The national socialists. They understood our problem — our misfortune. They were active in the streets. That was the place I knew. Those who rule the streets rule the people. That was clear.


Nazi round up


I threw myself into political work with the same fervor that I had sold furniture. I was a young and healthy man and I had plenty to offer a political organization. I was a good man to have in the streets. We fought it out with the Communists and Social Democrats and anybody else who was game enough to do battle with us. In those early days a man who could use his fists could exercise political power. I learnt on the streets how a society functions. I had too much respect for government before this. I thought the old fools on high actually knew what they were doing. I lost that respect very quickly. It's true that the reds were pretty handy with their fists but their leaders would tell them one thing one day another thing on another. One day we were the enemy. The next day we were friends. Soon no one would face us in the streets. They all hid in their shops and houses. I also ran meetings with an iron hand. I was a staunch comrade and it was clear to the leadership that I was a man who could follow and administer their orders.


German SS Officer


It was quite early in the day when I was asked to join the S.S. When you are asked to join an elite organization you don't have to be asked twice. When I was asked to join everything formed in my mind so quickly. It was clear that as a country we needed a backbone. Our country was falling apart. It needed men like us to put it back together. Who else could have done the work? We had the political will to clean it up. There can be no suggestion that we did otherwise. We entered the fray with a fever. We were prepared to get our hands dirty. Who else would have been equal to the task? In the early days I made it my business to understand our enemies — our misfortune. I learnt their mongrel language. I made a point of going over their history. I laid my hand on all the magazines and books they produced on their cause. I was methodical in this. So methodical that my superiors noticed and knew what they wanted to do with me. They got me to write small studies on the yids for all manner of bureaucrats and to write notes on the question in handbooks for our soldiers. I was an authority. The others guessed and huffed their way around the question. Peasant superstitions held sway. Any old story was good enough for them as long as it cast the Jew in bad light. That wasn't good enough for me. I needed to know more. We needed to know more. If we were to rid ourselves of the problem — we had to set about the question very thoroughly. It was one way in which we could really do them some damage.


I don't mind saying that after a short time it had become an obsession with me. I'm sure some of the old comrades just thought that I was hunting for promotion but these same comrades were hungry to go to Palestine when the Party ordered me to go there. Who paid for me? Not the Party. The Jews. They paid for me to go there. Some of the smart ones knew what was coming — they wanted to set up there. A spiritual home. In a desert. I could help them. That's what I said. They knew the time would come. If it wasn't us it would be somebody else. I wanted to give them a little push. That was all that was needed in the first instance. A little push towards the sea. It was a botched trip. Travelled all over the Middle East. Except Palestine. Though I met some of their number who had already set up their suitcases on this continent. Typical of their race. Small people with big ideas though I treated them like gentlemen. They were going to conquer Palestine. You can have it I thought.


I was called back and thanked for my work. My superiors could see that I was on to something. I could see a political solution to our problem. I could see that if we allowed them to emigrate to the desert or some other sandy exile — we could make a great deal of money from them. Make them pay. They'd have to leave all their goods and chattels. Hand them over to their rightful owners. It had to be run well and I'm sure now as I was then that I was the only person to do the job. I had everything at my disposal. More so than some other comrades who were happy to get rid of them in any old way. No, I saw that there were more efficient ways.


When I came back I was sent immediately to Vienna to set up a Central Office for Emigration. We'd get them to pay their way out of trouble. Rich and poor they would have to pay to get out. I employed some of their number and they were happy to seek out their own. Together we'd work out what they would have to pay to emigrate. It was the best way. Early in the game it was better to be seen dispensing justice. We didn't want to appear to be savages. Those who instantly wanted to put the Jews to the torch missed the point. Throw them at the world. Watch the world throw them back. There would be time. Europe was falling apart. Any fool could see where we were heading. Only those who wanted to hide their heads failed to see what direction we would take. We were going to do the dirty work for the whole of Europe — that rotting piece of meat left out in the garden for the dogs.


In the beginning I stole ideas from their leaders. Took their ideas about creating a spiritual homeland. Turned it upside down. It had to serve our interests. Who in this world would have known? Who would have cared? No one said anything. Least of all the chosen ones. No they all held up their hands up like students in a yeshiva and said yes. Today these scoundrels lay the blame at my door. I'm the one who caused all their trouble. Yet they also had their hands in it from the beginning. I was a functionary and I had become an expert. Even they must admit that I expedited matters fairly quickly — concerning their welfare. My commitment to the work was beyond question. There were those who were offended by the zeal with which I took up these duties. Where are they now? These fools who imagined the affairs of state would leave them with clean hands. One, Dr. Muller, a superior who wrote of this and that deportation. A cultured man. He would write reports as if he were writing a novel. Muller always seemed so taken with the task that I decided he should visit a camp. One that was still in construction. We drove there and all the way there he spoke of the holy task we were performing peppering the conversation with quotes of our learned predecessors. How proud he was that he had been chosen to do this work. When we arrived at the camp we were treated to a large banquet by a vulgar little Bavarian who had been placed in charge. He said our presence was fortunate since that very day they were expecting a transport and all the chambers were now in full flow. Would we like to see it — he said? Of course — my superior replied. Wetting his pants at the thought. We watched as the transport was separated.


Auschwitz ghosts


Soon the selections took place. Broken up into those who still had a bit of work left in them and those that could go immediately? A doctor colleague with a riding crop just stood there picking and choosing. Those from the transports seemed unclear about what was happening to them. Though you could see in some of their eyes that they had grasped what was going on. These said goodbye to their friends and loved ones. You would have expected these people to break down. They didn't. Once they were chosen they set about their task single-mindedly. The ones who went to the washhouse marched in formation. We followed them. We sat in a cubicle which was installed so you could have a clear view of what was happening in the washhouse. The washhouse was very full now. Almost to the brim. They shuffled against each other. Cattle — I thought. They looked like they were at some religious gathering. They seemed to stare everywhere except at each other. The gassing began. People looked up as if they were seeking some sort of guidance. Some realized what was happening and they began to scream. It wasn't the type of scream. It wasn't the type of scream one hears at a car crash. It sounded almost operatic. It was a scream that sounded for all the world like it was being sung. It was like watching some perverse form of opera with a cast yelling and running at each other. A restrained pandemonium. People started to pull at each other. They were actually tearing at each other.

Pulling and pushing like the other person was a door through which they could get out of this place. This was all happening very quickly — I must tell you. It was happening very fast. But for my superior and I it was like it was happening in slow motion. The screaming was so voluminous that is sounded for all the world like some mad opera being performed by inmates at an asylum.


The showers Gas chamber


Then something very strange happened. People started piling themselves into heaps in the middle of the floor. They were going a bluish kind of colour. They were piling themselves into a perfect pyramid ripping at each other as they did so. This was a sight I could never forget. I was so taken with this sight. So in wonderment at the nature of human frailty that I had not noticed my superior was sitting there with his hands between his legs. Vomiting. He had vomited all over his uniform. He stank of the most wretched smell imaginable. There were tears in his eyes. I imagine from the retching he had obviously done. I tried to clean him up. I tried to talk to him. He was past speech. He could not be consoled. How a man could be involved in this work for so long — I thought — and only now see what it meant. Pathetic. I couldn't muster any respect for him after that but he kept on with business as usual. These fools who would bore you day and night recounting our triumphs as if they were waging the war single handedly from the office. It made me laugh. At times I had no escape from their imbecility. Their endless chatter.


Now this fellow runs an agricultural machinery business which has business with the European Economic Community and with Israel. He is a man of influence now as he was then. I read that he was involved in politics at a very high level. Heads some committee for the government on industrial democracy. Some of us came out of the war unscathed. Dust your jacket and get back on your feet. One didn't even have to change their history if they were important enough for the Americans. They used me in the beginning. I had kept exemplary records. They forgot about me soon enough. Muller, the old fool walks away from the war without a scar. I imagine he was one of those who profiteered after the war at the people's expense. Another irony. Those who ran the black marketeering after the war — highly placed officials and our misfortune. What was left of them? I cannot today even contemplate the poverty I saw then highlighted by the opulence with which the Americans paraded through our streets. Our people were left with nothing. Not even their homes. What homes still existed were lived in by the occupying powers. They treated us like we were so much rubble to be tossed over. Some of us had something to sell. Scientists were picked up in the first weeks. Americans left no stone unturned. It took them a short time to find all the scientists they needed. Our whole intelligence network went over to them taking all their files. We had warned them against the red hordes and now they were finally listening.


So many times during the war — I thought they should come to our side and we could fight the Reds together. Get rid of them once and for all. Stalin was as cunning as he was slow. Fooled the lot of them and ended up with half of Europe as his prize. We made that mistake. We underestimated them. We had to pay the price. He too picked off our best and took them back or set them up in the Democratic Republic. They all covered their own arses. They were all a little careful about their histories. I wasn't interested in covering myself. I knew what I had done and was proud of it. I knew that they wouldn't want to understand. They would use all my information just the same. Let there be no mistake about that. They could use a man who kept exemplary files and they could use what he had in his mind. The end — I try to forget — not because we lost but because our people acted so shamelessly in front of the conqueror. None claimed responsibility. They all blamed someone else. I was a repository of their blame. Heimman did this. He ordered that. I was only following Heimmans orders. My superiors were not too superior because they offered the excuse that they were following my orders. My name seemed to be on everyone's lips.


For Part 2 click HERE


Christopher Barnet

Christopher Barnet

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