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“When I Was on the Other Side of the Railing”: 
The Subversion of Nazi Language in
Life with a Star and Austerlitz

Alice Holbrook


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Many either forget or ignore the fact that when Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933, the Nazi Party had already gotten control of the Reichstag, or German Parliament, by democratic means. In July 1932, the party won 37 percent of the German vote, more than any other party in the running (Bergen 50). Neither the Nazis nor Hitler seized control of Germany – they were given control of the country by the German people, and, in order to achieve this, had employed traditional political techniques, like propaganda. In their propaganda and subsequent policies, the Nazis in effect invented their own language, which both legitimized and disguised the full extent of their agenda. Jirí Weil’s Life with a Star and W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz deal with this particular aspect of Nazi power and brutality. In both novels, the main characters are among the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime: Weil’s Josef Roubicek is living in Prague during the Nazi occupation, and Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz is a small child who is spirited out of Prague on a Kindertransport. Despite professing not to comprehend the Nazi occupation and the language that accompanies it, both Roubicek and Austerlitz evidence a great understanding for Nazi language in the ways that they are able to manipulate it. Roubicek and Austerlitz manage to use conventions of this language to subvert its underlying political ideology–Roubicek by addressing the Nazi’s fondness for euphemism, and Austerlitz by adopting the Nazi’s use of list making.     
    It is not unbelievable that one could, especially on a practical level, fail to understand the ways in which Nazis used language to achieve their ends. The system of repression and genocide that the Nazi’s language was used to legitimate was so deeply unreal for many that the logic of its manifestation in words was also hard to grasp. In Life with a Star, Josef Roubicek seems to deliberately misunderstand or simplify the significance of many Nazi policies, including and especially the compulsory wearing of the star. Josef describes the star first as something he “[doesn’t] particularly care for” (Weil 64), which seems a gross understatement given the horrifying implications of making oneself immediately visible as a Jew at this time. But Josef also insists that the word printed on the emblem is incomprehensible to him, saying only of the star: “It was yellow and had a word in a foreign language written in black scraggly letters” (64).  Josef does not specify what the word is. Nor does he specify later, when his work crew is sent to paint anti-Jewish notices on the streets of Prague:
In the blue beam of a flashlight we walked from corner to corner, dipping our brooms into white paint and painting over the white pieces of paper, full of writing, posted on fences and billboards. There was too little light for us to make out what was written on them. But in the faint gleam of the policeman’s flashlight I made out a single word. It was my word; I remembered it well. (71)
In fact, Josef asks the rest of the crew, “I wonder what was on those posters” (72). Josef’s ignorance in this case can hardly be taken at face value. Given the rest of the novel, in which, as we will see, Josef’s professed ignorance hides a sharp perception of Nazi language and how it works, we can read Josef’s lack of recognition as more of a symbolic deficiency than a literal one: that Nazi language makes no sense to Josef on a metaphysical level is translated onto the literal level for emphasis.
    Whereas Roubicek’s denial of understanding seems to serve a symbolic purpose, it appears more literal in Austerlitz, though not without a symbolic dimension. Austerlitz’s birth mother, Agáta, expresses a very real bewilderment with the way Nazis refer to Jews. In one scene, Agáta receives a proclamation stating that, in the event that she disobeyed a regulation regarding the disposal of valuables, “Both the Jew concerned in the transaction and the person acquiring the property must expect the most severe of measures to be taken by the State Police.” Agáta responds: “The Jew concerned in the transaction! […] Really, the way these people write! It’s enough to make your head swim” (Sebald 176). Perhaps Agáta objects to implication that the entirety of a Jew’s identity can be articulated in a single word, and that a Jew is distinct from a person, or one who is human and can expect to be treated as such. All of these conditions are contained in the document without being explicitly stated. The repetition of this theory of the Jewish self, in proclamation after proclamation, might create the additional tension of identity conflicts, in addition to confusion about the Nazi’s intentions for the Jews.
    Austerlitz, too, seems confused by German, but moreso the language alone, without even its distortion by the Nazis. In one passage, Austerlitz comments on the predisposition of German language itself to obscure. On reading a book about the development of the Theresienstadt ghetto, Austerlitz says:
I might well say it was almost as difficult for me as deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text.[…] The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unraveled syllable by syllable. When I had finally discovered the meaning of […] Barackenbestandteillager, Zusatzkostenberechnungsshein [… ] I had to make just as much of an effort to fit the presumptive sense of my recollections into the sentences and the wider context […] in its almost futuristic deformation of social life, the ghetto system had something incomprehensible and unreal about it, even though Adler describes it down to the last detail in its objective actuality. (233, 236)
Unlike Roubicek, German literally makes no sense to Austerlitz, who finds that their compound words, due to the effort needed to translate each part, in fact impede the work of deciphering them. While this characteristic of German could conceivably be intended to create greater understanding through its astonishing specificity, it can also be exploited to make meaning more ambiguous. Nazis could take advantage of this feature of German, as they did the “pseudo-technical jargon” to which Austerlitz refers. The Nazis used their own scientific language–like the term “Aryan” which does not describe any actual race (Bergen 37)–in order to create the illusion of impenetrable scientific knowledge or expertise. Their shoddy explanations of the reality behind these terms (37) may have been rendered in hopes that their readers would take their truth for granted, the way people may simply skip over words they do not know in novel, assuming that they are unimportant. Simultaneously, these explanations could be used to create legitimacy for Nazi principles of science, which were actually, as Austerlitz reveals, pseudo-science at best. Like these clarifications which are not meant to be translated in their implication, Austerlitz finds that the concepts behind these German words do not, at least for him, add up to a comprehensible whole. The reality which they describe, though demonstrably real, does not take convincing shape for Austerlitz. It is so far from the reality that he knows that its existence seems impossible, and thus impossible to understand.
    Theorists frequently debate whether it is the tendencies already present in the German language, as well as German culture as a whole, or modernity itself and the conventions and language thereof that allowed the Holocaust to occur. While Life with a Star espouses no clear opinion on the subject, preferring to engage with the subject in more abstract terms than allow the assignation of causation or blame, Austerlitz and its characters seem of the opinion that there is something particularly German about the Holocaust, something that no other culture would or could have carried out. Vera, Austerlitz’s childhood nanny, describes the warehouses holding the stolen Jewish goods as full of “abandoned objects […] itemized separately with that thoroughness peculiar to the Germans” (Sebald 180). She believes there is at least something in the German character, as Austerlitz implies there is something in the German language, which predisposed them to these acts.
    This idea, Sonderweg, is supported by critics citing numerous nineteenth century thinkers who credited Germany with a unique culture among Europeans, creating a “German spirit” based upon shared historical experiences and influences of the Thirty Years War and Lutheranism, among others. Sonderweg merely inverts the ideas of these thinkers, positing that Germany’s difference was actually an aberration in the West, causing the German spirit to consist of “authoritarian[ism], [nationalism], romantic[ism], irrational[ism], [and] illiberal[ism]” (Rabinbach 53-4). It also relies upon the idea that anti-Semitism in Germany was particularly fierce–that, in the words of philosopher Emil Ludwig, “Jews [were] forced to immigrate along with the applause of the German people” (58). In short, Hitler and his policies could not have prevailed anywhere else, at least not to such a violent degree.
     On the other hand, philosophers like Max Weber are believed by some to have, if possible, predicted the Holocaust with their critiques of the alienating modern lifestyle and its aspects of “secularization, technical rationality, and moral uncertainty” (52), which
were the byproduct of the modern drive to technical  mastery and control, substituting technology, administration, and organization for moral responsibility. The very success of modern industrial society in substituting pragmatic and rational criteria for transcendental values […] leads inescapably to the subordination of ends to means and a generalized erosion and paralysis of judgment. For this reason, the crimes of Nazism can be situated well within the mainstream of European modernity and its ideal of the healthy body. (52)
Theorists use the rationality of the Nazi approach to genocide, including their expert use of bureaucracy, death camps with factorylike qualities, and “desk killers” to support this view (52). According to these theorists, the Holocaust was the logical product of the West’s historical trajectory, “Not the antithesis of modern industrial and technological civilization, but its hidden face, its dialectical doppelgänger” (59). In this vein, Nazi use of terms like “liquidation” as a replacement for “murder” (Friedlander 110) can be traced not to German history but to modern history, and its contention that characteristics that made good business, like efficiency and productivity, also made good people. The conflation of business and people without a moral underpinning could be seen as a precursor to Nazi ideals, methods, and the language used to express both.
    While the Nazi Party took control of Germany democratically, using language as propaganda in the process, it expanded militarily. Czechoslovakia was Hitler’s next target after the annexation of Austria in March 1938 (Bergen 83). The German army first entered the country later in 1938, in response to complaints by ethnic Germans in a portion of the country known as the Sudetenland that they were mistreated by the Czech government (85). Czechoslovakia itself was only created after the end of World War I and was still politically and economically weak when Hitler came to power (19). Though the Czech government ceded the Sudetenland to Germany in September of 1938 in order to avoid further hostilities, Germany invaded the rest of the country in March of 1939, incorporating some portions into the Third Reich and creating a colonial relationship with other parts (85-6). Czechoslovakia was part of what was called the “General Plan East,” which called for all territory between Germany and the Ural Mountains to be “Germanized,” home to 500-600 million members of the Aryan master race. Though originally, the architects of this plan hoped that all inhabitants of these areas could be dealt with so Germans could move in, it later became clear that the current German birthrate could not fill this area in the time allotted. To this end, Nazis proposed taking certain “racially valuable” children away from their parents to Germanize them. Some population planners estimated that up to 50 percent of Czech children could be Germanized. This plan did not apply, of course, to any Jews (162-3). Czechoslovakia’s Jews were sent to ghettos, such as Theresienstadt, and finally to labor and extermination camps like Auschwitz and Dachau.
      It is in this position that we find the characters of Austerlitz and Life with a Star. In Austerlitz, Austerlitz’s mother, Agáta is transported to Theresienstadt in the late autumn of 1941 (Sebald 176), shortly after its creation in the November of that year (Weil ix). Prior to her transport, Agáta was subjected to a number of anti-Semitic regulations, including one that confined the forty thousand Jews of Prague to the use of a single post office (Sebald 172). Although the date of Austerlitz’s departure is left unclear in the novel, research places the Kindertransports in 1939, before the outbreak of World War II. Since many countries, like the United States, placed severe restrictions on the number of asylum seekers they would accept from the Nazi-occupied territories, Britain was often the end of the line for Jews leaving the continent. Organized by private citizens, the Kindertransports moved approximately ten thousand Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to new homes with British families (Bergen 137). Though due to the lack of detail in Roubicek’s account, it is difficult to place the events of Life with a Star in terms of years, the references to Jews being “taken away” from the earliest parts of the novel suggest that its action might begin around 1941 or 1942, near the opening of Theresienstadt.
    The transports on which Jews were “taken away” were referred to as Sondertransportien, one of the famous German compound words which serves to hide what it actually signifies. Meaning literally “special transports,” the name for the cattle cars, intended to make the treatment of the Jews seem humane to the uneducated reader, is an example of the infamous Nazi use of euphemism (Friedlander 110). Sonder was a particularly useful prefix in this Nazi language, preceding words like behandlung (treatment) and aussondern (selection), both of which ironically described the fates Jews or other so-called undesirables that were to be gassed. These types of euphemism were part of what critic Henry Friedlander calls the Nazi’s private language, their “bureaucratic, hidden language, the language of the technicians” (103). Just as the Nazis espoused pseudo-science in their pursuit of genocide, even their private communications contained pseudo-truths and manipulations of language (110)–though the Jews did experience “special treatment” in the sense that it was outside of the norm, it was not special in the ordinary sense, that is, connoting something that is good. Other notorious euphemisms included “protective custody,” meaning the detainment of prisoners in concentration camps (Bergen 66), and “reduction” or “removal,” nonspecific terms which described the relocation of Jews to camps in which they were to be enslaved and probably killed (162). In time, Friedlander notes, even prisoners at concentration camps incorporated these euphemisms into their vocabularies (Friedlander 111). Through a combination of misuse and understatement, the Nazis hoped to use their euphemistic language to fool any outsiders, including perhaps those that would someday compile the historical record, into believing that they were extraordinarily benevolent toward even the racially impure.  
    Josef Roubicek, despite repeated insistence that he does not understand Nazi language and policies, proves the opposite. As we have seen, the Nazis used euphemism to conceal the enormity of their violence against Jews and others. Josef takes advantage of the Nazi tendency to misrepresentation in order to show the real policies behind Nazi language. His deceptively child-like descriptions of the everyday brutality of Nazis are a calculated effort to do this to its greatest effect. For example, Josef uses the extended metaphor of a circus and the animals that perform in it to depict the lives of the Czech Jews. By way of describing the transports to Terezin and the death camps, Josef says:    
The winter that year was mild, but it didn’t help the people in the circus much. They still froze on the straw in the wooden pavilions. Some of the transports were sent east, while others were sent to a fortress town where a menagerie had been set up. A person was very lucky to become an animal assigned to this menagerie, but only a few people managed to stay in the fortress town. The rest were sent to the east. That town too had its circus; there too one had to walk a tightrope without a safety net and jump over high hurdles. (Weil 115)
Reading this passage in isolation, one might plausibly think that Josef truly has no idea what the Nazi occupation has in store for him. The general lack of specificity–who sends the people east? where, precisely, are they sent?–might seem to indicate a lack of knowledge. However, Roubicek does understand the seriousness of the situation as he makes this comparison. He recalls his childhood experiences with the circus:
When I watched the seals pushing a ball with their snouts I didn’t know it was a bad thing to be an animal in a circus. It never occurred to me that it was something seals did not usually do. […] But when I myself was to perform in the circus, I didn’t like to remember the sound of the whip and the cries of the tamers. […] I knew an awful lot about the circus when I was on the other side of the railing. (105)
Josef’s veiled way of explaining Nazi tyranny may serve a very practical purpose. When Nazis began to occupy countries and took over their governments, they passed laws banning speech that criticized the new Nazi authority, which were enforced through rigorous self-policing (Bergen 76). As a document meant to replicate the experience of a Jew during the Nazi occupation, Life with a Star must necessarily in some ways comply with Nazi language and in doing so, use euphemism.
    Yet, Roubicek subverts even this law through his use of this comparison. Unlike Nazi euphemism, which is not meant to be interpreted, Roubicek’s euphemism is intended to be transparent. His subject matter, that of people as animals, illuminates rather than obscures particular elements of the life of a Jew under the Nazis. Jews were, in fact, treated like animals–perhaps worse, because, as Josef remarks at one point, “The Ten Commandments now applied only to [actual] animals” (Weil 116). And the Jews were intended to “jump through hoops” for the Nazis, so to speak, that is to accept their subjection to numerous unreasonable and inhuman rules and regulations. There is also the sense in which the Jews do perform for the Nazis in that many accept the rules rather than going into hiding or joining the resistance, although the Nazi force, like the cry of the tamers, is intended to compel them. As animals in a real circus, the Jews of Czechoslovakia could choose not to perform, but through the slow erosion of their rights, they have been trained. Josef’s euphemism, while it is not meant to be taken literally, contains grains of literal truth which are intended to be marked and understood for what they are.
    Like the Nazi forms of euphemism, the lists Nazis compiled, or forced local Jewish Community Centers to compile, are now notorious. Austerlitz includes an example of one of these. Entitled “Verzeichnis der als Sonderweisungen bezeichneten Arbeiten,” or, “Index of those designated for special work directions,” the page goes on to list certain work details Jews could be expected to perform (Sebald 238). These obsessively detailed lists, dealing with anything from the confiscation of possessions to the transportation and extermination of human beings–the initials “SB,” or Sonderbehandlung, next to a particular prisoner’s name on the rosters of Auschwitz meant that that prisoner had been sent to the gas chamber (Friedlander 110)–were a feature of what Austerlitz’s former nanny, Vera, calls the particular Germanness of the Holocaust’s execution. On these lists, as indeed with many ordinary lists, each name or duty corresponds to a number, and these numbers became the camp inmates’ identities. When Vera recalls the day Agáta left on a Nazi transport, she remembers that “there were men and there were women, families with young children and solitary figures, there were the elderly and infirm, ordinary folk and those who had been well-to-do, all of them […] with their transport numbers round their necks on a piece of string” (Sebald 178). Vera speaks of the numbers as, in a way, an equalizer–those of both high and low social status had to wear them. But in a more sinister way, the numbers stripped away all pieces of the Jews’ identities, leaving them with nothing. Josef Roubicek also affirms the menacing function of numbers, saying, “People had left or disappeared. Some people poisoned themselves or jumped from high buildings. But that did not alter any accounts; one number was simply replaced by another. People had numbers and transports had numbers” (Weil 109). Roubicek’s description points to the devaluation of the Jews’ humanity through the use of numbers and lists. Both humans and transports, objects, had numbers, and humans were valued as objects in this system. One was as good as another. Reduced to being “Jews,” inmates were then reduced even further, to numbers rather than words. Used for practical purposes, to keep order, the inmate’s numbers also served to further the process which the Nazis began when they invaded a country and which ended when they killed a Jew – that of dehumanization.
    Jacques Austerlitz, despite his difficulties in comprehending the idiom and reality of the Holocaust, is also able to deploy Nazi conventions of language in order to subvert their original purpose. While Nazis used lists to simplify, Austlerlitz’s lists go on for pages, until they are barely recognizable as such. Often in the text, Austerlitz’s descriptions of events, which could be described in traditional narrative fashion, take the form of lists. These lists are then strung together, as in the following passage describing the contents of the evacuation orders Agáta received:
Where and when the person summoned must present herself, what items of clothing were to be brought–coat, raincoat, warm headgear, earmuffs, mittens, nightdress, underclothes, and so on–what articles of personal use it was advisable to bring, for instance sewing things, leather grease, a spirit stove, and candles; the weight of the main item of luggage, which was not to exceed fifty kilos; what else could be brought in the way of hand baggage and provisions; how the luggage was to be labeled, with name, destination, and the number allotted to her; the proviso that all the attached forms were to be filled in and signed. (Sebald 177)
Among Sebald’s shorter examples, this particular list is nevertheless emblematic of how Austerlitz uses Nazi list making as a device to humanize rather than dehumanize. Unlike Nazi lists, which reduced people to numbers and eventually, often, to corpses, Austerlitz’s lists are meant to bring people and their experiences back to life by fleshing them out rather than reducing them. The overwhelming length and detail of the lists in Austerlitz gives the reader the sense of the confusion Agáta feels when she says of the long lists of Nazi bans, “I do not un der stand it! I do not un der stand it! I shall ne ver un der stand it!” (172). While in most books this list passage could be chopped up into at least five or six sentences, Austerlitz’s sentences quite literally resist being separated and compartmentalized, tendencies of Nazi language which Austerlitz shows can be challenged within the very device they utilize. The exhaustion of reading such a passage, particularly aloud, gives even a physical manifestation of the extent of Nazi control. In addition, the character and number of the details listed in Austerlitz–the underclothes, the spirit stoves, the sewing things–show a determination to record even the smallest indignity, the most trivial insult and embarrassment. Austerlitz shows that lists, rather than instruments of destruction and eventual forgetting, can revive memory as if in life, and work as a legitimate historical record of the Nazi’s atrocities.
    Though the Nazis could pass proclamations outlawing certain types of language, primarily those that criticized or undermined the Nazi’s regime and agenda, they could not outlaw the use of what was effectively their own language, deployed stealthily against them for purposes they could not have forseen or intended. In doing just that, Sebald and Weil, through the characters in their novels, prove what Virgina Woolf, in her essay “Craftsmanship,” calls the property of words “not to express one simple statement but a thousand possibilities” (Woolf 200). Though Nazi language intended to narrow the possibilities for its victims, Sebald and Weil prove that language cannot be controlled, and its use, though mandated by law, will never succumb to organization by any power. Through this venture, Austerlitz and Life with a Star suggest that because of this property of words, writing about the Holocaust may not be as impractical as some may contend. Words, according to Woolf, will always “combine unconsciously together” (Woolf 202), and in the process, create “echoes […] memories […] associations” (203). Words are infinitely flexible. If they have been abused by the Nazis in the past, their meanings manipulated and reduced finally to digits, these same words–“special treatment,” “protective custody”–now carry the associations given to them by their use in Nazi language. In other words, each of these words, though used for ill, can now be used for good because it carries within it the history of its past uses. Words will accommodate the story of the Holocaust as well as every other experience through their capacity to be vessels of memory.







Works Cited
Bergen, Doris L.  War and Genocide: A Concise History of the
Holocaust. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2003.
Friedlander, Henry. “The Manipulation of Language.”
The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide.
Ed. Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton. Millwood, NY: Kraus International, 1980. 103-113.
Rabinbach, Anson. “‘The Abyss That Opened Up Before Us’:
Thinking About Auschwitz and Modernity.” Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century. Ed. Moishe Postone and Eric Santner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. 51-66.
Sebald, W. G.  Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York:
The Modern Library, 2001.
Weil, Jirí. Life with a Star. Trans. Rita Klímová with Roslyn 
Schloss. Evanston, IL: Northwestern U P, 1989.
Woolf, Virginia. “Craftsmanship.” The Death of the Moth and
Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942. 198-207.