This Place Holds No Fear
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses holding your newborn for the first time or meeting the woman who will become your wife? For Heiner it is the 224 weeks he endured as a political prisoner at Auschwitz. What marks Held’s novel as an important addition to the large body of historical fiction about the lives of camp survivors is her exploration of Heiner’s psychological need to embrace his Auschwitz experiences rather than struggling to repress or overcome them.
The narrative begins in the early 1980s and skips forward and backward across what Heiner calls his “three lives” relative to Auschwitz—before, there (which “lasted forever”), and after. Raised in Vienna, Heiner joins the communist party at a young age and later, after the Nazis occupy Austria, he is arrested on political grounds, sent to Auschwitz and labeled R.U.—“Return Unwanted.” At Auschwitz Heiner does not shield himself from the daily horrors inflicted upon him and his fellow prisoners. He is determined to survive, to be a repository of the camp’s atrocities, and after the war to expose what he witnessed. Following the war Heiner fulfills the commitment he made to himself, publishing essays about survivors’ experiences and testifying as a witness at the Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials. But he never overcomes the guilt of not acting out, of failing to demonstrate his humanity by openly defying his captors at least one time during those years in captivity. The camp’s constant press on his consciousness, however, is more than survivor’s guilt. Heiner writes to a former prison-mate:
You seem to have made a proper grave for our past, a grave that you can visit, care for, and then leave. You commute between then and now, while I, to carry the metaphor further, walk around arm in arm with a ghost that I frighten people with. I can’t find a grave for this ghost, and, to be honest, I don’t actually want to bury it.
Heiner’s time in the camp is his identity, a painful legacy that constantly torments, but one that he cherishes. That time is inextricable from his person, at once a cancer that consumes his peace of mind and the source of his life’s meaning and purpose.
Heiner’s wife, Lena, is hurt by his preference for the past. “Pain forms a stronger bond than joy,” Lena comes to believe. She tries to create a quiet existence for Heiner and their life together as an antidote to the emotional and physical trauma that he endured. But Heiner needs his past more than he needs Lena, and she is jealous of his memories. She can recite by heart all of the details of Heiner’s and his friends’ oft-repeated stories of life at Auschwitz, but she will always remain outside, able to empathize but incapable of belonging to the experiences that Heiner has placed in the center of his life. Heiner suffers vocally, persistently; as a consequence Lena, too, suffers, but in silence. The author evokes the stress of this implacable situation on Lena and the marriage in finely felt descriptions that, under Posten’s artful translation, reveal Held’s unpretentious and confident writing. And although the novel’s content is heartbreaking Held never exploits her readers’ emotions with language that is overwrought or designed to shock.
In the novel’s last section Heiner and Lena have moved to a small, North Sea village on the recommendation of Heiner’s doctor. Suspecting that one of the villagers, a recluse, is a former SS officer, Heiner feels compelled to confess to him the guilty feelings he carries regarding his passivity at Auschwitz. It is a poignant coda to Heiner’s life that, forty-five years after the war’s end, the demarcation between victim and perpetrator has become less, not more clear to him.