The Cho­sen Ones

Steve Sem-Sand­berg; Anna Pater­son, trans.
  • Review
By – June 29, 2016

In his pre­vi­ous high­ly acclaimed nov­el The Emper­or of Lies, jour­nal­ist, nov­el­ist, non­fic­tion writer, and trans­la­tor Steve Sem-Sand­berg deliv­ered a chill­ing por­trait of life in the Lodz Ghet­to dur­ing the four years it housed a starv­ing pop­u­la­tion of 200,000 Jews pri­or to its liq­ui­da­tion in August 1944. Through its epic scale and por­trait of an entire soci­ety, the nov­el ren­dered inti­mate and dis­turb­ing glimpses of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Hein­rich Himm­ler, Adam Czer­ni­akow (head of the War­saw Ghet­to Juden­rat, who even­tu­al­ly com­mit­ted sui­cide) and most par­tic­u­lar­ly Mordechai Chaim Rumkows­ki, whose auto­crat­ic rule in the Lodz ghet­to cre­at­ed con­tro­ver­sies debat­ed by his­to­ri­ans and ethi­cists to this day.

Now Sem-Sand­berg turns his fear­less gaze on a less­er-known evil, the ori­gins of geno­cide in the Nazi regime’s euthana­sia pro­gram Aktion T4 in Aus­tria. Some his­to­ri­ans claim that rough­ly 200,000 were mur­dered for the sake of the racial puri­ty and health” of Aryan cul­ture. As with The Emper­or of Lies, Sem-Sand­berg again makes unflinch­ing and har­row­ing use of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and tes­ti­mo­ny through­out The Cho­sen Ones. Graced by the author’s gift for express­ing the dark­ly absurd, the lengthy nov­el rest­less­ly inter­weaves a vari­ety of per­spec­tives on the hor­rif­ic real­i­ty at its cen­ter, mov­ing flu­id­ly between the actions, thoughts, and voic­es of its grip­ping characters.

The sto­ry begins in 1941 in Am Spiegel­grund, a chil­dren’s clin­ic in Aus­tria, which became part of the Nazi euthana­sia pro­gram dur­ing Ger­many’s annex­a­tion. The often labyrinthine nar­ra­tive unfolds through the alter­nat­ing per­spec­tives of Adri­an Ziegler, a ten-year-old patient from a dys­func­tion­al and impov­er­ished fam­i­ly, and Anna Katschen­ka, a wild­ly delud­ed and obe­di­ent nurse employed at the clin­ic. Over the course of his stay there, Adri­an wit­ness­es numer­ous chil­dren dis­ap­pear from their beds: in addi­tion to lethal injec­tions, some of his fel­low patients are the sub­jects of obscene exper­i­ments in encephalog­ra­phy” and hered­i­tary biol­o­gy.” Aside from those con­sid­ered irre­deemably unruly like Adri­an, the pro­gram also includes the dis­abled and ill.

Among dozens of oth­er trou­bling char­ac­ters brought to life in these pages, the most dis­turb­ing is sure­ly Doc­tor Jeke­lius (19051952) an his­tor­i­cal fig­ure respon­si­ble for send­ing over 4,000 patients to the gas cham­bers. He was lat­er cap­tured by the Red Army and sen­tenced to 25 years of hard labor in a Sovi­et labor camp, where he even­tu­al­ly died of can­cer. Shock­ing­ly, how­ev­er, Jeke­lius is not the worst doc­tor we encounter in these pages.

Adept at por­tray­ing his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties as he is at wit­ness­ing dis­turb­ing truths of the human soul, Sem-Sandberg’s unspar­ing prose expos­es the heart­break­ing hor­rors and tor­ments of this sys­tem of betrayed chil­dren, mur­der­ous nurs­es and doc­tors, and the usu­al unheroic bystanders, yet this nar­ra­tive is brim­ming with beau­ti­ful, even poet­ic lan­guage that ulti­mate­ly crys­tal­lizes and inten­si­fies the dour truth about the human con­di­tion. Sem-Sandberg’s mag­is­te­r­i­al and at times mer­ci­less nov­el is well served by trans­la­tor Anna Paterson’s sparkling and col­lo­qui­al ren­der­ing. One can only hope that this brave and impor­tant work will find read­ers every­where and per­haps also ignite many soul-search­ing dis­cus­sions in Aus­tria where his­tor­i­cal aware­ness is so long overdue.

Relat­ed Content:

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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