'Otto Dov Kulka sees the point of having a choir. Without activity, life would have been even closer to unendurable.' Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
I am writing about a very short book, which could take no more than a couple of hours to read and no more than a lifetime to digest. As its author, Otto Dov Kulka, says: "I am … aware that these texts, though anchored in concrete historical events, transcend the sphere of history." It is a historian's memoir of Auschwitz, without sentimentality and almost without outrage, since it is an examination of a place where all human reactions are inadequate.
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is told in vignettes. Here is one I take to be central: a boy sits playing a tune on a harmonica. Another child comes up to him and asks if he knows what he is playing. No, he replies, it was taught to me six months ago in a camp that no longer exists. Kulka, who was the harmonica player, continues: "He then explained to me what I was playing and what we sang there and the meaning of those words. I think he also tried to explain the terrible absurdity of it, the terrible wonder of it, that a song of praise to joy and to the brotherhood of man, Schiller's Ode to Joy from Beethoven's ninth symphony, was being played opposite the crematoriums of Auschwitz, a few hundred metres from the place of execution, where the greatest conflagration ever experienced by that same mankind that was being sung about was going on at the very moment we were talking and in all the months we were there."
In one sense this terrible absurdity and wonder cannot by their nature be explained. Absurdity and wonder can be revealed and their ramifications expounded, but they cannot be made to make sense; they can't be reduced to any explanation. The same is true of death – except that in Auschwitz death made all the sense there was. Death was, as Kulka says, "The sole certain perspective ruling the world."
So why did Imre, the conductor of the children's choir in the family camp at Auschwitz, teach his charges Ode to Joy? What was his purpose? What was his point? Kulka sees the point of having a choir. Without activity, life would have been even closer to unendurable. But why, he asks, did Imre have the children perform a hymn, a manifesto that proclaims human dignity, humanistic values and a faith in the future "in the place where the future was perhaps the only definite thing that did not exist"?
One answer – and clearly the one that all respectable opinion must favour – is that this was a message of hope. Imre (himself gassed on 8 March 1944) knew or hoped that some children might survive, that some might be able to start rebuilding civilisation, and that to do so they needed the noblest things that European civilisation has made: Beethoven, Schiller and Dostoyevsky (another inmate, dying of diphtheria, passed on to Kulka his copy of Crime and Punishment).
This, Kulka says, is one possibility, "a very fine one" in fact. But there is another, apparently far more likely. The transmission of music, and of literature, of all that is best and most noble in our civilisation, might also be, he says, "an act of extreme sarcasm, to the outermost possible limit, of self-amusement, of a person in control of naive beings and implanting in them naive values, sublime and wonderful values, all the while knowing that there is no point or purpose and no meaning to those values."
He will not say which of these alternatives he prefers and when. He oscillates between the two interpretations, as perhaps anyone must who has really considered what human evil means. The most he will say is that the nihilistic approach of sarcastic despair might be the more "authentic". He is careful not to call it the most "realistic", for to concede that would be to render life impossible. That might not make a difference in Auschwitz, where life for the inmates was supposed to be – literally – impossible. Outside it, though, belief in ideals and in idealism makes a real difference. But once the facts are known, the suspicion becomes ineradicable that ideals, and idealism, are only a fraud.
The point is not the trivial, nasty and almost blasphemous question of whether humanism or religion can be blamed for Auschwitz – neither can – but whether humanism is credible in the light of the way that humans behaved there. Why should we regard our species as magnificent or capable of glory? The question haunts the rest of this short book, although it is itself an overpowering testimony to the human love of truth.