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Into The Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 by Gotz Aly.
News and Opinion

A Face Once More: The Story of Marion Samuel
Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943.

-- Jesse Freedman

Before his untimely death in 2001, the German writer W. G. Sebald produced a series of novels in which he confronted – and ultimately redefined – the space between history and fiction. The success of Sebald’s novels, including The Emigrants and Austerlitz, owed much to his incorporation of photographs, “motionless objects,” he wrote, which bear witness to “time lost” and to the “pain of remembering.” Carefully selected, these images endowed Sebald’s characters with the weight of memory. “Things outlast us,” he noted. “They carry the experiences they have had with us inside them, and are the book of our history opened before us.”

Reading Sebald’s work has never been easy: the darkness of the Second World War permeates his novels, transforming them into desperate meditations on displacement and death. It is this darkness – the darkness of inhumanity – which figures prominently in the most recent work of the acclaimed German historian Götz Aly, who, like Sebald, approaches the Holocaust through a web of photographs and images. A haunting and memorable work, Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943, may read like a novel, but the story which it tells is as tragic as it is true.

When the German Remembrance Foundation awarded its annual research prize to Aly in 2002, little was known about Marion Samuel – for whom the Foundation named its prize – save the place and year of her birth, and the date of her deportation to Auschwitz. Information provided in the federal archives in Berlin, writes Aly, listed Marion as verschollen, or lost, but offered no other immediate insights into her life. Resolved to write a biographical sketch of Samuel prior to his acceptance speech, Aly turned to often abstruse sources – birth certificates, old address and telephone books, even inoculation records – in an attempt to provide his unknown victim with a “face once more.”

Born in July 1931 to Ernst and Cilly Samuel, Marion lived until 1935 in Arnswalde, a small town one hundred miles northeast of Berlin, located in what is today Poland. Increased discrimination against German Jews – discrimination which culminated in the Kristallnacht attacks of November 1938 – forced the Samuel family towards Berlin, where they sought refuge in what Aly describes as the “anonymity” of the city. For Marion and her parents, this anonymity was to be short-lived: within two years of their arrival, Ernst and Cilly had been enlisted as forced laborers (Ernst at Daimler-Benz), leaving Marion, whose right to attend school had been revoked by the Nazis in 1942, to care for herself. German records, which Aly reproduces in full, indicate that the Reich Main Security Office detained the Samuel family in February 1943 as part of a larger roundup aimed at the deportation of forced laborers. Cilly boarded a train to Auschwitz on March 1, 1943. Ernst and Marion followed two days later. Of the nearly two thousand Jews who accompanied father and daughter to Auschwitz, more than sixty percent were executed upon arrival. Very little, writes Aly, can be said of Marion’s final days: like her short life, these moments were marked by the fatal wrath of “state and societal violence.”

A writer of exceptional talent, Aly captures this violence with empathy and objectivity: Into the Tunnel, after all, presents the emotional history of a child robbed of childhood. But unlike Anne Frank (a figure not so unlike Marion Samuel), there is no diary: nearly all that is left of Samuel today are government records void of personality. And thus if there are moments when Aly appears detached, he never does so at the expense of what Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger has labeled “moral judgment.” Whether Into the Tunnel indicts the German people for the horrors of the Second World – or whether it focuses instead on Nazi leadership – is beside the point. It is Aly’s commitment to Marion, whose words to a classmate form the title for this unusually moving history, which defines his work: “People go into a tunnel in a mountain,” she said shortly before her deportation, “and along the way there is a great hole and they all fall in and disappear.”

Into the Tunnel is a dark, devastating book – one from which Marion’s bottomless, “almond eyes” often stare piercingly. And yet, in its unyielding dedication to the Samuel family, the book is one which refuses to be defeated. Compassionate and patient, Aly ultimately assumes the role of poet and detective, slowly uncovering the story of the girl with the “dark pageboy hairstyle.” Photographs of Marion provide insight into a life left unrealized, and allow for a glimpse into the “helpless, disappointed” faces of Jewish families resigned to oblivion. Here, then, is the somber magic of Into the Tunnel: in a story dedicated to one, Aly has resurrected the history of many. Aly’s greatest accomplishment stems from his recognition that from behind what Sebald once characterized as the “averted faces,” there lurk the faint, yet persistent, voices of the past.

Jesse Freedman is a member of the History Faculty at Friends Select School in Philadelphia.

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