Massaging Himmler: A Poetic Biography of Dr Felix Kersten by Anne M Carson…reviewed by Geoffrey Zygier

December 12, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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In the first two decades following World War Two, it was rare for Holocaust survivors to publicise their experiences – and of course, their persecutors had every reason to keep their mouths firmly closed.

This silence was not confined to those who had been personally involved; it appeared there was a tacit agreement that scholars, the media and general conversation stay away as far as possible from this atrocity.

Following the publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews in 1960-1, however, public opinion began to change. The growing interest in inquiry was exemplified by Theodor Adorno’s 1966 statement: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”. This was in stark contrast to his famous dictum from 1949 that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. The floodgates had opened and the trickles of information about the Holocaust became a steady and ever-increasing stream.

Many years have passed. Next year will see the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two and a day seldom goes by without some public reference to the Holocaust. Today it is just as crucial that this information continues to be disseminated. This is not because Jews seek the world’s pity, nor because we believe it will stem the hateful acts carried out against us. (Indeed, the opposite is true; ironically now the Holocaust has become just another weapon in the armoury of certain Jew haters.) Rather it is because the Jews are a people whose traditions honour justice, memory (particularly those of our people who died Al Kiddush Hashem) and the bearing of witness.

Melbourne’s Hybrid Publishers share this view. Its diverse output includes a commitment to writing about the Holocaust. According to Louis de Vries, one of its directors, it is company policy – a moral imperative – to keep memory of the Holocaust alive. To this end, Hybrid has recently published Massaging Himmler: A Poetic Biography of Dr Felix Kersten by Anne M Carson.

Initially I was hesitant to review a biography of someone about whom I knew nothing by a Melbourne author also unknown to me. Even more daunting was the fact that Massaging Himmler was written in free verse. However permit me to say straight away that I’m very pleased that I took on this task.

Author Anne Carson is a former social worker who decided to “refresh” her working life by taking on more creative pursuits. More than 20 years ago she came across an earlier biography of Felix Kersten in an op shop. “It was an Oscar Schindler-like story …. Why didn’t we know about him? He had achieved incredible things. But he was also an ordinary human, flawed like the rest of us. I knew I wanted to retell his story, but in a fresh manner.”

And this is what she has done, in six chapters made up of numerous brief poems (generally less than a page) in various voices or identities. Most are the imagined words or thoughts of Felix Kersten, while the remainder is the observations of other significant characters from his life. Anne Carson’s poetic approach flows simply, yet beautifully and generously, providing a comprehensive and compelling narrative of an individual’s life in a terrible era. Carson supplements her poems by providing lexicons and notes at various stages in the book that very deftly illuminate the characters’ statements. Readers should be aware that some of this material is not for the faint-hearted. However it is absolutely necessary, not only to underline the brutality of the Nazi regime but also for an understanding of how language was an essential tool in their (or any) totalitarian program.

So who was Felix Kersten, the subject of this gripping biography? Born in a Baltic German family in the last years of the 19th Century, Kersten studied to become a therapeutic masseur. He was a natural healer who quickly became professionally and financially successful. His large clientele included many influential members of European society. Settling in Berlin, Kersten’s skills and reputation eventually brought him to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, the fervently antisemitic commander of the S.S. and a key architect of the Holocaust.

Himmler suffered from severe stomach pains. Kersten’s treatment proved to be very efficacious, leading to Himmler’s “request” that Kersten become his personal physical therapist. In this position, Kersten became privy to information about the Nazi regime’s reign of terror and horror. After the War’s end, Kersten was to write that he had reckoned that his healing skills had destined him to use his new circumstances to save lives. Thus, by fostering Himmler’s dependence and trust in him, Kersten was able to persuade the former to obtain the release of allegedly thousands of prisoners.

It’s an intriguing tale and Carson tells it well. Felix Kersten was clearly an enigmatic and complex character. Carson is not reticent about alluding to some of his less savoury traits, including a whiff of Fascism and a thoroughly unpleasant gluttony. Was Kersten really a humanitarian or perhaps just a man on the make, playing off both sides with one eye on saving himself and another on how history would judge him? It does seem that he was responsible for saving many Jewish and Gentile lives (including Louis de Vries’ aunt, Belia Hartog de Vries), though as to how many is a matter of debate. And while Kersten was the recipient of post-war awards for his humanitarian work, it is also true to say that this wasn’t without some nagging doubts. In this context, it is interesting to note that Yad Vashem has not yet designated Kersten as a Righteous Gentile, despite a number of nominations.

But Massaging Himmler is more than an engrossing story about one individual manoeuvring himself through exceptionally difficult circumstances. At the end I found it a probing and illustrative study of a horrifying time, offering a deep understanding of how easily people can be manipulated to connive in atrocious crimes. I commend Anne Carson on this finely written book and hope that it reaches a wide readership.

Massaging Himmler: A Poetic Biography of Dr Felix Kersten (Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne 2019) by Anne M Carson

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