I've read over the years a few histories of various facets of the Shoah and a fair few first-hand accounts by people who were trapped in the ghettoes and the death camps and upon reading them was always left with a blanket depression and the question of how this could have happened; I knew full well that the suffering, the mass murders were real, that they did indeed happen but I didn't feel an immediacy in these books that might have removed the psychological cushion sparing me from feeling the horror at deeper levels.
Then I read Kl Auschwitz Seen by the Ss, a collection of three statements written by SS men brought to trial for having worked in the camps. These accounts by the criminals themselves for some reason had that immediacy, snatched away the cushion, and made me feel the reality of it all rather than simply acknowledging it intellectually. In seeking more information on that book, I came across a mention of this one; again, it's derived from contemporary documents, almost all of them written by Nazis and again, I had an almost visceral reaction to it.
Transcript is described as a concrete poem; it isn't, in the strictest sense, though layout of the poem is relevant. Every word in it is taken from lists--of belongings, of regulations, of the dead--and from notes, directives, reports on doctors' experiments and on interrogations, and similar material. Backer omitted, repeated, and rearranged (in that he was much influenced by the Vienna Group) and appended notes/bibliography but that's the extent of his intervention.
A pity there's no 'look inside' for this book to give an idea of the distinctive layout and, much more, of the content. One page lists parks, gardens, and squares: it was only gradually and with growing dismay I realised what that list referred to. Another page contains only one line: 'this is my last letter and i'm letting you know that i was shot on september 1st at six o'clock'. A page might show only a list of numbers or a collection of acronyms (explained in Backer's notes) or it might offer a description of Hitler's typical breakfast.
The starkness of the presentation here is what allows the content to strike a reader full-force; as the afterword notes, description can stand in the way of reality, and referring to something as 'unspeakable' can stand in the way of our ever trying to know it. Backer shows us the reality of a man-made hell and compels us to dwell there for a time. Highly recommended.
4 1/2 stars