Stories Out Of The Silence

The Germans succeeded in creating a world of organized absurdity," Franco Schonheit, an Italian survivor of Buchenwald, told American writer Alexander Stille in 1986. Schonheit maintained he never wanted to tell his story, but when Stille called, out it came: prisoners forced to count out the lashes they were given, and, if they missed, having to start again; prisoners forced to shout out their five-digit numbers at open-air roll calls-which could last six hours and, in winter, kill a hundred people. "How can you learn something from an experience of this kind?" said Schonheit. "That's part of the reason I never talk with my children about it; those experiences teach nothing. They belong to a world of the impossible, outside the sphere of ordinary humanity."

If there's a common thread in the testimony of Holocaust survivors, this is it. Because it made no sense, there's no sense talking about it; yet they talk about it because they can't keep silent. Stille's Benevelance and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (365 pages. Summit. $25) isn't the most harrowing book of Holocaust memories: Mussolini's anti-Semitism was halfhearted, and Hitler got a late start in deporting Jews from Italy. But it is gripping-lots of hairsbreadth escapes-and inspiring: heroic clergy and laity, Jewish and gentile, abound. And its theme is still the dissonance between the world as sane people expect it to be and the world the Nazis made. As they killed Jews by the thousands, the president of the Rome Jewish Community was shocked that Germans searched his synagogue with no warrant.

Italian Jews were particularly slow to grasp what was happening to them because they had been so well assimilated. Many, in fact, were loyal fascists, and during the rise of German Nazism, Mussolini had ridiculed Hitler's obsession with racial purity. Even Italy's own racial laws, which in 1938 excluded Jews from public employment and public schools, left what Stille calls "a small window of hope for those eager to delude themselves": the laws exempted Jews who could present impeccable fascist credentials. Among the most deluded was the prominent Jewish fascist Ettore Ovazza of Turin, who even masterminded a 1938 attempt to burn the offices of a Zionist newspaper in Florence to ingratiate "patriotic" Jews with the regime. Ovazza was murdered by Hitler's SS in 1943.

Stille, a former NEWSWEEK researcher-reporter, keeps himself out of his book after noting that he owes "both my name and my existence to Mussolini's racial laws." His father, a writer, left Italy in 1941 and married an American woman; the family name was Kamenetzki, but the father wrote as "Ugo Stille" after Jews were forbidden to publish in 1938. In German, Stille means, "silence." Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, on the other hand, is as important a character in Maus II: A Survivor's Tale (136 pages. Pantheon. $18) as his father, a prisoner in both Auschwitz and Dachau. The subtitle, in fact, is ambiguous: Vladek Spiegelman somehow survived the camps to become an endearing yet maddeningly manipulative father; his son somehow survived him.

When the first volume of "Maus" appeared in 1986 nobody had ever seen anything quite like it: a comic-strip Holocaust in which the Nazis were cats and the Jews were mice. The comforting artificiality of an animal cartoon worked both as savage irony and as a nearly transparent surface through which human horror could be imagined. It won Spiegelman a modest degree of celebrity, which occasioned the predictable crisis of confidence-which Spiegelman duly makes part of the story in "Maus II." "My time is being sucked up by interviews," the mouse-masked Spiegelman tells his mouse-masked psychiatrist. "But even when I'm left alone I'm totally BLOCKED. Instead of working on my book I just lie on my couch for hours ... Auschwitz just seems too scary to think about. .."

But Spiegelman does get his father's story on tape (though Vladek would rather complain about his second wife) and into his book: the beatings, the gas chambers, the mass graves. "And those what finished in the gas chambers before they got pushed in these graves, it was the lucky ones," his father says, over cartoon panels showing heaps of mouse-corpses and still-living mice shrieking among flames. "Prisoners what worked there poured gasoline over the live ones and the dead ones. And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better." All the layers of irony-the comicstrip format, the animal faces, the self-referential frame-story--can't soften that.

Nor, of course, does Spiegelman intend to. The attempt to exterminate an entire race using the techniques of mass production is so far off the scale of normal human experience that conventional narrative seems inappropriate. Indeed, it's a truism among academic Holocaust scholars that the "final solution" can't be adequately described or comprehended. Which hasn't silenced survivors-or scholars. In "Maus II," when Spiegelman is working through his cartoonist's block, the shrink himself suggests there's already a glut of Holocaust books. Spiegelman readily agrees, quoting Samuel Beckett's statement that "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness." But after thinking a bit, he adds, "On the other hand, he SAID it." "He was right," says the shrink. "Maybe you can include it in your book."

Illustration: Cat got his tongue? Spiegelman suffering cartoonist's block (ART SPIEGELMAN)