This Day in Jewish History / Novelist Who Taught Israelis About the Holocaust

Katzektnik’s ‘House of Dolls’ described the division of block 24 at Auschwitz, where, according to the author, Jewish sex slaves serviced SS men

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On May 16, 1919, Yehiel Dinur, better known to the world by his literary pseudonym, “Katzetnik,” was born, in Sosnowiec, Poland. Dinur, a survivor of Auschwitz who immigrated to pre-state Palestine, went on to write a number of novels that in the state’s early decades served as a vehicle for tens of thousands of schoolchildren to learn about the Holocaust.

Once he was in Israel, Dinur tried to efface all information about his pre-war life, as if to say that his life began at Auschwitz. What is known is that he was born Yehiel Feiner into a religiously observant family, that he studied at a Hasidic yeshiva in Lublin, and that as a young man he was active in the Orthodox-Jewish political party Agudat Yisrael. At age 22, he published a book of Yiddish poetry, all signs of whose existence he later tried to erase. (Dinur stole the lone copy of the book from the National Library in Jerusalem, burned it and mailed the ashes back to the library.)

During his two years in Auschwitz, 1943-44, Dinur was identified by the tattoo on his forearm, “KZ 135633” (“KZ” being the abbreviation of “Konzentrationslager” – concentration camp – pronounced “ka-tzet” in German). He wrote his first book, “Salamandra” (published in English as “Sunrise over Hell”), in Yiddish, during a period of less than three weeks, while being treated in a British army hospital in Italy, in 1945. When it was published in Hebrew, in Israel, the following year, it was under the name “K. Tzetnik.”

Over the next decade and a half, Dinur wrote several other books based on his experiences, most notably “House of Dolls” (1953), and “Piepel” (1961). The former described the “joy division” of block 24 at Auschwitz, where, according to the author, Jewish sex slaves serviced SS men. Dinur suggested that he had a sister, Daniella, who was forced to work in the joy division (the British band took its name from the section), and who didn’t survive the war. At least one historian, Tom Segev, has concluded that Dinur didn’t have a sister.

“Piepel,” for its part, was about sexual abuse of boys at the death camp; Dinur implied that it was based on the experience of his brother.

Only on June 7, 1961, when Dinur appeared as a witness at the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, did the real identity of “Katzetnik” become known to the public. In perhaps the trial’s most dramatic moment, Dinur had a nervous collapse after several minutes of testimony. In his brief statement, he suggested that Auschwitz was akin to a different world, a “planet of ashes,” whose residents “had no names…. They didn’t live according to the laws of the world here, and they didn’t die. Their name was a number...”

Years later, however, in an interview on the American TV news show “60 Minutes,” Dinur said he no longer understood the Holocaust as having taken place on another planet. He explained that his collapse on encountering Eichmann in court could be attributed to his realization that he was no different than the SS officer, that “Eichmann is in all of us.”

In 1976, after undergoing therapy that involved LSD, in Holland with psychiatrist Jan Bastiaans, Dinur wrote another book, “Shivitti: A Vision,” in which he described some of the memories that were apparently restored to him.

All in all, many of Dinur’s claims, about himself and about what he witnessed in the Holocaust, have been questioned by historians. And the luridness, even, according to some, the pornographic nature of some of his books, has meant that, despite the foundation that the author established to help distribute his books in Israeli schools, their place has been superseded by other texts, for example, the works of Primo Levi.

Yehiel Dinur died on July 17, 2001, at his home in Tel Aviv, at the age of 92.