Author Yehiel Dinur Dies at 84

Auschwitz survivor wrote about Holocaust under pen name of K. Zetnik

Author Yehiel Dinur, who used the pen name K. Zetnik, died last Tuesday of cancer at his home in Tel Aviv, at the age of 84. His family did not announce his death, at Dinur's request. "Father thought there was no public interest in knowing that Yehiel Dinur was dead," his son Lior told Ha'aretz on Sunday. "What is important is that K. Zetnik lives, and will live forever."

Dinur, a survivor of Auschwitz, was one of the first Israeli authors to write about the Holocaust. A whole generation of Israelis learned about the Holocaust primarily through his books: "Salamandra" (1946); "House of Dolls" (1953); "The Clock: Stories of the Holocaust" (1960); "Piepel" (1961); "Star of Ashes" (1966); and "Phoenix over the Galilee" (1966).

His work was translated into dozens of languages. His books contained detailed descriptions of the horrors of Auschwitz, including torture, cannibalism and sexual abuse of children. But he had a tendency to describe the horrors of Nazism as if they occurred "on another planet," thereby in a sense absolving mankind of responsibility.

Dinur appeared as a prosecution witness in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Describing his two years in Auschwitz, he said: "Time there runs differently than it does here, on the face of the earth ... Residents of that planet had no names. They had no parents and no children. They didn't dress as we dress here. They weren't born there and didn't give birth. They breathed according to different laws of nature. They didn't live according to the laws of the world here, and they didn't die. Their name was a number..."

But many years later, Dinur repented of his "another planet" thesis. In a lengthy television interview, he said that Jews were not killed on another planet, but here on this Earth, and that not God, but man, was responsible for this. With time, as Israel's cultural memory developed, there were those who opposed teaching K. Zetnik's books in the schools and even described them as kitsch bordering on pornography. Dinur himself worked throughout his life to distribute his books to schools, even setting up a multi-million shekel foundation that worked with the Education Ministry on this goal. But with the passing years, many schools preferred to teach the works of Primo Levi instead.

The mystery Dinur attempted to create around his death paralleled the mystery he created around his identity while still alive. Until his appearance in the Eichmann trial, his identity was a closely guarded secret. He had a custom of printing mysterious code letters at the beginning of his books, and to his dying day he refused to reveal what they stood for.

The revelation of his identity during the Eichmann trial apparently put him under great stress. At one point, speaking of the other prisoners in Auschwitz, he said: "They went away from me, they always went away from me, and always left me behind... I see them, they are looking at me, I see them..." When Judge Moshe Landau attempted to interrupt him and get him to answer the prosecutor's questions, Dinur suddenly collapsed, fainting, in what is today remembered as one of the most dramatic moments of the trial.

Even after his identity was revealed, Dinur refused to speak about his pre-Auschwitz past, as if he were "born" in the death camp. He concealed his previous name (Feiner), his date of birth (1917), his education in a Hasidic yeshiva and the fact that at age 22 he had published a book of poetry in Yiddish. When he learned that this book was in the National Library in Jerusalem, he stole it and burned it.

On the rare occasions when he explained his reluctance to discuss his past, he said he had no right to live except as a Holocaust survivor, and that all that had gone before had been destroyed. His pen name, K. Zetnik, was derived from the initials of the words "concentration camp" in German. But this concealment of his past sparked many rumors, and led some to doubt some of the details he gave of his life during the Holocaust years.

In the early 1970s, Dinur traveled to Holland to undergo a new and controversial treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The treatment involved receiving injections of LSD that caused him to enter a trance, during which he would describe his Auschwitz experiences and the attendant psychiatrist would videotape them. This treatment, he later said, revealed to him "the greatest horror of all": that by virtue of being human, he too bore part of the guilt. This led him to become active in efforts to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Ten years after his return from Holland, he described his treatment in the book "Shivitti: A Vision."

Dinur continued to write every day until two weeks before his death, and according to his son, he left much unpublished material behind. He is survived by his son and a daughter, publisher Daniella Dinur, and grandchildren.