From Deportation to the Laocoön, an Archival Fiction: Hans von Trotha’s “Pollak’s Arm,” Translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer

By Saskia Ziolkowski

It is difficult to resist the desire to report some of Ludwig Pollak’s history and legacy before discussing Hans von Trotha’s Pollak’s Arm. The novel itself elicits this response: a work of archival fiction, it incorporates substantial historical research and embeds epistemological problems into its narrative, highlighting the gap between our knowledge and the experiences of its characters. In Pollak’s Arm, Pollak recounts his story to a man who then reports it to Monsignor F. who may type it up. As a subset of historical fiction, archival fictions not only underscore historiographical gaps but also layer time periods, undercutting notions of grand narratives and progress. As with other successful archival fictions, the reader finishes Pollak’s Arm with some unanswerable questions: in this case about the Austrian art dealer, museum director, and archaeologist Ludwig Pollak (Prague 1868-Auschwitz 1943), who found the arm of Laocoön in 1906, four-hundred years after the discovery of the famous sculpture grouping itself, and was deported from Rome to a Nazi death camp in 1943, well before the arm he discovered was reattached to the sculpture.

In the novel, the man delivers his report of attempting to convince Pollak to come to the safety of the Vatican before the infamous roundup of the Roman Jews that is described in Giacomo Debenedetti’s October 16th, 1943 (1944) and Elsa Morante’s History (1974). Like these two important works, von Trotha’s novel (2021) investigates Rome during the war as well as reflects its own time. The novel sheds light on a figure who, despite having met Gerhart Hauptmann, J.P. Morgan, Auguste Rodin, Richard Strauss, and multiple popes, is at the margins of central narratives. Descriptions of the 1943 deportation have focused on the Roman ghetto and Italian Jews, not figures such as Pollak. Von Trotha’s exploration of Pollak fits with current attention to transnational experiences that have remained untold because of how national boundaries frequently drive historical narratives. Pollak’s Arm is also a novel that assumes knowledge of the horrors of the Shoah, which remains in the background until the last pages of the work, although it hovers threateningly throughout the conversations. 

As ever fewer people who lived through the Second World War remain with us, the idea of testimony is shifting. The novel opens with the importance of bearing witness: “Giving a personal account. That was something Pollak kept repeating. That we all have a duty to give a personal account. He kept stressing the importance of telling our own stories, passing them on” (2). Drawing on Pollak’s diaries and other archival sources, the novel imagines this testimony, indicating with its fiction the multiple erasures of time and violence. The novel ends with the translation of an actual letter that requests the German authorities to release Pollak, because of his status as an antiquarian who found Laocoon’s arm.[i] While this document does not answer most of the questions the reader might have about Pollak by the end of the novel, it foregrounds the significance of Pollak’s historical existence.

The novel draws multiple connections between the changing understanding of Laocoön, with Pollak’s discovery of his arm bent back rather than heroically reaching up, and Pollak’s tragic death: “But the snake always wins. Laocoön teaches us that. Man will never win against serpents sent by the gods. Not in this world” (112). Almost as old as the Grand Tour is the tradition of dying in Rome, especially for Germans, from Goethe’s son to Walter Koeppen’s Death in Rome. In Pollak’s Arm, Rome is the terra benedetta, on account of what Rome holds archaeologically, the Vatican, Goethe’s lemon trees, and Pollak’s life there: “Blessed ground. To me, Pollak said, Rome is terra benedetta in every way. For as long as I can remember, it has been my terra benedetta” (43). His Rome is also where over a thousand Jews, including Pollak himself, were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Like Rome, every part of this story has layers.

Antisemitism and the changing status of Jews in Europe is a thread that weaves through many of the layers. Forced to leave Italy in 1915 due to his enemy status as an Austrian, Pollak narrates his unhappiness with Viennese life: “That is the Vienna I remember. There weren’t any fascists yet, mind you, but plenty of anti-Semites, far more than here in Rome” (41). He reflects on the many awards he received for his important discoveries and art catalogue work: “First the pope, then the king, then the emperor, then the tsar. I was spoiled during that time, a time when Jews were still given medals” (24). The finding of Laocoön’s arm is connected to the resolution of the Dreyfus Affair: “Truth would not triumph–Pollak’s words–until much later, in 1906. That was the year Pollak published his findings on the arm, the monsignor interjects” (3). Pollak’s biography speaks to many of the contradictions of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Jewish European history. The novel embeds many of these contradictions in explorations of art and literature that happen during an urgent conversation that suggests the human and cultural losses of the 1940s, many of which still remain unexplored, even with all the work that has been done on the period.

The novel’s layers will suggest different entry points to different readers, which are powerful in part because they coincide uncomfortably: Laocoön and art, the deportation of Jews, Rome and German thinkers, death and Rome, antisemitism in Europe, the collection of antiquities, Jewish history, the relationship between the Vatican and fascism, and Austro-Italian cross-pollinations. This last one may be the least known: despite the many ties between Italy and Austria, their cultural connections tend to be overlooked in part due to Germany’s geopolitical dominance and historical bonds with both countries. The man who goes to talk to Pollak is from Berlin. He is referred to as “K.,” joining the ranks of evocative K. characters, from the most famous ones in Franz Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial to J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, W.G. Sebald’s K in Vertigo, and Roberto Calasso’s K.

The book also belongs in the category of literary works that obsessively reflect on a work of visual art, like Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters: A Comedy. Any summary of the richness of the dialogue around the Laocoön would be an understatement. Winckelmann, Lessing, Goethe, and Hubert Robert are all discussed in the novel, which always also underscores Pollak’s particular role and discovery: “There is little one cannot do with Laocoön. Laocoön and his sons. It isn’t a sculpture. Like Rome, it is an idea. And the right arm, my arm, destroyed that idea” (107). The New Vessel Press edition of the novel includes images of the Laocoön sculpture group, suggesting how the novel prompts the reader to connect the work to the world outside the text and providing visual proof of Pollak’s legacy.

Hans von Trotha is a novelist, a historian, and a journalist. Elisabeth Lauffer is a translator who also moves between genres, including non-fiction, children’s works, and novels. Her engrossing translation reveals her dexterity in rendering multiple tones, as moods and style subtly shift throughout the course of the novel, with K.’s building tension, Pollak’s multiple enigmas, and monsignor’s at times unsettling interventions. Pollak’s Arm covers a significant historical period but takes place over a short time and in relatively few pages for a novel, which invites the reader to finish the work in one sitting, as the stakes of the conversation between Pollak and K., who tries to convince the antiquarian to leave for safety, become more pressing. Pollak’s questions can seem far from those of his and his family’s survival:

Do you know, asked Pollak, why the Laocoön group, the most famous of antique sculptures, a merciless and sensual portrayal of two serpents horrifically killing a priest and his sons—fine, perhaps one of the sons survives, but I don’t believe that—why this piece has played such an important role for Rome and art and the world, or for the pope and Francis I and Napoleon and Mussolini? It’s because they’ve always thought it concerned the founding of Rome and must therefore concern them. But that isn’t true. In fact, it may not be at all true. (99)

von Trotha, Hans. Pollak’s Arm. Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer. New Vessel Press, 2022.

Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski is Assistant Professor at Duke University. She works on Italian literature from comparative perspective, especially in terms of German-language literatures, modernism, and Jewish studies. She has published articles and chapters on Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, Italo Svevo, Scipio Slataper, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. Her book Kafka’s Italian Progeny (University of Toronto Press, 2020) explores Franz Kafka’s sometimes surprising connections with key writers — from Italo Svevo, Lalla Romano, and Italo Calvino to Antonio Tabucchi, Paola Capriolo, and Elena Ferrante — who shaped Italy’s literary landscape. She is writing a book on Jewishness in Italian literature.

[i] See Ludwig Pollak: Archeaologist and Art Dealer (Prague 1868-Auschwitz 1943), edited by Orietta Rossini, in which Hans von Trotha has a piece and which also contains a translation of the letter.

Leave a Reply