Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045
What a Beautiful Sunday! takes its name from a startling remark uttered by prisoner Fernand Barizon on a clear winter’s day in the Buchenwald death camp, one of the Nazis’ most infamous human slaughterhouses. Looking back on his time at Buchenwald from the perspective of several decades, the narrator, known among other names as Gerard Sorel, remains fascinated by Barizon’s remark and tries to discover why he finds it so insightful. The novel is author Jorge Semprun’s attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible: his youthful infatuation with Communism, his increasing involvement in international struggles to make Europe communistic, his internment in Buchenwald, and his subsequent realization that Communism is as much a sham as any other human institution. It is a novel of one man’s education and coming to maturity.
Slowly, even obliquely, through anecdotes and snatches of recalled conversation, Semprun re-creates the hell of Buchenwald. It is not Semprun’s intention to add another journalistic treatise about death camps to the collection of such reports. He wants to establish what it was like to be one of the better-favored camp residents whose lot was not as terrible as that of the Jews, Gypsies, Russians, and other hated races or nationalities. A secondary purpose is to superimpose the madness of mass killings upon the sylvan woodland of Buchenwald, a place made famous by the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the eighteenth century.
The story begins with the depiction of a lone oak tree. Self-contained, aloof, an emblem of God-supplied beauty, its slender branches framing the smoking crematorium, the tree, spared by the Nazi camp creators out of respect for Goethe, is both a thing whose beauty separates it from the camp and an integral part of camp life. To gaze upon it allows the prisoners to realize that a higher power is at work in the universe and can be found even in Buchenwald. The tree, which at first glance appears ordinary, takes on a supernatural glow when the narrator recalls Goethe and the lost world of his Germany which the tree symbolizes. The violence and horror of the twentieth century, so concentrated in camps such as Buchenwald, are never far from him. As he looks at the tree one day, he is nearly killed by an SS guard waving a pistol. The guard apparently is ready to shoot him when the narrator asks the guard to look at the tree and think about its connection to the revered Goethe. For a moment, even SS terror is overcome by civilized impulse as the guard puts away his gun.
Goethe’s strolls through the woods, often referred to by the narrator, supply an ironic contrast to the strolling machine-gun carrying guards of Buchenwald. Nature, which Goethe saw as a companion to man, is reduced to a helpless onlooker, a mute observer of man’s cruelties toward others. Yet nature is as mute in Russia, to which escapees from Buchenwald often flee only to find death in one of Josef Stalin’s concentration camps. Forests and steppes which seemed to be a refuge cannot hide or sustain returning Russians from their countrymen. The power of evil is simply too strong and all-pervasive.
Gradually, the reader is introduced to the inmates of Buchenwald, several of which, by word and deed, challenge the narrator’s communistic faith in man’s ability to rise out of his bestial nature and become concerned with the rights and needs of others. Along with camp heroism is exhibited treachery and greed with one inmate using his fellow inmates to achieve selfish ends. At times, prisoners mirror their guards’ worst traits, so much so that it is easy to imagine them treating prisoners as badly as they themselves were treated if they could trade places with their captors.
The daily indignities of life in the camp lead some prisoners to come to terms with the SS in charge of their unit. Henk Spoenay, a Dutch inmate, and Willi Seifert, a German, join with the narrator in helping the Nazis administer their section. Unlike some prisoners with responsibilities, however, they become camp assistants because they want to aid fellow prisoners. True to their Communist ideals, they believe that by cooperating with the SS guards they will be able to make life more tolerable for the prisoners under their jurisdiction by getting them more food or an occasional creature comfort. Their sector is helped principally because the internees are Communists rather than Jews. Jews, at the bottom of the camp’s pecking order, are marked for early death; they are systematically slaughtered in gas chambers and then thrown into vast ovens for burning. The narrator and his fellow prisoners at least have hopes that they may last long enough to escape annihilation; the hated minority prisoners have no such hopes. As soon as they get off the trains coming from the West, they are separated into groups, gassed, and burned.
Communism is continuously examined throughout What a Beautiful Sunday! Its failure as a doctrine upon which people can build their lives is evident in Buchenwald where most Communists, upon accepting the lot of prisoner, turn to the selfish pursuit of power and influence rather than to activities which would ease the sufferings of their friends. Their betrayal of Communist ideals only serves to illuminate the greater betrayals of the Ukrainian camp guards who help the SS push innocent people into the gas chambers, and the still greater betrayals of Josef Stalin’s henchmen against a huge number of fellow Russians condemned as enemies of the state. Semprun speaks of the camps of the gulag, which he learned about when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Odin den Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) was circulated in the West, and of his ensuing total disillusionment with the Communism of his youth. The pain he endured at Buchenwald is secondary to the pain he felt when confronted by his advocacy of a false cause. He recalls the brave Russian soldiers—boys for the most part—who found their way out of Buchenwald and sought refuge in their homeland, only to be killed when they arrived. Betrayed, Semprun is compelled to tell the terrible story about a failed creed in an evil century.