History prof translates major work of Dutch literature

cover of the book At The Edge of The Abyss

York historian Michiel Horn says his latest book project may well be the most important one he has ever worked on – and it’s not even one he wrote. At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 is the largest of only 17 such works to survive the Holocaust and is considered a major work of Dutch literature.

cover of the book At The Edge of The AbyssThe diary was written by David Koker, a 21-year-old student from Amsterdam, who was sent to the Vught concentration camp in Holland in 1943. The entries, which include both poetry and powerful insights into the emotional life of a camp prisoner, were made on scraps of paper and children’s exercise books that were smuggled out of the camp and sent to his best friend Karel van het Reve. His family collected the various parts comprising 73,000 words and had the work published in 1977 as Dagboek geschreven in Vught (Diary written in Vught). It immediately became a part of the Dutch literary canon.

Horn served as the main translator for the English edition, which was edited by Robert Jan van Pelt, professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo, who has written extensively about the history of the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Van Pelt provided the informative introduction and biographical information about Koker. John Irons was brought into the project to render Koker’s Dutch poetry into English. “The project took over my life,” said Horn, professor emeritus at Glendon and University Historian, who came to Canada from the Netherlands 60 years ago.

Horn became involved in the project when van Pelt found his name on a list of translators kept by the Dutch Foundation for Literature, which supports writers and translators and promotes Dutch literature abroad. “He liked the fact that I was in Toronto, a historian, and he would have access for collaboration,” said Horn. Irons, who lives in Denmark, specializes in translating poetry from Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German and Dutch into English. When Horn recommended to van Pelt that they get someone to do a proper translation of Koker’s poetry, they found Irons through the foundation.

What makes At the Edge of the Abyss special is the quality of Koker’s writing, which “is remarkable for its combination of historical significance and penetrating eloquence,” wrote the publishers.

Michiel HornHorn says he was drawn to Koker as a person after reading the first page of his work. “He was somebody I could relate to. He was astonishingly well read – he wasn’t your average 21-year-old. He describes situations we didn’t have any knowledge of.”

Right: Michiel Horn

Horn said he was struck by Koker’s decision to go to Vught with his family, even though he could have used an exemption he had and then could have gone into hiding. “He believed that the family was absolutely central to Jewish life.” He managed to help his mother and younger brother survive, but both he and his father became ill and died in February 1945, during transport between camps.

Robert Jan van Pelt“David’s death was a calamity for Dutch literature,” said Horn. “There is every reason to believe that David would have had a distinguished career as a writer of prose and poetry.”

Left: Robert Jan van Pelt

Horn said he wept when he reached the end of the postscript to the Dutch edition, written by David’s brother Max.  “You get so close to your subject when you’re translating. I don’t think anyone gets closer to a text than a translator.”

At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944, is published by Northwestern University Press (2012), with the support of the Dutch Foundation for Literature.