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Jean Améry (Hans Maier) (1912–1978)

 a  “For several weeks I’ve been working as a so-called clerk in the office of an I.G. Farben plant that is under construction. Of course, I continue to be an ordinary concentration-camp inmate, have to stand in the roll-call square for hours on end, get 200 grams of bread and two portions of watery soup a day, and also do not differ in my external habit from my comrades who haul cement sacks or load coal. It was just that among the roughly 1,000 employees of the plant, there were only a few who had mastered German orthography.”

(Jean Améry, cited by Irene Heidelberger-Leonard: Jean Améry. Revolte in der Resignation (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2004), p. 90. (Transl. KL))

Jean Améry was born Hans Maier on October 31, 1912, in Vienna. He adopted the name Jean Améry after 1945. His parents, Paul and Valerie Maier (née Goldschmidt), were of Jewish origin. His father, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, died in combat in 1917. Améry spent part of his childhood in Bad Ischl. In Vienna, he was apprenticed as a bookseller, worked at the Volkshochschule Wien (Vienna Adult Education Center), and moved in the city’s literary circles. With his first wife, Regina, Jean Améry fled to Antwerp in 1938. During his internment, she succumbed to heart disease in her hiding place in Brussels.


After internment in several camps—Malines (Mechelen), Camp de Saint-Cyprien, and Gurs— Améry escaped from Gurs to occupied Brussels in 1941 and joined a small German-speaking group that was part of the Belgian resistance movement. On July 23, 1943, he and a female comrade were arrested by the Gestapo as they were distributing flyers, and he was tortured by the SS in the Breendonck reception camp. After the torture chamber, he was given three months in solitary confinement for “undermining of military morale.” Améry was deported to Auschwitz by way of the Malines (Mechelen) transit camp, reaching Auschwitz on January 17, 1944.


Améry was given prisoner number 172364 and assigned to a work detachment in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp; from July 1944 on, he was a clerk at the Buna plant.  a  In January 1945, the SS forced Améry to leave the camp and go on the death march;  after passing through Gleiwitz II, he was deported to Mittelbau-Dora and from there to Bergen-Belsen, where the British Army freed him on April 15. “[O]nce again ... back in the world, with a live weight of forty-five kilograms (99 pounds), wearing a striped prisoner’s suit,”[1] Améry returned to Brussels. He had spent a total of 642 days in German concentration camps, as he stated in a letter decades later.


In the postwar years, Améry wrote a great deal for Swiss newspapers. In the 1950s he began publishing under the pen name Jean Améry. The first Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial in 1964 induced him to write a series of essays in which he made his experiences of exile, torture, and concentration camp imprisonment the subject of discussion. In 1966, the essays appeared in book form, titled Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten (Engl. At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities), and published by Gerhard Szczesny Verlag in Munich. Two publishing houses, Kiepenheuer & Witsch and Suhrkamp, had previously declined to publish the book. It caused a great sensation in the German-speaking world and made Améry famous. He was invited to contribute pieces to various newspapers, including Merkur, Die Zeit, the Frankfurter Rundschau, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Almost all the well-known radio stations of the FRG broadcast his contributions. Besides his essays, reviews, commentaries, and film criticism, Améry also published literary texts and philosophical treatises.

On October 17, 1978, Jean Améry took his own life in a hotel in Salzburg. He was interred in an honorary grave in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery).

(GB; transl. KL)


Améry, Jean: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Heidelberger-Leonard, Irene: Jean Améry. Revolte in der Resignation. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2004.

Pfäfflin, Friedrich: “Jean Améry – Daten zu einer Biographie.” In: Stephan Steiner, ed.: Jean Améry (Hans Maier). Basel /Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 1996, pp. 265–280.

[1] Jean Améry: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 43.