Literature and The Holocaust
- The literature of the Holocaust consists of all the literary responses to the destruction of European Jewry, including survivor testimony, diaries of victims, memoirs of survivors, and documents collected by the Jewish community in the form of archives and memorial books, but it also includes novels and poetry written about the Shoah. Historian James Young has noted that memoirists like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi have lamented the sheer impossibility of describing the concentration camp experience in what to them seemed to be an indescribable task. Nevertheless, since the end of World War II, there has appeared a growing body of literature about the Holocaust, especially in the form of memoirs, novels, and poems, that seeks to capture the suffering of the victims of the Nazi genocide. Examples of the more significant memoirs, novels, and poems of the Holocaust would include Night by Elie Wiesel, who lost most of his family in Auschwitz. Until his father’s death in Buchenwald, Wiesel and his father were together throughout their internment, the experiences of which he recounts in his autobiographical memoir, Night. After honoring his vow of silence for years, Elie Wiesel first published a Yiddish version of his Holocaust story in 1956. An English translation of the shortened French version of Night appeared in 1960. It was not the first book to detail the experiences of a Holocaust survivor, but Night has become one of the most widely read, if not the most read, book on the Holocaust.Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel are among the better-known Holocaust memoirists. Levi’s memoir, which recounts the year he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man (1947), published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz (1958), has been described by a number of critics as one of the most important works of the 20th century. A chemist by training, Levi was also a prolific writer. His work include a second memoir, The Truce (U.S. title, The Reawakening, 1963), two novels, short stories, poems, and essays, many of which deal with his experiences in Auschwitz. Levi died on 11 April 1987. Elie Wiesel said at the time that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.” The coroner interpreted Levi’s death as suicide, since in his later life Levi indicated he was suffering from depression. One of the more controversial Holocaust novels is Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner. Written in 1967, his book remains unsettling because Steiner, a French Jew whose father died in a concentration camp, argues that many Jews perished in the Holocaust because they were too cowardly to fight back. His novel describes the prisoners’ revolt in Treblinka in 1943 when the Jewish Sonderkommando (the laborers detailed to wrench gold teeth from corpses and bury the dead), with smuggled arms, killed 20 of their captors. Some 300 prisoners escaped from the camp, but all but 40 of them were eventually hunted down and executed. This, stated Steiner, was the honorable way for Jews to respond to their Nazi captors. Instead, in an interview he lamented, “I felt ashamed to be the son of this people of 6,000,000 victims who permitted themselves to be pushed into gas chambers. In the camps the victims themselves, the Jews, made themselves the accomplices of their extermination.”Steiner’s rendering of the revolt in Treblinka is one of a number of novels that re-create actual events during the Holocaust. Novels such John Hersey’s The Wall (1950) and Leon Uris’s Mila 18 (1961) depict the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews (1979) satirically re-creates Chaim Rumkowski’s leadership of the Judenrat in the Lodz ghetto. Epstein’s novel was one of the first fictional treatments of the Holocaust to use humor and absurd situations. A novel told in a different vein is Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), a work of autobiographical fiction. The story is set in the years 1938–1943 when an aristocratic Italian Jewish family became subject to Benito Mussolini’s racial laws. Like similar events in Nazi Germany, the 1938 racial laws clamped down on the rights of Italy’s Italian Jewish community. The author conveys the steady deterioration of the Continis as their precarious situation worsens during the war and deportation to the camps appears imminent.The novel was turned into a film and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1971. Robert St. John’s 1962 novel, The Man Who Played God, tells the story of Rudolf Kasztner, who bartered with the Nazis to save Jews in Nazioccupied Hungary, only to be assassinated in 1957 after an Israeli court accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis. Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were massacred by the Nazis in a ravine outside Kiev on 29–30 September 1941, is the subject of Anatoly Kuznetsov’s novel Babi Yar (1966). Published in the Soviet Union, the uncensored novel was carefully researched and included previously unknown materials about the killings. The same atrocity is the subject of poet Yegeny Yevtushenko’s most famous poem, Babi Yar (1961). In his poem, Yevtushenko denounced the Soviet distortion of historical fact regarding the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev, as well as the anti-Semitism then still widespread in the Soviet Union. The usual Soviet policy in relation to the Holocaust was to describe it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, and to avoid mentioning that it was a genocide specifically of the Jews. Therefore, Yevtushenko’s work Babi Yar was quite controversial as it spoke not only of Nazi brutality but also of the Soviet government’s own persecution of its Jewish population.Different approaches to the Holocaust can be found in the fiction of Ahron Appelfeld, who is recognized worldwide as among the most profound literary novelists of the Holocaust and has met with international critical and popular acclaim. His books are written in Hebrew but many have been translated into English, such as Badenheim 1939 (1980). Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas Chamber, Ladies and Gentleman (1967) is a classic of the Holocaust genre. Borowski was part of the resistance against the Nazis in Warsaw and was incarcerated at the Auschwitz death camp. In searing, satiric prose, Borowski details what life and death were like in the Nazi concentration camps. The traumatic effects of the Holocaust on survivors have influenced the writing of novels on the subject. Two notable works of fiction that confront the trauma of survivors are American novelist Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961) and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979). Wallant’s novel centers on Sol Nazerman, a Jewish pawnbroker who survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, even though his wife and family did not. The devastating experience and unrelenting memories inhibit Sol from emotional involvement with life. He has no faith in religion and less in mankind. Though he carries on an affair with a woman who was also a victim of the Nazi camps, it is without emotion and Sol grows increasingly bitter and callous, withdrawing still further from the world around him. Sophie’s Choice is one of the few works of fiction dealing with the Holocaust that centers on a non-Jewish survivor (Polish Catholic) of the Nazi concentration camps. The novel was an instant best-seller and the basis of a successful film, and considered by some critics as both Styron’s best work and a major novel of the 20th century. The plot revolves around Sophie’s darkest secret: On the night that she arrived at Auschwitz, a sadistic doctor makes her choose which of her two children would die immediately by gassing and which would continue to live, albeit in the camp. Of her two children, Sophie chose to sacrifice her seven-year-old daughter in a heart-rending decision that leaves her with a guilt that she cannot overcome. Sophie’s difficult “choice” has become an idiom of the English language. A “Sophie’s choice” is a tragic choice between two unbearable options.The following are significant works of fiction that continue to inform our understanding of the Holocaust: Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Cynthia Ozick’s short story The Shawl (1999), Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete (1963), and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979), a satiric novel that illustrates how much Anne Frank has entered into the landscape of American culture and become an icon of the imagination. Also noted for their particular power in providing a sense of the terror of the Holocaust are Jakob the Liar by Jurek Bicker (1975), D. M. Thomas’s The White House (1981), and The Sunflower (1976) by Simon Wiesenthal, a novel that raises moral questions when a Holocaust survivor is asked for forgiveness by a wounded Nazi soldier.Popular novels whose themes focus on the Holocaust would include, among others, Herman Wouk’s Winds of War (1971), which became a widely viewed television miniseries (1983) and War and Remembrance (1978), which also was made into a television miniseries (1988). Both of Wouk’s novels were best-sellers. Two works of fiction that became best-sellers in the early 1960s were Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962), a novel that traces the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism on the eve of the Holocaust, and The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart (1961), a novel that chronicles the colossal horror of Christian Europe’s thousandyear history of violence against its Jews, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust.Theodor Adorno stated that not only is poetry after Auschwitz barbaric, but it is immoral to derive the slightest bit of aesthetic pleasure from the suffering of Holocaust victims. Adorno would later retract this dictum after reading, perhaps, the most famous poem relating to the Holocaust, poet Paul Celan’s 1944 masterpiece Todesfuge (Death Fugue). Celan was only one of a number of poets who, through their poetry and figurative language, have allowed us to gain insight into the Holocaust. In addition to Celan, the verses of poets such as Nelly Sachs (O the Chimneys), Jakov Glatstein (Dead Men Don’t Praise God), and Itzhak Katzenelson (Song of the Murdered Jewish People), among others, lament that there is no redemption, no consoling beauty to be found in the ashes of the Shoah. Many of these poets wrote their poems in Yiddish in the camps and the ghettos, and had Adorno been aware of their work, he might never have issued his condemnation of writing poetry after Auschwitz.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.
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