Speaking What Must Be Spoken

By Diane Cole
Thursday, February 14, 2013

We read about the Holocaust in order to remember, but the sheer number of books on the subject can intimidate.  What has long been needed  was a guide that would be as accessible as it was comprehensive and scholarly.  Now we have one, in Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide by David G. Roskies, professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Naomi Diamant, deputy dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business. 

Appearing together at a recent panel devoted to their book at the Yeshiva University Museum, the co-authors emphasized the lessons to be learned from reading the Holocaust literature in the chronological order in which it was written and published.  First, it corrects the conventional wisdom that the Holocaust meant little to American Jews—or, for that matter, to the world—until the 1960s. (New York University professor Hasia Diner also challenged that notion in her powerful 2009 book We Remember with Reverence and Love.)  As Roskies and Diamant remind us in their book, Anne Frank’s diary first appeared in Dutch in 1947, the same year in which Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz was published in Italian.  Even before that, in Poland in 1946, first-person reports and diaries of ghetto deprivation, deportation and approaching death, by men and women who themselves perished in the Holocaust, began to be published.  Non-European non-Jews also brought the horror to wide public attention. Among them was the American writer John Hersey, whose 1950 documentary-like novel about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, The Wall, became a bestseller. 

Roskies' and Diamant's history does not begin in 1946, but reaches back to the very beginnings of Holocaust literature, in the midst of the war itself.  In the Europe of 1939 to 1945, they point out, “geography was destiny,” because whether Jews lived or died was overwhelmingly determined by where they found themselves: in what the authors call the “Free Zone,” those areas where Jews were free from Nazi persecution, or what they bluntly label the “Jew-Zone,” the countries of round-ups and ghettoes and camps where the slaughter took place.   Related to the geography of where wartime writing was taking place is the even more chilling demarcation in time: before 1942, when at least some glimmer of hope remained that relief or rescue or escape was possible, and after, when those caught and trapped realized they were doomed.  “A Jew still alive in the Jew-Zone was a statistical error by the fall of 1943,” the authors write.  And yet many of these final few still found a way to scrounge for scarce supplies of paper and writing utensils to record what they witnessed, and hide their manuscripts in hopes that they would be found later. 

Reading in time also provides insight as to why, after the war, certain accounts appeared in print right away, while others remained archived or, if published, may have languished out of print for decades.  One reason: the unedited cries heard in the diaries and chronicles of the doomed could be raw, filled with rage against the scandal of silence (perhaps especially what they perceived as Jewish silence), as well as rage and blame turned against themselves for inaction, and a sense of moral repugnance at betrayals committed by Jew against Jew in order to eke out another day’s survival.  In some cases, these stark stories were so searing and disturbing that surviving Jews hotly disputed whether such accounts should be presented to a larger public that would not—could not—understand the barbarous reality of the concentration camps.  To some extent, as the authors put it in their book, “Holocaust memory had to obey the habits of the Jewish heart.” 

How to shape the memory and meaning of the Holocaust became a dominant theme in what Roskies and Diamant call the “Communal Memory” period of 1945-1960—a time when controversies emerged as different groups attempted, through survivor accounts and anthologies, to present a particular face—whether of heroism or martyrdom—or connect a specific agenda, religious or political, to the Holocaust. Additional questions were raised in what the authors call the “Provisional Memory” era of 1960-1985: Does the survivor’s internal sense of trauma ever end, even after having created, outwardly at least, a new and successful postwar life?  How can we judge the behavior of ghetto and concentration camp survivors, as passive or heroic, when either path would likely lead to their death, or someone else’s, or both? 

Today, the authors believe, we are in a self-conscious era of “Authorized Memory.”  But even so, they write, “every generation must be scandalized anew by the Holocaust.”  Which means that the story must continue to be taught and the books that recount that story read.  To that end, Roskies and Diamant provide, in the second half of their book, an annotated guide to 100 (admittedly an arbitrary number) books about the Holocaust available in English.  Readers will find there books they may have already read (Elie Wiesel’s Night, André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and lesser-known others that cry out to be read (Blood from the Sky by Piotr Rawicz, a novel they describe as crossing “James Joyce with Dostoevsky”; Our Holocaust by the Israeli novelist Amir Gutfreund, which they call “the first communal Bildungsroman in Holocaust literature”; and Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, French philosopher Sarah Kofman’s autobiographical account of conflicted loyalties as a hidden child). They have also produced a free online companion curriculum

Appearing together with Roskies and Diamant on the panel were noted Holocaust historian Samuel Kassow of Trinity College, who called the authors’ approach “pathbreaking,” and literary critic Ruth Franklin, author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, who hailed their work as “magisterial.” This is entirely warranted praise for a book that offers us so much insight into how to read the literature of the Holocaust in time, and over time.  Roskies and Diamant remind us of that it is not enough to preserve its memory; we must also make it available to be rediscovered by generations to come. 

Diane Cole, author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications, and is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York. 

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