At Issue (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Holocaust stands as the twentieth century’s most hideous outburst of evil. Since then, civilization’s challenge is to remember the tragedy, to keep it from becoming clichéd, and to recount specifics of the act. Literature has been one of the primary means of attempting to meet this challenge. North Americans have made a significant contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.
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Works by Survivors (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Many of the survivors of the Holocaust have written memoirs and works of fiction dealing with their experiences. The works of Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer—of which Enemies, a Love Story (1972) is the most relevant and representative—are infused with an abiding faith in the value of humanity and being human, but tempered by his knowledge of the fragility and potential transience of experience and memory. Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) is a slim, evocative history of his experience in the camps. Wiesel’s most successful fictional account of that time is The Gates of the Forest (1966), a novel about the Jews who survived either by hiding out or by becoming partisans, living and fighting in the woods. Many other concentration camp memoirs, notably Survival in Auschwitz (1960), by Primo Levi, who settled in Italy, deal directly with the experience of the Holocaust. Possibly the most interesting hybrid of fact and fiction is Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965), a hyperrealistic work of fiction that its author maintained was autobiographical long after the evidence that it was not was beyond debate. Additionally, there are noteworthy nonfiction works such as Terrence Des Pres’s The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976) and essay collections such as Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (1991) that provide the reader with painful, evocative looks at life in the death...
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The Next Generation (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The works of the descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors reveal the tension between those who teach their memories and those who are taught to remember. The nature of the Holocaust as a literary rather than as a personal experience is exemplified by Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus, a Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Originally published serially in the pages of Raw magazine, Spiegelman’s work deals with his relationship with his father but centers upon the latter’s experiences as a Polish Jew, including his internment in the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland. Spiegelman, a graphic artist, relates the tale in comic-book style, with the Jews pictured as mice and the German soldiers as cats. While many readers approached the books as fictional, Spiegelman argued—successfully—that Maus is a memoir, and the Library of Congress duly classifies Maus as such.
The books use the experiences of Spiegelman’s parents, Vladek and his wife Anja, to reveal the gradual societal decay that permitted the Holocaust to occur. The first volume opens by quoting Adolf Hitler’s declaration, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” The first chapter tells of how Vladek broke off a long-standing sexual relationship to marry his wife, closing with Vladek telling Spiegelman that he should not use the story because...
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The Holocaust in Popular Literature (Identities & Issues in Literature)
One of the best-known works about the Holocaust is Schindler’s List (1982), by Australian author Thomas Keneally. The fact-based story of a gentile businessman who risks his life to protect his Jewish employees was made into a feature film, which debuted in 1993, by Steven Spielberg. Keneally’s work is realistic; unfortunately, much popular literature reduces the Holocaust to a caricature of evil. Such work does nothing to strengthen the memory of the Holocaust as it actually happened. In Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (1976), Josef Mengele survives in Brazil, producing young clones of Adolf Hitler and rearing the boys in a manner intended to produce new Hitlers. Mengele hopes to renew Hitler’s “cleansing” efforts. The plan is foiled by a Jewish Nazi hunter (loosely based on Simon Wiesenthal). Levin’s work, undermined by authorial moralizing, is one of the better popular tales whose abrogation of memory trivializes history.
Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil,” which appears in Different Seasons (1982), features Todd Bowden, who discovers that his quiet, unassuming neighbor was “Kurt Dussander, the Blood-Fiend of Patin.” He forces Dussander to tell him tales of the atrocities committed. King’s work is part of a subgenre of Holocaust tales: stories in which non-Jewish protagonists become fascinated with and sympathetic to the suffering. Most interesting among these is Emily Prager’s Eve’s Tattoo...
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Fantasies of Remembrance (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (1992) is the story of Rebecca (“Becca”) Berlin, who tries to discover the truth of her grandmother’s assertion that she—known to the family only as “Gemma”—was the Briar Rose of fairy tale, resuscitated from death by a Prince Charming. Becca follows the few clues she can find about Gemma’s life—photographs, immigration documents, apartment leases— to Poland. Becca learns much about the attitude in the United States toward the Jewish refugees (all of whom were sent to a barbed-wired Relocation Camp in Oswego, New York). After meeting a survivor of the camps, she discovers that Gemma was sent to an extermination camp from which no woman ever survived.
Becca’s search leads her in the second half of the book to Poland, where a guide named Magda Bronski aids her in her search and shows her Polish society. When Becca and Magda ask the residents around Chelmno about the concentration camp in which Gemma was interred, the reply of one of the residents is “that nothing happened here and that we should take our Jew questions away or that the nothing would happen again.”
Yolen’s young adult novel The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) also deals with the persistence of memory. Thirteen-year-old Hannah “is tired of remembering” as she approaches her grandparents’ house for the first night of Passover. As she opens the door for Elijah, she finds herself being called Chaya (her Hebrew...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Burrin, Philippe. Hitler and the Jews: The Genesis of the Holocaust. Translated by Patty Southgate. London: Edward Arnold, 1994.
Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
Friedlander, Saul. Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Helmreich, William B. Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.
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