Holocaust Represented in Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.

Works by Survivors

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 camps.

Several writers write of the time but did not have a direct experience of the Holocaust. Kurt Vonnegut, as a prisoner of war, experienced the American firebombing of Dresden. Vonnegut’s Mother Night (1966) is the tale of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., “an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” Campbell stands convicted of having written and broadcast radio propaganda (which one of his guards, a Jew who joined the Hungarian S.S. to survive, describes as “weak”); in reality, he was working for U.S. counterintelligence. Like Oskar Matzerath in noted German author Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), Campbell accepts his fate because it seems the right thing to do. Mother Night notes the need to teach the next generation about the Holocaust.

The Next Generation

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 “such private things, I don’t want you should mention.”

Spiegelman makes no attempt to sanitize his father’s character, knowing that it is through such “private things” that the horrors are revealed. Vladek tells of the increasing cruelties directed against Jews, and Spiegelman’s images—such as the German troops taking Anja’s bedridden mother’s bed in “The Noose Tightens”—emphasize the situation. The first volume, concluding with Vladek and Anja’s arrival at Auschwitz, truly “bleeds history.”

The second volume is more personal. Interspersed among tales of Vladek’s relationship with another concentration camp survivor, Mala, and Spiegelman’s own travails dealing with the success of the first volume is Vladek’s tale of how he survived in Auschwitz. His abiding love for Anja is shown to be what sustained both of them through the camp. By the end of Maus, the reader understands Vladek and his actions. The interaction across the generations makes Vladek’s Holocaust survival tale quite accessible.

The Holocaust in Popular Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 (1991), the story of a woman who, for her fortieth birthday, gets the identification number of a death camp victim stenciled onto her arm “to give the victim life.” Eve also tells tales not only about life under the Nazis but also about the deliberate and inadvertent complicities among women that allowed the regime to enact its brutal tortures.

Fantasies of Remembrance

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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 name, meaning “life”) in a small Jewish village in Nazi-occupied Poland. Matters soon go from bad to worse as she finds herself taken in a cattle car to a concentration camp, where survival is dependent on whim and life, especially Jewish life, is expendable.

British author Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow (1991) features a man living his life backwards, becoming progressively more terrifying to the reader as he finds himself becoming the camp doctor at Auschwitz. Amis manages the novel, and the disingenuous tone, with a grace that is at times almost too precious, but still manages to plumb some of the depths of the horror. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979) is the tale of a Polish refugee, Sophie Zawatowska, who becomes involved with an aspiring writer. She is a survivor of the Holocaust and suffers from guilt about having survived and about her choice: A Nazi forced her to decide which of her two children was to die.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

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.