Elie Wiesel survived Auschwitz, became a distinguished author, and won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. In April, 1977, he gave an address at Northwestern University. It was called “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration.” Although Wiesel and other noted writers have made that disaster a fundamental dimension of their work, he contended that his talk’s title contained a contradiction. Wiesel’s point was that the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s planned total destruction of the Jewish people and the actual murder of nearly six million of them, outstrips, overwhelms, and negates “literary inspiration.” What happened then to the Jewish children, women, and men—and to millions of non-Jewish victims who also were caught in the Holocaust—eludes complete expression, to say nothing of full comprehension, now.
Such claims involve no mystification. Nor do they deny that the Holocaust is an explicable historical event that was unleashed by human beings for human reasons. Yet, as disclosed by the testimony of those who survived it, the Holocaust remains at the depths of personal experience a disaster that no description can equal. Tempting though silence may be, it provides no refuge from this condition. Words to cry out of those depths must be found. Therefore, Wiesel’s address at Northwestern underscored how significant it was that there were writers in every ghetto, witnesses in every camp, who did their best to testify.
In particular, Wiesel called attention to the diaries of Zalman Gradowski, Leib Langfuss, and Yankiel Wiernik. Trapped by what Lawrence L. Langer calls “choice-less choices,” those Sonderkommando members were condemned to burn the bodies of their Jewish brothers and sisters at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. Listen, Wiesel urged, and then he read their words to his audience. Listen, listen—at one point, gripped by his own listening, Wiesel interrupted himself. “You must listen more,” he insisted, “you must listen to more. I repeat, if Wiernik had the courage to write, you must listen.” And then he read on.
No one has listened more or better than Lawrence Langer, a professor of English at Simmons College in Boston who had long been a leading interpreter of literature about the Holocaust. The proof is his Holocaust Testimonies. Profoundly, this book takes its readers into a region that Langer’s subtitle aptly identifies as “the ruins of memory.” Langer borrowed that phrase from another powerful writer, Ida Fink, whose personal Holocaust experiences led her to speak not about time “measured in months and years” but about time measured in scraps—separations, selections, silences—that forever fragment life and thwart its wholeness.
Langer’s book results from years of painstaking excavation in the ruins of memory at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, established at Yale University in 1982. Its holdings—more than fourteen hundred testimonies that range in length from thirty minutes to more than four fours—are available for viewing. Holocaust Testimonies compels one to witness these moving accounts. The Fortunoff Archive is preparing a composite videotape to accompany Langer’s book. That combination will provide potent ways to teach about the Holocaust.
Langer himself conducted many of the archive’s interviews with Holocaust survivors or “former victims,” as he prefers to call them. But Langer’s exceptional accomplishment goes much further than that. Few people, if any, have witnessed more Holocaust testimonies. Nor has anyone observed so many of them so carefully. Definitely no one has written about these testimonies with more intensity, honesty, and telling impact.
A governing theme in Langer’s findings comes from Maurice Blanchot, the author of L’Écriture du désastre (1980; The Writing of the Disaster, 1986), a study that helped to inform Langer’s listening. “The disaster ruins everything,” Blanchot’s first sentence says, “all the while leaving everything intact.” Like nature’s changing seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, apparently life goes on for the Holocaust’s former victims. Many testify, for example, how they married after liberation from the German camps, built homes in new surroundings, reared children, and advanced careers. Apparently their survival led to living lives that left everything intact.
Only apparently, however, because the disaster leaves everything intact in another, far more devastating, sense. Leaving the survivors alone, it removes—takes the former victims away from—the stability and coherence that normal life assumes. Thus, for those who stayed alive after Auschwitz, life does anything but just go on. For the Holocaust’s former victims, the disaster that came upon them so often pivoted around disorienting/orienting scraps of time, crucial moments involving what Blanchot calls the “sovereignty of the accidental,” a tyranny that ruled and destroyed life with systematic capriciousness. Its disruptive impact makes the Holocaust a past ever present and always to be reencountered in the future.
Only one of the many testimonies that Langer sensitively weaves into his account, Philip K.’s epitomizes how “the disaster ruins everything.” Resisting the reassurance of people “who pretend or seem to be marveling at the fact that I seem to be so normal, so unperturbed and so capable of functioning,” Philip K. concludes Holocaust Testimonies by denying that “the Holocaust passed over and it’s done with.” No, he stresses, “it’s my skin. This is not a coat. You can’t take it off. And it’s there, and it will be there until I die.”
Ghettoized, starved, deported, tattooed, beaten, raped, gassed, burned, callously scattered to the winds, but some of it left permanently scarred to live—Holocaust skin both covers and recovers what Langer calls “an anatomy of melancholy.” Physically rooted in the disaster, that anatomy is much more than skin-deep. Often...
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