New Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The destruction of European Jewry during World War II continues to claim the world’s moral attention. Unspeakably inhuman and staggeringly efficient, the Nazi murder machine remains a crushing indictment of the modern world. The Germans must struggle with the historical fact that they were the agents of the Holocaust, and the rest of the nations must struggle with the fact that the torture and killing was permitted to continue even after knowledge of it had spread throughout the world. This struggle, after more than thirty years since the last oven cooled, still turns on the simple question of basic comprehension. Many Germans still believe that the “concentration camp stories” are exaggerated, a kind of Jewish propaganda, and many other people throughout the world, whose objectivity is not clouded by repressed guilt, find it inconceivable that anything quite so barbarous could ever have happened.

But happen it did, as Lucy Dawidowicz in her monumental The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (1975), has documented so powerfully. The data her book and other historical accounts provide have still to be interpreted by thinkers and writers in forms that will permit us to understand the meaning of the Holocaust emotionally as well as rationally; to find room in our reluctant imaginations for this overpowering evil, which demands a myth the old “Hell” cannot provide. Poets and novelists have made valiant efforts, but, on the whole, they have only approximated their subject. In his study of what he calls the “literature of atrocity,” Lawrence L. Langer (The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, 1975) puts it this way:Perhaps no one will ever clarify satisfactorily or portray completely . . . the Holocaust; it remains the unconquered Everest of our time, its dark mysteries summoning the intrepid literary spirit to mount its unassailable summit.

Dorothy Rabinowitz’s New Lives is not in any obvious way a work of literature; not a novel, drama, or poem, it does not attempt to climb the Everest of literary creation. Neither is her book, like Dawidowicz’s, an exhaustively researched and extensively documented work of historical scholarship. Perhaps the best way to describe New Lives is to call it an extended essay, a brilliant adaptation of the journalist’s interview for the purpose of illuminating a state of mind far greater than the opinions or recollections of any one person. Dorothy Rabinowitz walks the lower slopes of the Everest of the Holocaust; she introduces us to survivors—weary, descending climbers who look back at their ordeal with tragic emotions. Their terrifying memories of the past provide an inescapable context for the hopes and fears they bring to the future. By distributing the portraits so that the reader is given a psychological as well as social range, Rabinowitz succeeds in conveying an impression of a generation and a community. If this impression does not exactly convey what Günter Grass has called “the quivering flesh of reality,” it goes a long way toward removing the luxury so many have permitted themselves—the luxury of thinking of the Holocaust as a thing remote in space and time. The men and women who speak to us in this book are our neighbors, the parents of our...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)