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Using and Abusing the Holocaust

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"Langer, by the force of scholarship and literary precision rather than dogmatic affirmation and pathos, is one of the few writers, with the exception of significant poets and novelists, who unsettles both our customary language and conceptual instruments. His book is a moral as well as an intellectual act of a very high order." —Geoffrey Hartman, author of The Longest Shadow

In this new volume, Langer—one of the most distinguished scholars writing on Holocaust literature and representation—assesses various literary efforts to establish a place in modern consciousness for the ordeal of those victimized by Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity. Essays discuss the film Life Is Beautiful, the uncritical acclaim of Fragments, the fake memoir by Benjamin Wilkomirski, reasons for the exaggerated importance still given to Anne Frank’s Diary, and a recent cycle of paintings on the Old Testament by Holocaust artist Samuel Bak.

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1. The Pursuit of Death in Holocaust Narrative

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Autobiographical narrative by its very nature explores a journey that has not yet reached its end. One study of the genre by James Olney is called Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing. It occurs to me that a study of Holocaust memory and narrative might justifiably be subtitled “The Weave of Death-Writing.” Although Holocaust testimonies and memoirs are of course concerned with how one went on living in the midst of German atrocities, their subtexts offer us a theme that is more difficult to express or to understand: how, under those minimal conditions, slowly but inexorably, one went on dying—every day, every hour, every minute of one’s agonizing existence. We are forced to redefine the meaning of survival, as the assertive idea of staying alive is offset by the reactive one of fending off death. The impact on consciousness of this dilemma is a neglected but important legacy of the experience we call the Holocaust.

The Holocaust survivors I am speaking of do not merely recover their lives in their narratives. Through complex associations with their murdered comrades, family members, and communities they also recover what I call their missed destiny of death. Because the logic of existence in places such as Auschwitz dictated that one should die, witnesses often feel that survival was an abnormal result of their ordeal in the camps, a violation of the expected outcome of their detention. They were not meant to return. Charlotte Delbo calls the first volume of her Auschwitz memoir Aucun de nous ne reviendra (None of Us Will Return). This response has nothing to do with guilt or what some label a death wish but with a stubborn intuition that unlike the others, through accident or luck, those who held out somehow mistakenly eluded their intended end. In many instances the sensation of being dead while alive reflects a dual thrust of their present being: in chronological time they seek their future while in durational time, those isolated moments of dreadful memories do not dissipate but congeal into dense claws of tenacious consciousness. A lethal past relentlessly pursues them.

 

2. Anne Frank Revisited

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On May 5, 1944, an anonymous teenager began to keep a diary in the Lodz ghetto. This was his first entry:

I have decided to write a diary, though it is a little too late. To recapitulate past events is quite impossible, so I’ll begin with the present. This week I committed an act which best illustrates the degree of “dehumanization” to which we have been reduced. I finished my loaf of bread in three days, that is to say, on Sunday, so I had to wait till next Saturday for a new one. I was terribly hungry, I had the prospect of living only on the workshop soups, which consist of three little potato pieces and two dkg. [dekagrams, a few ounces] of flour. Monday morning I was lying quite dejectedly in my bed, and there was my darling [12-year-old] sister’s half loaf of bread “present” with me. To cut a long story short: I could not resist the temptation and ate it up totally. After having done this—at present a terrible crime—I was overcome by terrible remorse of conscience and by a still greater care for what my little one would eat the next 5 days.

 

3. Life is not Beautiful

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Today we continue to marvel at movie masterpieces like Les Enfants du Paradis and Citizen Kane years after their initial appearances. Their artistry transcends their box office appeal; their place in filmdom’s hall of fame is secure. Ten years from now, who will be able to say the same about Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1998), which was received with such a furor of enthusiasm in entertainment circles despite the efforts of a handful of discerning film critics to help the public distinguish between serious cinema and tasteless—some might even say offensive—farce? Although Benigni has described the two halves of Life Is Beautiful as a shift from comedy to tragedy, the buffoonery that rules the first part continues through much of the second, up to the moment of Guido’s apparent execution. The inner and outer anguish we associate with tragedy remains locked in Benigni’s imagination, a frustrated desire, if it really was one, that never escapes to the screen.

 

4. Fragments of Memory: A Myth of Past Time

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[I]n historiography, the indisputable advantages of a fictitious past have become apparent.

—W. G. SEBALD, The Rings of Saturn

Since the reinvention of the self is a notable theme to readers of imaginative literature, it is a wonder why so few of them were able to recognize Binjamin Wilkomirski’s “memoir” Fragments as an example of the genre. Students of American culture have long been familiar with the odyssey of James Gatz from the backwaters of the Midwest to a mansion on Long Island, and with his metamorphosis along the way into the glamorous figure of Jay Gatsby. On another continent in a later era, a Christian boy named Bruno Grosjean, soon to become Bruno Doesseker, undertook a different kind of fictional pilgrimage, from the snow-capped peaks of Switzerland to the bleak Silesian plains, backward rather than forward in time, changed his name to Binjamin Wilkomirski, and emerged with a new persona as a Jewish child born in Riga, Latvia, who had survived the Majdanek extermination camp. Subsequently (though not in his original text), he claimed that he had outlived Auschwitz-Birkenau, too, as well as some medical experiments by doctors in that infamous locale.

 

5. Wounded Families in Holocaust Discourse

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Anyone familiar with the stories of Jewish children during the Holocaust understands that it is inaccurate to describe their trying to stay alive inside or outside the ghettos and camps as a collective experience. Normally childhood proceeds in an uninterrupted rhythm from infancy through youth to the vestibule of maturity. Theirs did not. The Germans assaulted Jewish identity before they attacked Jewish life, so that many children were forced to practice public concealment even when they were not literally in hiding. Those trying to pass as Christians with forged papers were under a constant strain to deny their true selves, to pretend to be who they were not: slowly an external charade became a pressing internal performance. Anne Frank could comfortably affirm her Jewishness to her diary, but those existing under a camouflaged identity had to develop daily strategies to prevent a disclosure that might imperil their lives. All dwelt in fear of discovery, though the intensity of that fear was governed by the differing circumstances of each particular child.

 

6. Memory and Justice After the Holocaust and Apartheid

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Holocaust survivors do not need to search for memory; memory searches for them, and there is no escape from its clutches. As for justice . . .

In the summer of 1964, I sat in a courtroom in Munich, Germany at the trial of SS General Karl Wolff, Chief of Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff and liaison to Hitler’s headquarters. With his mild demeanor and conservative business suit, Wolff bore no resemblance to a man charged with capital crimes against humanity. As the commanding officer of all SS forces in Italy in April 1945, he had gained much credit with the Allies by meeting secretly in Switzerland with Allen Dulles, head of the OSS, and agreeing to surrender his troops about a week before the official end of hostilities. Fifteen years passed before a state investigator turned up incriminating evidence that led to his arrest, interrogation, and indictment. One of the charges against Wolff was that he had requisitioned trains to carry Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to their death in Treblinka. On this particular day of the trial, a young prosecuting attorney asked Wolff if he had ever been in the Warsaw ghetto. Wolff said he had not. The prosecutor then produced evidence to prove that Wolff was lying. When the chairman of the court, whom we would call the judge, asked the witness what he had to say to that, Wolff replied, “Herr Vorsitzende, ich bin ein alter Mann [Mr. Chairman, I’m an old man]. I can’t remember everything.” The chairman leaned forward and responded, “Herr Zeugnis [Mr. Witness], if I had been in the Warsaw ghetto, I would never have forgotten it!”

 

7. Witnessing Atrocity: The Testimonial Evidence

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Some time ago I was asked to examine the videotaped testimony of a woman who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Flossenbürg, and Mauthausen. Her father was Jewish, her mother was not. She said the Gestapo tortured her mother in 1938 after the November pogrom in an effort to force her to divorce her husband. According to her account, she worked in a Jewish hospital in Vienna, and was deported to Theresienstadt, along with its patients, in October 1941. Since she claims that she was present during the Red Cross visit to the camp, she must have been there at least until June 1944. Soon afterward, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she remained for nine months. Upon arrival she and the women with her were put in a room that was a combination shower and gas chamber. “I was lucky,” she insists; “the Germans decided to turn on the water instead of the gas.” Five times in four and a half years, she continues, she found herself in similar circumstances, and on each occasion her luck held out—water instead of gas. From Auschwitz, she informs us, she was sent to the main camp at Flossenbürg, where she worked in an aircraft factory. Finally she was evacuated, partly by death march and partly by boxcar, to Bergen-Belsen, where the camp was so overcrowded that her transport was sent to Mauthausen instead. There she lived in a barrack at the base of the quarry. On May 5, 1945, SS guards drove her and her fellow prisoners from their barrack up the steps of the quarry to a gas chamber, where they stood in the sunlight awaiting their fate. Only the arrival of American troops at that very moment rescued them from a horrible death.

 

8. Moralizing and Demoralizing the Holocaust

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Twenty years ago, scarcely a conference on the Holocaust could be held without someone solemnly citing these lines attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984): “When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church—and there was nobody left to be concerned.”1 In their eager search for lessons to be learned from the mass murder of European Jewry, speakers have seized on Niemöller’s words with fervent admiration, even though we have no exact written record of what he said. Moreover, few paid attention to the details of the warning, so crucial did its general message seem to be. Subjected to careful scrutiny today, those details reveal how the need for a positive lesson to emerge from the catastrophe of the “final solution” could seduce the critical faculty and lead it to embrace an appeal distinguished by neither logic nor historical truth.

 

9. Representing The Holocaust

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More than fifty years after its original appearance in print, Theodor W. Adorno’s admonition that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” remains a point of dispute for virtually every inquiry into the limits and possibilities of creating a literature about the Holocaust. Few readers know that Adorno’s stricture appeared at the end of a long and difficult essay written in 1949 called “Cultural Criticism and Society” which had little or nothing to do with Holocaust literature or the experience it sought to express. He was principally concerned with redirecting the critical intelligence away from “self-satisfied contemplation” so that the “consciousness of doom” that lay heavily upon society could achieve meaningful cultural expression. Rarely has a solitary decontextualized assertion seized the imagination with such authoritative force.1

Although the epigrammatic concision of Adorno’s maxim lends itself to quotation, this cannot be the sole reason for its continuing appeal. For example, in another essay Adorno also wrote that “All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage,”2 but few Holocaust commentators ever allude to this equally pungent view. Adorno’s aphorism unleashes an anxiety about the potential moral and aesthetic conflict between art and atrocity that threatens the quest for a form and style to represent the unthinkable. His contribution to the abiding challenge is to clear the mind of verbal and metaphysical cant and to remind us that this major disruption in what we used to call civilized behavior cannot be repaired so as to make it seem as if no damage had been done. The breach might not lead to muteness, but it steers us toward fresh premises and perceptions about language and society that future students of art and culture could not afford to ignore.

 

10. The Book of Genesis in the Art of Samuel Bak

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The Book of Genesis begins with the creation of the world and its first human occupants and ends with the death of Jacob, the last of the patriarchs. A brief coda, the closing words of the narrative, announces the death of Joseph: “and they embalmed him and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”1 But this is not necessarily a melancholy image, since it prepares the reader for the Book of Exodus where Moses will lead the Jewish people out of bondage on a journey through the desert toward a Promised Land. The Torah ends with the death of Moses, but here again the passing of a great leader is only the harbinger of a more expansive future.

This, however, is only one strain of a multi-layered story. Scarcely has Genesis begun when an act of disobedience shatters the infinitude of the initial creation and girdles time with the stricture of mortality. Soon after, fraternal rivalry initiates a pattern of violence that will become a defining feature of human history. One of the first inquiries in Hebrew Scripture is “Where is thy brother Abel?” to which Cain replies: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” That question echoes through the centuries to a peace-seeking civilization still groping for an appropriate response. The ending of Genesis provides a temporary answer, as Joseph is reconciled with his brothers when he responds generously to their plea for forgiveness. It is one of the many instances of tikkun, of healing or repair, that threads through the writings comprising the Jewish Testament. But other events within and beyond Scripture reveal the limited stamina of such a feat, confirming the need to reprise it through the ages.

 

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