DANIEL R. SCHWARTZ: John Hersey's The Wall, published in 1950, is a moving docu-fiction, an epic novel of the Warsaw ghetto. By docu-fiction, I mean a novel that has strong historical origins and pretends to be the telling of a true story. The story of the ghetto is oft been told.
Yet often when read by someone steeped in this literature, it is surprising how full a fictional account Hersey presents. That he did not have the accounts of Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, Nora Levin, and Martin Gilbert, makes his novel quite amazing in its depth and understanding. Hersey was a non-Jewish journalist who exhaustively researched a subject to produce a compelling work of popular fiction, albeit one perhaps, a tad longer than necessary and slightly repetitious.
Hersey focuses on individual acts of resistance and, later, the heroic rebellion. But he does not give credit to the Jewish acceptance of divine will. It is easy to look down from the steep and icy peak of our contemporary vantage point.
But it is more profitable to inquire why such a book fulfilled the needs and desire of its 1950 audience. Hersey uses the techniques of the discovered manuscript buried by a historian and archivist, Noach Levinson, in the Warsaw ghetto, and edited and arranged by an imaginary editor. The catalyst for Hersey's imagination was probably the diary of Hillel Seidman, and the archives coordinated by Emanuel Ringelblum, and the Oneg Shabbat group he led, archives that were uncovered in 1946.
While Ringelblum was, in part, the model for Levinson, some of the material that became Notes From the Warsaw Ghetto was not discovered until December, 1950, after Hersey's novel was published. Within Hersey's fictional universe, Levinson is a writer and famous scholar who wrote books entitled The Diaspora and the Customs. He is a lonely man, an outsider, and an observer of life who finds community, family, and commitment within the ghetto.
Hersey creates an imaginary editor whose, quote, "Editor's Prologue," unquote, scrupulously explains his method of editing Levinson's manuscript. In the novel, Levinson is one of those who escape. But he did not survive the war.
His recording of conversations supposedly explains how he knows everyone's intimate feelings. But he would have needed to have been a tape recorder to get these conversations right. The artifice of the diary does create problems. How Levinson, even as a judenrat official, could have known so much defies probability. Notwithstanding, the fictional editor's explanation that Levinson became obsessive in his task of historian.
In 1950, historical fiction posing as fact accomplished the effect Hersey sought. For his novel helped reawaken the anesthetized American, and even some elements of assimilated Jewish consciousness which, after the Nuremberg Trials, became preoccupied with the Cold War, and wanted to repress the American role of neglecting the atrocities. Hersey writes to give a fictional version of historical cause and effect as it impacts a particular group of people living in the Warsaw ghetto.
Hersey immersed himself in Holocaust material, diaries, organization records, statistics, medical histories, and songs about the Warsaw ghetto. He arranged for the translation of this material from Yiddish and Polish. It is noteworthy that Hersey's concept of the Jew is of an ideal universal man and draws upon humanistic as opposed to observant Jewish stereotypes.
He eschews the tradition of mystical faith and elaborate ritual that marked orthodox life in the Jewish ghetto. He is very conscious of writing for both the American Jewish community and for a liberal, democratic, postwar audience of Americans who have participated in the war effort and want to find meaning in historical events in 1950. For example, his principal narrator, Levinson, mocks the passivity of the ultra-orthodox, who believe that they are in God's hand, and that they should be glad because they are going, quote, "to the Messiah," unquote, when they die.
The novel's final part deals with the uprising and escape of a tiny group through the sewers. Perhaps some contemporary readers will find the conclusion, with its moral epithet, sentimental and reductive. The ghetto wall is the central image in this novel.
Before concluding, let us discuss how Hersey's prose reflects his journalistic background. Hersey evokes visual impressions of what it is to live behind the wall. His detailed unadorned prose is that of a keen observer, the creation of someone who spent many years as a reporter for the magazine Time, and knew of Time's understated, reportorial style.
His unit of prose is more the paragraph than the striking phrase or illusion. He tells his story with a sense of the geography of Warsaw's streets and with an eye for extrinsic details. He deftly uses accretion of phrases that give a sense of the turmoil of the people living in Warsaw's ghetto.
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In this room we shall examine the relationship among memory, imagination, and telling of the Holocaust in specific examples of memoirs, diaries, novels, fables, and cartoons. Not only will we discuss the powerful narratives of witnesses such as Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank, but also important novels, fables and cartoons about the Holocaust. Our goal is to understand the diverse ways the Holocaust has been rendered and how those ways of telling have shaped our understanding of the events of the 1933-45 period in Europe.
This video is part 8 of 11 in the Imagining the Holocaust series.