DANIEL R. SCHWARTZ: Hello, my name is Dan Schwartz. Welcome to our website entitled Imagining the Holocaust. I am the author of a recent book entitled Imagining the Holocaust. On this site we shall discuss narratives about the Holocaust, the term we use for Hitler's effort to eradicate Jews from Europe during his Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.
The book's memoirs, diary, novels, fantasies, cartoons that I shall discuss on this site testify to the ultimate failure of that effort to eradicate Jews. We cannot bring back the dead or the children and children's children that might have issued from them. But in the narratives I discuss, memory and imagination rescue these events for us.
There is a paradoxical Jewish saying. Quote, "Only the dead can forgive," unquote. What is the purpose of discussing a major imaginative text about the Holocaust? For one thing, it brings to the forefront the works that have given a human dimension to the Holocaust by focusing on the fabric of lived experience.
For another, it transforms that lived experience into universal terms that reach out to an audience for understanding and empathy half a century later. Moreover, historical perspectives cannot only be enriched, but actually presented by individual acts of imagination and memory. We all make use of the process of using stories to give the chaos of life form and shading.
Stories are attempts to impress and dominate our emotions and our ways of facing painful truths. We use language to understand ourselves, but also to escape and evade ourselves. Even as our narratives weave together empty space in our current lives and our personal history, they reveal the psyche of us tellers.
The imaginative energy of Holocaust fictional narratives transmuting facts into the crucible of art has become more and more prominent a part of how the collective memory of the Holocaust is shaped and survives. As the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC shows us, it is when Holocaust history is personalized and dramatized, when abstractions and numbers give way to human drama, that the distance between us and the victims closes. In a sense, Holocaust narratives rescue language from its perversion. In such terms as, quote, "Final solution," unquote, or the sign over the gates at Auschwitz, "Arbeit Macht Frei," quote, "work will make you free," unquote, an obscene falsehood suggesting that the purpose of the concentration camp was to reform inmates who would then earn their freedom.
While the British and US governments knew of the Holocaust, it was rarely mentioned in public. The end of the war brought shocking pictures of the camps. The post-war Nuremberg tribunals began a process which has continued to this day, of apportioning blame and responsibility. But nothing can bring back the dead and the generations lost through the so-called final solution.
When we write, 50 years later, of those who wrote as survivors, we bear a moral responsibility because we become witnesses to witnesses. We may have read volumes of testimony, theories of how words recuperate or do not recuperate the past. And we may have thought about the relationship between thought and memory.
If we are Jews, we feel identification with fellow Jews. Knowing that even if we lived outside Nazi control, members of our family, perhaps those we have heard of, perhaps that we do not know even existed, have perished. For me, reading the books I discuss in this study requires multiple optics.
At times, I feel as if I too were there in the camps as a witness. I feel the testimonies personally open my eyes to what the world sometimes would deny. But I also feel that the prior events, so distant, must continually be revived as a present.
Yet to do that, we need to explore memoirs and fictions, to understand how and why imagining the Holocaust works. Not merely for the authors and their original audience, but for us, some 55 years later. How do we imagine the extermination of an entire civilization?
Ordono said that it was barbaric to write poetry, which we should understand as a metaphor for imaginative literature after Auschwitz. But in truth, it is barbaric not to write poetry. In part, because if we do not write imaginative literature, how can there be a post-holocaust era?
We must write about the Holocaust of course, as Kenneth Seeskin points out, quote, "Silence can be taken for acquiescence or, in some circles, lack of interest," unquote. Put another way, those that perished rely on us to speak. Words have instrumentality when the word Jew becomes a fact or a thing, a star to be worn, a reason to be defiled.
Words also have materiality. When they fictively render that process into a text that lives in its effects on others. Narrative provides an order, a sequence, an explanatory concatenation that represents an unmediated form of prior reality.
Narrative shape events with meaning, purpose, and teleology. Narratives have words and a voice. Because of its witnesses, actual and imaginative, the Holocaust lives as narratives that become part of our lives.
I am focusing on the relationship between how narratives are told, their aesthetics, and how they mean their hermeneutics. I am interested too in how they mean differentially for diverse audiences. I see telling as a crucial act, all the more crucial because of the trauma of the originating cause.
Because we can never trust memory fully, a narration affects how a teller presents himself or herself, sometimes precede cause, the explanation for why a narrator is the person he or she is. Originally Holocaust testimonies like those of Wiesel, Levi, and Anne Frank, spoke to the unthinkable. Later, fictional narratives such as Hersey's The Wall, which documented day-to-day life in the Warsaw ghetto, were effective at opening the doors to Holocaust hell.
Perhaps as time passed, we have become somewhat anesthetized to concentration camp realism. And that realism has, for some, become slightly cliched. The exaggerations of Kozinski raised the stakes in the popular imagination, beyond which it was hard to go.
The mythic and metaphoric renderings of the Holocaust in works such as Epstein's King of the Jews and Spiegelman's Maus books, show how we no longer think of Holocaust narratives as objective truth or events, but as the dramatized consciousness of those seeking meaning and explanations, or as dramatizations of a mind seeking appropriate words and images to render experience that seems to defy understanding. But-- it might be argued-- this makes Holocaust writing no more than a special case of all writing.
Perhaps in 1998, metaphoric Holocaust novels written at a distance may work better for us. Even earlier, a book such as The Last of the Just, which combined mythic and epic overview with a kind of apocalyptic vision manque and alternated heightened and realistic language, effectively appealed to the desire for context and scope. The strand of Hyperbole looks back immediately to Kafka and Schultz, and earlier to a Jewish tradition that emphasized parable in folktale to writers such as Sholem Aleichem, for the purpose of illustrating values.
While The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Survival in Auschwitz established the high seriousness and intense attention to the actual facts that we expect, if not require, of Holocaust narratives, Appelfeld's mocking fables, Spiegelman's comics, Epstein's caricatures and dreamscapes, and Schwarz-Bart's use of myth and legend to structure his narratives are all departures from traditional naturalism and realism. Paradoxically, their very efforts to depart from mimesis, or representation, break down and show how the searing reality of the Holocaust resists these innovative forms.
And it is this tension between putative formal solutions and the inchoate resistance that is at the very center of these authors' artistic accomplishment that is our interest and concern. These more experimental authors acknowledged that representing the Holocaust, like all narrative representations, is a fiction, an illuminating distortion. But paradoxically, their reversion to documentary techniques-- for example, the unexpected photographs in Maus-- and specific detailed testimony of the death camps demonstrate an inner resistance to aesthetic decisions that undermine realism or solemnity.
They may fear, perhaps unconsciously, that such aesthetic decisions risked dishonoring the dead and trivializing the Holocaust. It may be that Holocaust narratives enable us to enter into the subjective world of participants and to respond to historical events from their perspective. By walking in their shoes, sharing their pain and fear within the hypothesis, quote, "As if," unquote, the reader of Holocaust texts live uniquely in fictive universes.
The limits of our language, [? Wittgenstein ?] taught us, are the limits of the world. The search for fictions to render the Holocaust, the quest for form and meaning, is different in degree but not kind from other artistic quests. And it does no dishonor to memory to say so.
If the Nazis succeeded in turning words into charred bone and flesh, skeletons that survived in terror, bodies almost completely deprived of their materiality, then writing about the Holocaust paradoxically restores the uniqueness of the human spirit by restoring the imaginative to its proper place and breathes new life into the materiality of victims and survivors. Were the victims to remain numb and mute, they would remain material without soul, as well as participate in an amnesia that protected the culprits.
Each of the books I shall be discussing depends on the power of content. And most depend on what we might call aesthetic minimalism. In his essay, quote, "After the Holocaust," unquote, Appelfeld has written, quote, "The problem, and not only the artistic problem, has been to remove the Holocaust from its enormous human dimensions and bring it close to human beings," unquote.
Unlike other art, which requires intensification, he argues that the Holocaust, quote, "Seems so thoroughly unreal," unquote, that we, quote, "need to bring it down to the human realm," unquote. In a folk version of the suffering lamentation and redemption in Jewish biblical and actual history, Shtetl Jews learned that falling down and getting up needed to be one motion if they were to survive.
Each of our narratives tells of individuals reclaiming their private identity and imagination. And that reclamation is a secularization of the traditional redemption theme. The intelligibility of history, even the place of evil in history, depends on reconfiguring it in imaginative and in somewhat [? aesthetic ?] terms. Many of our texts encode catastrophe without resort to apocalyptic visions.
Writers as diverse as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld, Tadeusz Borowski, John Hersey, and yes, even Anne Frank and Jerzy Kosinski all understand that as Langer puts it, quote, "The Holocaust does little to confirm theories of moral reality, but much to question the reality of moral theories," unquote. These writers understand that as Langer puts it, quote, "Auschwitz permanently destroyed the potency of the sedative we call illusion," unquote.
All of these writers understand how we domesticate the implausible and unthinkable into experiences within our ken of experience. What these words have in common is brevity, a spare style, a childlike vision of the adult world, an ingenuousness through which horrors are realized, the desire to humanize an experience without losing its mythic quality, and a structural principle that ostentatiously highlights in foregrounds some episodes at the expense of others. Each traces the devolution of an organic community in the face of the Nazi parasite.
For those of you who want more information about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, please go to the section entitled Historical Background.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
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 1 of 11 in the Imagining the Holocaust series.