On the Bookshelf
Horror’s afterlife: new writing about the Holocaust
Can anyone—especially anyone who reads book reviews—doubt that the Holocaust is still with us? Even as the horrors themselves grow more distant, scholars continue to demonstrate how the Holocaust still resonates. In Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma (Columbia, November), for one instance, the psychoanalytically inclined literary scholar Gabriele Schwab reads second-generation narratives by Germans and Jews—including Ruth Kluger, Georges Perec, W.G. Sebald, and Sabine Reichel—to explore the ways that the crimes of 1939 to 1945 play out decades later for descendants of victims and perpetrators both. Delayed responses to trauma interest Schwab for personal reasons, she explains: Not until 1987, when she was already a professor in California, did she realize that Jews might have once lived in Tiegen, the small German town on the Swiss border where she had grown up.
The idea of trauma passing from one generation to the next does not sit well with all observers of post-Holocaust art and memorials. In The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, October), Richard Crownshaw examines recent artistic and memorial responses to the Holocaust—not to mention the trauma theory that grows atop such representations—with a measured skepticism about the increasingly accepted idea that trauma can be transmitted, passed along from the Nazis’ victims to people who weren’t born, in many cases, until half a century after the war.
Writing for The New Republic and other respected publications, Ruth Franklin has constructed a rather impressive career as a non-academic critic who focuses her energies largely on literary responses to the Holocaust—which in and of itself says something about the proliferation of such texts. (It tells us, specifically, that “Holocaust literature” is, at least according to the editors of intellectual magazines, as deserving and sensible a critical specialization as American, British, French, or Russian literature, if not even more so.) Franklin’s first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford, November), reexamines canonical texts in this tradition—Wiesel, Levi, Borowski, Rawicz, Sebald—arguing that readers should be less uptight about factuality in representations of the Holocaust (a point the box office and critical acclaim for Inglourious Basterds suggests is not such a hard sell, except to a handful of curmudgeonly hold-outs).
While critics debate the hows and whys of Holocaust representation, historians and artists continue to mine the archives for new Holocaust stories to tell, or old narratives they can relate in new ways. Dan Porat, who teaches at the Hebrew University, for one, reanimates that old cliché about a photograph and a thousand words. Taking a single iconic image from the Holocaust as his starting point, he spins out somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 words about it, tracing the biographies of the Nazi soldiers and Jewish victims in the scene from their prewar lives until the death of the last survivor. The result is The Boy: A Holocaust Story (Hill & Wang, October), an unusual project that UCLA’s David Meyer characterizes as “provocatively pushing the limits of the historian’s craft.”
In some cases, it seems that stories are retold just for the sake of retelling them. It will never stop astonishing us that Raoul Wallenberg saved so many Hungarian Jews, and it will never stop troubling us that great artists accommodated themselves to the Vichy regime—and we will never stop, it seems, having new books to read on these subjects. The most recent examples, in these two categories, respectively, are The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II (Da Capo, October), by the prolific British journalist Alex Kershaw, and And the Show Went On (Knopf, October) by Alan Riding, a longtime cultural correspondent for The New York Times. Unlike trauma victims who return in memory, again and again, involuntarily, to their difficult experiences, these returns to well-trod ground seem to be produced primarily by the inefficiencies of the book market.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t new ways of understanding the horrors of the Holocaust, or less familiar narratives to present. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic, October) is an example of the former. Shifting the frame of reference and unsettling accepted pieties in the study of Eastern Europe under the Nazis and the Communists, Snyder argues that the Holocaust and Stalin’s terror need to be understood in relation to each other and in the context of the sustained and brutal exchanges of power in the lands between Berlin and Moscow. That’s where the vast majority of the Holocaust’s victims came from, along with many millions of others—Ukrainians and other nationals seen as expendable or threatening by continent-conquering dictators—who were purged or starved to death.
In the latter category: Christiane Kohl’s The Witness House: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa During the Nuremberg Trials (Other, September), translated from German by Anthea Bell, which describes the compound on the outskirts of Nuremberg that housed the prosecution, defense, and witnesses during the famous war crimes trials of 1945. What fascinates Kohl, a German journalist, is the idea that so soon after the killing stopped, members of the resistance and Nazi functionaries could bunk down as roommates—a fitting metaphor for postwar Europe as a whole, where the innocent and guilty would have to learn to live together.
Valuable as historical narratives and literary treatments of the Holocaust can be, the sound of a single survivor’s voice has astonishing power. In 1946, an American psychologist named David Boder traveled to Europe with a steel wire recorder and conducted interviews with 130 survivors of the catastrophe, Christian and Jewish, in nine languages. Already familiar to assiduous listeners of This American Life, and available for listening (and reading of interview transcripts in English translation) on an impressive website maintained by the Illinois Institute of Technology, Boder’s project is now the subject of Alan Rosen’s The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder (Oxford, October). Contextualizing the recordings in terms of early and later survivor testimony, Rosen—a former student of Elie Wiesel’s who now teaches at Yad Vashem in Israel—establishes Boder’s position among the earliest, heroic archivists of Holocaust testimony. And no fancy trauma theory is required to argue that Boder’s recordings still matter: Just give them a listen.