On the Bookshelf
Transfigurations: iterations of the Holocaust for Christian teens, boxing enthusiasts, bibliophiles, history buffs, and neo-Sebaldians
Don’t get excited: The title of Alvin Rosenfeld’s The End of the Holocaust (Indiana, April) isn’t meant to be taken literally. He recognizes that, if anything, the production of representations of and memorials to the Holocaust is accelerating. It’s just that, in his view, “the image of the Holocaust is continually being transfigured, and the several stages of its transfiguration, which one can trace throughout popular culture may contribute to a fictional subversion of the historical sense rather than a firm consolidation of accurate, verifiable knowledge.” In other words, Rosenfeld isn’t enthused that today’s teenagers are rather likely to have learned their World War II history from Quentin Tarantino. Yet it seems worth asking whether the Holocaust is different, in this sense, from any other historical event; has, say, the Spanish Civil War been exempt from such “transfiguration”?
Still, it’s undeniably true, that authors—Rosenfeld himself included—cannot seem to stop writing about the Holocaust, transfiguring it, adapting it to the particular medium or genre of their choosing. And, yes, this can be creepy. Lydia and Heather Munn offer How Huge the Night (Kregel, April), a Holocaust novel for Christian teens, in which Jews are saved by a Christian community, in France, who see the rejection of Nazism as fulfilling their faith: “Let us gather around Jesus Christ,” a pastor says to his flock, “and let us draw our thoughts and our words and our actions from his gospel, and only from his gospel. … Our duty as Christians is to resist the violence imposed on our consciousness, resist it by the weapons of the Spirit.” (Too bad this isn’t intended as a reference to Will Eisner.)
The Berlin Boxing Club (HarperTeen, May), Robert Sharenow’s second novel, also targets a particular subgroup of young adults; in this case, pugilism enthusiasts. In the book, an assimilated German Jewish teen trains in the sweet science with Max Schmeling and has to decide how much he can trust his mentor as the Nazis loom.
For the same reason that young adult authors occasionally write young adult Holocaust novels, photographers take some Holocaust pictures. Yuri Dojc’s Last Folio: Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia (Indiana, April) contains the haunting photographs he took of decayed Jewish texts rotting in “an abandoned Jewish school in eastern Slovakia, where time had stood still since the day in 1942 when all those attending it were taken away to the camps.” Treating books as “survivors” and “witnesses,” the images are another unsettling example of what the literary scholar Amy Hungerford has characterized as “the Holocaust of texts.”
Rosenfeld’s book carries blurbs from Elie Wiesel and Cynthia Ozick; coincidentally, or perhaps not, so does Geoffrey Hartman’s The Third Pillar: Essays in Judaic Studies (Penn, April). The book includes essays that, by the author’s admission, are “neither erudite nor highly specialized,” but that demonstrate what happens when a literary critic, a Wordsworth specialist and adept of Derridian theory, takes seriously the Jewish textual tradition. Hartman sounds a little like Rosenfeld here when he cautions that “to make the Holocaust a source of Jewish identity, of a new Jewish particularism, is as dangerous as ritually over-assimilating it to other catastrophes”—but note that Hartman has excluded from this book his “writings on the subject of the Holocaust,” reserving those “for a further publication.”
One of Rosenfeld’s main concerns is that “it is not primarily from the work of historians that most people gain whatever knowledge they may acquire of the Third Reich and the Nazi crimes against the Jews.” Yet, of course, historians continue to pump out studies of the Holocaust that are available to anyone who wants them. To wit: Peter Hoffman, who has published widely on German resistance, offers Carl Goerdeler and the Jewish Question, 1933-1942 (Cambridge, April), which concentrates on the Leipzig mayor who opposed the persecution of Germany’s Jews and aided the resistance until being hanged for treason in 1945. Life and Loss in the Shadow of the Holocaust: A Jewish Family’s Untold Story (Cambridge, June), by Rebecca Boehling and Uta Larkey, draws upon the correspondence of a large family, the Kaufmanns and Steinbergs, members of which spent the war in Germany, America, and Palestine, to describe daily life in all its variety during and after the years of the genocide. Antero Holmila, a Holocaust researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, who has published mostly in Finnish, contributes Reporting the Holocaust in the British, Swedish, and Finnish Press, 1945-50 (Palgrave Macmillan, June), which compares press coverage of the liberation of the concentration camps and the Nuremberg trials in England and Scandinavia.
Can we even distinguish between the work of historians and novelists? Not always, evidently: To produce the book that’s called The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel (FSG, April), Dieter Schlesak conducted interviews with survivors and perpetrators and combed through transcripts from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial. Translated from German, Schlesak’s book isn’t quite as “unique” as its publisher claims (compare it to Heimrad Bäcker’s “documentary poems,” for one obvious parallel), but it does offer the most thorough study in English of Victor Capesius, the titular half-Jewish Nazi pharmacist, who was personally responsible for many deaths. The book is a reminder that some of the artists who represent the Holocaust do so not to subvert, but rather to embrace, the methods and sources of professional historians.
In this week’s “Tell Me,” Tablet Magazine’s illustrated question-and-answer column, we revisit our dovish homeowner—and wait for some eggs to hatch