Elie Wiesel’s Night and Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird established the child’s perspective as a useful lens for confronting the Holocaust
If Jewishness today is a product of storytelling, just as much as religious observance or political allegiance, then the central Jewish story—the one we can’t stop telling ourselves, much as we might sometimes hope for a respite—is the Holocaust. For most American Jews, the moment of initiation into that story—at home, in synagogue or Hebrew school, or in the pages of a book—is the real coming of Jewish adulthood, far more than a bar or bat mitzvah. To learn about the Holocaust is to banish childhood, with its unquestioning sense of security and identity, and to be plunged into the adult world, with its knowledge of the reality of evil, the absence of true safety, and the persistence of hatred and violence.
This kind of traumatic awakening comes to everyone, of course, but for a Jewish child learning about the Holocaust it comes early and in an especially personal form. In David Bezmozgis’ scandalous, compassionate story “An Animal to the Memory,” a Hebrew school student is punished for wrecking a display on Holocaust Remembrance Day; the story ends with the rabbi holding the child in a painful grip and shouting, “Now, maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.” Not since Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” has a writer so economically expressed the sense that initiation into Jewishness means the infliction of pain—a pain that can’t be rejected, like most parental impositions, as gratuitous or neurotic, but that history forces us to acknowledge is necessary and true.
To grow up into a world in which the Holocaust was possible is a difficult burden. No wonder, then, that readers have always been drawn to stories of children who grew up during the Holocaust itself. When it comes to exploitatively sentimental works like the movie Life Is Beautiful, the appeal of a child-centered story can seem cynical: The suffering of the innocent is a surefire way of delivering an emotional charge. But the most serious books about the Holocaust are also disproportionately about young people, from The Diary of Anne Frank to Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness to Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies. Even fraudulent memoirists like Benjamin Wilkomirski and Misha Defonseca pay a twisted tribute to the power of the genre by inventing Holocaust childhoods for themselves.
Two novels, above all, helped to establish the moral authority of the child’s perspective on the Holocaust. Night, by Elie Wiesel, was first published in France in 1958; seven years later, Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird appeared in the United States. Both writers were child survivors of the Holocaust—Wiesel was deported at 15 from Romania to Auschwitz, while Kosinski, born in 1933, lived in hiding with his family in Nazi-occupied Poland. Both men drew on these early experiences in their books, producing works that were widely read as factual autobiographies, even though they were technically novels and employed clearly novelistic techniques.
Yet as Ruth Franklin points out in her superb recent study A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, the reputations of the two books, and of their authors, could not be more dramatically different today. Night marked the beginning of Wiesel’s long career as a public sage, a living reminder of the moral and political lessons of the Holocaust; in 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Thanks in part to its brevity and simplicity of style, Night has been a staple of high-school reading lists for decades. In 2006, the book won a new generation of readers when it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, sitting atop the best-seller list for a year and a half.
Kosinski, on the other hand, fell dramatically from grace in the last decade of his life, dragging The Painted Bird down with him. Always a mysterious and theatrical man, he became embroiled in accusations that he had not lived the experiences in his book, despite his claims that “every incident is true.” What’s more, it began to be whispered that Kosinski had not even written his books, but employed teams of assistants to turn his Polish into stylish English prose. When Kosinski took his own life in 1991, it was seen less as a belated martyrdom—as in the case of another Holocaust writer, Primo Levi—than as the aftermath of scandal.
If someone handed you copies of Night and The Painted Bird and asked you to predict, strictly on the basis of reading them, which book’s author would end in sainthood and which in scandal, the answer would be all too easy. Wiesel’s book is lucid, convincing, heartbreaking, morally serious, and explicitly Jewish; Kosinski’s is shadowy, dreamlike, grossly exaggerated, bizarrely erotic, and leaves the Jewishness of its protagonist a standing mystery. Night, one might say, represents the superego of Holocaust fiction, while The Painted Bird is its roiling id. But this very difference is what makes it so revelatory to read the books side by side—and to discover how much they have in common as primers on a world defined by the Holocaust.
One of the chief ambitions of the modern novel was expressed by Stendhal, almost 200 years ago, in The Red and the Black: “A novel, gentlemen, is a mirror carried along a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure of the sky, sometimes the mire of the puddles on the road.” When he wrote this manifesto for realism, Stendhal was on the defensive; he was urging the reader who objected to his immoral story to blame not the novelist but the world he reflected, in which evil could flourish. When a survivor writes a novel about the Holocaust, however, the defense is no longer necessary: No one thinks to blame Wiesel or Kosinski for depicting the horrors they lived through. On the contrary, now it is the absolute, unblemished clarity of the mirror that becomes a moral imperative. The more detailed and unstylized picture a Holocaust novel presents, the more likely we are to trust it.
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