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.
Only the impression of absolute accuracy, it seems, can absolve the writer and the reader from our lingering sense that the Holocaust should not be represented at all. This fear comes from our recognition that representation itself, regardless of its content, is a powerful source of pleasure. We are notoriously capable of taking aesthetic pleasure in the acting out of things that would disgust us in real life: We pay to see performances of Oedipus Rex or King Lear, both of which culminate in scenes in which a character’s eyes are gouged out. But to take this kind of pleasure in representations of the Holocaust seems like a betrayal of our responsibilities toward it. It is too real, too recent, and too overwhelming to offer any kind of catharsis to the spectator—or at least, we feel, it should be.
In fact, a good definition of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, especially for contemporary American Jews, is that it is the only historical event that places us permanently in the wrong. We can never remember it enough, we can never atone for it enough—and we can never be sure that we are remembering it and atoning for it in the right way. This discomfort applies especially to works of Holocaust fiction, since fiction is a genre we customarily read “for pleasure.” Surely we do not read books like Night and The Painted Bird for pleasure—but then, is it any more legitimate to read a Holocaust novel for instruction or enlightenment? From there, it seems a small step from to believing that the Holocaust itself was in some sense staged for our instruction and enlightenment—that it is just another historical event in which we can find an uplifting “moral.” And this, too, offends against our sense of the Holocaust’s absolute negation. As Wiesel put it, it is “the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted.”
But an untransmittable event is as impossible as a private language. Indeed, once a Holocaust survivor starts to write about his experiences, as Wiesel did in Night, he requires forms, genres, and techniques to communicate his story, and these cannot be absolutely new: They have precedents in earlier kinds of stories. Even if the Holocaust is sui generis, the Holocaust novel is the species of a genus, a genre—the novel itself.
With Night, it’s possible to be even more specific than that. Wiesel’s book takes its place fairly readily in a tradition of French existentialist fiction that includes Camus’ The Stranger and Gide’s The Immoralist. Like those books, Night is a short, spare novel, highly abstract and stylized, in which the main character’s absurd experiences cast doubt on the existence of God and the validity of conventional morals. Take, for instance, his description of the evacuation of prisoners from Auschwitz in Poland to Buchenwald in Germany in the face of the approaching Red Army. This death march was the last phase of the Holocaust, and in Night it leads to the death of the narrator Eliezer’s father, the book’s climactic loss:
All I had to do was to close my eyes for a second to see a whole world passing by, to dream a whole lifetime. An endless road. Letting oneself be pushed by the mob; letting oneself be dragged along by a blind destiny. … We were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everything—death, fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere numbers, we were the only men on earth.
In addition to the horror of this scene, there is also, in Wiesel’s telling, a definite existential glamour. In being reduced to the bare minimum of life, mere forward motion without aim, the prisoners are initiated into the truth of human existence; like the anti-heroes of so many modern philosophical novels, they are exemplary in their abnegation and despair. This is what makes them not prisoners, in Wiesel’s words, but “masters of the world.” In literary terms, they are cousins of Camus’ Sisyphus, whose superiority lies in his conscious acceptance of the nullity of his efforts.
The corollary to this recognition is Eliezer’s acceptance of the falsehood of God. At the very beginning of Night, before the Jews of Sighet, Romania, have been deported en masse, we are introduced to the character of Moshe the Beadle, a poor man who is also a mystic and kabbalist. Moshe is certain that “Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers. We can’t understand them.” Soon Moshe is swept up, along with all foreign Jews in Sighet, and deported. He alone makes his way back to the town, bearing unbelievable news: The Jews in his transport were massacred by the Gestapo and buried in a mass grave. But the people of the town refuse to believe him: “They take me for a madman,” he complains.
Just as man could not understand God, Wiesel implies, men who live in peace cannot understand those who have seen the Holocaust. The survivor has taken God’s place as the bearer of an inscrutable truth. This substitution is hinted at in the book’s most famous scene, when a young child is hanged at Auschwitz between two adults—like Christ crucified between two thieves. “Where is God now?” a witness asks, and Wiesel writes, “I heard a voice within me answer him: Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.” Once again, the ultimate truth that once belonged to God now belongs to the Holocaust victim. Only in Auschwitz do we see the absolute vulnerability and helplessness of mankind, and the impotence of the divine.
What this suggests, however, is that in Auschwitz the truth of human life is revealed with exceptional clarity. Night, as has been frequently observed, is a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, in which all the lessons are terrible ones. Late in the novel, when Elie’s father is dying, a fellow prisoner urges the boy not to give up his own rations to help his father. “Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else,” the man tells Elie. But is this not the same kind of “realism” we so often hear about the world itself—that man is a wolf to man, that it’s “every man for himself”? To go to school in Auschwitz is to learn earlier and more powerfully the same lessons of cruelty and absurdity that the world itself will eventually teach.
In this sense, what Wiesel learns in Night is what every child who reads Night will also have to learn: that man is capable of the worst, that there is no help from God, that nothing has any permanent value. And the universal bearing of these lessons works against Wiesel’s later claim that the Holocaust is “never to be comprehended or transmitted.” This is one of the effects of placing a child at the center of a Holocaust novel. Because the child grows up into the Holocaust as he grows up into the world, the world and the Holocaust come to reflect one another: He is educated into the only reality he has ever known, and the writer defies us to deny that it is our reality too.
That challenge is still more powerful and defiant in The Painted Bird, because the world Jerzy Kosinski depicts is so grotesquely distorted. When Wiesel presents the reader with an image that seems incredible—for instance, a pit full of the burning corpses of children—he does so with such sobriety and terror that the word “incredible” becomes hollow. Our reluctance to acknowledge the possibility of such a thing happening becomes an indictment of our own cowardice, not of the stroyteller’s veracity. The mirror of the novel is so clear that whatever it reflects must be accepted as true.
With Kosinski, things are not so simple. The horrors that fill The Painted Bird are not the actual horrors of the Holocaust, with which we are familiar from so many accounts. They are, rather, horrors out of the Brothers Grimm, fairy-tale episodes that defy reality in a much more conventional and literary manner. When the nameless child-narrator of The Painted Bird is left by his parents with a peasant woman for the duration of the war, for instance, she is not merely cold or unloving—she is literally a witch, like in “Hansel and Gretel”: “I began to live in her hut. It was a two-room dugout, full of piles of dried grasses, leaves, and shrubs, small oddly shaped colored stones, frogs, moles, and pots of wriggling lizards and worms. In the center of the hut caldrons were suspended over a burning fire.”
Though the novel is set during World War II, it takes place in a series of Polish villages that seem absolutely medieval: Everyone believes in magic and the evil eye, and modern technology is virtually absent. The forms of cruelty Kosinski writes about, therefore, are not the mechanized violence and bureaucratic indifference that drove the actual Holocaust, but the sort of hyper-imaginative sadism familiar from medieval legends. At various moments, the narrator of The Painted Bird is buried up to his neck in the dirt as crows try to peck out his eyes, forced under the ice in a frozen pond, and dropped into a cesspit full of crawling maggots. Kosinski carefully describes a rabbit that is skinned alive, running around the yard as its flesh hangs down in flaps, and a man who is dropped into a pit of rats and reduced to a skeleton.
Most unsettling of all, the atrocities in The Painted Bird become more and more explicitly erotic. A long passage describes the narrator, a prepubescent boy, learning how to manually and orally excite a woman named Ewka; later Ewka is seen copulating with a goat, and her brother rapes a rabbit. Kosinski even echoes Sophocles and Shakespeare by including a scene of eye-gouging. The victim is a teenage boy who has been lusting after a miller’s buxom wife:
The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and rolled down the miller’s hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and shrieked, but the miller’s hold kept him pinned against the wall. Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boy’s cheek as if uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto the floor.
There is so much of this Grand Guignol in The Painted Bird that it’s hard to imagine why any reader ever took it for a true autobiography—though they did, including Elie Wiesel, who reviewed it warmly in the New York Times. Kosinski is reflecting the world in a funhouse mirror, not a Stendhalian one, and as in a funhouse—or a horror movie—there is something chillingly pleasurable about the images he produces. Finally, it is this admission of pleasure, even in perverse and disgusting form, that makes Kosinski feel genuinely scandalous. Next to the moral and literary chastity of Night, The Painted Bird reads like pornography.
Yet even Kosinski is writing a kind of Bildungsroman. One of the recurring themes of The Painted Bird is the narrator’s attempt to discover a logical key to the nightmare universe he inhabits. First he puts his faith in Christianity and starts praying obsessively in order to accumulate indulgences in heaven. When this tactic fails, he decides that the real ruler of the world, the God he must propitiate, is Satan:
A man who had sold out to the Evil Ones would remain in their power all his life. From time to time he would have to demonstrate an increasing number of misdeeds. But they were not rated equally by his superiors. An action harming one person was obviously worth less than one affecting many. … But hatreds of large groups of people must have been the most valuable of all. I could barely imagine the prize earned by the person who managed to inculcate in all blond, blue-eyed people a long-lasting hatred of dark ones.
This does not read like a convincing account of a child’s moral reasoning. It is mock-naive, just as the evils in The Painted Bird are mock-evils, designed by an adult for the palates of adult readers. A real child, one feels, would respond to the Holocaust with the earnest despair of Night, rather than with Kosinski’s diabolism.
This makes it all the more troubling that the future of the Holocaust novel may well lie with The Painted Bird rather than Night. Last year, for example, Yann Martel published Beatrice and Virgil, a meta-Holocaust novel in which he argued for the right of the novelist to treat the subject with imaginative freedom. “Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality?” Martel asked, challenging the moral imperative of the faithful mirror. He proceeded to write a parable of the Holocaust involving a donkey and a monkey, who are actually pictures embroidered on the back of a shirt.
This urge to represent the Holocaust through grotesquerie and distortion will surely only increase in the years to come, as the survivor generation dies out and new writers try to come to terms with the experience in new ways. Right now, we are on the cusp of the Holocaust’s passage from memory into history. Once that transformation is complete, The Painted Bird may seem less troubling than it does today, when the austerity of Night still sounds like the voice of our conscience.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.