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On the Bookshelf

The term “post-Holocaust” raises conceptual problems, but a host of new books helps define it by exploring everything from Nazis on the run to Jews on the mend

Josh Lambert
August 01, 2011

“Post-Holocaust” is one of those unavoidable terms, like postmodern and postcolonial, that generates more conceptual problems than it solves—when, exactly, is the post-Holocaust period?—but it does reflect how much of the scholarly, literary, and popular attention that seems to be Holocaust-focused actually concerns itself not with the genocide itself but with what happened afterward. Anna Holian’s first book, Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany(Michigan, June), for example, attends to the 8 million displaced persons who found themselves in Germany in the spring of 1945, and especially to the Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews who were refugees in Bavaria, under American control. While these former death-camp inmates and prisoners of war waited for the world to figure out what to do with them, thousands of Nazis were evading justice by smuggling themselves across the Tyrolean Alps into Italy and from there to obscurity in the Americas. According to Gerald Steinacher’s Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice(Oxford, June), such criminals as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele managed to do so thanks to help from folks at the Red Cross, the Catholic church, and, eventually, the CIA, who sometimes, if not always, recognized that they were helping war criminals escape arrest.


One of the most difficult questions that remained after the war was how we should feel about Jews who served on Judenrat, collaborating with the Nazis in the hopes either of saving their own skins or, in some cases, improving conditions for their coreligionists. The thorniness of this issue explains why we now have, along with consideration by such thinkers as Primo Levi, Y. Y. Trunk, and Hannah Arendt, two major, full-length fictional treatments of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz ghetto: The first was Leslie Epstein’s tragicomic King of the Jews, published in 1979, and the new one, translated from Swedish, is Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies (FSG, August). In an afterword, Sem-Sandberg notes that “most of the testimonies of people who outlived Rumkowski … portray him as an unscrupulous careerist and collaborator who would go to some lengths to implement the decisions of the Nazi powers. And yet there was clearly a point at which even Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski felt obliged to look away and say no.” The novel “revolves around that moment.”

One of the stories translated and collected in Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation(Northwestern, June), written by the great Soviet Yiddish author Der Nister—famed as the author of obscure symbolist fictions and also the translator of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales into Yiddish—also concerns a Judenrat member, one not so reprehensible as Rumkowski but engaged in enough morally questionable behavior that his daughter feels she must right his wrongs in the resistance.


One oft-neglected post-Holocaust milestone, which signaled the growth in American interest in the genocide even before the Eichmann trial riveted the nation, was the selection of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by the Book of the Month Club, in 1960, which propelled it, proto-Oprah-like, to massive best-sellerdom. Journalist Steve Wick relies on Shirer’s letters and diaries in The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich(Palgrave Macmillan, August) to tell the story of his sojourn in Nazi Germany and the journalism he produced there. According to Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, Wick shares with his subject an ability to craft compelling narratives, but also a tendency to trip on the facts (Shirer was vilified by academics, and Evans says that Wick’s book is “full of errors”).


Novelists can’t help but stretch the post-Holocaust as far as it will go, teasing out the consequences of Nazi-era moral dilemmas into the present. Two current examples: Lawrence Douglas’ The Vices (Other, August), the sophomore novel by a legal scholar who has analyzed Holocaust war crimes trials, begins with the mysterious death of Oliver Vice; as the narrator attempts to explain why a successful 41-year-old philosopher would disappear, one important clue is the fact that “Weiss” is “a typical German Jewish surname” that is “pronounced—,” well, refer back to the title. Pam Jenoff, also a lawyer, has made a career intertwining Holocaust-era plots with contemporary ones in such novels as Almost Home and A Hidden Affair, while also penning the more straightforward historical romances The Kommandant’s Girl and The Diplomat’s Wife. Her latest, The Things We Cherished (Doubleday, July), has both contemporary and historical elements and focuses on the amours of two litigators charged with defending a wealthy man accused of having committed war crimes in WWII.


A Holocaust victim lives on, nonfictionally, in Deborah Masel’s Soul to Soul: Writings From Dark Places(Gefen, August), an Australian Jewish educator’s chronicle of life with metastatic breast cancer. Masel—who, sadly, passed away last week—found inspiration in the face of death in the Warsaw ghetto leader, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who was shot in the Trawinki work camp in 1943. Masel herself edited one volume of his teachings, and, as she notes, he taught “that even after a teacher has died, when students study his works his lips will move in the grave.” Masel has kept Shapira alive, then, and Masel’s readers will do the same for her.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.