Sunday, May 01, 2011

Reading the Holocaust

Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jean Améry once said that he would like to “introduce certain Auschwitz books into the upper classes of secondary school as compulsory reading,” although he never named the books he would assign. (His own Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, published in German in 1966 and translated beautifully into English by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld in 1980 under the title At the Mind’s Limits, would have to be among them.)

On Thursday the Forward published its version of such a reading list. Organized in alphabetical order and consisting of twenty-two items—starting off, in fact, with Améry’s book—the Forward bibliography is a convenient listing of essential titles.

I have few quarrels with it. I would not have included Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which has never impressed me as anything more than a derivative account of the Holocaust (its only claim to originality is to narrate Auschwitz in cartoons), but otherwise the list is pretty good. I’d like to re-do it, however, by putting the books in order and making a few different and additional recommendations. The literature of the Holocaust is so vast that newcomers to the subject are disheartened from beginning.

(1.) Elie Wiesel, Night (Yiddish [longer version], 1955; French, 1958; English, 1960). Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that Wiesel is not a great writer. Nevertheless, there is no better book for introducing first-time readers to the horrors of Auschwitz. Wiesel’s lack of finish—even his occasional “corniness,” for lack of a better word—contribute to the book’s immediacy and lasting effect.

(2.) Otto Friedrich, The Kingdom of Auschwitz (1994). Originally a 1982 article in the Atlantic, the book version is expanded but still astonishingly short at just over one hundred pages. It is an explicitly third-hand account of the Nazi Vernichtungslager, which aims to synthesize an enormous amount of historical and literary knowledge.

(3.) Tadeusz Borowski, The Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Polish, 1946, 1948; English, 1967). The greatest writer of Holocaust fiction was not even Jewish. Borowski was a Polish Communist who was condemned to Auschwitz for political crimes, and witnessed the extermination of European Jewry first-hand. Unlike Wiesel, he does not inflate his language or heighten the emotional appeal. The very flatness of his reporting, in words that could have been chiseled in stone, makes his stories unforgettable. Yale University Press will release Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories translated by Madeline G. Levine in October. Borowski’s stories invented Holocaust literature.

(4.) Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews (1975). The fourth English-language history after Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of European Jewry (1961), and Nora Levin’s Holocaust (1968), Dawidowicz’s book is still the best introduction to the history of the Holocaust. At 353 pages, not counting the back matter, it is relatively short and manageable; more importantly, it is well-written; most important of all, it advances a provocative thesis, implicit in the title, which has influenced the study of the Holocaust ever since. Having got this far, the reading can become more focused and intense.

(5.) Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (2004). As I have written elsewhere, there is a fundamental distinction between the Holocaust and the Final Solution. The former is the Jews’ name and represents the victims’ point of view; the latter, the Germans’ and the perpetrators’ point of view. No one is better than Browning at tracing the development of the German Nazis’ policy of genocide, although Saul Friedländer’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997, 2007) is another compelling historical account of events from within the thousand-year Reich. Browning also champions an influential and provocative position on the Shoah, which stands in opposition to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Browning’s position is summed up by the title of his earlier book about a police battalion that murdered Jews in Poland: Ordinary Men (1992).

(6.) Primo Levi, If This Is a Man (Italian, 1958; English, 1960). Now available under the misleading title Survival in Auschwitz, Levi’s is an Auschwitz memoir for adults. Unlike Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, Levi does not try to find a “meaning” in the Lager; he does not believe that suffering ennobled the Jews who were gassed and burned there. A chemist by training and profession, Levi turned an objective and analytical eye upon Auschwitz. He became the greatest memoirist of the Holocaust.

(7.) Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits (German, 1966; English, 1980). His position is best summed up by the title of one of the five essays in the book: “The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew.” Améry is best known, however, for examining the fate of the intellectual in Auschwitz. Primo Levi replied in a chapter of The Drowned and the Saved (1986), his last book.

(8.) David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (1996). A great Jewish scholar who pioneered the source-critical analysis of the Talmud, Halivni is an Auschwitz survivor who, like Elie Wiesel, grew up in the Transylvanian town of Sighet. His memoir, published when he was sixty-nine, might have been called “Survival After Auschwitz”—survival not merely of one individual, but of an Orthodox Jewish modus vivendi the German Nazis threatened (but failed) to wipe out.

(9.) Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Hebrew, 1990; English, 1993). A gripping memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by one of its leaders—“Antek.” Edited and translated by Barbara Harshav, the book is also enormously informative. It is nearly a reference work in addition to a narrative reconstruction of the most important act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

(10.) Chaim Kaplan, Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary (written in Hebrew from September 1, 1939, to August 4, 1942; published in English translation in 1965). The diary that everybody knows is Anne Frank’s, but Chaim Kaplan’s is the single most important diary to come out of the Shoah. Kaplan lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and participated in the Oyneg Shabes collective history project. A Hebrew teacher and Orthodox Jew, he watched the approach of the German destruction through the lens of Jewish concepts and categories. Bearing witness through his diary was, for him, as for all of the “ghetto scribes,” a holy obligation. Abraham Lewin’s ghetto diary, published in English under the title A Cup of Tears (1988), and Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (English, 1958), fill out the picture. If you can find it, Joseph Kermish’s collection of documents from the ghetto’s underground archive, To Live and Die with Honor (1986), belongs in every library. If you can’t find it—or even if you can—Who Will Write Our History? (2007), Samuel D. Kassow’s study of Oyneg Shabes, is an indispensable work of scholarship.

(11.) Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Sacred Fire (written in Hebrew from September 14, 1939, to July 18, 1942; English, 2000). The weekly divrei Torah of the “Piacezna rebbe,” delivered to his Hasidic followers in the Warsaw Ghetto, were first collected and published as Esh Kodesh in Israel in 1950 and quickly became a classic of Orthodox Jewish religious literature. The critic David G. Roskies distinguishes between literature of the Holocaust and literature from the Holocaust. Shapira’s sermons are a unique example of the Jewish response to the monstrous events as they unfolded. Nehemia Polen’s study The Holy Fire (1999) places Shapira in the context of both the Warsaw Ghetto and Jewish thought.

(12.) Etty Hillesum, Etty: The Letters and Diaries, 1941–1943 (written in Dutch from March 8, 1941, to October 13, 1942; English translation, 2002). Hillesum is beloved by Christian readers, who are deeply touched—and reminded of their own religious commitment—by her willingness to be a servant. She is largely unknown to Jewish readers, who avoid her as if she were the exclusive property of Christians. The unabridged edition of her diary was published in this country by Eerdmans, a Protestant publishing house in Grand Rapids. Yet Christians are keenly aware of the dangers of “appropriationism,” showing a respect for her that she has been denied by the Jews. She is one of the best writers to come out of the Holocaust, and among the most deeply moving—even if her religiosity is not traditionally Jewish.

(13.) Moshe Flinker, Young Moshe’s Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe (written in Hebrew from November 24, 1942, to after September 1943; English translation, 1965). The diary of a seventeen-year-old Dutch Jew kept while his family was in hiding from the Nazis in Brussels. Less practical and detailed, more conscious of the approaching end and its place in Jewish history and thinking, Flinker’s diary is more representative of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust than Anne Frank’s.

(14.) Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944 (written in Yiddish from September 6, 1939, to September 17, 1944; English translation, 2002). A monumental and comprehensive first-hand account of the destruction of Vilna, the cultural center of Eastern European Jewry, which records not merely the Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews, but also its war against Jewish culture.

(15.) André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just (French, 1959; English, 1961). Although the first American novel about Auschwitz was Meyer Levin’s Eva (also published in 1959), the first Holocaust bestseller in America was Schwarz-Bart’s Prix-de-Goncourt-winning novel, based on the legend of the thirty-six just men who, unknown to themselves, keep the world alive.

(16.) Piotr Rawicz, Blood from the Sky (French, 1961; English, 1964). The autobiographical novel of a Ukrainian Jew from Lvov who passes as a Gentile to escape the Nazis, but is captured and imprisoned in an extermination camp.

(17.) Jiri Weil, Life with a Star (Czech, 1964; English, 1989). A slim hard-headed graceful novel about a Jew who pretends to kill himself, then hides from the Nazis in occupied Prague.

(18.) Henryk Grynberg, The Jewish War (Polish, 1965) and The Victory (Polish, 1969; English translation in one volume, 1993). Two short novels about a Jewish family that survives the Holocaust by moving through a series of hiding places, finally pretending to be the family of a Polish officer captured by the Nazis. In the second volume, they desperately await the advance of the Red Army.

(19.) Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (Hebrew, 1974; English, 1980). A novel about Austrian Jews gathered in an Alpine resort, unaware of the approaching Holocaust.

(20.) Tova Reich, My Holocaust (2007). A ferocious satire on Holocaust kitsch and possessiveness among American Jews. Not to every taste.

(21.) Miklós Radnóti, Foamy Sky (Hungarian, 1946; English, 1972). Written in pencil in a small exercise book, Radnóti’s posthumous collection Tajtékos ég contains odes to his wife, letters, and poetic fragments.

(22.) Abraham Sutzkever, Di festung: lider un poemes geshribn in vilner geto un in vald, 1941–1944 (Yiddish, 1945; English, 1981). The definitive English-language edition of Sutzkever’s work was published in 1991 under the title Selected Poetry and Prose by the University of California Press. In addition to his ghetto poems, the volume contains pre- and post-Holocaust poems and prose.

(23.) David G. Roskies, ed., The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (1989). A masterful anthology which places the “literature from the Holocaust” in a tradition of Jewish writing about political evil.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

I'd add Grossman's "Life and Fate"

D. G. Myers said...

Of course you’re right. Great novel. Might also consider the Black Book of Russian Jewry that Grossman edited.

To say nothing of the other Grossman—David Grossman—who wrote See Under: Love.

Is it, however, too much to suggest that each of these books is a course of study on its own?

eamonnmcdonagh said...

definitely true of "Life and Fate"