On the other side of darkness; Holocaust Literature

Los Angeles Times
March 28, 2004 Sunday
Home Edition

On the other side of darkness;
Holocaust Literature An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work Edited
by S. Lillian Kremer Routledge: 1,500 pp., $295, two volumes

by John Felstiner, John Felstiner is the author of “Paul Celan: Poet,
Survivor, Jew,” which won the Truman Capote Award for Literary
Criticism, and editor of “Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan,”
which received translation prizes from the Modern Language Assn., the
American Translators Assn. and PEN West. He teaches at Stanford

Years ago in Long Island, I visited a Berlin-born poet, Ilse
Blumenthal-Weiss. As a young woman in 1921, having written to Rainer
Maria Rilke admiring his poetry, she’d evoked Rilke’s fervent
response about her good fortune, about the Jews’ God “to whom you
belong” because “every Jew is emplaced in Him, ineradicably planted
in Him, by the root of his tongue.”

Later, Blumenthal-Weiss had her own poetry to write. “Landscape With
Concentration Camp” begins: “The earth is black, the sky sheer
steel.” Although her husband was gassed at Auschwitz and her son
Peter murdered in Mauthausen, she survived Westerbork and
Theresienstadt. Her lines “For Peter” (1946) sound like this in

When they say Murder! I must learn

That this word, that this single term

Means you, means you a mere child’s blood,

You: Boyish! Jubilant! Brave moods! —

God taketh. One time hath God given.

You’re gone — and I should go on living?

When this woman in her 80s asked what brought me to see her and I
said I was studying Holocaust poetry, she drew a blank. What did that
phrase mean? The abstract topic now sounds callow, hollow, in the
face of Ilse’s loss and desolate voice.

Think too of the German-speaking Paul Celan, whose lexicon never had
the word “Holocaust” for what he’d been planted in, by the root of
his tongue. The German language “passed through frightful muting,
through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech,” he said,
and it “gave back no words for that which happened,” for das was
geschah. In the ballad-like “Deathfugue” (1945), he writes:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink.

“Black milk,” Schwarze Milch, which is a way of saying there are “no
words for that which happened.”

Celan’s voice makes us approach this very welcome “Holocaust
Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work” with a measure
of caution. For besides the word’s academic pigeonholing, we’ve
become habituated to a misnomer. From the Greek for “wholly burned,”
“Holocaust” echoes biblical Hebrew olah, meaning a burnt offering
whose smoke “rises” to God. Can this designate the slaughter of a
people emplaced in Him, as Rilke put it? Does the sacred aura of
“Holocaust” fit Celan’s poem “Psalm,” with its cry, “Blessed art
thou, No One”?

What’s more, and worse, for years the word, the fact, the Holocaust
specter, has been exploited by any person or faction with a
grievance, whether trite or momentous. Legal abortion is called a
Holocaust; Jewish victims are perpetrating their own Holocaust in the
Middle East; American Jewish assimilation is a Holocaust. Scare
tacticians crave that absolute alarm.

Against analogy-mongering we need the keen, deep sense that
literature can give, of how the European catastrophe actually
impinged on human bodies, personhood, spirit. To clarify contemporary
as well as historical imagination, we need the sound and texture and
tempo of one life after another after another.

That potency, which makes the now-indispensable misnomer also a prime
slogan, has given rise to a crucial question of definition: Whose
Holocaust? Twenty-one years ago an Israeli conference took the title
“Holocaust and Genocide” to acknowledge as well the Armenian
massacres of 1915. As for the Holocaust years 1933 to 1945, the
catchphrase “6 million” Jews is always in danger of turning glib, and
is anyway deemed inadequate, misleading. Didn’t the Holocaust extend
to Slavs, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled, mentally
ill and various political victims?

Well, yes and no. All these were designated victims, but not with the
same drastic and particular ferocity. Hitler’s “Final Solution” was
actually Endlosung der Judenfrage, “Final Solution to the Jewish
Question.” His “war against the Jews,” as the historian Lucy
Davidowicz called it, was different in kind as well as magnitude: a
“unique event with universal implications,” says survivor Elie

Although this unique two-volume encyclopedia, complete with an
in-depth introduction, more than 300 entries, nine appendixes,
several bibliographies and a thorough index, emphasizes the Jewish
experience, nowhere does the publisher’s brochure or the
encyclopedia’s preface use the word “Jews.”

We’re told that “from Homer’s ‘Iliad’ to the present day, writers
have striven to comprehend the spectacle of human inhumanity.” This
claim for a universal reach is borne out when “Holocaust Literature”
features many non-Jewish authors — Borges, Brecht, Camus, Delbo,
Grass, Mann, Styron — who wrote about fascism with little or no
focus on Jews. At the same time, other entries on non-Jewish authors
— Boll, Hersey, Hochhuth, Keneally, Milosz, Sartre, Schlink, Sebald,
D.M. Thomas — rightly focus on the Jewish fate. The fraught sense of
“Holocaust” will inevitably ricochet between universal and
particular, as the writer Meyer Levin knew too well in trying for
decades to reclaim from Broadway and Hollywood the Jewish identity of
Anne Frank’s diary.

What is meant by “Holocaust” literature? How wide and deep to cast
the net? As far as Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1919), Isaak
Babel’s “Story of My Dovecot” (1927)? To see these as foreshadowings
skews them, though at some deep stratum such visionary stories do
benchmark a continuum of terror.

At its center, “Holocaust” literature would mean writings by victims
and others on the Jewish catastrophe — first, works that somehow
emerged from Nazi-ridden Europe in as many as 20 languages, then what
has come later and from elsewhere. Beyond this core, it’s an open

Slowly over half a century, we’ve come to realize that countless
victims were jolted into creating songs and poems, diaries and
journals, letters and memoirs, eventually stories, novels and plays.
Even before the war, voices of alarm had emerged, notably Mordecai
Gebirtig’s 1938 song that begins, ‘S brennt, “It’s burning, brothers,
our shtetl’s burning!” Primo Levi published “If This Is a Man” in
1947, but only its later paperback version, “Survival in Auschwitz,”
thrust this unique memoir to the center of Holocaust memory. Now we
have a plethora of writings, down to the grandchildren of survivors.

At the heart of actual Holocaust experience, though still virtually
unknown, are graffiti that have been found scratched on the walls of
the Drancy transit camp outside Paris. Jews from Europe and North
Africa who’d found refuge in France beginning in 1938 were rounded up
by the French between 1942 and 1944 and sent from Drancy to
Auschwitz. Take Marcel Chetovy, age 17, who decoratively inscribed,
in French, this biography of himself and his father Moise: “Arrived
the 1st, deported the 31st July, in very very good spirits with hopes
of returning soon.” Elsewhere on the crowded cement wall, boldly
lettered, anonymous and challenging comprehension: Merci Quand Meme a
la France, “Thanks all the same to France.”

What tried-and-true canon, what aesthetic fits this bottomless
strangeness and poignance? Which theory of metaphor explains Celan’s
“Black milk of daybreak,” or a woman telling us summer dawn in
Auschwitz “was always black to me”? These questions hold for
children’s poems and drawings in Theresienstadt, sardonic ghetto
lullabies, Jerzy Kosinski’s brutal grotesque “The Painted Bird” and
Dan Pagis’ six-line ruptured Hebrew verse, “Written in Pencil in a
Sealed Boxcar”:

here in this transport

I Eve

with Abel my son

if you see my older son

Cain son of Adam

tell him that I

In the same vein, Celan spoke of “true-stammered,” “death-rattled,”
“prayer-sharp knives / of my / silence.” “Your singing, what does it
know?” he asked himself, Dein Gesang, was weiss er?

“Holocaust Literature,” bravely and ably edited by S. Lillian Kremer,
reflects various literary, socio-historical and psychological
approaches, especially from the earliest critics in this field:
Irving Halperin, George Steiner, Lawrence Langer, Edward Alexander,
Alvin Rosenfeld and Sidra Ezrahi. By now, so many monographs and
anthologies, courses and conferences abound, it’s hard to imagine a
time when only Anne Frank’s diary and Wiesel’s “Night” were generally
accessible in this country. Kremer’s informative, wide-ranging
introduction sees in Holocaust literature a uniquely compelling body
of testimony. As time wears on brutally, carelessly, the humanist
spirit itself has come under duress and needs attesting more than

Even a seasoned reader will find these entries on more than 300
souls, a hundred of them women, mind-stretching. They wrote in many
genres and languages: Yitzhak Katznelson, Avraham Sutzkever, Kadya
Molodowsky in Yiddish; Abba Kovner, Haim Gouri, Aharon Appelfeld in
Hebrew; Nelly Sachs, Gertrud Kolmar, Jurek Becker in German; Andre
Schwarz-Bart, Piotr Rawicz in French; Tadeusz Borowski in Polish;
Jiri Weil in Czech; the recent Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz in
Hungarian; and in English, Charles Reznikoff, Philip Roth, Cynthia
Ozick, William Heyen (the nephew and son-in-law of Nazi soldiers),
Irena Klepfisz (born in the Warsaw ghetto) and Bernard Malamud (but
his story “The Last Mohican” deserved mention, with its piercing
comic ironies).

More than a third of these figures are English-speaking, which may
seem overweighted. One also balks at meeting here an author who
“neglected the German genocide of the Jews,” or someone in whose
massive work “the Jewish issue occupies a relatively minor space,” or
another whose Holocaust “material … is only briefly — and rather
chaotically — narrated.”

Such misgivings seem trivial, given the richness of this
encyclopedia. There are omissions, though — most being inevitable,
some unfortunate. Here then are a few writers worth adding, if only
to give them Yad vaShem, “a monument and a name,” and to fill in the
dense landscape “after Auschwitz.” They have a claim on us, like
Felix Nussbaum’s 1942 self-portrait, in which the painter stares out
sidelong, exposing his yellow star and an identity card with his
German “Place of Birth” effaced.

Anne Frank and Moshe Flinker are here, yes, but let us add Yitshok
Rudashevski, who at 13 in 1941 started his Yiddish diary of the Vilna
ghetto: “An old Jew has remained hanging in the narrow passage of the
second story. His feet are dangling over the heads of the people
below.” In April 1943 Yitshok meets an escapee from the killing field
outside Vilna, “pale with wild eyes. His fur coat is completely
covered with lime.” His diary ends: “The rain lashes with anger as
though it wished to flush everything out of the world.” Such a
sentence stretches to breaking our Bildungsroman tradition, the
“portrait of the artist as a young man.”

Let us add Michal Borwicz, a poet in Warsaw’s clandestine 1944
anthology, “From the Abyss,” and Gebirtig as well as Hirsh Glik,
whose 1943 “Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letsten veg” (Never say
this is your final road) became the partisans’ anthem; and French
resistant Andre Verdet, for his Auschwitz sequence “the days the
nights and then the dawn”; and Romanian poet Benjamin Fondane, who
fought in the French army but was gassed as a Jew; and Robert Desnos,
whose verses are incised in the underground Holocaust memorial behind
Notre Dame. And Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss.

>From postwar fiction let us add Siegfried Lenz, for his superb novel
on Nazi oppression, “The German Lesson”; Anatoli Kuznetsov, for “Babi
Yar”; Wolfgang Borchert, Leon Uris, Uri Orlev and then Johanna Reiss
and Hans Peter Richter for their children’s books.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, the Tunisian Albert Memmi are
here, but by all means let us add Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jewish
emigrant to Paris, whose “Book of Questions” the catastrophe
undermines on every page. By that gauge, too, weren’t “Waiting for
Godot,” “Endgame” and Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable” all
composed under the sign of the Holocaust? Let us also recall
Charlotte Salomon, in hiding on the French Riviera, who longingly
painted sentences in her German mother tongue onto her 1,200
autobiographical watercolors before Adolf Eichmann’s henchman Alois
Brunner sent her to Auschwitz.

Recalling his fellow prisoners’ “hundreds of thousands of stories,
all different and full of a tragic, disturbing necessity,” Levi asks,
“But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?” In this
daunting light, “Holocaust Literature” bears ample witness. We must
never stop disproving Theodor Adorno’s “After Auschwitz, to write a
poem is barbaric.” Language did indeed “pass through frightful
muting,” as Celan knew well enough. For 25 years, until drowning in
the Seine, he wrote his own way “through the thousand darknesses of
deathbringing speech.” *

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: HAUNTING: Felix Nussbaum in his “Self-Portrait With
Jewish Identity Card,” probably painted in 1942, still speaks to us.