The always-powerful stories of individuals affected by the collapse of society into war have acquired an unparalleled poignancy in the literature of the Holocaust. So unprecedented was the assault on human values by Nazi Germany and its supporters in the systematic persecution and attempted destruction of whole peoples in concentration and death camps during the dark period between 1933 and 1945 that influential critics such as George Steiner have proclaimed it the end of culture. Art, as the supreme articulation of what it means to be human, must, by this argument, stand mute in the face of man's most inhuman chapter. And literature, to the extent that it attempts to render the Holocaust aesthetically, must inevitably debase art or at least call into question those principles of aesthetics on which our Western culture is founded. To write poetry after Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno famously mused, would be barbaric.
Despite these dicta, a slow trickle of memoirs, diaries, and autobiographical narratives has grown into a torrent of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, television melodrama, and film that seems increasingly attractive year after year to popular and serious artists alike. This seems nowhere more clear than in America, where films such as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, and Roman Polanski's The Pianist have received multiple Academy Awards in the past decade. In elite literary circles, this influence is equally palpable, as seen by the frequency with which authors drawn to Holocaust themes have received the Nobel Prize for Literature (eight times since the prize—suspended between 1939 and 1944—was resumed). The works of these authors, from Albert Camus in 1957 to Nelly Sachs in 1966 to Imre Kertész in 2002, not only demonstrate that the Holocaust can be approached in literature but contribute to a growing consensus that it must if literature is to be more than an ornament in a cultured life.
The moral imperative to teach and learn about the Holocaust, or Shoah, is felt and met in extraliterary dimensions as well, most notably in the proliferation of Holocaust memorials, museums, and days of remembrance in North America, Europe, and Israel. Specifically in literature, this imperative has traditionally been met by the introduction of key texts to young readers in school, and then more recently by the creation of dedicated courses on the literature of the Holocaust in college and university curricula. The most widely used of these texts is Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, first published in Holland in 1947, then in English translation in 1952. Anne's confessional diary of the years spent hiding in the “secret annexe” of her father's Amsterdam factory is often paired with Elie Wiesel 's haunting story of his own deportation and nightmare pilgrimage through Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Night (translated into English in 1960). Together, these accounts introduce readers to most of the themes that resonate through memoir after memoir: the interruption of adolescence, the rupture of the family, Pan-European anti-Semitism, the power (or impotence) of faith, survivor guilt, resistance, and the courage of those who risked their lives for others.
These themes and dozens of others are developed in a corpus that has become huge, sometimes contradictory, and always complex. The compendium Holocaust Page 141 | Top of ArticleLiterature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work introduces over 300 authors from countries in North and South America, Europe, and Israel. While most of these are first-generation writers—their stories driven by the credibility of personal experience—new work is increasingly coming from the second, and even the third, generation. As the events of this freighted chapter grow more remote in historical terms, the challenge to literature is to remain responsive to the mandate of memory—to keep the lessons fresh for new generations of readers and viewers, and to do so without succumbing to what Art Spiegelman (author of the graphic novel Maus) calls “holokitsch.”
Mark E. Cory
Adorno, Theodor W. “Engagement.” Noten zur Literatur. Vol. 3. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1963.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Literature of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Kremer, Lillian S. Women's Holocaust Writing. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
Kremer, Lillian S., ed. Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Langer, Lawrence. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.
Rosenfeld, Alvin. A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980.
Skloot, Robert. The Darkness We Carry: The Drama of the Holocaust. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.
Steiner, George. In Bluebeard's Castle. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman. New York: Atheneum, 1967.