The Holocaust in Short Fiction

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Author: Cynthia Giles
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2016
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 231. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,132 words

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Coordinating Scholar: Eric Sterling


The horror of the Holocaust—or Shoah, the Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe” or “calamity,” preferred by the Jewish community to describe the systematic extermination of Jews and others during World War II—has prompted some writers, scholars, and critics to question whether it should be a subject of fiction in any form. Some survivors expressed concern that fictional accounts of the Shoah provide ammunition to Holocaust deniers, who falsely claim that if people can create literature about the Holocaust, perhaps factual accounts, such as Anne Frank’s story, are actually fabrications. Nonetheless, many of the best-known literary writings dealing with the subject are the works of survivors, either of Nazi persecution or of imprisonment in a ghetto or camp. No Holocaust narrative written by someone with direct experience can be considered purely fictional, since even conflated or invented characters and events draw upon historical memories that are unique to survivors. However, some survivors have chosen to compose their narratives in obviously literary styles and forms, utilizing the distance demanded by fictional construction to shape material that would otherwise have been too difficult to address. Moreover, literary presentation, in some views, can create a more powerful, more affecting reader experience than memoir and autobiography, especially when factual accounts can be so disturbing that readers struggle to absorb them. Scholars have argued that Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” (1980) is as poignant and tragic as a work of nonfiction. At the same time, however, literary works about the Holocaust have often been judged with regard to a perceived association between Holocaust experience and narrative authority. Some consider fictional works by authors who did not themselves struggle to survive in ghettoes or death camps less trustworthy than works by those who did have firsthand experience. A parallel distinction is often drawn between those who were persecuted because of their Jewish identity and those who were similarly treated but for other reasons.

East European Jewish writers such as Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaiah Spiegel, and Chaim Grade, who reached maturity before the Holocaust period, often wrote in Hebrew or in Yiddish (a language that blends German, Hebrew, and several Slavic dialects) and explored Jewish identity in a variety of storytelling forms. Agnon moved to Palestine as a youth and thus escaped the Holocaust, but Spiegel survived imprisonment first in a ghetto and then in a concentration camp. Singer left Poland for the United States in 1935, and Grade also ended up in America after fleeing from Lithuania to the Soviet Union. All four men wrote about the Shoah from various perspectives, in both short- and long-form fiction, but their work generally focuses on Jewish identity and culture before and after the catastrophe rather than on the catastrophe itself. This generation of Jewish writers produced two Nobel laureates, Agnon (1966) and Singer (1978), both of whom were credited with preserving the vitality of Yiddish and with illuminating the complexities of Jewish life in the twentieth century. It is noteworthy that millions of Yiddish speakers worldwide died during the Holocaust, leaving this once vibrant language almost destroyed and forgotten. The Shoah involved both the mass murder of Jews and the attempt to obliterate Jewish culture. Those authors who wrote in Yiddish worked to restore this endangered language, which a vast majority of Holocaust victims had spoken. Critical attention to these writers and their contemporaries has tended to focus on their historical, linguistic, and literary contributions rather than on their Holocaust writings.

In contrast, the literature of so-called first-generation and second-generation Jewish Holocaust writers—the former group consisting of survivors and the latter, the children of survivors—is the focus of extensive scholarship. Commentators typically include in the first generation both those who were interned in camps or ghettos but managed to survive and those who eluded internment but lived in Europe during the period and were profoundly affected by the Holocaust. The latter are sometimes referred to as witnesses rather than survivors. Perhaps the most widely known first-generation survivor is Elie Wiesel, a Romanian Jew, whose work after the war to combat violence and racism was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The prolific Wiesel has written in various forms and genres, including novels and short stories. Among other survivors who have written short fiction are Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, whose collection Auschwitz (1985) fictionalized her own experiences; Ida Fink, who did not begin writing about her life during the Shoah until 1971; and Bernard Gotfryd, who became a successful photographer before beginning to write in 1981. Fink’s widely read short-story collection Eine Spanne Zeit (1983; A Scrap of Time) is the focus of Marek Wilczynski’s 1994 study of the linguistic challenges confronting writers of Holocaust fiction. Witness writers include Marga Minco and Jakov Lind. Two non-Jewish survivors, Pierre Gascar and Tadeusz Borowski, also wrote memorable works of short fiction based on their experiences as political prisoners in Nazi camps. Borowski’s short-story collection, Pożegnanie z Marią (1948; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), is among the best-known works of Holocaust fiction.

Stories written by first-generation survivors and witnesses have been translated into many languages and have become a foundational part of Holocaust literature. Jewish writers born into the same generation who were neither survivors nor witnesses incorporated the Holocaust as subject matter in their literary work. Bernard Malamud, an American Jew, is best known for his mainstream novels, but he also wrote short stories related to the Holocaust. Ezra Cappell (2002; see Further Reading) described Malamud’s writing as an expression of post-Holocaust Judaism. Aharon Megged was born in Poland, but grew up in Palestine, and became one of Israel’s most important Hebrew-language writers. In some of his stories, Megged explores the Holocaust from the perspective of Jews living outside Europe. American Jews Norma Rosen, Ozick, and George Steiner (Steiner was born in France) have written several of the world’s most widely read and discussed Holocaust short stories, despite the fact that none of the three experienced the event either personally or through their families. Rosen considers herself a witness by imagination and explains her rationale in “Notes toward a Holocaust Fiction” (1992; see Further Reading). Ozick, author of “The Shawl” and “Rosa” (1983), has struggled with the ethical question of imaginative depiction, but she has defended the role of literature in conveying essential realities of the Holocaust. There are many critical examinations of Ozick’s two Holocaust stories, including those of Joseph Lowin (1987; see Further Reading) and Judith Meyers (1990; see Further Reading). In Steiner’s controversial novella The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. (1981), the character Adolf Hitler, who is captured in South America many years after World War II, presents a defense of his actions. Among many discussions of this story are essays by Robert Boyers (1985), Roderick H. Watt (1994; see Further Reading), and Eric J. Sterling (2015; see Further Reading).

Rosen, Ozick, and Steiner wrote their influential Holocaust stories in the 1980s, long after the historical event and late in their own writing careers. By that time, second-generation writers, whose parents had survived the Holocaust, were producing their own literary works. These differ sharply from the first generation’s fictionalization of the Holocaust experience, focusing instead on themes such as memory and survivor guilt and often treating the Holocaust obliquely rather than directly. Carol Lipszyc (2007), a writer and daughter of a survivor, discussed her efforts as reconstructing an account of trauma. Among the most widely known second-generation writers of short fiction are Katja Behrens, a German Jew, and Patrick Modiano, a French Jew. Behrens’s story “Arthur Mayer oder das Schweigen” (1993; “Arthur Mayer; or, The Silence”) and Modiano’s novella Dora Bruder (1997) are examples of what Erin McGlothlin (2006) called “detective” stories, in which a contemporary narrator attempts to reconstruct the history or identity of a Holocaust victim based on scant clues. Modiano is the most recent Nobel laureate (2014) whose work touches on the Holocaust, and Dora Bruder has elicited a great deal of scholarly attention. Essays by Susan Rubin Suleiman (2007) and Steven Ungar (2007) articulate two of many critical approaches to his work.

Many second-generation literary works reflect the stresses borne by the children of survivors, who often feel they should or must carry the burden of their parents’ experiences and their family histories. In some cases, the writers may also have suffered from the consequences of growing up in a depressive environment. The intergenerational transmission of Holocaust memory has shaped the work of many Israeli writers, as explicated by Efraim Sicher (2001; see Further Reading). Anglo-American writing of the second generation often deals with matters of heritage and relocation, tracing the distance from European roots to a new, radically different culture. Judith Kalman, a Hungarian-born Jew living in Canada, described the emotional and geographical journey of one Jewish family in her short-story collection The County of Birches (1999). Facing a different set of challenges, German Jewish writers of the second generation have often grappled with the political, social, and psychological consequences of the Holocaust as they affect the experience of being both Jewish and German. McGlothlin (2010) explained that these writers must define themselves not only in relation to their own past but also in relation to their non-Jewish German peers, who are in many cases the children of perpetrators and bystanders. McGlothlin analyzed Maxim Biller’s short story “Harlem Holocaust” (1990) from this perspective, focusing on the eroticism and confrontational style that have generated controversy around Biller’s work.

Even for Germans with no personal connection to the Holocaust, it remains an enormous cultural influence. For example, the non-Jewish German film director Alexander Kluge experiments with form and explores social issues in such short stories as “Oberleutnant Boulanger” (1962; “Lieutenant Boulanger”), whose title character is an officer tasked with the analysis of “Jewish-Bolshevik skull material.” Although repercussions of the Holocaust are especially complex in Germany, the historic proportions of the event are recognized around the world, in both literary circles and popular culture. One exemplar from the latter category, the novella Apt Pupil (1982), by the American horror writer Stephen King, depicts the relationship between a sociopathic boy and a former perpetrator of Nazi atrocities. In the story, King, a non-Jew, writes about the Holocaust in terms of psychopathology, moving away from the social, political, racial, and religious issues that drive much Holocaust literature. Expressing concern about the fundamental message of King’s controversial story, Leon Stein (1983) pondered whether or not it “sensationalized and trivialized” the Holocaust. Other contemporary writers of short fiction have begun to explore new approaches to Holocaust subject matter, experimenting with form, like Kluge, or with focus, like King. One noteworthy development engages with the Holocaust in the context of fantasy, translating its literal extremities into impossible yet conceivable constructs. Derek Parker Royal (2006) examined the use of short-story cycles to create fragmented universes that reflect the multiple realities of Holocaust experience. Contemporary fiction that draws upon the surrealistic and even absurdist qualities of the Holocaust tragedy continues a perspective found throughout the tradition of Holocaust literature.

Representative Works

Shmuel Yosef Agnon

  • ““Lailah min ha-lelot” [“The Night”]”. ‘Ad henah. Jerusalem: Shoken, 1952. 161-167. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “The Night”. Twenty-One Stories. Trans. and ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1970. 261-270. Print.


  • Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. Ed. Yaffa Eliach. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. Print.
  • Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust. Ed. Milton Teichman and Sharon Leder. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994. Print.
  • Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. Ed. Lawrence L. Langer. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
  • Contemporary Jewish Writing in Germany: An Anthology. Ed. Leslie Morris and Karen Remmler. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.

Aharon Appelfeld

  • “Bertha”. ‘Ashan. Jerusalem: Akshav, 1962. 17-28. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “Bertha”. Trans. Tirza Aandbank. Hebrew Short Stories. Ed. S. Y. Penueli and A. Ukhmani. Vol. 2. Tel Aviv: Inst. for the Trans. of Hebrew Lit., 1965. 344-356. Print.

Giorgio Bassani

  • ““Una lapide in via Mazzini” [“A Plaque on Via Mazzini”]”. Cinque storie ferraresi. Turin: Einaudi, 1956. 103-148. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “A Plaque on Via Mazzini”. Five Stories of Ferrara. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 77-114. Print.

Katja Behrens

  • ““Salomo und die anderen” [“Solomon and the Others”]” and ““Arthur Mayer oder das Schweigen” [“Arthur Mayer; or, The Silence”]”. Salomo und die anderen. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1993. 43-53; 67-152. Print.

Principal English Translations

  • “Arthur Mayer; or, The Silence” and “Solomon and the Others”. Contemporary Jewish Writing in Germany: An Anthology. Trans. and ed. Leslie Morris and Karen Remmler. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. 33-78; 79-84. Print.

Maxim Biller

  • “Harlem Holocaust”. Wenn ich einmal reich und tot bin. Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1990. 76-122. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “Harlem Holocaust”. Contemporary Jewish Writing in Germany: An Anthology. Trans. and ed. Morris and Remmler. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. 205-242. Print.

Tadeusz Borowski

  • “Pożegnanie z Marią: Opowiadania [This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen]”. Warsaw: Wiedza, 1948. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”. Trans. and ed. Barbara Vedder. New York: Viking, 1967. Print.

Rachmil Bryks

  • “Hatul be-geto: Sipur [A Cat in the Ghetto]”. New York: Bryks, 1966. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “A Cat in the Ghetto”. A Cat in the Ghetto: Four Novelettes. Trans. S. Morris Engel. New York: Bloch, 1959. 16-64. Print.

Jack Dann

  • “Camps”. Timetipping. New York: Doubleday, 1980. 101-125. Print.

Yaffa Eliach

  • “Number 145053” and “Circumcision”. Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. Ed. Eliach. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. 68-9; 151-52. Print.

Nathan Englander

  • “The Tumblers”. American Short Fiction 31 (1998): n. pag. Print.

Ida Fink

  • Eine Spanne Zeit: Erzahlungen und date Stuck “Der Tisch” [A Scrap of Time]. Trans. Klaus Staemmler and Bruno Fink. Zürich: Unionsverlag, 1983. Print.
  • ““Odpływający ogród” [“The Garden That Floated Away”]”, ““Skrawek czasu” [“A Scrap of Time”]”, ““Zabawa w klucz” [“The Key Game”]”, and ““Wiosenny poranek” [“A Spring Morning”]”. Skrawek Czasu. London: Aneks, 1987. 7-8; 9-11; 15-16; 40-4. Print.

Principal English Translations

  • “A Scrap of Time”. Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. Ed. Carol Rittner and John K. Roth. New York: Paragon House, 1993. 41-45. Print.
  • “A Scrap of Time”, “The Garden That Floated Away”, “The Key Game”, and “A Spring Morning”. A Scrap of Time and Other Stories. Trans. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1995. 3-10; 11-14; 35-8; 39-49. Print.

Pierre Gascar (pseudonym of Pierre Fournier)

  • ““Le temps des morts” [“The Season of the Dead”]”. Les bêtes, suivi de Le temps des morts. Paris: Gallimard, 1953. 209-290. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “The Season of the Dead”. Beasts and Men. Trans. Jean Stewart. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956. 175-249. Print.

Bernard Gotfryd

  • “The Last Morning”. Midstream 33.4 (1987): 33-35. Print.
  • Anton the Dove Fancier and Other Tales of the Holocaust. New York: Washington Square, 1990. Print.

Chaim Grade

  • ““Mayn krig mit Hersh Rasseyner” [“My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner”]”. Yidisher kemfer 28 Sept. 1951: 33-44. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner”. Trans. Milton Himmelfarb. Commentary Nov. 1953: 429-441. Print.

Judith Kalman

  • The County of Birches: Stories. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. Print.

Stephen King

  • “Apt Pupil”. Different Seasons. New York: Viking, 1982. 111-292. Print. (Novella)

Alexander Kluge

  • ““Oberleutnant Boulanger” [“Lieutenant Boulanger”]”. Lebensläufe. Stuttgart: Goverts, 1962. 9-20. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “Lieutenant Boulanger”. Attendance List for a Funeral. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. 113-122. Print.

Primo Levi

  • Il sistema periodico [The Periodic Table]. Turin: Einaudi, 1975. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • The Periodic Table. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken, 1984. Print.

Jakov Lind

  • Eine Seele aus Holz [Soul of Wood]. Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1962. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • Soul of Wood. Trans. Ralph Manheim. London: Cape, 1964. Print.

Arnošt Lustig

  • ““Sousto” [“The Lemon”]”. Démanty Noci. Prague: Mladá Fronta, 1958. Print.
  • ““Abychom nezapomněli (Nekonečnost)” [“Infinity”]”. Ulice ztracených bratří. Prague: Naše vojsko, 1959. Print.

Principal English Translations

  • “The Lemon”. Diamonds of the Night. Trans. Jeanne W. Němocová. Washington: INSCAPE, 1977. 11-32. Print.
  • “Infinity”. Trans. Vera Borkovec. New England Review 13.1 (1990): 159-176. Print.

Bernard Malamud

  • “The German Refugee”. Idiots First. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963. 3-16. Print.
  • “The Lady of the Lake”. The Magical Barrel. New York: Pocket, 1972. 99-123. Print.

Aharon Megged

  • ““Yad va-shem” [“The Name”]”. Yisra’el haverim, 15 sipurim. Tel Aviv: Hotsa’at ha-Kibuts ha-meʼuḥad, 1955. 127-142. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “The Name”. Trans. Minna Givton. Israel Argosy. Ed. Isaac Halevy-Levin. Vol. 6. New York: Yoseloff, 1959. 7-25. Print.

Marga Minco (pseudonym of Sara Menco)

  • “De dag dat mijn zuster trouwde [“The Day My Sister Married”]”. The Hague: Bakker, 1970. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “The Day My Sister Married”. Trans. Jeanette Kalker Ringold. Triquarterly 61 (1984): 41-50. Print.

Patrick Modiano

  • “Dora Bruder”. Paris: Gallimard, 1997. Print. (Novella)

Principal English Translation

  • “Dora Bruder”. Trans. Joanna Kilmartin. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. Print.

Sara Nomberg-Przytyk

  • “The Block of Death”, “Esther’s First Born”, “The Verdict”, and “Friendly Meetings”. Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land. Trans. Roslyn Hirsch. Ed. Eli Pfefferkorn and David H. Hirsch. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1985. 53-7; 67-71; 110-13; 114-17. Print.

Cynthia Ozick

  • “The Shawl”. New Yorker 26 May 1980: 33-34. Print.
  • “Rosa”. New Yorker 21 Mar. 1983: 38-71. Print.

Norma Rosen

  • “The Cheek of the Trout”. Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal. Ed. David Rosenberg. New York: Times, 1989. 398-411. Print.

Thane Rosenbaum

  • “Cattle Car Complex”. Elijah Visible. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. 1-12. Print.

Philip Roth

  • “Eli, the Fanatic”. Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. 247-298. Print.

Adolf Rudnicki

  • ““Czysty nurt” [“The Crystal Stream”]”. Szekspir. Warsaw: Książka, 1948. 171-195. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “The Crystal Stream”. Ascent to Heaven. Trans. H. C. Stevens. New York: Roy, 1951. 77-106. Print.

Bernhard Schlink

  • ““Das Mädchen mit der Eidechse” [“Girl with Lizard”]” and ““Die Beschneidung” [“The Circumcision”]”. Liebesfluchten. Zurich: Diogenes, 2000. 5-32; 113-44. Print.

Principal English Translations

  • “Girl with Lizard” and “The Circumcision”. Flights of Love. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Vintage, 2001. 3-51; 197-255. Print.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

  • ““Hanka: Dertseylung” [“Hanka”]”. As Yitskhok Bashevis. Di goldene keyt 83 (1974): 74-88. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “Hanka”. Passions and Other Stories. Trans. Singer, Blanche Nevel, and Joseph Nevel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. 7-25. Print.

Isaiah Spiegel

  • ““Broyt” [“Bread”]”. Malkhes geto, noveln. Lodz: Dos naye lebn, 1947. 24-36. Print.
  • ““Niki” [“A Ghetto Dog”]”. Likht funem opgrunt: Geto novelen. New York: Tsiko, 1952. 18-33. Print.

Principal English Translations

  • “A Ghetto Dog”. Trans. Bernard Guilbert Guerney. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. Ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. New York: Viking, 1954. 569-579. Print.
  • “Bread”. Trans. David H. Hirsch and Roslyn Hirsch. Midstream 30 (1984): 15-18. Print.

George Steiner

  • “The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. Print. (Novella)

J. J. Steinfeld

  • Would You Hide Me? Kentville: Gaspereau, 2003. Print.

Elie Wiesel

  • ““Une vieille connaissance” [“An Old Acquaintance”]”. Le chant des morts. Paris: Seuil, 1966. 55-72. Print.

Principal English Translation

  • “An Old Acquaintance”. Legends of Our Time. Trans. Steven Donadio. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. 39-53. Print.

Footnotes:*Contains the English translations “A Plaque on Via Mazzini,” “Bertha,” and “The Night.”
†Fink wrote the manuscript of this book in her native Polish but it was first published in German. The Polish version was published in 1987.
‡Contains “Reise durch die Nacht” [“Journey through the Night”] and “Auferstehung” [“Resurrection”].
§Contains the English translations “Journey through the Night” and “Resurrection.”
‖This book was first published in English. Nomberg-Przytyk composed the work in Polish in 1966 at the same time that she produced two other published memoirs, but this remained in manuscript form until it was translated.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|ZORXGZ457857899