Lies and Provocation

How We Should Approach Holocaust Memoir and Fiction

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published December 17, 2010, issue of December 31, 2010.
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A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
By Ruth Franklin
Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $29.95

Theodor Adorno famously declared that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric” — and indeed impossible. Ruth Franklin, in her thoughtful work of literary history and analysis, “A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction,” turns Adorno’s dictum on its head. It is Franklin’s thesis that not to write about the Holocaust is equally impossible. Franklin asserts in her lucid and graceful book that it is right to make literature out of the destruction of European Jewry, and that the survivors themselves are among the few who are able to do this.

Frankly Speaking: Ruth Franklin, senior
editor at The New Republic, tackles the question
of truth.
Curtis Martin
Frankly Speaking: Ruth Franklin, senior editor at The New Republic, tackles the question of truth.

“A Thousand Darknesses” fits neatly in the growing corpus of work on Holocaust literature. Jacob Glatstein’s and Samuel Margoshes’s 1968 “Anthology of Holocaust Literature” was a pioneering effort; Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s 1980 study, “By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature,” taught many of us how to “read” the Holocaust; the writers in Berel Lang’s 1988 “Writing and the Holocaust” explored the Holocaust’s impact on literature; David Rosenberg’s 1989 idiosyncratic anthology, “Testimony,” brought the “personal” into the Holocaust; the works of Lawrence Langer and James Young. This is not virgin land.

Franklin, a senior editor of The New Republic, builds on these efforts, but does even more. She addresses the entire range of literary responses to the Holocaust, and contextualizes these works for the contemporary reader: the short fiction and poetry of realist Tadeusz Borowski; the memoirs of rationalist Primo Levi; the novels of ironist Imre Kertész; the visionary prose of Elie Wiesel. Wiesel especially is used as a vehicle for parsing central questions about the literature that came out of the Holocaust: Is it fact, or is it fiction? Is it novel, or is it memoir? Not an issue, Franklin argues. Writing on the Holocaust often blurs the distinction between fiction and reality; Franklin is one of many who claim that Holocaust writing is unique. Using Wiesel’s iconic novel/memoir “Night” as an exemplar, she avers that Holocaust fiction has an inherent truth that acts as interstitial tissue for the histories and the pain of survivors and, by extension, of the society that emerged from the destruction.

The “fact versus fiction” discussion erupted in the famous diatribe by literary critic Alfred Kazin, neatly summarized by Franklin, in which Kazin excoriated Wiesel for allegedly distorting the truth about the latter’s crisis of faith after Auschwitz.

“Wiesel was a powerful myth-maker about his relation to God, with himself as the bearer of the myth,” Kazin roared. Kazin doesn’t get it, Franklin answers; the first-person account “is Elie Wiesel but it is also not Elie Wiesel.” Thus Franklin’s conceit in her book: The novel/memoir is about the enrichment of memory and, by extension, of history. Novelistic imagination, Franklin suggests in a non sequitur, is not sin.

Thus, the first half of Franklin’s insightful book: The survivors who wrote. But what about those who came after the Holocaust, in Europe and America, including the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors? The second half of “A Thousand Darknesses” consists of thoughtful discussions of Bernhard Schlink (“The Reader”), Thomas Keneally (“Schindler’s List”) and others. But Franklin makes a misstep, a serious one, in her chapter on “Identity Theft: The Second Generation.” The second generation (the parlance is “2G”) is that of the children of the survivors who came to maturity after the Holocaust. The writers of the second generation are angrily characterized by Franklin, thus, “driven by ambition, guilt, envy, or sheer narcissism, [they] have constructed elaborate literary fictions in which… they assert themselves as witnesses to the Holocaust… [claiming that] the second generation’s ‘memories’ are as valid as those of the survivors.” In a word, they misrepresent themselves as survivors, Franklin asserts. To Franklin, the 2G writers have committed “identity theft.”

There is a basic problem with Franklin’s bald assertion, and that is that she simply does not understand the psychology of the survivors and of their children, nor does she understand the history of the survivor community; her analysis of the literature is therefore entirely lacking in nuance. The 2Gs have lived with people who were persecuted, who were humiliated and who experienced multiple losses. The survivors, for their part, experienced losses that they were not able to mourn. The creative process of their children, the “2G” writers — the Thane Rosenbaums and the Melvin Bukiets (to take two writers chosen by Franklin for special scorn) — therefore came out of the second generation’s own need to mourn those never known.

Psychologists have taught us that the final stage of mourning is the search for meaning; creativity is an integral part of that process, and is not the “grotesque solipsism” that Franklin imputed to the second generation. Rosenbaum and Bukiet are indeed valid witnesses. What they witnessed was not the Final Solution, but the improbable and often impossible lives of those for whom the Nazi death sentence had not proved final. Franklin’s “identity theft” is not a “theft” at all; the identity — the experience taught the 2Gs by the survivors — was not stolen but is theirs, and is embedded.

Additionally, but far less important, there are questions about who is “in” and who is “out” in “A Thousand Darknesses.” To be sure, the author is entitled to make her own curatorial decisions; but one wonders about the virtual absence of Ka-Tzetnik (the pen name of Yehiel Dinur), who wrote in Hebrew the very first post-Holocaust novels; Joshua Sobol, playwright of the watershed “Ghetto,” and David Grossman, whose groundbreaking Israeli masterpiece “See Under: Love,” about the visionary fiction writer Bruno Schulz (himself murdered before the war’s end), redefined the Holocaust for a new generation of Israelis. A discussion, even brief, of these and others would have been welcomed and valued.

Furthermore, there are assumptions made by Franklin that are stated as masoretic writ but are questionable. Raul Hilberg’s “The Destruction of the European Jews” is presented as the “definitive” history of the Holocaust. “Definitive”? To whom? Yes, the book, a truly comprehensive early effort, was the first to have facts and figures, but it is deeply flawed. Literary critic Franklin is not quite sure-footed when it comes to being historiographer Franklin.

Finally, the question — Is the Holocaust truly “unknowable”? — that many contemporary thinkers have asked (and answered: “Unknowable!”) is addressed by Franklin, and is handled well. But in the same vein, there is the large theological question: Is the God who hid his face during the Holocaust “dead,” as has been maintained by some theologians? Or was the nature of the covenant with the Jews changed by the Holocaust, as argued by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg? This crucial discussion, implicit in much of the literature discussed in “A Thousand Darknesses,” deserves at least a nod by Franklin.

What “A Thousand Darknesses” does do, and does very well, is challenge us on every level of virtually every aspect of Holocaust literature. That the Holocaust is “unknowable” doesn’t mean that a lot of it can’t be known. Literature lays bare the path to know what is knowable, and Franklin neatly shows us the way.

Jerome A. Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward and author of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).

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