David Roskies and Naomi Diamant Guide Readers Through Holocaust Literature

New Book Provides a Much-Needed Roadmap

Reading The Holocaust: Naomi Diamant and her co-author David G. Roskies have published “Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide.”
Brandeis University Press
Reading The Holocaust: Naomi Diamant and her co-author David G. Roskies have published “Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide.”

By Erika Dreifus

Published May 02, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide
By David G. Roskies and Naomi Diamant
Brandeis University Press, 360 pages, $85

In the preface to “Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide” (Brandeis University Press), which he co-wrote with Naomi Diamant, David Roskies recalls a variety of Holocaust commemorations from his Montreal adolescence. At one Bundist gathering in April 1963 — where “Yiddish was the language spoken because the story happened to people who spoke Yiddish: the grandparents, parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and comrades of the people sitting in the auditorium” — the 15-year-old Roskies was overwhelmed by the recitation of “an epic poem by Simkhe Bunem Shayevitsh, a martyred poet from the Łódz ghetto.”

At another event that same season, held in the city’s Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, “[n]o work of Holocaust literature was read aloud, and nothing memorable was spoken.” Two years later, when Roskies entered Brandeis University — “the only Canadian and the only Yiddish speaker in the freshman class” — he approached the Jewish chaplain to inquire about plans for Yom HaShoah. “What’s Yom HaShoah?” the Reform-trained rabbi replied.

Roskies notes that this trajectory took him “from intense to attenuated group memory, from group memory divided along regional, ethnic, religious, and ideological lines to a zero-sum memory pool. I had moved from public remembering to public forgetting. At one end of the spectrum a culture of mourning was being incubated…. At the other end, an invitation was extended to join the majority culture…. From age fifteen to seventeen, in short, I had personally relived the jagged history of Holocaust literature.”

This autobiographical account also presages key points in the new book. “It did not take a generation for a literary response to the Holocaust to be born,” the authors insist. “But it took at least two generations for its history to take shape.”

According to “Holocaust Literature,” that shape comprises four phases. First, “Wartime Writing,” which is divided between writing in the “Free Zone” and in the so-called “Jew-Zone.” Yes, the phrase “Jew-Zone,” which is used to refer to areas controlled by Nazis, is unsettling. But the authors contend that “without such a Holocaust-specific map, it is impossible to imagine what it was like to live in that real time and space.” Many readers may be stunned to discover the extent of the writing: bereavement songs, diaries, ghetto reportage and poetry within the “Jew-Zone”; protests, elegies and parables — including work written in 1943 by Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.Y. Agnon and Jorge Luis Borges .

Immediately after the war came a phase of “communal memory” (1945–60). It was with “astonishing speed” that “documentary and literary production resumed in the free memory zones carved out of Germany by the U.S. and British armies and in parts of Poland…. When the survivors, veterans, and former POWs trickled back, a small but significant window opened onto what was then called the last catastrophe — on both sides of the Iron Curtain, in Jewish Palestine and in North America. In Yiddishland, the window that opened in 1945 was never shut.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.