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The literature of this period was “communal” in multiple respects, including what the authors describe as its initial reception within highly localized (and politicized) audiences.
1960, on the cusp of the Eichmann trial, marks the start of the third phase: a quarter-century of “provisional memory.” The authors present this period as “a time of discovery, of seeing things as if for the first time.” Witnesses now had faces, and their words were beamed around the world. During this period, “English became the main purveyor of Holocaust writing,” and “Holocaust literature took on a life of its own.” Once those trends were entrenched, a new phase began: “authorized memory.” Dating from the mid-1980s, this era has been characterized by seismic global changes and technologies that have brought forth new studies, new research and new pilgrimages, particularly those undertaken by descendants. It is in this era that we continue to live and read.
But what do we read? What should we read? True to the book’s subtitle, the authors follow their history with a “Guide to the First Hundred Books.” They highlight under-appreciated work from the earlier phases, and some readers may be surprised by some of their choices, such as John Hersey’s “The Wall” (1950), which the authors signal for its “value as a document of the early development of Holocaust literature in languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish,” or Binjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood” (1995), a fraudulent account that is included, at least in part, for what it reveals about the public’s needs and expectations from Holocaust literature at a particular moment. The list’s logic is informed by the authors’ innovative definition of “Holocaust literature” itself: “Holocaust literature comprises all forms of writing, both documentary and discursive, and in any language, that have shaped the public memory of the Holocaust and been shaped by it.”
This is by no means light reading, but it is both accessible and powerful. “Holocaust Literature” offers something for a remarkable range of readers, from the scholarly expert for whom the repeated references to metonymy will resonate to the less experienced reader, who may simply seek to augment a reading list.
Erika Dreifus is the author of the short-story collection “Quiet Americans” (Last Light Studio, 2011).