The personal is political, but the personal is also a powerful tool to come to grips with historical events that tragically transcend individuals, families and even nations.
The inexpressible loss of European Jewry in the Shoah has led many scholars and artists to address the phenomenon in a number of creative ways. With the help of some scholars, the Forward identified those works that comprise a thinking person’s guide to the Shoah.
A subset of that group includes writers and researchers who followed a trail of evidence to discover what happened to their families during those nightmare years of the mid-century. Robert Zaretsky’s recent review of Ivan Jablonka’s “A History of the Grandparents I Never Had”reminds us that to cross between memoir and history we need the skills of a historian, an archivist, a creative writer and a son.
Seven Readable, Important Holocaust Family Memoirs
Reading about Jablonka reminded me of five other memoirs where later generations go back to find out the history of their family in the Shoah. And then those six brought up one final other notable book that doesn’t quite fit the rubric but is undeniably evoked by them.
Art Spiegelman’s “Maus : A Survivor’s Tale”
If you haven’t heard of this, you need to read it, now. Quite apart from its status in Shoah literature, the first of these two volumes was the work of genius that won cartoon and comic art acceptance as serious modes of storytelling. A mixture of history, deep personal engagement and the story of his father’s survival, it’s difficult to overestimate how good “Maus” is.
Saul Friedlander’s “When Memory Comes”
Before his parents were deported to Auschwitz, they entrusted their small son to Catholics who protected him and brought him up. After the war — with the help of his protectors — Pavel Friedlander rediscovered his Jewish roots, underwent a reverse Damascene conversion and became Saul. He went to live in Israel and was involved in history before becoming an acclaimed professor of history at UCLA, specializing in Holocaust studies. This 1997 memoir has a weight of scholarship behind it but deals in a personal way with the discoveries that Pavel makes about himself and his parents.
Sarah Wildman’s “Paper Love”
After getting evasions from her survivor grandfather about some old photographs of a young woman that she found, Sarah Wildman did her own digging and this book is the result. As with the others, this is of necessity a suspenseful travelogue, but it the haunting romance gives it a sweetness that’s unexpected. A contributor to the Forward, Wildman has excavated from the most gruesome of contexts a love story and a detective story all at once.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated”
Everyone’s favorite heritage Holocaust romp. Now a major motion picture, starring Elijah Wood. This fictionalized account of Foer’s college trip to find what happened to his family in a Polish shtetl also includes a fanciful parallel account of what was happening in the town itself as the Nazis advanced. With a wacky cast of characters and plenty of stylistic fireworks, this is the most approachable of these potentially grim texts.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million”
For some reason, perhaps because Mendelsohn’s book has not inspired a Hollywood movie, perhaps because it lacks the bells and whistles of Foer’s narrative, this book — though rightfully winning many prizes — hasn’t had the enduring attention it deserved (which is to say, a lot). This account of Mendelsohn searching through Ukraine and beyond for traces of six of his family members who disappeared during the Shoah is most definitely the best written of these five books. Its sensitive, probing but muscular style is gripping, the mysteries persist while the horror is never forgotten. Book group it now.
Plus, asterisked, Charlotte Delbo’s “Auschwitz and After” trilogy
I. None of Us Will Return
II. Useless Knowledge
III. The Measure of Our Days
Born in 1913, Charlotte Delbo was actually a survivor herself, so her account is not exactly the same genre as these others. She had a number tattooed on her arm and she knew what was going on. But because of her stylistic approach — more imaginative than Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi, for example — her three books kind make sense on this list. This trilogy is the account that comes to mind reading the others. If the six above were in the introduction course, Delbo would start the intermediate version of the same course.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.