[T]he sheer enormity of what took place between 1933 and 1945 beggars our powers of description and understanding. The more one studies this period and its excesses, the more one must conclude that for any decent human being the slaughter of so many millions of innocents must, and indeed should, weigh heavily on subsequent generations, Jewish and non-Jewish…. there is no reason at all, in my opinion, not to submit oneself in horror and awe to the special tragedy besetting the Jewish people. As an Arab in particular I find it important to comprehend this collective experience in as much of its terrible concrete detail as one is capable: this act of comprehension guarantees one’s humanity and resolve that such a catastrophe should never be forgotten and never recur.
—Edward W. Said, Al-Ahram Weekly, 1997
Charles Reznikoff immersed himself in more than 20 volumes of transcripts from World War II war crimes trials and the Eichmann trial. Out of that intense reading of thousands of pages came Holocaust, a book of poetry in 12 sections comprising 88 pages published in 1975. Read the rest of this entry »
Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Laura Rockusch has performed a inspiring service in producing her book, Collect and Record. Contrary to many people’s assumptions that Holocaust survivors were quiet, traumatized, passive from the war’s end to the Eichmann trial in 1961, she examines how Jews in Poland, France, and in Displaced Person Camps in Germany and Austria immediately set work to gather anything they could on what he just happened to their people during the 12 years of the Third Reich.
There were precursors for this kind of work; for example, at the end of World War I, the number of Jews killed in Ukraine in pogroms numbered between 50,000 and 100,00. Researchers then sought to gather accounts from witnesses and survivors. Here’s one message: “Brothers! A curse of terrible pogroms is befalling Jewish villages and towns, and the world does not know, we ourselves do not know or know only very little about it. This must not be concealed! Everything must be told and written down. It is a duty for every Jew who has come or comes from the devastated Jewish towns to report everything that he has seen, for the news must not be lost.” Khurbn-Forshung was the name given to this activity—Yiddish for “Destruction Research.” Read the rest of this entry »
Working on a kind of sequel to Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, I am imagining a character named Bella Levenshteyn, who in her twenties devotes herself to learning Yiddish, the language of her ancestors. At one point, she confides to Perry that she once went on a five-week reading binge of the essays, poems, articles, and reviews by Yankev Glatshteyn, the foremost U.S.Yiddish writer in the middle of the 20th century.
I’ve been reading several recent works of scholarship on that period, and found some stimulating provocations in Anita Norich’s work, Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Culture during the Holocaust.
The following passages may inform, or work themselves—somehow— into my story.
People are quite familiar with the conventional label for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, “the Holocaust.” Norich considers the period well before that word assumed its ascendancy: “Under increasing pressure of news from the war front and silence from home, Yiddish writers re-imagined modernism, the Enlightenment, political engagement, literary conventions, and symbolic language. The destruction of European Jewry was called by its Yiddish name, khurbn, before it was known as the Holocaust, before the numbers of dead were revealed, even before the concentration camps were built. What Yiddish-speaking Jews meant by khurbn … was a long history of disasters into which the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and a host of other disastrous events could fit. The particularities of Nazism’s rise were not, at the time, perceived as unique, unparalleled, or apocalyptic by the people against whom they were directed.” Read the rest of this entry »
I looked at myself in the mirror. A skeleton stared back at me.
Nothing but skin and bone.
It was the image of myself after death. It was at that instant that the will to live awakened within me.
Without knowing why, I raised my fist and shattered the glass, along with the image it held. I lost consciousness.
After I got better, I stayed in bed for several days, jotting down notes for the work that you, dear reader, now hold in your hands.
…Today, ten years after Buchenwald, I realize that the world forgets. Germany is a sovereign state. The German army has been reborn. Ilse Koch, the sadist of Buchenwald, is a happy wife and mother. War criminals stroll in the streets of Hamburg and Munich. The past has been erased, buried. Read the rest of this entry »
I tried in my book Kiddush Hashem to picture Auschwitz in seventy pages. But I wrote the book over a period of six years, in pain and agony. And writing it I became a changed man. I didn’t sleep night after night. I lived through everyone’s separate torment. I experienced over again every happening I described. I was back in Auschwitz. When I did fall asleep I woke, screaming. I had dreamed I was in the ghetto or in Auschwitz. —Rachmil Bryks
See, Wiesel has often made this claim quite explicit: I am above politics, my message is so precious and pure it cannot afford to be sullied by compromise. Such is the transcendent dignity of the murdered Jews of whom I am their delegate and spokesman. My task is to show, au contraire, how and why he’s (unconsciously?) political, that is to say, not as independent as he thinks he is, not as distant and detached and free from the determinations of the “political” as he would like to think. For to reap the symbolic profits that he has himself reaped, he has had to cover a lot of distance in the move from a space of relative in cognito to one of major publicity and prestige. And yet, I need to attend to the subtleties involved in his case, because he is often quite deliberately political in the case of Sanctuary for example, even if he in the same case contradicts himself.
Another issue worth investigating is whether by his own efforts, Wiesel has assisted in the process of transforming the Holocaust from a perennial warning to a political fashion statement [which affords him plenty of symbolic profits, and which he himself already denied in his memoir about “capital”]. Read the rest of this entry »
Before we leave Sassov, let us take a minute to ask ourselves these last questions: Was Reb Moshe-Leib the forerunner of all those helpless men and women who, generations later, eternities later, continued to sing and rejoice even in the ghettos? Even in the kingdom of night? Even as they went into darkness? Was their Ani Maamin, their faith in the coming of the Messiah, a reverberation of his? Is joy possible — is faith possible — is hope permissible — when death is so sovereign? Is joy the answer? Is memory the answer? Is there an answer?
How did Reb Moshe- Leib of Sassov, the symbol of compassion and love in Hasidism, put it? “You who wish to find the fire, look for it in the ashes.”
–Elie Wiesel, Somewhere a Master: Further Hasidic Portraits and Legends
President Bill Clinton once rightly observed that the Holocaust should be “‘ever a sharp thorn in every national memory.’” The same ought to be said of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the long-standing U.S. support for oppression and repression in Central America. Wiesel’s critique in the opening epigraph to this chapter retains a timely pertinence to our situation today: “Where are the humanists, the leaders, the liberals, the spokesmen for humanity”? Indeed, the Holocaust may be one of many sharp thorns in our national memory. But citizens and religious believers today ought not simply denounce Nazi crimes, horrific and unforgettable as they were, but also contest U.S. policies that victimize innocent people today. Such grass-roots communities, NGOs, and ever-growing networks of concerned citizens can certainly see the connections between the Holocaust victims with the past and present suffering of Japanese, Vietnamese, Timorese, Salvadorans, and Palestinians and thus subvert the self-serving rhetoric of state power by practicing a self-critical solidarity with our victims.
Liberation theologies have emphasized the importance of making a preferential option for the poor. This option has earned the Christian churches much ill-repute, if not persecution, in many places. In Europe before and during the Second World War, for Christians to act in solidarity with Europe’s historically unworthy victims, the Jews, would certainly have exacted a cost, from defamation to harassment to execution. While “the world remained silent,” in Wiesel’s earliest formulation, Europe’s Jews were exterminated. There was no ecclesial preferential option for the poor European Jews during the Holocaust. The tremendous suffering of those unworthy Jewish victims still ought to compel us to ask questions so rarely raised in the U.S. intellectual community: Who are our unworthy victims in this present moment, how we can assist them in surviving, and how can we resist the temptations of silence and respectable status? For if we remain silent, if U.S. power goes unchallenged by its own citizens, if the elite manufacture of consent proceeds without citizen interference, far too many innocent people alive today will join the ranks of the Jewish abandoned, damned, and dead, still so mourned by Elie Wiesel.
–Mark Chmiel, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, Temple University Press, 2001