Hold It All

Category: Khurbn

Remembering Is Not Enough

Hilene Flanzbaum, The Americanization of the Holocaust
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

The following  note is from summer 1999 when I was reworking my dissertation to what would become my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Temple University Press, 2001).   Hedy Epstein’s Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug: Autobiographie appeared in Germany in 1999. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust  Industry came out in 2000. 

This collection of essays doesn’t have much in the way of political relevance to my project, but there are good cultural analyses, particularly the editor’s overview to the subject (e.g., Wiesel at the Mets’ game),  Steinweiss’s remarks on Wiesel in Nebraska, Greenspan’s  studies of the evolving reception and discourses of survivors (stigmatizing vs. celebratory), and Young’s remarks on the politics of identity.  

Indeed, it is easier to talk about cultural shifts and Americanization rather than take the more controversial  and critical view that  elites are happy to focus on the Nazi crimes rather than our own.   Those people speaking out — more than 50 years later! — against Nazism may think of themselves, proudly, as moral beacons, say,  Christian “Holocaust scholars.”  But this reminds me of what Chomsky said, “You can tell the truth about Ghengis Khan, but it doesn’t rank very high on the moral scale.”  People got agitated about the Reagan Bitburg scandal of 1985, but not about Reagan’s  aiding and abetting the bloodbaths in Central America at the same time.  

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In the News: Aung San Suu Kyi Not Worthy of Elie Wiesel Award

There is more than one irony in this New York Times article.

A Feat of Reading and Writing

1.

[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

2.

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 »

A Poem, a History, a Novel

This fall Dianne, Lynette and I are reading the following books:


Read the rest of this entry »

“Everything Must Be Told and Written Down”

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 »

“I’ll Never Know, in the Silence You Don’t Know, You Must Go On, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On”

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.

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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 »

Yiddish Writers/4

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.

But…

…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 »

Yiddish Writers/2

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

Elie Wiesel and Worthy Remembrance

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 »

On Moshe-Leib of Sassov

 

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