May 4, 2010
From the International Writers’ Festival, Jerusalem - Holocaust Writing
Sarah Blau, moderating a panel called “Ashes and Ink,” called attention to an apparent paradox: the farther removed we are from the historical Holocaust, there more writing there seems to be. What’s more, alongside the steady flow of scholarly studies and memoirs, there continue to be literary works that have new things to say.
Some of them use fiction as a means of uncovering truths through invention. The Spanish novelist Adolfo Garcia Ortega, one of the panelists, cited War and Peace as an example of how novelists have poetic license to invent historical events for noble reasons. Garcia Ortega, who had never written a Holocaust-themed work before, felt he had to take up the subject after reading Primo Levi. Levi’s recollection of Auschwitz If This is a Man mentions a 3-year-old boy who died, and may have been born, in the camp. That boy’s unknown story became the impetus for Garcia Ortega to grapple with the imagined particulars of such a life.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s medium, as a critic and scholar, is non-fiction. His book The Lost recounts his personal investigation into the deaths of six members of his own family in the Shoah. He makes an impassioned case for specificity and against generalization: as he said, “everything happens at a certain moment in time. All these generalities happened to specific people; everyone has a specific death in a specific moment in a specific way.” As for Auschwitz, Mendelsohn pointed out that it became the symbol of the Holocaust because it’s where the Jews from Western Europe were sent, and some lived to tell about it; Belzec is not that symbol because practically no one survived.
Israeli writer Nir Baram, meanwhile, intentionally avoided Auschwitz altogether in his new novel Good People. His story looks at everyday life in Nazi Europe through two characters, one of whom is an ambitious Albert Speer-like intellectual for whom the removal of populations is an abstraction until he begins to glimpse what it actually looks like. He is a bureaucrat who believes in what he does because it serves his personal cause of becoming a great man. The story ends in 1941, before most of the murders of the Final Solution have taken place.
Should a writer try to describe the unimaginable? Garcia Ortega, referring in particular to Jonathan Littell’s The Benevolent Ones, defended the role of fiction, saying there is a place for “interpreting the facts in a more metaphorical way. Those stories will be more remembered than books that saturate the reader with facts.” Mendelsohn, by contrast, said “All the descriptions in my book are quotations from witness statements. I don’t want to describe something I have no intimate knowledge of. I felt that I couldn’t imagine/invent/recreate this kind of atrocity. Witness statements are more eloquent than anything I could imagine.”