Posted by Danielle Berrin
Holocaust fatigue has given way to Holocaust farce.
Like when an extant Anne Frank is found hiding in a modern-day attic in Shalom Auslander’s novel, “Hope: A Tragedy.” But, beware. The bright, wide-eyed heroine we met in a World War II-era diary is now a decrepit, angry old woman. In Auslander’s telling, “She stank like decay, like death.” This Anne Frank has “gnarled bones,” “withered hands,” “sallow and gray skin”; she is “insouciant,” “hideous,” “wiry and unkempt.”
“I don’t know who you are, or how you got up here,” Auslander’s protagonist, Solomon Kugel, says when he finds Frank hiding — and furiously typing — in his attic. “But I’ll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz ... And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.”
Frank doesn’t argue with that. Instead, she retorts: “It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass.”
Frank’s reappearance — or rather, resurrection (“Jesus was a Jew, but I’m the Jewish Jesus,” she says) — in Auslander’s novel is a funny way of dealing with fatigue, as if drizzling on extra chocolate sauce will make you less full. The character looms large in the novel, just as she does in life, sprung from a continuous, cavernous, obsessive preoccupation with the Holocaust that is not so much an effort to remember as an osmotic form of modern Jewish identity. Solomon Kugel’s mother, for instance, is so fixated on the Holocaust she invents for herself a survival story that never actually occurred. “Because you’re Jewish,” Anne Frank moralizes, “you feel guilty for not suffering atrocities.”
Another recent work of fiction, Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” also channels “Miss Holocaust” (a title Auslander’s Frank ascribes to herself). In Englander’s opening story, two middle-aged Jewish couples, one secular, one ultra-Orthodox and now living in Israel, convene in Miami Beach so that the women, who attended yeshiva together, can reunite. Before long, they start drinking and get high, and then come the hot-button identity issues. Mormon post-mortem conversions of Holocaust victims? The horror!
“And this bothers you?” asks the religious man from Israel. “This is what keeps an American Jew up at night?”
How silly, he thinks. Then he declaims, “You can’t build Judaism only on the foundation of one terrible crime ... this obsession with the Holocaust [has become] a necessary sign of identity ... your only educational tool ...” — conveniently overlooking, of course, how powerfully the Shoah informs Israeli identity. American Jews, he smugly insists, have “nothing Jewish that binds.”
So it becomes very ironic, when, later in the story, what they talk about when they talk about Anne Frank, is who among their gentile friends would hide them in the event of another Holocaust, and when they turn the “game” on one another, it is the Orthodox man who hesitates to say whether he’d hide his own wife.
This strange occupation of imagining who among us are modern Oskar Schindlers also concerns Auslander’s protagonist. Fatigue is indefatigable; these characters (I mean, authors) are annoyed by the persistent prevalence of the Holocaust, yet it obsesses them.
Has so much Holocaust on the brain led to a hostile dependency?
“What’s the worst possible thing you can find if you were trying to forget about all the horrors of the past?” Auslander posed during a recent phone interview from New York. “Well, it would be a representative of the horrors of the past.”
Enter Anne. “I hated that two-dimensional picture of the wide-eyed smiling girl who dies brutally,” Auslander said. “We tend to do this with young girls; we turn them into Barbie dolls with no genitals and perfect hair. She’s been turned into a cardboard cutout. I wanted to find a way to make her more real.”
But verisimilitude only goes so far. Because while Auslander and Englander are channeling the past, they are not revisiting it — there are no camps, no guards, no cattle cars in their narratives. Rather, they bring vestiges of the past to visit us. As the documentary filmmaker Jon Kean suggested in a 2010 essay for this newspaper, the Holocaust does not always figure as a full-fledged history lesson: “The Holocaust is now a character [emphasis mine] in films and books. A plot point. A figure in the background.”
In her essay “Holocaust Fatigue,” Simone A. Schweber, the Goodman Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote, “[M]y students now tend to approach the Holocaust ... without a default position of veneration. The Holocaust is, for them, interesting but not awesome.”
The eerie notion that a proliferation of Holocaust narratives in literature, film and the classroom has created a cultural queasiness on the topic is discomfiting, even if it’s true. But to realize “Never Again” actually means, again and again, ad infinitum and everywhere, until a legacy is so ingrained in the collective consciousness, real repetition seems burdensome. The idea seems to be: Let us get so sick of the Holocaust such that the Holocaust makes us sick.
So Auslander and Englander have attempted to make the subject sexy by injecting it with a little bit of fantasy.
“If there’s something about Jewish history and culture that I like,” Auslander, a lapsed Orthodox Jew, said wryly. “It’s the history of s—- stirring, of causing trouble, of asking questions, of rocking the boat.”
It’s how he imagines Anne would have been had she lived to a ripe old age.
“Certainly as a teenager, she was tough and she was a pain in the ass,” he said, “in the best possible way. She saw bulls—- for what it was, because she talks about the religious kids in her class, she talks about the phonies. And she sees through some of her mother’s melodrama and forced sadness. So she’s analytical; she’s not taking everything at face value.
Auslander said he saw in her a Jewish rage — a “difficultness” — that he admires.
“I thought, ‘Boy, if she had survived, and became this woman, and moved to Monsey [N.Y.] near my mother, my mother would have f———hated her. She’d talk about how terrible what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is, and my mother would have wanted to tear her hair out.”
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April 4, 2012 | 2:04 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Do biblical babes still make the best heroines?
Take Queen Esther, for example — a noted beauty, savvy survivalist and the savior of her people.
She underwent a year of compulsory primping before ascending the throne; surely such resolve is worthy of admiration. Or what about Deborah, the multihyphenate hero who was at once judge, warrior and prophetess? She helped defeat a Canaanite army, aided by her blood-lusty foil, Jael, who speared the commander Sisera with a tent peg and a mallet.
Who says women can’t do it all?
And yet, a legacy of biblical female complexity has barely made a dent in contemporary cultural archetypes. Today, young girls are screaming for Katniss Everdeen, the kid-killing heroine of “The Hunger Games,” a film adapted from the best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Were Queen Esther alive today, no doubt she’d be competing with movie stars to swell the circle of her influence.
During a recent event at a New York City Barnes & Noble, hundreds of teenage girls waited in line to meet actress Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss in the blockbuster film (it scored the third-largest box office opening ever, earning $152.5 million its inaugural weekend). “I’m just going to cry,” one girl reportedly said to The New York Times.
The inspiration for this nauseating star worship is a character carved from unsentimental survivalism. In her review of the movie, The Times’ Manohla Dargis champions this rare bird, calling Katniss “[a] brilliant, possibly historic creation — stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, armed with Diana’s bow and a ferocious will.” Although the story does have romance, it is hardly the heroine’s main focus; the fierce Katniss prefers to fight, not flirt. And she does not, a gratified Dargis notes, need a man to save her.
But this invented heroine has no worldly peer. Even while venerating her, Dargis can’t seem to couch her squarely in reality: She is most like “an American Eve, battered, bruised and deeply knowing, [who] scrambles through a garden not of her making on her way to a new world.”
Looking to the Bible for a modern heroine, though, is slightly odd. Women of the ancient world did not possess the same rights to self-determination as do modern women. And in the texts that define them, their voices are often disguised, if not unheard, an inequity that has provided impetus for biblical reclamation and reinterpretation. Contemporary authors and scholars have tried to right the wrong: From Anita Diamant, we got “The Red Tent,” a novel that reimagines early Bible tales from the perspective of the matriarchs; and from Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a distinct brand of Torah scholarship once hailed in this newspaper as “shining a light on biblical silences.” Zornberg even describes herself in the words of writer Maurice Blanchot, as one tasked “to keep watch over absent meaning.”
At commercial movies, meaning can be so absent, a biblical comparison serves. But something is amiss with Katniss’ single-minded survival. She is sometimes so strong, so invulnerable, it is a wonder she has any human needs at all.
“I like to write about women who are total women,” Valerie Weiss, the writer and director of the upcoming film “Losing Control” (in theaters April 13) said recently from her office on The Lot. For her debut feature, about a Harvard scientist who jilts her live-in boyfriend when he proposes, “I really wanted to create a character that was smart and driven professionally, but equally concerned about her personal life, knowing it was her personal life that gave her the energy to be ambitious. If you’re all about your career, it just drains you.”
Weiss could be speaking of herself, having studied molecular biology at Princeton, then biophysics at Harvard Medical School, before finally giving in to her artistic side and becoming a filmmaker. “My mom still says, when I’m feeling frustrated with Hollywood, ‘Maybe you could go back [to medicine] and be in your sister’s practice.’ ”
Weiss’ husband, Rob, whom she met in graduate school, earned a degree from Harvard Law before deciding to become an actor. They have two daughters, 4 and 8 months. Weiss said she struggled with whether a woman’s achievement should precede having a family, another coincidental mirror of her protagonist, who struggles with the either/or conundrum.
“In the beginning, she’s thinking, ‘Holy s—-! I haven’t achieved my goals, and I’ve been with this one guy and maybe he’s the problem,” Weiss said. “That’s what this feminist message is: ‘Be on your own; you don’t need a man.’ In the end, she learns that she can absolutely be independent and achieve professionally, but her heart wants love, too, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
In the “The Deep Blue Sea,” based on the play by British playwright Terence Rattigan, Rachel Weisz plays a woman whose sole ambition is love. “She is at once a sensible, capable, intelligent Englishwoman and a mad, keening martyr for love,” critic A.O. Scott wrote in The Times. Is she a less worthy heroine because her deep, primal need for attachment is so deluded and desperate she tries to take her own life? Watching her despair unravel, one vacillates between suggesting a good, brisk walk and wanting to join her for a cigarette.
Is she weak because her torment is internal and not externalized in some deadly dystopian wilderness? (As if physical strength is the only kind required for survival.) What to do with a woman who is no careerist, no Olympic champion, but rather, a woman you know.