"And Here [Their] Troubles Began": The Legacy of the Holocaust in the Writing of Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, and Philip Roth

Article excerpt

   The absence of direct experience or at least of a cultural ambiance that
   could render the unlived experience familiar, as well as a paralyzing sense
   of the enormity of the unexplored event, impeded--and eventually
   shaped--the assimilation of the Holocaust into American, and particularly
   into American-Jewish, literature.(1)

   The theological uses to which the Holocaust has been put by an assimilated
   American Jewish community are so diverse that the Holocaust has begun to
   replace the Bible as the new text that we must interpret.(2)

For American Jews, the memory of the Holocaust(3) both contrasts with and implicitly threatens the vaunted freedom of America and the successful assimilation that defines American Jewish life in the latter part of the twentieth century. In Lore Segal's Her First American, a novel about the experiences of a young Holocaust survivor adapting to life in America, the protagonist tells her all-American lover that she must return home early that evening to care for her mother, who suffers from nightmares about the Holocaust; he responds, "open[ing] and drop[ping] his arms in an outsize gesture to demonstrate the breadth of her freedom, his powerlessness to hold her, `Any time at all.'"(4) The assumed freedom that characterizes his approach to life is diametrically opposed to the lack of freedom and the burden of memory connected with the Holocaust that characterize the approach of the protagonist.

The effect of the Holocaust on American Jewish understandings of the influence of history on the present has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Cynthia Ozick stresses the fear of a second Holocaust in America, based on the knowledge that the first one occurred in a place where Jews had become highly assimilated and successful.(5) Robert Alter cautions against such fears, enumerating the ways in which our contemporary existence "is warped by being viewed in the dark glass of the Holocaust. We can never put out of our minds what happened to our people in Europe, but their reality is not ours."(6) James Young suggests a compromise by exploring how memories and representations of the Holocaust shape the present, rather than simply relegating subsequent generations to living in the past.(7) He envisions a dynamic interaction between past and present which encompasses the importance of memory while simultaneously allowing for future development and change.

The difficulty of writing about the Holocaust is compounded for American Jews by their distance from the event, both geographically and, increasingly, chronologically. Holocaust literature was not frequently written in the United States until the 1960s, when there was a sudden awakening of interest due to the Eichmann trial, the publicizing of which made the facts of the Holocaust newly accessible to Americans. This exposure was compounded by the occurrence of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, which together renewed anxiety about a repetition of the destruction of large segments of world Jewry. Since this initial burgeoning in the 1960s, the Holocaust has received an astounding amount of attention from American Jewish writers, in a manner which often eclipses all other facets of Jewish history and culture. It has taken on a problematic role as both a new center for Jewish commonality and a metaphor for all the injustices of the waning twentieth century. As the Holocaust itself becomes more removed, the range and number of representations of it seem to proliferate.

In writing about the Holocaust and the abundance of literary responses to it, it is important to distinguish between the Holocaust itself and the "rhetorical, cultural, political, and religious uses to which the disaster has been put since then."(8) Andre Schwarz-Bart concludes his novel The Last of the Just with the tragic truth that "so it was for millions, who turned from Luftmenschen into Luft. I shall not translate. So this story will not finish with some tomb to be visited in memoriam. …