Representations of Time and Memory in Holocaust Literature: A Comparison of Charlotte Delbo's Days and Memory and Ida Fink's Selected Stories

By Pokhrel, Arun Kumar | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Representations of Time and Memory in Holocaust Literature: A Comparison of Charlotte Delbo's Days and Memory and Ida Fink's Selected Stories


Pokhrel, Arun Kumar, Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


The recent Holocaust testimonies are often disruptive narration of personal histories. In the form of memory, these testimonies capture survivors' experience of the Nazi Holocaust. As the survivor recalls his or her past experience in the present, "'[c]otemporality' becomes the controlling principle of these testimonies, as witnesses struggle with the impossible task of making their recollections of the camp experience coalesce with the rest of their lives." (1) The sense of time is deeply embedded in the survivor's consciousness. Caught between the transitions of past and present, the survivor becomes traumatized by his or her own anguish and the anguish of others. Hence, in these testimonies, the psychological association of events becomes more important than the chronological order of events. Original in its narrative technique and use of memory and time, Charlotte Delbo's posthumous memoir La memoire et les jours (translated as Days and Memory, 1985), is a complex reflection of the atrocious past. Auschwitz is fresh in Delbo's memory, and its horrifying images permeate her being in the present. So the present moment is not a simple point, but it has a certain extension and inner structure of its own. German philosopher Martin Heidegger has said that the reality of time is constructed not as something which we encounter only when we attempt to reckon it but as something which becomes operational within human existence. Similarly, Ida Fink, in her short stories "A Scrap of Time," "A Second Scrap of Time," and "Traces" (published in her anthologies Traces and A Scrap of Time and Other Stories), excavates the "ruins of memory" that invoke the devastating experiences of the Nazi Holocaust, which cannot be "measured in months and years" but can only be measured psychologically. (2) Interestingly enough, both Delbo and Fink focus on the intricate relations of past and present.

In this respect, the principal question pertaining to this study would be: How are memory and time used in Delbo's memoir and Fink's stories in representing the Holocaust? Although Delbo and Fink both make use of memory and time in narrating the inhuman conditions of ghettoization, deportation, forced labor, roundups, and mass execution, their ways of representation vary significantly. Memory and time are used in Delbo to show the timelessness in complex layers of memory and to recreate a reality through inventive narrative style while in Fink they are used to delineate the scraps of time in the ruins of memory and to create a tragic domestic reality through conventional narrativity.

Charlotte Delbo and Ida Fink both write in the present looking back at the past moments. Delbo writes from the cafe in France after many years of camp life, whereas Fink writes from Israel after many years of ghetto life. Both find their present self inextricably linked to the past self. Despite their recognition of the importance of remembering, Delbo and Fink both encounter a problem in conveying their experience and knowledge as a coherent historical truth to others. However, most importantly, the temporal experience Delbo had in the Auschwitz camp differed remarkably from Fink's experience in the ghetto. Auschwitz had no clock at all. The only time Delbo experienced in the camp was human time. Unlike Delbo, Fink might have better sense of clock-time in the ghetto. The nature of atrocity and other circumstances might have also varied. Here one is tempted to think that different situations in the camp and ghetto could be one of the major reasons why their perception of time and memory also differed.

Before examining Delbo's Days and Memory and Fink's selected stories, I will briefly examine a few important theoretical positions in memory and time, especially in their relation to Holocaust literature. Stressing the importance of memory in the testimonies, noted scholar Lawrence L. Langer, in his Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, states: "Testimony is a form of remembering. …

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