"And Here [Their] Troubles Began": The Legacy of the Holocaust in the Writing of Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, and Philip Roth
Lehmann, Sophia, CLIO
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."(9) Just as translation renders the horror in a new and different form, so too do works of art and literature which serve as monuments. Nothing remains of the six million Jews and the European culture that died with them. In their places, we have the multitudes of responses from those who lived to bear witness and those who experienced the Holocaust only indirectly. Lawrence Langer delineates the difference between the event and the symbolism which has since accrued:
For Dachau, like Auschwitz and in a related sense like Hiroshima, is no longer merely a place-name with grim historical associations for those who care to pursue them. All three have been absorbed into the collective memory of the human community as independent symbols of a quality of experience more subtle, complex, and elusive than the names themselves can possibly convey.(10)
Writing about the Holocaust thus produces new memories and associations.
These literary and artistic responses can be construed as both beneficial, in that they attest to continued commemoration of an event we must not forget, and also deleterious, in that they risk distorting the history which they strive to convey. Robert Alter refers to "the Holocaust phenomenon" in America, alluding to the way in which it has become tamed of its historical horror within academic, commercial, political, and religious spheres.(11) Academically, it is used as a metaphor for twentieth-century existential and artistic crises and as a basis for propounding new literary theories, as in Dominick LaCapra's Representing the Holocaust.(12) LaCapra justifies his use of the Holocaust by the contention that "there is in reality no history without theory."(13) Such assertions remove the Holocaust from its historical mooring and transform it into a model on which to hone such concepts as "trauma." Commercially, the Holocaust has become a rich source of profit and entertainment, with disturbing implications about the ethics of making money from the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman, after the wild success of Maus, his comic book narrative about the Holocaust, recounts offers to make the book into a major motion picture, as well as other ventures for capitalizing on the success of his Holocaust narrative, including the packaging of Maus as Christmas/Chanukah gift sets.(11) Politically, the Holocaust has become a standard against which is measured every other instance of oppression, murder, and racism, initiating a grotesque competition for the status of "most oppressed." Toni Morrison begins her novel Beloved (1987), about the atrocities of slavery, with a dedication to the "Sixty Million and more"; in a more communal spirit of shared historical horrors, the protagonist in Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle" (1956) contextualizes her own suffering by comparing it with the suffering of those who endured trains to concentration camps, slave ships, and the bombing of Hiroshima.
It is in religious terms that the Holocaust assumes its most complicated role. The memory of the historical atrocity has in large part come to replace spirituality and traditional Judaic knowledge among assimilated American Jews, thereby providing a negative center for Jewish identification while at the same time secularizing an inherently religious tradition. As Jacob Neusner asserts, "What we have done is to make the murder of the Jews of Europe into one of the principal components of the civil religion of American Jews."(15) Remembering the Holocaust--the "negative miracle," as it has been termed--becomes the only "tradition" that assimilated American Jews share. And as the Holocaust becomes more and more central to Jewish American identity, the fear of forgetting the Holocaust comes to represent and replace the loss of the rest of Jewish tradition and collective memory. Amos Funkenstein places the phenomenon within a larger trend: "The nation-state replaced the sacred liturgical memory with secular liturgical memory--days of remembrance, flags, and monuments."(16) Memorializing the Holocaust thus becomes just one more instance of the secularization of Judaism.
Concomitant with the sanctification imposed on the Holocaust, there has been an insistence by many critics on the necessity of adhering to purely "factual" accounts. Ozick, for one, challenging her own literary practices, has stated, "I …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: "And Here [Their] Troubles Began": The Legacy of the Holocaust in the Writing of Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, and Philip Roth. Contributors: Lehmann, Sophia - Author. Journal title: CLIO. Volume: 28. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 1998. Page number: 29. © 1998 Indiana University, Purdue University of Fort Wayne. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.