The Holocaust as Literature of the Body: Charlotte Delbo's Qui Rapportera Ces Paroles? and Michel Vinaver's Par-Dessus Bord

By Plunka, Gene A. | Shofar, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Holocaust as Literature of the Body: Charlotte Delbo's Qui Rapportera Ces Paroles? and Michel Vinaver's Par-Dessus Bord


Plunka, Gene A., Shofar


This essay explores the Nazi glorification of the body as a tool for work and the concomitant notion that Jews, as threats to the Volk, shirked physical labor and thus were biologically crippling to the Reich. In retaliation, the Nazis degraded Jewish bodies and forced them to do hard labor, which they believed conflicted with the Jews' natural constitution. The extermination camp experience became an assault on the body, for the Nazis ultimately deprived Jews of their possessions, families, friends, homes, fortunes, and occupations-the cultural matrix that had previously sustained them. Prisoners were subjected to constant hunger, thirst, fatigue, and bodily harassment; diseases eroded their bodies. Charlotte Delbo's Who Will Carry the Word? and Michel Vinaver's Overboard are discussed as exemplars of Holocaust plays that delve into the erosion of the body in extermination camps and thus personify literature of the body.

The Holocaust eroded the intellectual and cultural life of Jews and political prisoners; eventually, concentration camp deportees had their bodies assaulted as well. Charlotte Delbo's Qui rapportera ces paroles? (Who Will Carry the Word?) and Michel Vinaver's Par-dessus bord (Overboard) are exemplars of Holocaust plays that explore the erosion of the body as a tool for work in extermination camps and thus personify literature of the body: writing that draws attention to the importance of bodily functions. Many Holocaust plays focus on the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the Shoah but do not delve into the question of how the Nazi glorification of the body as a tool for work and the concomitant notion that Jews, as inferiors and enemies of the state, became primarily an assault on the body. Unlike most Holocaust plays that typically focus on survivor memory, life in the Eastern European ghettos, or the moral and spiritual implications of the Shoah, Delbo's Who Will Carry the Word? specifically examines the Holocaust as literature of the body through corporeal destruction by starvation, thirst, disease, torture, cold, and beatings, while Vinaver's Overboard, by inundating audiences with images of excrement, reflects a similar type of literature of the body that demonstrates the significance of understanding how Jews were reduced to bodily waste by the Nazis.

These two plays are being paired together because they best reflect the erosion of the Jewish body in the extermination camps. There is an imbalance in the treatment of the two plays because Vinaver's text is 142 pages long while Delbo's is 52 pages. Delbo's play can be performed in less than two hours; Vinaver's play takes five hours to stage. Overboard is not only longer, but also is more complex than Who Will Carry the Word? Two scholars who have written extensively on Vinaver are David Bradby and Michael David Fox. My essay differs substantially from Bradby's research, which does not refer to the Holocaust at all. While my research does cover some of the material discussed by Fox, I focus more on literature of the body; of course, Fox does not deal with Delbo at all.

The Nazi Emphasis on the Body

Hitler left school in 1905 without completing his final examinations and thus without receiving a diploma. He was adept at freehand drawing but excelled only in gymnastics. Hitler's focus on the body rather than the intellect or the arts would become a key issue in the Nazi agenda. In his first major public address, on 13 August 1920 in Munich, Hitler extolled the virtues of economic reform and claimed that the Jews degraded and exploited labor.1 This was the first association of National Socialism with labor and the disassociation of Jews with hard work, which was to become one of the major tenets of Mein Kampfand later of the Nazi Party. During the Weimar Republic, Jews were over-represented in trade, finance, commerce, the arts, and the sciences yet under-represented in agriculture and industry, the occupations associated with manual labor. …

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