Using and Abusing the Holocaust

Using and Abusing the Holocaust

Using and Abusing the Holocaust

Using and Abusing the Holocaust

Synopsis

"Langer, by the force of scholarship and literary precision rather than dogmatic affirmation and pathos, is one of the few writers, with the exception of significant poets and novelists, who unsettles both our customary language and conceptual instruments. His book is a moral as well as an intellectual act of a very high order." --Geoffrey Hartman, author of The Longest Shadow

In this new volume, Langer--one of the most distinguished scholars writing on Holocaust literature and representation--assesses various literary efforts to establish a place in modern consciousness for the ordeal of those victimized by Nazi Germany's crimes against humanity. Essays discuss the film Life Is Beautiful, the uncritical acclaim of Fragments, the fake memoir by Benjamin Wilkomirski, reasons for the exaggerated importance still given to Anne Frank's Diary, and a recent cycle of paintings on the Old Testament by Holocaust artist Samuel Bak.

Excerpt

The ghastly details of the Holocaust are a constant reminder of the abyss separating the lived experience of those who endured it from the language that seeks to describe it. To ignore this menacing chasm by bridging it with a brittle rhetoric of consolation only increases the risk of plunging into the uncertainty churning in its depths. But yielding to its magnetic pull creates dilemmas of its own, and the essays in this volume try to address some of them. Visitors to the realm of Holocaust anguish are met by the threat of death at every turn, not only as the end of an ordeal of misery but also as a partner to the challenge of staying alive. As the event recedes in time, it grows more and more difficult to recapture the way it was for those who faced it: everything has come to depend on who tells the tale, and how. History resembles narrative as we speak or write about it, or in the case of art, find shapes to represent its reality. Summoning versions of the Holocaust past requires a verbal or—in the case of film or painting—visual agility that returns us to the problem of choosing an apt vocabulary to confront the atrocity we call the Holocaust. We soon learn, however, that such a vocabulary involves more than words or images.

Deflective texts about the Holocaust experience continue to proliferate, their titles often barely concealing their programmatic intent. One recent example is called Hidden from the Holocaust: Stories of Resilient Children Who Survived and Thrived. Surely the subtitle “Stories of Children Who Survived” would have been enough. the addition of “resilient” and “thrived” shifts the prospective reader’s attention from the implicit death scenario, which is the main focus of accounts of the destruction of European Jewry, to the attractive auxiliary idea that one could emerge from the universe of extermination virtually intact, unscathed by the murder of so many others, including in many instances one’s own parents. Whether the same hopeful impulse that drove the American publishers of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man to change its title to Survival in Auschwitz and of its sequel The Truce to The . . .

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