Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Child of the Holocaust in Mr. Sammler's Planet

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Child of the Holocaust in Mr. Sammler's Planet

Article excerpt

Unfortunately, critics of Mr. Sammler's Planet have not challenged Sammler's assumption that his daughter Shula-Slawa is a "nut" as a consequence of her four traumatic years as a hidden child during the Holocaust; moreover, critics have not questioned Sammler's assumption that the best way to cope with trauma is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and avoid talking about it. Using the metaphor of surviving a fall into the Grand Canyon to explain how one should cope with surviving the Holocaust, Sammler reflects, "Why speak of it? Things that happen, happen" (112). However, Sammler's views are not in accord with research; well-meaning people who urge a child or an adult to forget the trauma of the Holocaust and to suppress painful memories are urging behavior that can psychologically damage the individual. Sarah Moskovitz and Robert Krell state that "without confronting the fear and recapturing the fragments of memory, the survivor cannot make the necessary connections which allow re-integration of their whole life; neither can they obtain the peace of mind that comes with closure" (89). In fact, researchers agree that survivors of trauma need to recount their experiences and traumatic memories (Tauber and van der Hal 160). Both Sammler's and Shula-Slawa's ways of adapting to post-World War II America are largely unsuccessful, and their postwar ways of grappling with the Holocaust are primarily responsible for their failures in this regard. Shula-Slawa's inability to cope with normal life during the 1960s in America is largely because of Sammler's attitudes and behavior, which discourage Shula-Slawa from confronting her painful memories of the Holocaust. Using psychological research on Holocaust survivors, we will explore the methods that Sammler and Shula-Slawa used to cope with the nightmare of the war years, and we will suggest possible causes for the problematical father-daughter relationship that was shaped (and distorted) by the Holocaust.

Although Sammler and Shula-Slawa are Holocaust survivors, their experiences during the war years were different. Much of Mr. Sammler's Planet is told from Sammler's point of view, and his great reluctance to reflect on or describe his daughter's wartime experiences means that while we know a fair amount about Sammler's wartime experiences, we know only a little about his daughter's. Sammler desires to suppress his painful memories of that terrible time, but he is not always able to do this; these traumatic memories, invasive and involuntary, suddenly force their way into his consciousness. The reader learns about his horrific past, which he remarks at one point cannot help but deform the survivor psychologically. Sammler's Holocaust experiences include being shot at in a mass execution, being taken for dead, and crawling out of a mass grave, leaving behind his murdered wife, Antonina. Sammler suffers immense physical harm (losing an eye because of a Nazi soldier's vicious cruelty) and great psychological trauma. His being able to save only his own life and not his wife's is a source of failure and guilt.

While the novel does not provide much detail of what happened to Shula-Slawa during the war years, the text indicates that like most child survivors of the Holocaust, "physically, psychologically and socially most vulnerable," she did suffer much (Valent 520). In fact, her dual name Shula-Slawa, as she is sometimes referred to in the book, suggests her conflicted character that is a consequence of her wartime trauma. Although the reasons are not clear, Sammler seems to minimize his daughter's Holocaust experiences; he does not discuss them and reveals that he is not interested in hearing Shula-Slawa or others talk about them. In fact, there are only a few brief but important references to these experiences in the text. One of these references occurs when Sammler confronts his daughter after she has stolen Dr. Lal's manuscript and is evading Dr. Lal and the police. …

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