Academic journal article MELUS

The Holocaust for Beginners: Yankev Glatshteyn's Emil Un Karl and Other Wartime Works for Young American Yiddish Readers

Academic journal article MELUS

The Holocaust for Beginners: Yankev Glatshteyn's Emil Un Karl and Other Wartime Works for Young American Yiddish Readers

Article excerpt

Once a topic thought inappropriate for children, the Holocaust is now presented to them in a proliferation of undertakings: state-mandated educational programs beginning in elementary school, special exhibitions for young visitors in Holocaust museums, and the burgeoning genre of children's Holocaust literature, which now boasts hundreds of titles. (1) Long before Holocaust education was widely endorsed for young people, childhood had begun to figure strategically in the form of young protagonists in major works of Holocaust literature such as H. G. Adler's novel Panorama (1968), Gunter Grass's Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) (1959), and Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965). (2) More recently, literary works engage childhood through provocative use of the idioms of storytelling for the young; for example, David Grossman's 1986 novel Ayen erekh: ahavah (See Under. Love) evokes children's literature, while Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986) employs the "juvenile" genre of comics. The disparity between childhood, conceived as the age of innocence, and genocide, understood as the fundamental collapse of civil society, is a productive opening for the creation of avant-garde literary works on the Holocaust, including the occasional work of fiction for young readers, such as Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (2005).

A remarkable precedent for this confluence of the Holocaust, the sensibility of the child, and the literary avant-garde can be found in works written in the early 1940s by one of the leading modernist American Yiddish poets of the twentieth century, Yankev Glatshteyn (1896-1971), especially his novel Emil un Karl (Emil and Karl) (1940). Written for young adult readers, Emil un Karl was published in New York only months after World War II had begun and more than a year before the United States entered the conflict. A pioneering work of Holocaust fiction, the novel comes from the pen of a major Jewish writer who achieved considerable acclaim for his postwar poetry on the Holocaust. And yet, the novel has merited only a passing reference in most Glatshteyn scholarship. (3)

Emil un Karl and two shorter pieces on the Holocaust that Glatshteyn wrote for young readers during the war years are noteworthy on several counts. As early examples of Holocaust literature, these works engage an event that not only had yet to be given this name (or its Yiddish equivalent, khurbn) but also was still unfolding as these works were written and published, in contrast with postwar writing on the Holocaust. This distinction is especially telling with regard to the preponderance of children's literature on the subject. This literature has been written well after a master narrative of the Holocaust as a discrete historical event was established--a narrative distinct from the history of European anti-Semitism, the Nazi era, or World War II. Indeed, in America the Holocaust was not secured as a prominent fixture of the national moral landscape until several decades after the war. Moreover, as the Nazi-led mass murder of Europe's Jews, Roma, and other civilian populations took place far from the United States and bore no direct connection to the lives of most of its citizens, the Holocaust has been valued here as a paradigmatic event as well as a subject of importance in its own right. In this capacity, the Holocaust informs American public discussions of other genocides, both earlier (for example, of American Indians) and later (such as the "ethnic cleansing" operations in the Balkans), as well as an array of morally challenging issues, including the abortion rights debate, the AIDS pandemic, the nuclear arms race, animal rights, and world hunger. Glatshteyn's writings on the Holocaust for young readers are revealing as among the first attempts to engage Americans in this remote event of unrivaled enormity.

The works are also noteworthy as some of Glatshteyn's earliest efforts to address the Holocaust, which loomed large in his postwar career as a poet, essayist, and editor. …

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