Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Testing the Limits of Holocaust Representation in Modern Israeli Literature

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Testing the Limits of Holocaust Representation in Modern Israeli Literature

Article excerpt

In an essay entitled The Second Life of Holocaust Imagery Norma Rosen writes that the Holocaust literature of the second generation is "[a] call to the imagination of a people to repair the work of reality--to recreate a destroyed world by infusing meaning into the very events it destroyed it--what else could be more moving?" (1992:47). Rosen explains the creative power of stories written by those she terms "witnesses through the imagination" as providing the keys to awakening and experiencing for the Jews and non-Jews unaffected by the trauma. It is because novelists produce meaning by connecting and linking things, in the context of Holocaust anguish, fiction communicates and broadens the Jewish experience while deepening it in a painfully particular way. Rosen cautions against turning away from engagement with Holocaust despite the obstacles strewn along that journey, urging writers and readers alike to open up a space in their consciousness to the "second life" that stirs in our soul when we encounter the intense images of that event, "... entering into a state of being that for whatever reasons makes porous those membranes through which empathy passes, or deep memory with its peculiar 'otherness,' so that we can move as far as it is given to us to do so, into the pain and hence the meaning of the Holocaust--that, too, is a kind of memorial" (1992:51).

In considering the literary responses to the Shoah by the second generation of Israeli novelists, a brief examination of the ethical concerns that relate to the fictional response is warranted. As Saul Friedlander notes, the new discourse of Holocaust fiction with its panoply of stylistic fiddling and new modes of describing the nature of holocaust reality, seemed to "test implicit boundaries and to raise not only aesthetic and intellectual problems, but moral issues too" (1992:2). To be sure, any attempt to enter the heart of darkness of Nazi Germany and the destruction of European Jewry, challenges, in the words of Friedlander, "our traditional conceptual and representational categories" (1992:3).

It follows, quite naturally, that marching into the swamp of this overwhelming form of genocide compels the one who chooses to bear witness to the catastrophe, to be deeply serious about its interpretation, and aware of the perimeters that flicker constantly as spasmodic warning signs. Friedlander again: "[T]his record should not be distorted or banalised by grossly inadequate representations... there are limits to representations which should not be but can easily be transgressed. What the characteristics of such a transgression are, however, is far more intractable than our definitions have so far been able to encompass" (1992:3). (1) Fundamental issues of accuracy--how words, which had lost their semblance of normality in Auschwitz, cohere with popular fictional treatments of the Holocaust--carry a special importance in this field of inquiry. In this connection, Lang's opening statement is worth noting: he remarks on the ethical considerations at play when one examines the representation of evil in imaginative writing. "It seems obvious to me that anything written now about the Nazi genocide against the Jews that is not primarily documentary, that does not uncover new information about the history of that singular event, requires special justification" (Lang 1990:xi).

Several issues are influential in discussions concerning the manner in which the post-Holocaust generation inscribes the historical events into the literary record, and in turn memorialises the victims for those who cannot or are unable to imagine. First, the second and third generation must contend with the retarding historical memory imposed on them during their years of education, confronting and challenging it through their writing and re-writing the story as secondary Holocaust fiction. In compression, for the postwar generation, the past of the survivors is a present freighted with a burdensome psychological legacy with which they must contend, more so as the survivors feel the urge and urgency to transmit their tales so they are recorded and not forgotten. …

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