Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Introduction: Ever after Auschwitz: Holocaust Piety, Impiety, and Jewish American Fiction

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Introduction: Ever after Auschwitz: Holocaust Piety, Impiety, and Jewish American Fiction

Article excerpt

In his novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon presents a classic American detective story in which the reader follows homicide detective Meyer Landsman and his partner as they work on the murder case of a Jewish junkie. In the process, they manage to uncover a far-reaching Jewish terrorist complot in cahoots with the highest levels of us government. What is particularly striking about the novel, however, is that its plot unravels against a very peculiar historical and geographical backdrop: in fact, it is situated in an alternative history in which the Holocaust as we know it never took place. Instead, after the Nazis had managed to kill no less than two million Jews, the American government granted the remainder of the Jews of Europe a safe haven in Sitka, Alaska. From the mid-1940s onward, millions of Jewish refugees flock into Sitka, turning the Alaskan frontier town into a Jewish American shtetl, where instead of English or Hebrew people speak Yiddish. In a podcast interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Chabon explained this highly unlikely setup by saying that "I think in The Yiddish Policemen's Union I tried to use my imagination to undo at least some of the effects of the Holocaust, and to imagine a way out of the catastrophe."1

To those skeptical about Holocaust fiction, Chabon's comment and indeed the entire novel it refers to may represent the incarnations of their worst fears and concerns about the genre. The attempt "to imagine a way out of the catastrophe" seems to go right against the need to bear witness valued so highly by the survivors; in fact, serving as the vehicle for a detective story, this patently imaginary engagement with the Holocaust may seem an appropriation of horror for purely trivial ends. As such, it may even come dangerously close to that ultimate form of sacrilege: Holocaust denial. Such a reading, however, fails to see that something much more tangled and complicated is at stake. As Chabon points out in the same podcast interview, it "is part of the legacy of my generation following the Holocaust-to have those powerful feelings of wishing it were not so, wishing it could be undone, and trying to understand how it did happen, partly in order to go through that process of wishing it otherwise."

Indeed, Chabon's novel and its unusual approach to the Holocaust are not marginal or eccentric phenomena. They are part of a trend in Jewish American writing in which authors return to the Holocaust again and again, yet approach this tragic history from unexpected, often highly playful, sometimes even seemingly "sacrilegious" angles. This study aims to offer a critical understanding of this trend by focusing on the fiction of some of its most significant representatives: besides Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Nathan Englander. By reading these authors in multiple relevant historical, sociocultural, and intellectual contexts, it suggests that their fictional approaches to the Holocaust must not be mistaken for instances of historical insensitivity let alone callous blasphemy. Instead, the study proposes to consider these engagements with the Holocaust as the linchpin to highly complex and mediated explorations of history, identity, and the possibilities of literary art itself in a period of destabilizing uncertainties. Understanding the curious significance of the Holocaust in recent Jewish American fiction, however, begins with considering the meaning of World War ii and the Holocaust in contemporary Western culture and literature more generally.

In fact, the cultural significance and resonance of the history of World War II can hardly be overstated. In a period when consensus about the meaning and value of history and culture has become a scarce commodity, this history stands out as a rare set of historical events of singular and by and large undisputed importance. The memory of the Holocaust in particular functions as a benchmark in understanding contemporary history and culture, and indeed, phrases like "after Auschwitz" and "post-Holocaust" are frequently used to characterize the nature of our contemporary day and age. …

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