This Crazy Thing a Life

By Encel, Sol | Shofar, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

This Crazy Thing a Life


Encel, Sol, Shofar


This Crazy Thing a Life, by Richard Freadman. Crawley, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 2007. 301 pp. $31.00.

The author, a professor of literature at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has written extensively concerning biography and autobiography as literary forms. His reflections on autobiographical writing are contained in Part One of the present volume. In Part Two, he examines seven selected autobiographies, covering a diverse range of experiences and perspectives.

Over all the autobiographies in Part Two hangs the shadow of the Holocaust. David Martin, a Hungarian who left Europe in the 1930s, had no direct experience of the Holocaust, but reflects deeply on its significance. Tribalism, he writes, is the curse of the species. "It will destroy us if we don't take care, for all its heroines and heroes. Adolf Hitler, who taught me I was a Jew, also taught me that there is no nationalism that does not become fanaticism."

Although Martin deplored tribalism, he was in no doubt about his Jewish identity. (For a time, he edited the local Jewish weekly newspaper, the Australian Jewish News.) Another Hungarian immigrant, Andrew Riemer, provides a striking contrast. In his four volumes of autobiography, Riemer comes across as a classic case of deracination. In the words of Richard Freadman, he is a "deracinated Jew par excellence, a man for whom Jewishness, and the Jewish fate more generally, occasions a kind of obsessive but alienated puzzlement and preoccupation." Unlike the other authors reviewed in this volume, Riemer insists that there is no qualitative difference between the Holocaust and other genocides, and pictures the world as permeated by tremendous evil, which human beings are powerless to resist. Freadman comments that this view of the world casts doubt on Riemer's entire autobiographical project.

Jacob Rosenberg, a prizewinning author and the best known of the seven selected autobiographers, has written two volumes spanning his childhood in Poland in the 1930s, his incarceration in Auschwitz, and the early years of his new life in Australia. Rosenberg reflects at length on the problematic nature of Jewish identity. Freadman describes him as a quintessential humanist, for whom Jewishness "requires no God, but rather a commitment to a universalistic ethics ... a prayerful attitude without a deity." His writings are "the poetic autobiographies of a humanist who has little religious faith to lose, but managed to retain a measure of faith in humanity despite staggering odds. …

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