The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers' Diaries from Warsaw, 1939-1945

By Mueller, Mary-Catherine | Shofar, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers' Diaries from Warsaw, 1939-1945


Mueller, Mary-Catherine, Shofar


THE ETHICS OF WITNESSING: THE HOLOCAUST IN POLISH WRITERS' DIARIES FROM WARSAW, 1939-1945 Rachel Feldhay Brenner. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2014. ix + 198 pp.

Language and words took on new meanings during the Holocaust. The act of writing a diary took on new meanings as well. Rachel Feldhay Brenner's The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers' Diaries from Warsaw, 1939-1945 offers a glimpse into one of these new meanings of bearing witness as a "non-victim" through her examination of these five Polish writers' diaries. Through her research and analysis of the five prominent Polish writers and non-victims living in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, Brenner suggests that these diarists' (Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Maria Dabrowska, Aurelia Wylezynska, Zofia Nalkowska, and Stanislaw Rembek) "contemporaneous responses to the Jewish genocide deepen our understanding of the ethical, mental, and emotional challenges that face any witness of terror" (4). Brenner's text highlights how these wartime diaries provide a glimpse of the self-examining personal, emotional, psychological, and religious quandaries facing non-victims living on the "Aryan side" of Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

Through a simple and well-organized layout of the six chapters comprising this book, Brenner successfully guides her readers through her analysis of the private and literary writings of Iwaszkiewicz, Dabrowska, Wylezynska, Nalkowska, and Rembek. Each chapter focuses on a particular diarist and the lens through which they viewed their situation in Germanoccupied Warsaw. With several subheadings included in each chapter, the reader is able to seamlessly follow Brenner's approach to and analysis of each of the diarists. Brenner's analysis of these authors' writings (literary work created before, during, and after the war), and the lenses through which they viewed their life and experiences while living in the Aryan side of German-occupied Warsaw, provide her readers with a unique perspective of some of the personal conundrums facing theses diarists.

In addition to focusing each chapter solely on one of the five diarists, Brenner provides subsections that reveal the diarists' backgrounds, thus providing context to the philosophical and personal ideals to which each author clung. Consequently, in addition to shedding light on these five writers and their life works, Brenner introduces her readers to their various antisemitic attitudes and tendencies which were woven throughout their concerns of maintaining and sustaining Enlightenment-era inspired humanism (Jaros3aw Iwaszkiewicz and ZofiaNa3kowska), steadfastly embodying nationalism (Maria D1browska), striving for the aesthetical and ethical (Aurelia Wyle¿yñska), and remembering Poland's Romantic Messianic destiny (Stanis3aw Rembek). …

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