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Literature Complementing History

The reason I wrote my first book which was “The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination”, which was the first full-length study in English of Holocaust literature, was because no one was paying any attention to Holocaust literature. It took years for people in my field, that is literature, to be invited to a Holocaust conference. Holocaust conferences were dominated in the 60s and 70s by,
first by psychologists and then by historians, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean I’ll say from the beginning you cannot understand or appreciate Holocaust literature unless you know the history of the Holocaust. And I spend to this day 75 percent of my time reading Holocaust history rather than Holocaust literature. But as I began to read Holocaust history I felt something missing, and that is a sense of the experience of the individual victim during the Holocaust. This is not the province of Holocaust historians. And I began looking at Holocaust literature - the stories of of Tadeusz Borowski, the stories of
Ida Fink, and you begin to appreciate what this human being and that human being went through. And I became convinced that literature plays a vital role in our understanding of what happened to individual men and women during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, and I’ll never understand that, Holocaust historians with one or two exceptions, are not interested in Holocaust literature because they think literature is not real, literature is made up. And of course literature is made up not to say that some history may not be made up also, but because literature is made up it doesn’t mean it can’t get at realities of the Holocaust that history doesn’t get in.
For example a novel came out a few years ago called “The Kindly Ones” by an American named Jonathan Littell, who wrote it in French, for reasons I don’t… he was living in Paris, it’s over 900 pages, I only know two other people who have read the book beside myself, It gives the best portrayal of an SS man that I have ever read. The psychology of an SS man. He spent years doing research in Holocaust history before he began writing the novel and if you want to understand the psychology of an SS man, how he gradually eased into becoming a murderer without even realizing that he was becoming a murderer, that novel makes a major contribution.
If you want to understand what it was like for the grandson of a Holocaust survivor to try to make sense of what his grandparents went through, you don’t find that in Holocaust history you’ll find it in David Grossman’s “See Under: Love”, in which the grandson struggles with the experience of the older generation and David Grossman makes that alive for the reader in a way that nothing else does.
Unfortunately most people are unacquainted with major works of Holocaust literature.
I will mention two or three titles that probably almost no one has ever heard of. A novel called “Mr. Theodore Mundstock” by a Czech writer called Ladislav Fuks, whom when I was years ago in Prague I called because someone gave me his number and had a long meeting with him. It’s a story of an elderly Jewish man in Prague, and if you want to understand what it was like to worry about being deported.
He hears rumors that jews are being deported from Prague and he decides to prepare himself, so he throws away, he hears that people sleep on wooden boards in the camps, he throws away his mattress and begins sleeping on a wooden board to get accustomed to sleeping on a wooden board. Then he hears that there’s not much food in the camps, and so he starts cutting his diet in half and starving himself a little, to accustom himself to not being so hungry. And then it turns bizarre, but there’s a meaning behind this bizarre quality.
He hears rumors about gas chambers, so every morning he turns on his oven but he doesn’t light the flame, and puts his head in the oven for a few minutes and breathes the gas to train himself to breathe gas. It’s a terrifying notion. You don’t find anything like that in an historical account of the gas chambers, important as that is, but reading that, you get a sense of what it might have been like for someone thinking in advance and fearing in advance what lies ahead for him or for her in the camps.

Prof. Lawrence Langer on the value of Literature and how it adds to the historical narrative

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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