A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es: Lies and Truth in Holo­caust Fiction

  • Review
By – October 3, 2011

Truth” means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in con­nec­tion with Holo­caust writ­ing. Some prize fac­tu­al accu­ra­cy, the tes­ti­mo­ny” of wit­ness­es.” Oth­ers look to a deep­er under­stand­ing of human moti­va­tions and actions. Ruth Franklin, whose superb lit­er­ary crit­i­cism is well known to read­ers of The New Repub­lic, stands firm­ly in defense of the imag­i­na­tion as a way to illu­mi­nate the truth. Not that she has any tol­er­ance for the fab­ri­ca­tions of Ben­jamin Wilkomirs­ki, who claimed to be a Jew­ish child-sur­vivor of the Shoah but actu­al­ly spent the war years with his Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly in Switzer­land. But nei­ther can she endorse judg­ing a nov­el accord­ing to whether its details actu­al­ly happened. 

Among the writ­ers con­sid­ered in her essays, Nobel Prize win­ner Imre Kertész explic­it­ly scorns the idea of Holo­caust sto­ries as fac­tu­al tes­ti­mo­ny, and Franklin con­sid­ers his Fate­less­ness as per­haps the great­est nov­el yet writ­ten about the Holo­caust.” She describes Jerzy Kosinski’s nov­el The Paint­ed Bird as accom­plished and often beau­ti­ful even as she rec­og­nizes that its nar­ra­tor could not pos­si­bly have wit­nessed all he described. G. W. Sebald, author of The Emi­grants and Auster­litz, assert­ed that the truth val­ue of the sto­ry does not depend on its actu­al truth con­tent,” and min­gled fact and fic­tion so much that they are vir­tu­al­ly indistinguishable. 

Not every­one can tol­er­ate that kind of ambi­gu­i­ty. After Pri­mo Levi main­tained that he invent­ed noth­ing in Sur­vival in Auschwitz; crit­ics claimed to find dis­crep­an­cies when it was com­pared to the tes­ti­mo­ny of oth­er eye­wit­ness­es. When a new trans­la­tion of Elie Wiesel’s Night was pub­lished, some schol­ars leaped on sup­posed incon­sis­ten­cies with the ear­li­er ver­sion, or with his mem­oirs. Franklin calm­ly clar­i­fies, they are moments of artis­tic license, and that is pre­cise­ly why they are important.” 

She touch­es as well on the moral lim­i­ta­tions of Bern­hard Schlink’s pop­u­lar nov­el The Read­er, and on the deranged pride” of Melvin Jules Buki­et, who uses his father’s tat­too num­ber as his ATM pass­code and claims genet­ic wis­dom about the Holo­caust. Franklin also prais­es the work of third-gen­er­a­tion writ­ers like Nathan Eng­lan­der, whose short sto­ry The Tum­blers” she con­sid­ers the most bril­liant treat­ment of the Holo­caust in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can fic­tion.” Ruth Franklin’s keen analy­sis makes a major con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­ary crit­i­cism of Shoah writ­ers, and her humane per­spec­tive ren­ders the nuances of a fraught sub­ject new­ly comprehensible.

Read Ruth Franklin’s Posts for the Vist­ing Scribe


Every­thing We Need to Know

Not a His­tor­i­cal Record

Read about Ruth on the ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Ruth Franklin

Out of Atroc­i­ty, Art

by Ruth Franklin

In 1995, fifty years after the end of the war, a new Holo­caust mem­oir was pub­lished to great acclaim. Its author was com­pared to Jean Améry, Paul Celan, and Pri­mo Levi. It was cham­pi­oned vir­tu­al­ly unan­i­mous­ly by crit­ics, one of whom called it so moral­ly impor­tant, and so free from lit­er­ary arti­fice of any kind at all, that I won­der if I even have the right to try to offer praise.”

The book was Frag­ments, by Bin­jamin Wilkomirs­ki. You know the rest of the sto­ry. The author was quick­ly revealed as an imposter. His unmask­ing made crit­ics and aca­d­e­mics alike wring their hands. How, they won­dered, could this have been allowed to hap­pen? But the real won­der is that it did not hap­pen soon­er. For Wilkomirski’s fraud was the inevitable con­se­quence of the way Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture has been read and under­stood in the decades since the war — the focus of my book, A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es: Lies and Truth in Holo­caust Fic­tion.

To write a poem after Auschwitz is bar­bar­ic”: Theodor Adorno’s famous dic­tum gen­er­at­ed a fog of sus­pi­cion over the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing art in the wake of atroc­i­ty. His remark has been uncrit­i­cal­ly received as a gen­er­al pro­hi­bi­tion against imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture about the Holo­caust, which is said to be beyond rep­re­sen­ta­tion. A nov­el about Auschwitz is either not a nov­el, or it is not about Auschwitz,” Elie Wiesel has writ­ten, argu­ing that to fic­tion­al­ize insults the dead.” Those who wish to learn about the Holo­caust, Wiesel writes, should read tes­ti­monies and watch doc­u­men­taries. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, crit­ics who address them­selves to this body of work have tend­ed to feel, as Wilkomirski’s review­ers did, that they hard­ly have the right to offer praise, much less crit­i­cism. Is it not super­flu­ous to apply lit­er­ary cri­te­ria to works that tes­ti­fy to some of the great­est bru­tal­i­ties in history?

Yet if read­ers auto­mat­i­cal­ly sus­pend their crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties when it comes to the Holo­caust, the inevitable con­se­quence will be frauds like Wilkomirski’s, which pro­lif­er­at­ed — not by acci­dent — over the last few decades. At the same time, if fideli­ty to his­tor­i­cal fact becomes the only bench­mark by which to judge Holo­caust writ­ing, we over­look the cru­cial role the cre­ative imag­i­na­tion plays in the great­est of these works. Authors like Tadeusz Borows­ki were writ­ing poet­ry about their expe­ri­ences while still in the camps. And even the tes­ti­monies that feel the most authen­tic — Anne Frank’s diary, or Elie Wiesel’s Night—were writ­ten and re-writ­ten with an eye to increas­ing their impact. Their lit­er­ary arti­fice” isn’t a fatal flaw: it’s part of what makes these books both mem­o­rable and important.

Is there an essen­tial dif­fer­ence between writ­ing a nov­el about the Holo­caust and fab­ri­cat­ing a mem­oir? Do Holo­caust nar­ra­tives have a spe­cial oblig­a­tion to be truth­ful — that is, faith­ful to the facts of his­to­ry? And why are they so often thought to be exempt from crit­i­cism and inter­pre­ta­tion? These are some of the ques­tions I explore in A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es, which inves­ti­gates the ten­sion between fact and fic­tion, tes­ti­mo­ny and imag­i­na­tion, in major works of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture — from the sur­vivor accounts of Wiesel and Pri­mo Levi to the film Schindler’s List and the fic­tion­al writ­ings of W.G. Sebald and Bern­hard Schlink. Some of these books are assumed to be mem­oirs; oth­ers, like Jerzy Kosinski’s The Paint­ed Bird, were once thought to be true and have since been proved false. But I dis­cov­ered that such des­ig­na­tions are vir­tu­al­ly mean­ing­less, because every canon­i­cal work of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture involves some gray­ing of the line between fic­tion and real­i­ty. Such cre­ative license doesn’t insult the dead; rather, it ele­vates these works into art.

A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es grew out of a series of reviews I wrote for The New Repub­lic, which wel­comed me to its staff in 1999. (It’s a seri­ous book, but not a schol­ar­ly one: as a jour­nal­ist, I write for the gen­er­al read­er.) My con­nec­tion to the Holo­caust runs deep: I grew up hear­ing my mater­nal grand­par­ents, both sur­vivors, tell har­row­ing sto­ries over the din­ner table. But I came to this sub­ject also through books. Anne Frank’s icon­ic diary; Wiesel’s Night, which I still have in a now crum­bling paper­back giv­en to me when I was ten; the ter­ri­fy­ing col­lec­tion of poems and draw­ings by chil­dren in Terezín called I Nev­er Saw Anoth­er But­ter­fly—these are among my ear­li­est read­ing mem­o­ries. I sought in these books, I now real­ize, what we seek in all lit­er­a­ture: imag­i­na­tive access to a world not our own. Lat­er I stud­ied Pol­ish in Krakow and Ger­man in Berlin; in my grad­u­ate work, I tried to rec­on­cile the beau­ty of these lit­er­ary lan­guages with the atroc­i­ties per­pe­trat­ed by their speakers.

I used to joke that my next book would be about a cheerier sub­ject — per­haps tulips or pup­pies. Some cau­tioned that it might be hard to leave the Holo­caust behind, and they were right. In the future I plan to com­plete a trans­la­tion of Tadeusz Borowski’s poet­ry, which I’ve been work­ing on for sev­er­al years, as well as under­take a new biog­ra­phy of the poet Paul Celan. My cur­rent project, a biog­ra­phy of Shirley Jack­son, is large­ly the sto­ry of Jackson’s mar­riage to the sem­i­nal Jew­ish lit­er­ary crit­ic Stan­ley Edgar Hyman and the com­plex­i­ties of such a union in post­war Amer­i­ca. The Lot­tery,” Jackson’s most famous short sto­ry, may have been inspired by the anti-Semi­tism that the cou­ple expe­ri­enced after mov­ing to an insu­lar New Eng­land town. Jack­son devot­ed much of her work to explor­ing the cru­el­er aspects of human nature, par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious and racial prejudice.

Speak­ing per­son­al­ly, I’ve always felt a moral imper­a­tive to com­mem­o­rate the Holo­caust as well as an intel­lec­tu­al dri­ve to inves­ti­gate its sources and con­se­quences. I’m deeply moved that A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es has been select­ed as a final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize, hon­or­ing these dual commitments.

Discussion Questions