Holo­caust Lit­er­a­ture: A His­to­ry and Guide

David G. Roskies and Nao­mi Diamant
  • Review
June 26, 2013

Holo­caust Lit­er­a­ture: A His­to­ry and Guide is the first major attempt to define and cat­a­log the full range of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture in all lan­guages and gen­res, from the Mem­o­ry Books” that began to appear in the first weeks after the war up through the begin­ning of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. The co-authors, David Roskies and Nao­mi Dia­mant, begin with a capa­cious def­i­n­i­tion of their sub­ject as All forms of writ­ing, both doc­u­men­tary and dis­cur­sive, and in any lan­guage, that have shaped the pub­lic mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust and been shaped by it.” They state mat­ter-of-fact­ly that they will study Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture as lit­er­a­ture,” a posi­tion that is by no means obvi­ous and which allows for some inter­est­ing and orig­i­nal obser­va­tions. Roskies and Dia­mant use­ful­ly sep­a­rate the wartime writ­ers liv­ing in the Jew-zone” (any­where in occu­pied Europe, where, as the authors tren­chant­ly put it, any Jew still alive by 1943 was a sta­tis­ti­cal error”) from those in the free zone,” pri­mar­i­ly the Unit­ed States and Pales­tine — a divi­sion that does the ser­vice of bring­ing togeth­er all the Yid­dish-speak­ing writ­ers of the ghet­toes (Abra­ham Sutzkev­er In Vil­na, Yitzhak Katznel­son in War­saw, and so on). The book’s chrono­log­i­cal approach has the salu­tary effect of demon­strat­ing just how much of this lit­er­a­ture was cre­at­ed either dur­ing the war or in the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing it, a cor­rec­tive to the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that tends to regard the decade or so after the war as a lit­er­ary gap.

The book’s sec­ond half is devot­ed to a Guide to the First Hun­dred Books,” which Roskies and Dia­mant present as a sug­gest­ed read­ing list … on an even play­ing field, with equal time giv­en to all”: each book receives about a page of descrip­tion and crit­i­cism. There are some inter­est­ing inclu­sions — and exclu­sions. I was glad to see the authors mak­ing a claim for the less­er-known Yid­dish writ­ers, as well as cham­pi­oning some of the more dif­fi­cult and con­tro­ver­sial fic­tion of the Holo­caust, espe­cial­ly Piotr Rawicz’s 1961 nov­el Blood from the Sky, a bril­liant­ly sur­re­al work of fic­tion. On the oth­er hand, I take issue with the inclu­sion of Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, which the authors point out right­ly has the feel of a col­lab­o­ra­tionist nov­el,” and which, despite the well-known cir­cum­stances of its dis­cov­ery and pub­li­ca­tion, does not in any way describe the expe­ri­ence of Jews in France. And the authors are hard­er on Jerzy Kosin­s­ki, author of The Paint­ed Bird, which was once thought to be an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el, than they are on Ben­jamin Wilkomirs­ki, whose pseu­do-mem­oir, Frag­ments, has been thor­ough­ly dis­cred­it­ed. Final­ly, I would have liked to see a work by a mem­ber of the third gen­er­a­tion,” the sur­vivors’ grand­chil­dren, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed. As Roskies and Dia­mant per­cep­tive­ly observe, the lit­er­a­ture of the Holo­caust unfolds both back­ward and for­ward”; pre­vi­ous­ly unknown works will undoubt­ed­ly con­tin­ue to appear, and those still to be writ­ten will have a new per­spec­tive on the ever-evolv­ing sig­nif­i­cance of the Holo­caust in our culture.

Discussion Questions