Visu­al Arts

New Voic­es: Con­tem­po­rary Writ­ers Con­fronting the Holocaust 

  • Review
By – April 20, 2023

In his acclaimed graph­ic mem­oir Maus, Art Spiegel­man suc­cinct­ly express­es one of the prob­lems of rep­re­sent­ing the Holo­caust: I know this is insane, but I some­how wish I had been in Auschwitz with my par­ents so I could real­ly know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about hav­ing had an eas­i­er life than they did.”

Spiegelman’s admis­sion ulti­mate­ly puz­zles over how writ­ers lack­ing a direct con­nec­tion to the Holo­caust can write mean­ing­ful­ly about it. What does it mean in the US, where we have a his­to­ry of geno­cide of Indige­nous Amer­i­cans and enslave­ment of African Amer­i­cans, and a cur­rent intern­ment of refugees com­ing from the South­west bor­der? What might the Holo­caust mean to writ­ers who are not Jew­ish, and/​or who iden­ti­fy as BIPOC and/​or LGBTQ+? 

These are pre­cise­ly the ques­tions that edi­tors Howard Debs and Matthew Sil­ver­man explore in New Voic­es: Con­tem­po­rary Writ­ers Con­fronting the Holo­caust. They invite more than fifty fic­tion writ­ers, poets, and essay­ists to con­tribute a piece in response to a pho­to­graph depict­ing a moment in the Third Reich and the Holocaust’s his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry. This jux­ta­po­si­tion of forms asks both writer and read­er to tog­gle between past and present in an imme­di­ate, thought-pro­vok­ing way. 

In the first of four sec­tions, Los Ange­leno poet Ale­jan­dro Escudé com­ments on a pho­to in which Ger­man Jews wait at the Pales­tine emi­gra­tion office:

… But every­thing has always been takeover.

Boom­ing mil­i­tant voic­es. Every­where the promise of patriotism

and the slow, aching can­dles of reli­gion. Is the ceil­ing light on

in the cor­ner of the pho­to? That Guer­ni­ca lamp?

A few pages lat­er, Kore­an Amer­i­can poet Su Wong con­tem­plates a pho­to of Jew­ish refugees arriv­ing in New York and wonders:

Over & over, why we insist on inflic­tion — this animal

dri­ve from cru­sades to bat­tle­fields to darkened

cham­bers — we refuse to tend our gardens … 

Many well-known Jew­ish writ­ers are also fea­tured in this vol­ume, among them the flash fic­tion styl­ist Mark Bud­man; poets Marge Pier­cy, Ellen Bass, Lin­da Pas­tan, Steven Sher, and Amy Ger­stler; and poet-schol­ar Joy Ladin in con­ver­sa­tion with the psy­chi­a­trist and sur­vivor Anna Ornstein. 

Equal­ly impor­tant are the ways in which the anthol­o­gy uplifts voic­es that are rarely heard in rela­tion to the Holo­caust. In her lyric essay, Moral Lessons of Remem­ber­ing the Holo­caust: A Mus­lim Response,” Mehnaz Afri­di tells the sto­ry of Noor Inay­at Khan, a Mus­lim woman who worked as a wartime secret agent and who was even­tu­al­ly mur­dered by the Gestapo. Afridi’s essay observes:

So, how can we for­get that these indi­vid­u­als braved their lives in the midst of mur­der and risked every­thing in the name of Islam? Islam and Judaism share the same moral les­son of human­i­ty in their respec­tive sacred texts.

This remark­able vol­ume at once offers snap­shots from his­to­ry and cap­ti­vat­ing, and at times inspir­ing, lyri­cal respons­es to an event we are still seek­ing to under­stand — and one we’re try­ing not to repeat. 

Discussion Questions