The Holocaust memoir has been a difficult subject in recent years. There have been several whopper-sized Holocaust frauds. These have included Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, about a young child in the camps. It won the National Jewish Book Award, before being discovered. They have also included Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust, about a young girl who ran with the wolves, and most recently, Herman Rosenblat, The Angel at the Fence, about a young boy who was aided to survive by a young girl in a concentration camp.
On the other hand, several Holocaust memoirs have received canonical status as nearly documentary works of witness during the same period, including especially Elie Wiesel’s powerful Night, written earlier, but which was recently reissued in a striking new edition, now sponsored by Oprah Winfrey and her book club. Moreover, Wiesel and some others have argued that, concerning the Holocaust, there is and can be no history, only “witness.”
In our 4th meeting, we take up the question of the Holocaust memoir and what is truth in memoir. Ruth Franklin, literary editor of the New Republic, writes in her book A Thousand Dark Nights, that the best memoirs about the Holocaust are inevitably novels as well as memoirs – they partake of both the features of fiction and non-fiction. Every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality. Every act of memory is also an act of narrative, striving for coherence, omitting much, and employing artifice to tell the story.
Indeed, Franklin argues that such works are powerful precisely because they are literary, because they are art. They draw not merely on their truth value, the observations and memories of someone who was there and experienced the events, but also on their artistic worth and value, the way someone who was there constructs a story afterward to reach an audience…..
We also take up the question of the Holocaust and literature. Is it okay to aestheticize atrocity? Are there rules or ethics about doing so? If so, what are they?
This week we will explore “The Witnesses,” the survivor writers – basically a similar canon as Alvin Rosenfeld identified.. Next week we willexplore “Those Who Came After,” those who were not there but who write of the Holocaust and in ways that raise similar issues or truth and fiction. In all of this, we need to ask what makes a memoir powerful and telling and a key form of Holocaust writing? How are memoirs different from testimonies? What do we look for in Holocaust memoirs? Why?