Eric Sundquist and Jerome Chanes on Ruth Franklin’s Later Judgments in A Thousand Darknesses

Eric Sundquist in the Wall St. Journal

“Despite the hazards of trying to represent events often said to be “unknowable,” Ms. Franklin insists on the moral authority of the imagination and shows the power of literature to uncover the truths that are latent in documentary material.”

“, the best of Holocaust literature, Ms. Franklin emphasizes, has the advantage of being “self-conscious about its own unreliability.” True enough. But since the events of the Holocaust, not to mention its vast historiography, play very little role in her book, an important dimension of the problem is left out of account. (A more practical drawback is that she provides no endnotes or bibliography.)”

Jerome Chanes in the Forward

“…Franklin makes a misstep, a serious one, in her chapter on “Identity Theft: The Second Generation.” The second generation (the parlance is “2G”) is that of the children of the survivors who came to maturity after the Holocaust. The writers of the second generation are angrily characterized by Franklin, thus, “driven by ambition, guilt, envy, or sheer narcissism, [they] have constructed elaborate literary fictions in which… they assert themselves as witnesses to the Holocaust… [claiming that] the second generation’s ‘memories’ are as valid as those of the survivors.” In a word, they misrepresent themselves as survivors, Franklin asserts. To Franklin, the 2G writers have committed “identity theft.”

There is a basic problem with Franklin’s bald assertion, and that is that she simply does not understand the psychology of the survivors and of their children, nor does she understand the history of the survivor community; her analysis of the literature is therefore entirely lacking in nuance. The 2Gs have lived with people who were persecuted, who were humiliated and who experienced multiple losses. The survivors, for their part, experienced losses that they were not able to mourn. The creative process of their children, the “2G” writers — the Thane Rosenbaums and the Melvin Bukiets (to take two writers chosen by Franklin for special scorn) — therefore came out of the second generation’s own need to mourn those never known.

Psychologists have taught us that the final stage of mourning is the search for meaning; creativity is an integral part of that process, and is not the “grotesque solipsism” that Franklin imputed to the second generation. Rosenbaum and Bukiet are indeed valid witnesses. What they witnessed was not the Final Solution, but the improbable and often impossible lives of those for whom the Nazi death sentence had not proved final. Franklin’s “identity theft” is not a “theft” at all; the identity — the experience taught the 2Gs by the survivors — was not stolen but is theirs, and is embedded.’

About Ken Waltzer

Ken Waltzer grew up in New York City and attended Harpur College of the State University of New York and Harvard University as a Graduate Prize Fellow. He has helped build James Madison College, Michigan State University's highly reputed residential college in public affairs and currently serves as director of Jewish Studies at MSU. In 2011-2012, he is the Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint.
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