The Magazine


Hitler and the Genre of the Holocaust Memoir

Apr 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 31 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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Jorge Semprun

Literature or Life

Viking Press, 304 pp., $ 24.95


David Weiss Halivni

The Book and the Sword:

A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 197 pp., $ 21

Hitler was probably the first ruler in history to inspire a new genre of literature. He did not, like Elizabeth I or James Stuart, merely lend his name to works commissioned or produced during his reign. Hitler created a social system so exceptional that those who were subjected to it felt they had to bear witness to what they had seen and experienced. Hence the diaries, chronicles, and reportages by the victims of Nazism who did not survive the war. Hence the postwar testimonies that were gathered from survivors of the concentration camps and death camps. And hence literature of the Holocaust, thousands of volumes of memoirs and autobiographical fictions by individuals who might otherwise never have undertaken to write a book.

What Alexander Donat called "The Holocaust Kingdom" elicited an outpouring of testimony that has gathered momentum for 50 years, and will probably continue to generate an interpretive literature for centuries more. This may not be what Hitler had in mind when he promised a thousand-year reich, but no other regime (let us pray that no other regime) will ever be remembered so intensely.

Literature of the Holocaust bears a strange relation to the man who inspired it. For one thing, it almost never mentions Hitler by name. Its authors were usually too far from the source of power to describe its workings, and better able to account for its results than its origins. Like the term "Holocaust" itself, the literature redirects attention from the political instigators to the victims, from those who determine events to those who undergo their consequences.

More dramatically, the body of literature that was created by Hitler's victims inverts the point that he intended to prove. Hitler drew his power from depriving other people of theirs; he inflated his name by reducing other human beings to ciphers. The function of the camps was to erase the individuality and personal characteristics of enemies long before their ultimate reduction to dust.

Yet the most characteristic feature of Holocaust literature is its insistence on the first-person singular. The ego claims its due, even against an author's wishes. "I had planned a contemplative, essayistic study," writes Jean Amery (pseudonym of Hans Meyer) in At the Mind's Limits, his book on the intellectual at Auschwitz. "What resulted was a personal confession refracted through meditation." When, in the interests of truth, Amery overcomes his distaste for personal revelation to document the torture he endured at the hands of the Gestapo, the most valuable knowledge he offers the reader is insight into his remarkable soul. What is more, he also insists on the personal identity of his torturer, the expressive Gestapo officer named Praust: "P-R-A-U-S-T." I wish that every copy of Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem could include Amery's protest against her idea of the "banality of evil." Amery, who had seen the torturer at work, records " how the plain, ordinary faces finally became Gestapo faces after all, and how evil overlays and exceeds banality." He credits his experience at Auschwitz with having murdered abstraction about the human condition -- with having saved him from thinking like Hannah Arendt.

Hitler rendered his victims extraordinary against their will. But in the act of writing, each victimized writer reveals himself unique -- as this particular near-sighted Jewish woman or that particular homesick Polish lover. The exhibitionist preens and the introvert is shy. The good writer becomes distinguishable from the mediocre, just as in other genres. To my knowledge, none of Hitler's victims credit him with having changed their allegiances. Primo Levi the humanist loses his temper only once during his account of survival in Auschwitz -- with a religious Jew who prays when he is spared from a selection. By contrast, the Talmud scholar David Weiss Halivni describes his reaction to the sight of a German guard eating a sandwich wrapped in a page of what he recognized as the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, in the particular edition he had coveted. Weiss Halivni falls at the guard's knees and, sobbing, pleads with him for the precious bletl. Because its subject and story line remain more or less constant, literature of the Holocaust throws into boldest relief the distinguishing features of every person who writes it. This genre testifies with special eloquence to the irreducible individuality of even "ordinary" men and women.