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.

Jorge Semprun and David Weiss Halivni were already extraordinary before they were herded into Hitler's sphere. Semprun would have been a writer with or without his 18-month incarceration at Buchenwald. The son of a diplomat for the Spanish Republic, Semprun had emigrated to France with his family after Franco's defeat of the Republican government. By the time he joined the wartime French Resistance, he had made a name for himself as a student of philosophy and a budding poet. As an indication of his precocity, Semprun recalls a long letter written to him in 1941, when he was 18, by the literary critic Claude-Edmonde Magny, on the basis of poems that he had shown her. Magny had gently criticized the anonymity of young Semprun's verse, the limbo of his literary creation, the lack of gravity in the physical sense of the term. When they meet again after the war, the critic worries about the opposite danger: "Everything you might write risks having too much gravity!" The personal experience he had gained between 1943 and 1945 gave him more ballast than his art required.

The young man Semprun recalls in his new memoir, Literature or Life, is a literary modernist, a Communist, a person of great charm and courage. In 1942 he joins the maquis, the southern branch of the French Resistance. Arrested in November 1943, he is interrogated under torture, imprisoned, shipped to Buchenwald, and liberated there by the British and Americans on April 11, 1945. Semprun returns to Paris and then to Madrid, where he becomes a member of the Communist underground. He meets new women and old friends, and resumes his life as a writer. In 1964 he publishes The Long Voyage, the book that made him famous, and by the time it wins him the prestigious Formentor Prize, he is expelled from the executive committee of the Communist party.

The narrative tension in Literature or Life hangs on the period between 1945 and 1963 when the author was trying to find a way of writing about his experience of Buchenwald. Semprun's literariness, his tendency to relate life to literature, was already so firm by the time he was shipped to Buchenwald that he could not know the world in any other terms. He describes how when he was still a partisan, he had trouble pulling the trigger on a German soldier because the man was singing "La Paloma." While in Buchenwald, Semprun is already wondering how he will begin to explain it to those on the outside: Shall he start with the showing of Mazurka with Pola Negri on a Buchenwald Sunday afternoon? Shall he begin with the proximity of Buchenwald to Goethe's Weimar? In Literature or Life, he opens with Leon Blum, the former premier of France, not merely because Blum was also held prisoner at Buchenwald, but because of the irony that having once written a book called New Conversations Between Goethe and Eckermann, Blum found himself a century and a half later imprisoned in the very district where his two subjects had chatted.

The literary sensibility is an invaluable counterforce to the degradation Semprun was forced to undergo. Yet it also gets him into trouble in a number of ways. Although Semprun had meant to record his experience immediately after the war, this memoir explains why it took him 18 years to complete his fictionalized account. Writing about the camp meant sinking back into the field of death. On one hand, Semprun knew that Buchenwald had given him the subject of the century. But revisiting the savagery in order to write about it precluded enjoyment of life, of love, marriage, and children. He does what most survivors did: He first tried to catch up with life, and only later turned to write about how he was almost deprived of it. However, since the writer's experience is also his profession, he cannot separate his past from his work the way an engineer could, or a tailor. The professional writer is drawn back by force of gravity to his internment.

Semprun finds his way out of the impasse through a literary style that lets him reimpose control over the period when he exerted no control. His modernist narrative makes its connections according to inner logic rather than the imposed demands of chronology and geography. In both The Long Voyage and the present memoir, the author's method of ricocheting among several time zones creates contradictory impressions -- first, that sensations of Buchenwald may invade him at any time, and second, that he has regained the creative initiative over the memory that sucks him under. The narrative of The Long Voyage is held together by the author's first- person description of the five-day journey in a box car that held 120 starving men. There he even manages to create suspense by crosscutting between the boxcar as it moves towards its destination and episodes from his life before and after. The present memoir is organized much more loosely around the subject of how Voyage came to be written; here he is a post- modernist, deconstructing his fiction the way Philip Roth does by teasing us with unreliable "facts."

Semprun traces his method back to Andre Malraux. He says he admires the way Malraux reworked the material of his writing and his life, "shedding light on reality through fiction, and illuminating the fiction through the extraordinary destiny of his life, thus drawing attention to the constant elements, the contradictions, the fundamental (and often hidden, enigmatic, or ephemeral) meaning of both life and art." But whereas the modernist method of The Long Voyage tries to simulate autobiographical truthfulness, and works toward a concept of closure, Literature or Life warns against any such assumptions, and inadvertently draws attention to its own untrustworthiness.

Take Semprun's writing about the Jews. In The Long Voyage, the narrator emphasizes the Jewishness of Hans, his best friend in the Resistance. Hans assumes a position of leadership and is apparently killed in a German surprise attack. But in Literature or Life, Semprun explains that the Jewishness of Hans was a fiction -- Semprun now provides us with the identity of his "real" pal Julien, a Burgundian, and he says that he invented the fictional Jewish friend Hans to stand in for other real Jewish pals he had had. But why, if the Jew was such a reality at Buchenwald and among Semprun's pals, should he have had to invent one instead of describing one? Was it not, perhaps, because of the Jew's privileged status as the arch-victim of the Holocaust that the author created the fictional Jew as his closest friend? And if this Jew was invented, how shall we trust accounts of the other Jews in Semprun's witness?

These questions are hardly rhetorical. In a contiguous passage, the author describes the first days of liberation and his attempt to keep alive a Hungarian Jew who is chanting the Jewish Mourner's Prayer in Yiddish. But the Kaddish, as the prayer is known, is in Aramaic, not Yiddish. Maybe Semprun should not be expected to know that. But then why does he pretend to hear the man speaking Yiddish? When this dying Jew is next referred to as the "Christ of the Kaddish," we realize that Semprun is treating Jews as a literary construct, a special category of victim. The literariness of the text becomes oppressive.

And once we are alerted to artifice, we notice it where we shouldn't, as when the author is being most sincere:

No one can put himself in your place, I thought, or even imagine your place, your entrenchment in nothingness, your shroud in the sky, your fatal singularity. No one can imagine how much that singularity rules your life: your weariness with living, your voracity for life; your unflagging astonishment at the gratuitousness of existence; your rapture at having returned from the dead to breathe the salt air of certain seaside moorings, to dip into books, to caress the hips of women and lightly touch their eyelids closed in sleep, to discover how vast the future is.

The piercing singularity Semprun speaks of in this passage is the Holocaust's legacy to its survivors, and he is one of the most sophisticated of the writers who have tried to express it. But the literariness and self- reflexiveness and invention that Semprun keeps drawing attention to make this insight feel more like a crafted piece of prose than genuine sensation. Like a confessed adulterer, the writer who tells you how he betrays his craft does not win your confidence through his revelation.

As we see from Semprun's memoir, the prominence of the Jew became another unanticipated consequence of Hitler's Reich. Since all other nationals were treated relatively better than the Jews, the survivors among them feel that they have to defer to the arch-victim in their suffering. Yet it is the awful, apparently irresistible tendency -- on the part of friends as well as enemies -- to abstract the Jew rather than to seek to know him that makes the appearance of David Weiss Halivni's The Book and the Sword such a welcome event. This memoir by one of the world's leading authorities on the Talmud (currently professor of religion at Columbia University) introduces a Jew who was also immersed from childhood in a literary culture, but a culture that maintains its faith in truth because it maintains its trust in God.

David Weiss Halivni belongs to that portion of the European population that was least able to circumvent or escape Hitler's intentions. He was an observant Jew from the self-segregated Hasidic community of Sighet, also the birthplace of Elie Wiesel. From earliest childhood, when he began to pose incisive questions about the biblical texts he was studying, he was accorded the kind of honor that other cultures reserve for their princes. Weiss Halivni credits his precocity, which he treats as a kind of trust, with having eased and probably saved his life. He thinks that his desire for preeminence may be stronger than it is in others because "it was always connected with my very existence"; it warded off some of the poverty of his childhood and some of the dangers he faced in the camps.

Weiss Halivni was 13, bar mitzvah age, when the Hungarians occupied Sighet in 1940, but the family was so poor that the physical conditions of his life were not much worsened when the Jews were forced into a ghetto. He tried to absorb whatever secular knowledge he could and, in the absence of books, to study the Talmud in his mind on the basis of what he already knew by heart.

On May 14, 1944, the Jews of Sighet were deported to Auschwitz. The next day, when Dr. Mengele at the entrance to Auschwitz sent his grandfather and the chief rabbi of Sighet off to the right, the boy went to the left, and survived alone.

Writing autobiographically does not come easily to the Talmud scholar. Had he not been subjected to Auschwitz, to the labor camp GrossRosen, and to the death camp Ebensee, it is doubtful that he would have undertaken this kind of selfscrutiny. English is the author's fourth language, and it sometimes fails him at the very point of trying to communicate his deepest feelings. But having been rendered exceptional by the waste of his community, he feels an obligation to think his experience through. He believes that Holocaust memoirists should describe not only how they survived physically, but "what spiritual power drove them to continue, not to falter under the yoke of hopelessness and despair."

This book fulfills an intellectual obligation, for although Weiss Halivni is haunted by the same questions of radical evil and the same inevitable hallucinations that pursue Jorge Semprun, he suggests that it is easier to document evil than to surmount it. While human wickedness may be explained in terms of a few principles, the ability to survive it can be explained only in terms of "individual stamina." Semprun and Weiss Halivni both reject the pernicious notion that (in the latter's words) "survival was possible only at the expense of others and that, therefore, every survivor must have a sense of guilt."

Weiss Halivni's "literariness" is even more intense than Semprun's, only different from it in kind. His book is liveliest and most satisfying when he is describing his involvement with the Talmud. It keeps him intellectually alert in the camps; he inspires his fellow prisoners by teaching them the texts from memory, returning to the orality of what was originally the Oral Law. It is through his proficiency in the Talmud that he reintroduces himself to the Jews after the war, first in Budapest, and then in New York when he arrives there early in 1947 as part of a group of orphaned children. Although Weiss Halivni (he added the Hebraic patronym Halivni because Weiss was the name of prominent Nazis but did not want to drop the name he had inherited from his grandfather) is deferential to the scholars of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he chooses to study and later to teach, he begins to hone an independent critical method that remains within the tradition of rabbinic exegesis, applies all the known tools of historical critical scholarship, and depends ultimately on the creative intuition of the scholar to establish the authentic text.

Halivni reaches for an artistic analogy, his taste for Impressionism and early Post-Impressionism, to explain his critical approach:

Unlike classical painting, to which the reigning Talmud scholarship can be compared, for it strives toward an articulate, harmonious whole, and unlike modern painting, which decidedly emphasizes the disharmonious, Impressionism leaves it to the viewer to complete the harmony, soliciting intuitive human participation.

The chief difference between the literary traditions represented by these two survivors is that only one of them is prepared to accord the text divine authority in the guidance of his life. A painful section of Weiss Halivni's book describes his break with the Jewish Theological Seminary, which in his judgment began to negate Jewish law by changing it without proper textual support from the Bible and the Talmud. Halivni has tried to walk the tightrope between intellectual independence and strict religious observance, and it has proven easier for him to teach within a secular school than within a Jewish institution that does not maintain this tension. He explains that although he follows his reason against tradition in pursuing critical study, he does not trust the impulse of progress enough to make changes in tradition on the basis of moral or ethical arguments alone.

Halivni's experiences under the Germans did not prevent him from becoming an innovative Talmud scholar. In the final analysis, though, neither his intellectual independence nor his traditional observance ever dulls the pressure of the great destruction that Hitler unleashed. He concludes The Book and the Sword wondering about the last thoughts of his mother and grandfather as they were pushed into the gas chambers. He is certain that they did not blame God. He is disturbed by the idea that they may have blamed themselves for their sins, "making their suffering so much greater."

Semprun is similarly haunted by the suicide of the great Italian writer Primo Levi on April 11, 1987, the anniversary of his own liberation. He wonders why it had suddenly become impossible for Levi to cope with the horrors of remembrance. In the concluding lines of The Truce, Levi had written:

I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream . . .

Levi becomes for Semprun what family is for Weiss Halivni, the insistent inner voice of those who could not survive.

Both these authors, robust, imaginative, determined to live, make us realize that Hitler is not that easily defeated after all. For all that Holocaust literature inverts Hitler's premise [TEXT ILLEGIBLE] human individuality and [TEXT ILLEGIBLE] power of the Jews, it attests [TEXT ILLEGIBLE] and enduring [TEXT ILLEGIBLE] evil.

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.