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 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.