The Magazine


Hitler and the Genre of the Holocaust Memoir

Apr 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 31 • By RUTH R. WISSE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.