Saturday, 3 Jun 2023

Opinion | Second and Third Generation Storytellers Are Telling the Story of the Holocaust Now

Some years ago, I was invited to a luncheon event where the majority of guests were survivors of the Holocaust. I was there to present “Relativity,” a short story I’d written inspired by my family. In it a social worker who aids Holocaust survivors becomes a living archive of stories shared by his more vocal clients.

The story grew from the history my grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle shared with us over the years. Offering testimony is not a given, of course. My father, who was 4 years old when the war ended, does not speak of that time, whereas his sister recently gave her testimony to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Earlier in my career, I needed emotional distance from this material. In my novel “Russian Winter,” for instance, Uncle George’s stories of the labor camp transformed into those of the character I called the Happy Forced Laborer — George’s actual nickname — in the gulag.

But as the witnesses in my family began to die, I incorporated their voices more overtly into my work while still confronting the topic elliptically. Just as some survivors do not speak outright of their experiences, I prefer a story to address the topic at a slant.

I’m grappling, of course, with the fact that I am one generation removed — I was not alive during the war — and these memories belong to others. At the same time, second-generation storytellers have grown up with something pervading our existence. “Secondhand smoke,” as one of the Happy Forced Laborer’s daughters calls it. At a remove yet just as toxic.

That my chosen medium is fiction further complicates matters, particularly when people continually try to deny the reality of the Holocaust. These things really happened, a survivor said to me at that survivor appreciation luncheon. If you make it fiction, people will think it isn’t true.

Such was the argument regarding Elie Wiesel’s “Night” when it became an Oprah’s Book Club pick in 2006. While the book has always existed at the fulcrum of fiction and memoir — a crafted version of Mr. Wiesel’s experience and, like all memoirs, a reconstructed history complicated by the fallibility of memory — there were critics who argued about both those classifications, saying that novels, being fiction, are untrue and memoir is untrustworthy. .

Yet some of the most enduring literature about the Holocaust is fiction. The Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz wrote of his Auschwitz and Buchenwald experiences — as well as life after the Holocaust — using fiction to highlight the absurdity he saw in the inhumanity of totalitarian regimes. For those of us breathing that “secondhand smoke” who feel the ethical imperative to convey its message, I hear the echo of Cynthia Ozick, who once said of stories such as “The Shawl,” set in a concentration camp, “I want the documents to be enough; I don’t want to tamper or invent or imagine, and yet I have done it. I can’t not do it. It comes. It invades.”

But we know that the documents are not enough. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center, the American Jewish Committee and the Claims Conference reveal a shocking lack of knowledge across all age groups regarding the Holocaust. A 2022 U.S. survey by the Anti-Defamation League found “widespread belief in anti-Jewish tropes, at rates unseen for decades.” In the first two months of 2023, attacks on U.S. synagogues increased 71 percent from the same period the year before. This February two Los Angeles synagogue worshipers were shot at close range. Other attacks range from the symbolic, like draping a Nazi flag over a synagogue’s sign, to more explicit messaging and violent acts, such as an appeal for a so-called Day of Hate, threats to kill Jewish elected officials and physical assault. These attacks have occurred from coast to coast.

Hearing from Holocaust survivors has long been a helpful means of fighting off these sorts of attacks. But soon it will no longer be possible to hear from our elders what it was like to slide from free person to hunted fugitive. At age 14, visiting Budapest, I sat, rapt, as Aunt Magda told of her last days in the Langenbielau concentration camp when she realized her captors had fled. Many children today know no survivors who can recount their ordeals.

Second- and third-generation storytellers — as well as those who are not direct descendants — attempt to combat this vanishing, in ways apt and new. The reverential, historical Holocaust novel, with trauma its narrative pulse, endures, but some works, like Jim Shepard’s “The Book of Aron,” add nuance through the ethical quandaries inherent in the actions of those desperate to survive.

Others find alternate frameworks, like Nicole Krauss’s “The History of Love,” interweaving past and present, and Shalom Auslander’s irreverent “Hope: A Tragedy,” which literalizes — and pokes fun at — the notion of never forgetting.

What these and other writers attuned to reverberations of the Holocaust seem to share is a wariness of the reductive quality of straightforwardly good-versus-evil stories. “What audiences learn is that they are better than the villain,” the playwright Brian Silberman has said of such simplification, which he upends in his vaudevillian take on a concentration camp, “Manifest.” Like Mr. Silberman, whose defiant anti-tragedy counters the narrative of Jews passively led to extermination, these writers seek to depict the sometimes problematic totality of human personality and possibility. When schools and libraries ban works such as “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by the second-generation author Art Spiegelman, they acknowledge literature’s powerful role in the creation of social memory, whether offered by witnesses or provided secondhand by those who received that testimony.

The paradox of Holocaust storytelling is that as powerful as the familiar images may be — the heaped shoes, the indistinguishable starved bodies — these collective symbols dehumanize. And as we move farther and farther from the event, these images are ever more divorced from the people who wore those shoes and lived in those bodies. A single person’s or family’s story rehumanizes and reinvigorates generalized history. That is why our collective recollection and understanding of historical events relies on storytelling, past, present and future, and why the next generations of writers haunted by the Holocaust now shoulder this responsibility.

Daphne Kalotay is the author of “The Archivists,” for which she won the 2021 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. She teaches at Princeton University.

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