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Timeless words: remembering the literature of the Holocaust

Barbara Tuchman, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, once said: “books are the carriers of civilisation. Without books, history is silent. Books are humanity in print”. These words remain timeless. More than understanding humanity, books help us understand inhumanity, moments of evil alongside the moments of brightness. Books are an emotional map of our history, and this is more relevant than ever when we talk about the Holocaust. 

We remember stories through the emotions they evoke in us…

Holocaust Memorial Day was on the 27th of January this year. The annual theme was the ‘power of words’ for this very reason. Texts such as Anne Frank’s Diary, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man and Elie Wiesel’s Night allow audiences to tap into the emotional state of those who lived through these atrocious times. They offer us an understanding to which facts and figures could never compare. Humans are emotional beings – this idea is the very core of storytelling. We connect to characters through their emotions. We remember stories through the emotions they evoke in us.

But in the context of Holocaust literature, emotional memoirs take on a far more critical role, as does Holocaust art collectively. The machine of the Nazi concentration camps is horrific not just in the sheer scale of death it caused, but also due to the cold method of it all. The numbers on arms, name registers, the collection of hair and belongings for redistribution to the people. The ruthless efficiency and bureaucratic nature of it are terrifying precisely because of the lack of humanity in it. It is purely mechanical.

These texts acknowledge, without necessarily accepting, a terrible act of evil…

For Jewish people and other victims to not only survive but to make their survival a public act – one they shout out to the world through their art – is a massive act of defiance towards the Nazi party and their still present followers. Add to that the fact they show the humanity of those who snuck between the cracks of this machine. They immortalise themselves through art. They provoke emotions and prove their own humanity. These are all acts of powerful defiance in the face of those who tried to erase an entire culture.

To defy something isn’t the same as to challenge its existence though. In fact, these texts all achieve a higher purpose: they cover the unthinkable. They acknowledge, without necessarily accepting, a terrible act of evil. Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher, is often criticised for having said: “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This quote is often misunderstood as a criticism of these memorial artists. Some think of it argues that to memorialise through art is to give justification to the acts. However, this isn’t what he meant at all. Adorno’s ‘barbarism’ here means poetry, and art in general, should engage with the realities of its time. Wartime literature must, therefore, involve Auschwitz. Equally, Auschwitz, as something entirely ungraspable, forces the poet to create art that can never fulfill its initial purpose.

Some accounts may end up more important because they show the limits of empathy…

All of this is something you realise when you look into which books have entered the mainstream. The names most will recognise are The Book Thief, Maus, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Diary of Anne Frank. But when you break these down, it’s understandable why these books are the ones we recognise. Maus creates a barrier between the audience and the text through its format. We’re never outright confronted with the most horrific images possible. The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are both works of fiction. The Diary of Anne Frank cannot cover in the most atrocious part of Anne’s life: her death.

It’s easy enough to find first-person accounts of the Holocaust. However, they are all plagued with the fact that, ultimately, they are unimaginable. Therein lies the problem with Holocaust literature, the one that provoked such passion in Adorno, the problem that is a testimony to the incredible strength of the authors.  The problem is cultural memory being confined by what it can imagine. How can you capture the unimaginable? First person reports are important. They let us access history through empathy instead of logic, but some accounts may end up more important because they show the limits of empathy. Some things are unfathomable. Sometimes all you can hope for is grief, anger and, eventually, progress.

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