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Holocaust Reflections

Arthur Cohen

Simply defined (and the simpler the better for our purposes), the death camps were constructed to fulfi1l one purpose: to kill the greatest number of Jews at the least possible cost in money and material.

Emil L. Fackenheim

The Auschwitz praxis was based on a new principle: for one portion of mankind, existence itself is a crime, punishable by humiliation, torture, and death. And the new world produced by this praxis included two kinds of inhabitants, those who were given the "punishment" and those who administered it.

Emil L. Fackenheim

The characteristic Nazi criminal was rather a dime-a-dozen individual, who, having once been an ordinary, nay, respected citizen, committed at Auschwitz crimes of a kind and on a scale hitherto unimaginable, only to become, when it was over, an ordinary citizen again, without signs of suffering sleepless nights. Eichmann was only one such person. Others are still being discovered in nice suburbs, and their neighbors testify how they took care of their gardens and were kind to their dogs. Himmler himself, had he escaped detection and the need for suicide, might well have returned to his chicken farm. The philosopher in Arendt looked for some depth in such as these, and found none. It was "banal" people who committed what may justly be called the greatest crime in history; and it was the system that made them do what they did.

from "The Holocaust and Philosophy," Journal of Philosophy (1985)

Emil L. Fackenheim

Philosophy has all along been acquainted with the quasi-evil of sadism (a mere sickness), the semievil of moral weakness, the superficial evil of ignorance, and even—hardest to understand and, therefore often ignored or denied—the radical or demonic evil that is done and celebrated for its own sake. Prior to the Holocaust, however, it was unacquainted with the "banality of evil" practiced by numberless individuals who, having been ordinary or even respected citizens, committed at Auschwitz crimes on a scale previously unimaginable, only to become, in the Holocaust's aftermath, ordinary and respectable once more—without showing signs of any moral anguish.

Primo Levi

Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term "extermination camp," and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: "to lie on the bottom."

Saul Friedlander

When the "Final Solution" was implemented, metaphorically speaking, an apocalyptic dimension entered history, took place within history. In some remote areas of eastern Europe, the total annihilation of millions of human beings was being systematically implemented. But for those who were not the victims, life went on, during the events and after them: the apocalypse had passed by unnoticed. We are confronted with an "end" that happened, that was entirely consummated for millions of human beings, but which surrounding society hardly perceived, possibly did not want to perceive at all. Life continued—and continues—its normal flow.

The total dissonance between the apocalypse that was and the normality that is makes adequate representation elusive, because the human imagination stumbles when faced with the fundamental contradiction of apocalypse within normality.

from Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Indiana UP, 1993)

Arthur Cohen

If the reality is inconceivable, if we cannot encompass the decision of one people to congregate and destroy another, attended by the complicity and inattention of all the rest of mankind, equally inconceivable is any language of compensation or heroic transfiguration.

Elie Wiesel

At Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man. To live in a world where there is nothing anymore, where the executioner acts as god, as judge—many wanted no part of it. It was its own heart the world incinerated at Auschwitz.

Arthur Cohen

. . . One must live with the tremendum, and living with it requires that it be perceived accurately (to the extent that accuracy is possible about events as charged as these), clearly (to the extent that looking into the charnel house can ever be unclouded and precise), and distinctly (to the extent that it can be confronted as a constellated phenomenon which both does and does not indict all of Western civilized history, all of Christianity, all of silent humanity, and most of all, the history and faith of Israel). There was a time when it was understandable that one's reaction to the asking of the meaning of the tremendum was the fervid wish that it had none, that it implicated nothing beyond itself, that it described an historical horror, but that it did not tear apart the fabric of the larger universe where men create, make art, think, love, ransoming the human from the mud and muck of the concrete and particular. That time is past.

Hannah Arendt

There are no parallels to the life of the concentration camps. All seeming parallels create confusion and distract attention from what is essential. Forced labor in prisons and penal colonies, banishment, slavery, all seem for a moment to offer helpful comparisons, but on closer examination lead nowhere.

Primo Levi

. . . for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.

Hannah Arendt

The horror of the concentration and extermination camps can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death. The inmates are more effectively cut off from the world of the living than if they were dead, because terror compels oblivion among those who know them or love them. "What extraordinary women you are here," exclaimed the Soviet police when Polish women insisted on knowing the whereabouts of their husbands who had disappeared. "In our country, when the husband is arrested; the wife sues for divorce and looks for another man" (The Dark Side of the Moon). Murder in the camps is as impersonal as the squashing of a gnat, a mere technique of management, as when a camp is overcrowded and is liquidated—or an accidental by-product, as when a prisoner succumbs to torture. Systematic torture and systematic starvation create an atmosphere of permanent dying, in which death as well as life is effectively obstructed.

The fear of the absolute Evil which permits of no escape knows that this is the end of dialectical evolutions and developments. It knows that modem politics revolves around a question which, strictly speaking, should never enter into politics, the question of all or nothing: of all, that is, a human society rich with infinite possibilities; or exactly nothing, that is, the end of mankind.

from "The Concentration Camps," Partisan Reviews (1948)

Michael L. Morgan

Modernity has meant various things to us. We associate it with the modern world—its social and political developments, its secularization, industrialization, bureaucratization, rationalization, and more. We also associate it with the Enlightenment themes of freedom and rationality, the emergence of political forms and societies built on respect for all human beings, for their freedom and self-determination, their equality, and the respect due all people as human beings with common and fundamental rights. . . . What do the death camps tell us about our Enlightenment conception of human nature, about modern society and culture, and about the modern social sciences?

from A Holocaust Reader (Oxford UP, 2001)

Elie Wiesel

In truth, Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God's name. At Auschwitz the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their own importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad.

from "A Plea for the Dead"

Emil L. Fackenheim

The most obvious recent precedent of the Holocaust is the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in World War I. Like the Nazi genocide of the Jews in World War II, this was an attempt to destroy a whole people, carried out under the cover of a war with maximum secrecy, and with the victims being deported to isolated places prior to their murder, all of which provoked few countermeasures or even verbal protests on the part of the civilized world. Doubtless the Nazis both learned from, and were encouraged by, the Armenian precedent.

But unlike the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust was intended, planned, and executed as the "final solution" of a "problem." Thus, whereas, for example, the roundup of Armenians in Istanbul, the very heart of the Turkish empire, was discontinued after a while, Nazi Germany, had it won the war or even managed to prolong it, would have succeeded in murdering every Jew. North American Indians have survived in reservations; Jewish reservations in a victorious Nazi empire are inconceivable. Thus the Holocaust may be said to belong, with other catastrophes, to the species genocide. Within the species, defined as intended, planned, and largely executed extermination, it is without precedent and, thus far at least, without sequel. It is—here the term really must be employed—unique.

Jean Améry

To be a Jew, that meant for me, from this moment on, to be a dead man on leave, someone to be murdered, who only by chance was not yet where he properly belonged; and so it has remained, in many variations, in various degrees of intensity, until today. The death threat, which I felt for the first time with complete clarity while reading the Nuremberg Laws, included what is commonly referred to as the methodic "degradation" of the Jews by the Nazis. Formulated differently: the denial of human dignity sounded the death threat. Daily, for years on end, we could read and hear that we were lazy, evil, ugly, capable only of misdeed, clever only to the extent that we pulled one over on others. We were incapable of founding a state, but also by no means suited to assimilate with our host nations. By their very presence, our bodies—hairy, fat, and bowlegged—befouled public swimming pools, yes, even park benches. Our hideous faces, depraved and spoilt by protruding ears and hanging noses, were disgusting to our fellow men, fellow citizens of yesterday. We were not worthy of love and thus also not of life. Our sole right, our sole duty was to disappear from the face of the earth.

from At the Mind's Limits (Indiana UP, 1980)

Primo Levi

We do not believe in the most obvious and facile deduction: that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away, and that the Haftling is consequently nothing but a man without inhibitions. We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.

But another fact seems to us worthy of attention: there comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men—the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) are considerably less distinct, they seem less essential, and above all they allow for more numerous and complex intermediary gradations.

This division is much less evident in ordinary life; for there it rarely happens that a man loses himself. A man is normally not alone, and in his rise or fall is tied to the destinies of his neighbours; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin. Moreover, everyone is normally in possession of such spiritual, physical and even financial resources that the probabilities of a shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life, are relatively small. And one must take into account a definite cushioning effect exercised both by the law, and by the moral sense which constitutes a self-imposed law; for a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.

But in the Lager things are different: here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone. If some Null Achtzehn vacillates, he will find no one to extend a helping hand; on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no one's interest that there be one more "mussulman" dragging himself to work every day; and if someone, by a miracle of savage patience and cunning, finds a new method of avoiding the hardest work, a new art which yields him an ounce of bread, he will try to keep his method secret, and he will be esteemed and respected for this, and will derive from it an exclusive, personal benefit; he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival. . . .

. . . With the adaptable, the strong and astute individuals, even the leaders willingly keep contact, sometimes even friendly contact, because they hope later to perhaps derive some benefit. But with the mussulmans, the men in decay, it is not even worth speaking, because one knows already that they will complain and will speak about what they used to eat at home. Even less worthwhile is it to make friends with them, because they have no distinguished acquaintances in camp, they do not gain any extra rations, they do not work in profitable Kommandos and they know no secret method of organizing. And in any case, one knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and a crossed-out number on a register. Although engulfed and swept along without rest by the innumerable crowd of those similar to them, they suffer and drag themselves along in an opaque intimate solitude, and in solitude they die or disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone’s memory. . . .

To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the mussulmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in our image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

from Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf. Copyright © 1959 by Orion Press, Inc.

Hannah Arendt

The incredibility of the horrors is closely bound up with their economic uselessness. The Nazis carried this uselessness to the point of open antiutility when in the midst of the war, despite the shortage of rolling stock, they transported millions of Jews to the east and set up enormous, costly extermination factories. In the midst of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.

However, such unreality, created by an apparent lack of purpose, is the very basis of all forms of concentration camp. Seen from outside, they and the things that happen in them can be described only in images drawn from a life after death, that is, a life removed from earthly purposes. Concentration camps can very aptly be divided into three types corresponding to three basic Western conceptions of a life after death: Hades, purgatory, and hell. To Hades correspond those relatively mild forms, once popular even in nontotalitarian countries, for getting undesirable elements of all sorts—refugees, stateless persons, the asocial and the unemployed—out of the way; as DP camps, which are nothing other than camps for persons who have become superfluous and bothersome, they have survived the war. Purgatory is represented by the Soviet Union's labor camps, where neglect is combined with chaotic forced labor. Hell in the most literal sense was embodied by those types of camp perfected by the Nazis, in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment.

All three types have one thing in common: the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of any interest to anybody, as if they were already dead and some evil spirit gone mad were amusing himself by stopping them for a while between life and death before admitting them to eternal peace.

from "The Concentration Camps," Partisan Review (1948)

Arthur A. Cohen

There is something in the nature of thought which is alien to the enormity of the death camps. There is something no less incommensurable in the reality of the death camps which repudiates the attentions of thought. Thinking and the death camps are opposed. The procedures of thought and the ways of knowing are confounded. It is to think the unthinkable, which is not alone contradictory but hopeless, for thought entails as much a moral hope (that it may be triumphant, mastering its object, dissolving the difficulties, containing and elucidating the conundrum) as it is the investment of skill and dispassion in a methodic procedure. The death camps are a reality which, by their very nature, obliterate thought and the humane program of thinking. We are dealing, at the very outset, therefore, with something unmanageable and obdurate—a reality which exists, which is historically documented, which has specific beginnings and ends, located in time, the juncture of confluent influences which run from the beginnings of historical memory to a moment of consummating orgy, never to be forgotten, but difficult to remember, a continuous scourge to memory and the future of memory and yet something which, whenever addressed, collapses into tears, passion, rage. The death camps are unthinkable, but not unfelt. They constitute a traumatic event, and like all decisive trauma, they are suppressed but omnipresent; unrecognized but tyrannic; silted over by forgetfulness, but never obliterated; rising like a shade in dreams, allusions, the imagination to plague consciousness without end.

from The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust. Copyright © 1981 by the Continuum Publishing Company.

Martin Buber

In this our own time, one asks again and again: How is a Jewish life still possible after Auschwitz? I would like to frame this question more correctly: how is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep. One can still "believe" in the God who allowed those things to happen, but can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His word? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogic relationship with Him? Can one still call to Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: "Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever"?

from "The Dialogue between Heaven and Earth," On Judaism (Shocken Books, 1967)

Johann Baptist Metz

Faced with Auschwitz, I consider as blasphemy every Christian theodicy (i.e., every attempt at a so-called "justification of God") and all language about "meaning" when these are initiated outside this catastrophe or on some level above it. Meaning, even divine meaning, can be invoked by us only to the extent that such meaning was not also abandoned in Auschwitz itself. But this means that we Christians for our very own sakes are from now on assigned to the victims of Auschwitz—assigned, in fact, in an alliance belonging to the heart of saving history, provided the word "history" in this Christian expression is to have a definite meaning and not just serve as a screen for a triumphalist metaphysic of salvation which never learns from catastrophes nor finds in them a cause for conversion, since in its view such catastrophes of meaning do not in fact exist at all.

from The Emergent Church. Copyright © 1981 by the Crossroad Publishing Company.

David Tracy

. . . How can we simply stand by and continue optimistic theologies of the world when we recall that our Western humanist world either collapsed in the face of that vile destruction of all traditional Greek, Latin, and German humanist cultural values and traditions or else stood by and did little or nothing to stop the horror? How can we stand by and continue to develop theologies of the church and the tradition as if the Holocaust did not happen? How can we do so, as Christians, when we recall that the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, stood by, watched, and did little or nothing to stop the tremendum. That individual Christians and individual humanists heard that call and acted, suffered, and died can give the rest of us some heart that the ideals of those traditions did live even then. But that the official churches or whole groups of church congregations did little or nothing in the face of that reality is a fact which commands profound religious repentance and demands genuine theological response.

from Jews and Christians after the Holocaust. Copyright © 1982 Fortress Press.

Johann Baptist Metz

To confront Auschwitz is in no way to comprehend it. Anyone wishing to comprehend in this area will have comprehended nothing. As it gazes toward us incomprehensibly out of our most recent history, it eludes our every attempt at some kind of amicable reconciliation which would allow us to dismiss it from our consciousness. The only thing "objective" about Auschwitz are the victims, the mourners, and those who do penance. Faced with Auschwitz, there can be no abstention, no inability to relate. To attempt such a thing would be yet another case of secret complicity with the unfathomed horror. Yet how are we Christians to come to terms with Auschwitz? We will in any case forgo the temptation to interpret the suffering of the Jewish people from our standpoint, in terms of saving history. Under no circumstances is it our task to mystify this suffering! We encounter in this suffering first of all only the riddle of our own lack of feeling, the mystery of our own apathy, not, however, the traces of God.

from The Emergent Church. Copyright © 1981 by the Crossroad Publishing Company.

Theodor W. Adorno

Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after the holocaust is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.

from Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Sherry Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981.

Theodore W. Adorno

.  . . in the concentration camps it was no longer an individual who died, but a specimen—this is a fact bound to affect the dying of those who escaped the administrative measure.

Genocide is the absolute integration. It is on its way wherever men are leveled off—"polished off," as the German military called it—until one exterminates them 1iterally, as deviations from the concept of their total nullity. Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death. The most far out dictum from Beckett's End Game, that there really is not so much to be feared any more, reacts to a practice whose first sample was given in the concentration camps, and in whose concept—venerable once upon a time—the destruction of nonidentity is ideologically lurking. Absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone. Fear used to be tied to the principium individuationis of se1f-preservation, and that principle, by its own consistency, abolishes itself. What the sadists in the camps foretold their victims, "Tomorrow you'll be wiggling skyward as smoke from this chimney," bespeaks the indifference of each individual life that is the direction of history. Even in his formal freedom, the individual is as fungible and replaceable as he will be under the liquidators' boots.

But since, in a world whose law is universal individual profit, the individual has nothing but this self that has become indifferent, the performance of the old, familiar tendency is at the same time the most dreadful of things. There is no getting out of this, no more than out of the electrified barbed wire around the camps. Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.

Michael L. Morgan

. . . What role does historiography play in the way a society and culture "remembers" past events? Does the historian have a moral or civic responsibility to this project of memory that ought to influence the way he or she engages in historical practice? Should moral concerns influence the historian’s choice of subject matter, of issues to discuss, of evidence to use?

Omer Bartov

The argument on the unrepresentability of the Holocaust was voiced in conjunction with one of the greatest single poems of the century. When Adorno asserted that poetry after Auschwitz was barbarism, the poem he appears to have had in mind was Paul Celan's Todesfuge. Perhaps only those who have heard Celan reading this poem aloud can perceive the extent to which its relentless rhythm and stark imagery seem to recapture the whole experience of the death camp, the crazy logic of the extermination, the horrifying irony of installing the "chosen people" as smoke in the sky, this insane world of music and bloodhounds, of beauty and ashes, of total, endless, unremitting despair.

And yet Celan himself seems to have found his poem too coherent, too "poetic," too musical; it was taught in German schools as a good example of a poetic fugue; it was set to music; it did not, for him, recapture the essence of the unimaginable industrial annihilation, without any traces, of millions. It is therefore his later poem, Engfuhrung that wholly dispenses with any imagery, rhythm, balance, but is as disjointed, disoriented, verbally crippled, emotionally inexpressible as the memories of the survivors. It is a cry of pain, despair, boundless sorrow, which must remain mute because it is confronted with the wasteland of ashes and an indifferent world. Listening to Celan read this poem in Jerusalem, just a year before his suicide, one cannot forget the broken voice repeating "Asche, Asche Asche," for here one confronts not a surfeit of memory, not even a limit of representation, but the despair of not being able to remember, of trying to hold onto remnants of words spoken long ago, objects touched, feelings aroused, and yet constantly returning to the ashes. A world destroyed, turned into ashes, can never suffer from too much memory. That its representation—the true, impassioned attempt to resurrect it in words and images—cannot wholly succeed is testimony to the fragility of that memory and to the condition of what is being remembered, for it is blown away with every gust of wind.

from Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing and Representation. Oxford UP, 1996.

Omer Bartov

Ever since the end of the Second World War intellectuals have debated whether the Holocaust is at all representable, what are the motivations behind various representations of Auschwitz and to what extent such representations constitute an abuse of the historical truth and memory of the event. It has been said that figures such as Jean Amery, Primo Levi, and Paul Celan constantly wrote on their experiences so as to be able to (literally) keep body and soul together, and that finally their resistance broke down, leading them to suicide. Yet this assertion hardly does justice to these figures or, for that matter, to many other survivors. Indeed, it seems to me to make a false distinction between those who write so as to rid themselves of a burden that otherwise would make their existence impossible and those who feel charged with a moral mission and direct their writing at the public. I see no reason to privilege one over the other. Writers who tend to be more inward-looking may well reflect on their personal experiences and question the understanding of such experiences and their wider implication both by themselves and by others; they can thereby fulfill also a social and moral function without becoming necessarily politicized. As for Levi and Amery (and in a different way also Celan), they stated quite unambiguously that the reason for their writing and the cause of their increasing despair had to do just as much with the political reality of the post-Holocaust world, perceived by them as constantly repeating at least some aspects of their own experiences in Auschwitz, as well as with the manner in which the horrors they had undergone were represented by artists, intellectuals, and politicians. This is the important point: it was what happened after the Holocaust, when it became clear to the survivors that Auschwitz had not been the horror to end all horrors, but only signalled the beginning of a seemingly endless cycle of similar horrors (to which humanity was adapting itself with remarkable speed), which caused them such bottomless despair. And it was the newly emerging trends in representing their experiences in the Holocaust, which they saw not merely as being unfair to them, but perhaps more important as reflecting some fascination with extremity and with artificially recreating the most horror-filled situations so as to be able to observe them from the safety of one's armchair, that made them realize the extent to which Auschwitz was anything but the end, indeed merely the beginning of a new age.

from Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing and Representation. Oxford UP, 1996.

Arthur Cohen

. . . whatever we may learn from history, linguistics, psychopathology, political science, or social anthropology about the conditions which preceded and promoted the death camps or the behavior of oppressors and victims which obtained within the death camps is unavailing. All analysis holds us within the normative kingdom of reason and however the palpable irrationality of the events, the employment of rational analysis is inappropriate. I do not feel the calm of reason to be obscene, as some critics of the rational inquiry into the tremendum have described it. It is not obscene for human beings to try to retain their sanity before an event which boggles sanity. It is a decent and plausible undertaking. It is simply inappropriate and unavailing. Probative reason, dispassionate reason have no place in the consideration of the death camps, precisely because reason possesses a moral vector. To reason, that is, to evaluate, is to employ discernment and discrimination, and reasoned discrimination entails the presence of a moral ambiguity and its resolution. There is no possibility of regarding the tremendum as standing within the parsings of moral judgment. It is not simply that the death camps were absolutely evil. Such judgments do not help. It is not enough to pronounce them absolutely evil. Absolute evil is a paradigm. There is little to which we can point in the history of men and nations which is absolutely evil, although the criterion of that abstraction has helped moralists to pronounce upon the relative evils of history. . . .

. . . The point of this is to suggest that moral convention, a pragmatic regimen of norms and regulae of behavior, have authority only so long as the absolute evil of which they are exempla remains abstract and unrealized. When the absolute evil comes to be, the sphere of the moral and immoral ceases to be efficacious. . . .

If this analysis is correct, it will be readily understood why I have come to regard the death camps as a new event, one severed from connection with the traditional presuppositions of history, psychology, politics, and morality. Anything which we might have known before the tremendum is rendered conditional by its utteress and extremity. . . .

I call the death camps the tremendum, for it is the monument of a meaningless inversion of life, to an orgiastic celebration of death, to a psychosexual and pathological degeneracy unparalleled and unfathomable to any man bonded to life.

Johann Baptist Metz

Auschwitz concerns us all. Indeed what makes Auschwitz unfathomable is not only the executioners and their assistants, not only the apotheosis of evil revealed in these, and not only the silence of God. Unfathomable, and sometimes even more disturbing, is the silence of men: the silence of all those who looked on or looked away and thereby handed over this people in its peril of death to an unutterable loneliness. I say this not with contempt but with grief. Nor am I saying it in order to revive again the dubious notion of a collective guilt. I am making a plea here for what I would like to call a moral awareness of tradition. A moral awareness means that we can only mourn history and win from it standards for our own action when we neither deny the defeats present within it nor gloss over its catastrophes. Having an awareness of history and attempting to live out of this awareness means, above all, not evading history's disasters. It also means that there is at least one authority that we should never reject or despise—the authority of those who suffer. If this applied anywhere, it applies, in our Christian and German history, to Auschwitz. The fate of the Jews must be remembered as a moral reality precisely because it threatens already to become a mere matter of history.

from The Emergent Church. Copyright © 1981 by the Crossroad Publishing Company.

Omer Bartov

There exists now a huge industry concerned with the representation of the Holocaust and its periphery, fascism, Nazism, and war, testifying to the morbid attraction to and fascination with the worst epoch in contemporary history. Our modern, or as some would have it, postmodern sensibilities seem no longer to be satisfied with simple, unambiguous images, and the alleged beauty of fascism, for which it itself had laid claim with such insistence, attracts the makers of filmic images and their viewers alike precisely because of the knowledge that behind that beauty lay the depths of horror and depravity. Hence such films as Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo—The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), Lina Werhnuller's Seven Beauties (1976), Hans Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler, a Film from Germany (1977), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lili Marleen (1981), and many more. . . . They do not tell us much about the human experience under fascism, but rather about our own potential of being drawn to it. They are very much part of a relatively recent tendency toward detached, amoral, nonjudgmental, complacent, and yet highly dangerous morbid curiosity about extremity.

from Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing and Representation. Oxford UP, 1996.

Andreas Huyssen

What, then, of the monument in the larger field of Holocaust representations and discourses? Clearly, the Holocaust monument does not stand in the tradition of the monument as heroic celebration and figure of triumph. Even in the case of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising we face a memorial to suffering, an indictment of crimes against humanity. Held against the tradition of the legitimizing, identity-nurturing monument, the Holocaust monument would have to be thought of as inherently a counter-monument. Yet the traditional critique of the monument as a burying of a memory and an ossifying of the past has often been voiced against the Holocaust monument as well. Holocaust monuments have been accused of topolatry, especially those constructed at the sites of extermination. They have been reproached for betraying memory, a reproach that holds memory to be primarily internal and subjective and thus incompatible with public display, museums, or monuments. As a variation on Adorno, who was rightfully wary of the effects of aestheticizing the unspeakable suffering of the victims, it has been claimed that to build a monument to the Holocaust was itself a barbaric proposition. No monument after Auschwitz. And in light of fascist excesses with monumentalization, some have even gone so far as to suggest that fascist tendencies are inherent in any monument whatsoever.

All these critiques of the medium itself focus on the monument as object, as permanent reality in stone, as aesthetic sculpture. They do not, however, recognize the public dimension of the monument, what James Young has described as the dialogical quality of memorial space. There is no doubt that we would be ill-served by the Holocaust monument as death mask or by an aestheticization of terror. On the other hand, in the absence of tombstones to the victims, the monument functions as a substitute site of mourning and remembrance. How, after all, are we to guarantee the survival of memory if our culture does not provide memorial spaces that help construct and nurture the collective memory of the Shoah? Only if we focus on the public function of the monument, embed it in public discourses of collective memory, can the danger of monumental ossification be avoided. Of course, public discourse is most intense at the time of planning, designing, and erecting a new monument. There is no guarantee that the level of dialogic intensity can be maintained in the long term, and the Holocaust monument may eventually fall victim to the memory freeze that threatens all monuments.

The great opportunity of the Holocaust monument today lies in its intertextuality and the fact that it is but one part of our memorial culture. As the traditional boundaries of the museum, the monument, and historiography have become more fluid, the monument itself has lost much of its permanence and fixity. The criteria for its success could therefore be the ways in which it allows for a crossing of boundaries toward other discourses of the Holocaust, the ways it pushes us toward reading other texts, other stories.

No single monument will ever be able to convey the Holocaust in its entirety. Such a monument might not even be desirable, just as the Great Book about the Shoah, in Geoffrey Hartman's words, might "produce a deceptive sense of totality, throwing into the shadows, even into oblivion, stories, details and unexpected points of view that keep the intellect active and the memory digging." There is much to be said for keeping Holocaust monuments and memorials site-specific, for having them reflect local histories, recalling local memories, making the Final Solution palpable not just by focusing on the sites of extermination, but on the lives of those murdered in the camps.

At some level, however, the question of the Holocaust as a whole, a totality, will reassert itself together with the problem of its unspeakability. After we have remembered, gone through the facts, mourned for the victims, we will still be haunted by that core of absolute humiliation, degradation, and horror suffered by the victims. How can we understand when even the witnesses had to say: "I could not believe what I saw with my own eyes." No matter how fractured by media, by geography, and by subject position representations of the Holocaust are, ultimately it all comes down to this core: unimaginable, unspeakable, and unrepresentable horror. Post-Holocaust generations can only approach that core by mimetic approximation, a mnemonic strategy which recognizes the event in its otherness and beyond identification or therapeutic empathy, but which physically innervates some of the horror and the pain in a slow and persistent labor of remembrance. Such mimetic approximation can only be achieved if we sustain the tension between the numbing totality of the Holocaust and the stories of the individual victims, families, and communities. Exclusive focus on the first may lead to the numbing abstraction of statistics and the repression of what these statistics mean; exclusive focus on the second may provide facile cathartic empathy and forget the frightening conclusion that the Holocaust as a historical event resulted, as Adi Ophir put it, from an exceptional combination of normal processes. The ultimate success of a Holocaust monument would be to trigger such a mimetic approximation, but it can achieve that goal only in conjunction with other related discourses operating in the head of the spectator and the public sphere.

from Twilight Memories. Copyright © 1995 by Routledge.

Michael Rothberg

Within Holocaust studies broadly defined, two approaches to the question of genocide have dominated, which I will call realist and antirealist. By realist I mean both an epistemological claim that the Holocaust is knowable and a representational claim that this knowledge can be translated into a familiar mimetic universe. The realist approach has characterize the dominant scholarly methodology, that of historians and others who assert the necessity of considering the Holocaust according to "scientific" procedures and inscribing the events within continuous historical narratives. By antirealist I mean both a claim that the Holocaust is not knowable or would be knowable only under radically new regimes of knowledge and that it cannot be captured in traditional representational schemata. The antirealist approach has flourished in more popular discourses, in some survivor testimony and pronouncements, and in many literary, aesthetic, and philosophical considerations of the "uniqueness" of the Shoah. This tendency removes the Holocaust from standard historical, cultural, or autobiographical narratives and situates it as a sublime, unapproachable object beyond discourse and knowledge. In addition to constituting an implicit theory of epistemology and representation, each of these approaches also implies a particular conception of the relationship between the everyday and the extreme, with the realists tending to collapse the two poles or, more often, to situate them on a continuum and the antirealists installing an unbridgeable rupture between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Emblematic of what I am calling here the realist tendency would be Hannah Arendt’s notion of the "banality of evil"—which sought to capture "the essence of Nazi genocide in the ordinary figure of the bureaucrat—and her suggestion that "evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension." Extremity here is not something that breaks with the ordinary dimensions of the modern world but exists on a continuum with it. As scholars committed to empirical historical and social scientific methodologies, both Christopher Browning, with his notion of "ordinary men," and Daniel Goldhagen, with his provocative indictment of "ordinary Germans," answer to Michael Marrus's plea for a "normalization" of historical scholarship in the treatment of the Holocaust. Even in Goldhagen's case, seemingly radical evil is situated within an explainable tradition and everyday life-world. Similarly, Zygmunt Bauman's thesis on the "modernity" of the genocide, which is framed as an indictment of the blind spots of a hegemonic sociology, ultimately argues that genocide is indeed explainable with reference to the intersection of very ordinary sociological structures of the modern world. These positions are all realist in that in calling on concepts such as "banality," "ordinariness," "detached, professional" science, and "modernity," they also suggest that the phenomena they describe (whose horror is in no way minimized by them) may be apprehended and comprehended according to already established techniques of representation and analysis.

Proponents of the antirealist tendency are probably more well known among nonspecialists of the Holocaust and, to a certain extent, shape the dominant popular understanding of the events through their access to the resources of the public sphere. They include such significant figures as Elie Wiesel, who has assiduously defended the uniqueness of the destruction of European Jewry and claimed that "Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. . . . [T]he Holocaust transcends history"; Claude Lanzmann, who asserts that his film Shoah forgoes any attempt to represent the Holocaust and declares any attempt to understand the events "obscene"; Arthur Cohen, who gives a theological cast to the discourse with his concept of the "tremendum," a "holocaustal caesura" that renders "[t]hinking and the death camps . . . incommensurable"; and Jean-Francois Lyotard, who replaces realism with notions of sublimity and the incommensurability of the "differend." This discourse of "transcendence," "obscenity," "tremendum," and irresolvable "differend" detaches the extreme from the everyday and seeks to disable established modes of representation and understanding.

from Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.

Omer Bartov

. . . the example given by the Nazi regime as to the ability of a modern state to destroy human lives with the same techniques used by modern industry, employing the bureaucratic apparatus readily available to any modern state, is one that can hardly be ignored. Because although history may not repeat itself, it is rare that anything introduced to human history is not used again. Whether the Holocaust was unique or not in terms of its precedents is one question; whether it will remain so is quite another.

Jean Améry

. . . since being a Jew not only means that I bear within me a catastrophe that occurred yesterday and cannot be ruled out for tomorrow, it is—beyond being a duty—also fear. Every morning when I get up I can read the Auschwitz number on my forearm, something that touches the deepest and most closely intertwined roots of my existence; indeed I am not even sure if this is not my entire existence. Then I feel approximately as I did back then when I got a taste of the first blow from a policeman's fist. Every day anew I lose my trust in the world.

Saul Friedlander

If Benjamin's view of historical redemption implies the construction of meaning, we may be confronted with an insoluble paradox when facing the extermination of the Jews of Europe: on the one hand, the most diverse modes of evocation of the events abound; on the other hand, both in the representations of this past as well as in its interpretation, we are facing dilemmas which paralyze our "weak redeeming powers." One may wonder, though, whether such a situation is not appropriate. In the last part of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, the structure of the narration seems to become ever looser, as if disintegrating. When, in the end, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising speaks, nothing is left of the rhetoric of heroism, of symbolic redemption; there is only bitterness at heart. The inability to say, the apparent pathology of obsessive recall, the seemingly simplistic refusal of historiographical closure may ultimately be the only self-evident sequels of an unmasterable past.

from Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Indiana UP, 1993)

Elie Wiesel

. . . Do we want to understand? There is no longer anything to understand. Do we want to know? There is nothing to know anymore. It is not by playing with words and the dead that we will understand and know. Quite the contrary. As the ancients said: "Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know."

But we prefer to speak and to judge. We wish to be strong and invulnerable. The lesson of the holocaust—if there is any—is that our strength is only illusory, and that in each of us is a victim who is afraid, who is cold, who is hungry. Who is also ashamed.

The Talmud teaches man never to judge his friend until he has been in his place. But, for the world, the Jews are not friends. They have never been. Because they had no friends they are dead.

So, learn to be silent.

from "A Plea for the Dead"

Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi

[T]he present discussion takes place against a widespread suspicion of acts of the imagination that defy proprietary boundaries. It is a suspicion shared not only by the self-appointed guardians of Jewish memory and ‘le droit de parole,’ but also by many of those more dispassionate theorists engaged in the debate on questions of representation. Conflicting theories of historiography, and of the interface between fact and fiction in an age of infinite mechanical (and electronic) reproduction, have yielded a highly-charged polemical field, roughly divided between those who deny the value of any representation that does not confront its audience with raw suffering and unmediated evil agency, and those who countenance what I would call a more liberated and mediated engagement with history.

The argument for an ongoing experiential, or subjectivized, encounter with the Holocaust has been described by Geoffrey Hartman as a strategy for lowering our media-saturated, desensitized threshold of pain. Bombarded as we are by daily scenes of atrocity, by images that, recycled and routinized, become icons of our own numbness, we seek, he says, to "cut’ ourselves, like psychotics who ascertain in this way that they exist. As if only a personal or historical trauma (I bleed, therefore I am) would bond us to life." As touchstone of our honesty, this ‘cut’ posits survivor testimony as the most direct encounter that any bystander to history can have with the ‘Event,’ documentary as the truest form of historiography and strict realism as the discipline for anyone of fictive mind.

This impulse to stay inside of or as close as possible to the site of trauma comes as response not only to the psychic numbing caused by over-exposure to images of horror but also to the pervasive sense of art as a form of betrayal. Whether we understand the mimetic impulse to be an adult version of child’s play or "make-believe," or to be an act of spiritual elevation that has no place in the pitiless netherworld of Auschwitz, the imagination in any but its most constrained forms appears to many as a desecrating agent. The language itself is telling, entering a world of sacred discourse means, invariably, submitting to carefully drawn and guarded boundaries. There may be an overlap here between the historian’s positivistic and the theologian’s doctrinal insistence on proximity to the source as measure of authenticity. In any case, the theological lexicon that has evolved around this subject hardly questions its own preoccupation with limits.

The boundaries are set by the fear of betrayal or danger of trespass. Starting in the 1950s, each boundary crossed provoked a scandal in the public sphere. It is easy to compile a list of transgressive events, with different resonances in different cultures. Such a list could include, in America, the dramatization of Anne Frank’s Diary (1955); Philip Roth’s short story, "Eli the Fanatic" (1959), E. L. Wallant’s novel, The Pawnbroker (1961) and the movie based on it; Gerald Green’s TV Holocaust series (1978-9), D. M. Thomas’ novel, The White Hotel (1981), Art Spiegelman’s comic-book Maus I and II (1986, 1991); Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and, most recently, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1998). The Diary was deemed, by potential producers, as too negative, too painful for contemporary audiences, who would have to confront a young girl on stage whom they knew had already been consigned, offstage, to death in a concentration camp; the survivor in Roth’s story was considered to be too Jewish, the character in Wallant’s novel and the film based on it was too Christian, the inmates’ uniforms in Green’s television series were too starched, D. M. Thomas’s novel was too sexy, Maus was too daring, Schindler’s List, too positive, Life is Beautiful, too hopeful. The impresarios of these judgments have included embarrassed readers or viewers, public defenders of the faith as well as cultural critics. If, then, in the 1950s the problem was that the reenacted event was too depressing, in the 1990s the problem is that it is too hopeful. Each of these has a different story to tell and different reasons for being perceived by some as scandalous and by others as legitimately challenging conventional wisdom or social consensus. But they all have one thing in common: they make a daring point about human nature, about the nature of evil or suffering—and they do so by transgressing some perceived boundary in their mode of interpretation or in their arrogation of ‘the right to speak."

Limits are imposed from two quarters from those who invoke the likes of David Irving as their point of departure and from those who invoke T. W. Adorno as theirs. The first group attempts to guard against the distortions and abuses of history that are committed under the guise of historical method, the second attempts to protect historical facts from the "barbaric" mitigations of poetry. Both camps posit that, outside the consensual bounds of the truth-telling community there is only "denial." In this mindset, poetic license is, potentially, a form of mendacity as harmful as falsification of the historical record, the siege mentality that prevails in these quarters regards the pernicious effacement of reality as commensurate with the self-conscious editing of reality in acts of imagination that, presumably, allow the pleasure principle to upstage the pain principle.

Those who are so anxious to draw lines are, then, essentially permitting the ‘Holocaust deniers’ to define the boundaries. What Hartman calls "realistic purism" is the argument that "art is simply less faithful than history in holding the line against a feared recession of reality. [Thus,] most historians . .. see positivistic accuracy as the last remaining safeguard against relativism and revisionism." This is an argument that has come from all quarters, from philosophers and literary critics as well as historians. Inveighing against poetry out of a profound respect for its office, Berel Lang writes that, because "poetic reference to specific historical settings becomes increasingly attenuated as the text is more fully realized poetically," only "documentary and other forms of historical writing" fulfill the ethical and epistemological imperatives of Holocaust representation.

Strictures that are never invoked in regard to other historical events are invoked here to protect the viewer/reader from some presumed ignorance, as if the historical record were the sacred trust of the poet, and not her raw material. As if narrative boundaries that historians themselves no longer embrace must constrain the imagination of anyone else who draws near to the fire. Ernst Van Alphen clarifies the ‘ban’ on imaginative representations of the Holocaust by demonstrating that, particularly where commemorative art is concerned, abstract art is acceptable because it respects, at least implicitly, the "sublime unrepresentability" of the Holocaust; it does not presume to enter into the mimetic space, which must be, by these lights, inhabited primarily by a documentary, historically-accountable, idiom.

From The Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)

Who Owns Auschwitz?
by Imre Kertész
Translated by John MacKay

Holocaust survivors will have to face the facts: as they grow weaker with age, Auschwitz is slipping out of their hands. But to whom will it belong? Obviously, to the next generation, and to the one after that—as long as they continue to lay claim to it, of course.

There is something shockingly ambiguous about the jealous way in which survivors insist on their exclusive rights to the Holocaust as intellectual property as though they’d come into possession of some great and unique secret, as though they were protecting some unheard-of treasure from decay and (especially) from willful damage. Only they are able to guard it from decay, through the strength of their memory. But how are they to respond to the damage wrought by others, to the Holocaust’s appropriation by others, to all the falsifications and sundry manipulations, and above all to that most powerful of enemies, the passage of time itself? Furtive glances cling to every line of every book on the Holocaust, to every foot of every film where the Holocaust is mentioned. Is the representation plausible, the history exact? Did we really say that, feel that way? Is that really where the latrine stood, in precisely that corner of the barracks? Were the roll-calls, the hunger, the selections of victims really like that? And so on, and so on... But why are we so keenly interested in all the embarrassing and painful details, rather than just trying to forget them all as soon as possible? It seems that, with the dying-away of the living sensation of the Holocaust, all the unimaginable pain and sorrow live on as a single, unified value—a value to which one not only clings more strongly than to any other, but which one will also see generally recognized and accepted.

And herein lies the ambiguity. For the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid. Thus we immediately got a stylization of the Holocaust, a stylization which has by now grown to nearly unbearable dimensions. The word "Holocaust" is already a stylization, an affected abstraction from more brutal-sounding terms like "extermination camp" or "Final Solution." Nor should it come as any surprise, as more and more is said about the Holocaust, that its reality—the day to day reality of human extermination—increasingly slips away, out of the realm of the imaginable. In my Diary From the Galleys, I found myself compelled to write: "The concentration camp is imaginable only and exclusively as literature, never as reality (Not even—or rather, least of all—when we have directly experienced it.)" The drive to survive makes us accustomed to lying as long as possible about the murderous reality in which we are forced to hold our own, while the drive to remember seduces us into sneaking a certain complacent satisfaction into our reminiscences: the balsam of self-pity, the martyr’s self-glorification. And as long as we let ourselves float on the lukewarm waves of belated solidarity (or the appearance of solidarity), we fail to hear the real question, always posed with trepidation but still audible, behind the phrases of the official eulogies, how should the world free itself from Auschwitz, from the burden of the Holocaust?

I don’t think that this question is inevitably posed on the basis of dishonest motives. Rather, it expresses a natural longing, and the survivors, indeed, long for nothing else. Nonetheless, the decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. But there are various ways of remembering. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well. But how many such works have come into being during the last century? I can count on ten fingers the number of writers who have produced truly great literature of world importance out of the experience of the Holocaust. We seldom meet with the likes of a Paul Celan, a Tadeusz Borowski, a Primo Levi, a Jean Améry, a Ruth Klüger, a Claude Lanzmann, or a Miklós Radóti.

More and more often, the Holocaust is stolen from its guardians and made into cheap consumer goods. Or else it is institutionalized, and around it is built a moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language. Certain words come to be compelled by public discourse, and almost automatically set off the Holocaust-reflex in the listener or the reader. In every way possible and impossible, the Holocaust is rendered alien to human beings. The survivor is taught how he has to think about what he has experienced, regardless of whether or to what extent this "thinking-about" is consistent with his real experiences. The authentic witness is or will soon be perceived as being in the way, and will have to be shoved aside like the obstacle he is. The words of Améry prove their truth: "We, the victims, will appear as the truly incorrigible, irreconcilable ones, as the anti-historical reactionaries in the exact sense of the word, and in the end it will seem like a technical mishap that some of us still survived."

A Holocaust conformism has arisen, along with a Holocaust sentimentalism, a Holocaust canon, and a system of Holocaust taboos together with the ceremonial discourse that goes with it; Holocaust products for Holocaust consumers have been developed. Auschwitz-lies have appeared, and the figure of the Auschwitz con-man has come into being. Over the course of time we have come to know of one Holocaust guru, inundated with prizes for his achievements in literature and human rights, who gave first-hand reports of his indescribable experiences as a three- or four-year-old in the Majdanek extermination camp—until it was determined that between 1941 and 1945 he hadn’t left his bourgeois Swiss family’s house, except perhaps to take a healthy stroll or sitting in his baby carriage. Meanwhile, we dwell in the midst of Spielberg’s saurian kitsch and with the absurd chatter emerging from the fruitless discussions over the Berlin Holocaust monument. The time will come when Berliners—along with foreigners who end up in Berlin, of course (above all, I imagine groups of assiduous Japanese tourists)—will stroll, sunk in peripatetic reflection and surrounded by the roar of Berlin traffic, through the Holocaust Park, complete with playground, while Spielberg’s 48, 239th interview-partner whispers—or howls—his own individual story of suffering in their ears. (When I imagine the kinds of games that might be played in this Holocaust playground (conceived, according to an interpretation offered several months ago in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as "a gift from the murdered Jewish children to their unknown playmates in Berlin"), I think immediately (and helplessly: a result of how my stock of associations was spoiled in Auschwitz, no doubt) of the "Boger swing," a device made famous during the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, and upon which its builder, the inventive SS Unterscharführer Boger, would physically strap his victims head-down, thus turning their exposed backsides into playthings for and his sadistic mania.)

Yes, the survivors watch helplessly as their only real possessions are done away with: authentic experiences. I know that many will not agree with me when I apply the term "kitsch" to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It is said that Spielberg has in fact done a great service, considering that his film lured millions into the movie theaters, including many who otherwise would never have been interested in the subject of the Holocaust. That might be true. But why should I, as a Holocaust survivor and as one in possession of a broader experience of terror, be pleased when more and more people see these experiences produced on the big screen—and falsified at that? It is obvious that the American Spielberg, who incidentally wasn’t even born until after the war, has and can have no idea of the authentic reality of a Nazi concentration camp. Why, then, does he struggle so hard to make his representation of a world he does not know seem authentic in every detail? The most important message of this black-and-white film comes, I think, at the end, with the appearance in color of a triumphant crowd of people. But I also regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that fails to imply the wide-ranging ethical consequences of Auschwitz, and from which the PERSON in capital letters (and with it the idea of the Human as such) emerges from the camps healthy and unharmed. If this were really possible, we wouldn't still be talking about the Holocaust, or at any rate would speak about it as we might discuss some event of which we have only a distant historical memory, like, say, the Battle of El-Alamein. I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life (whether in the private sphere or on the level of "civilization" as such) and the very possibility of the Holocaust. Here I have in mind those representations that seek to establish the Holocaust once and for all as something foreign to human nature; that seek to drive the Holocaust out of the realm of human experience. I would also use the term kitsch to describe those works where Auschwitz is regarded as simply a matter concerning Germans and Jews, and thereby reduced to something like the fatal incompatibility of two groups; when the political and psychological anatomy of modern totalitarianism more generally is disregarded; when Auschwitz is not seen as a universal experience, but reduced to whatever immediately "hits the eye." Apart from this, of course, I regard anything that is kitsch, as kitsch. 

Perhaps I haven't mentioned that I have been speaking from the outset about a film, about Roberto Benigni's Life is
. In Budapest, where I'm writing these lines, the film hasn't (yet?) been shown. And if it does get shown at
some time in the future, it certainly won't give rise to the kinds of discussion that I've heard it has provoked in western
Europe. Here the Holocaust is differently not-talked-about, differently talked-about (on those occasions when it's not
possible to avoid talking about it) than in western Europe. Here the Holocaust has been a "touchy subject," so to
speak, ever since the end of the Second World War, a subject shielded from the "brutal" process of truth-finding by
defensive walls of taboo and euphemism. 

So you might say that I saw the film with an innocent eye (on videocassette). I haven't read the criticism and don't know the specific reproaches leveled against the film, and--truth to tell--I can't well imagine what it is in the film that has provoked such debate. I suppose that once again a choir of Holocaust puritans, Holocaust dogmatists and Holocaust usurpers is being heard, asking: "Can, should the Holocaust be treated in this way?" But what is "this way," more precisely considered? Those who have seen the film (or better: not seen it) with the ideological blinders on will reply: "with so much humor, and using the devices of comedy"--and they won't have understood a word, not one single scene of the film.  

Above all, they fail to see that Benigni's central idea isn't comic at all, but tragic. It is true that this idea, along with the central character of Guido, develops only very slowly. During the first 20 or 30 minutes, we feel as though we've been transferred onto the set of some old-fashioned burlesque. Only later do we understand how organically this apparently impossible introduction fits into the dramatic structure not only of the film, but of life itself. Even as one gradually comes to find the protagonist's slapstick interludes unbearable, the magician slowly emerges from behind the clown's mask. He lifts the wand, and from then on every word, every moment of the film is inspired. In the information packet provided with the videocassette, I read that the filmmakers paid careful attention to the way they represented the daily life of the camp, to the authenticity of the scenery, props and so on. Fortunately, in this they did not succeed. Authenticity lies, admittedly, in details, but not necessarily in material details. The gateway into the camp in Life is Beautiful resembles the entrance into the actual Birkenau to about the same extent that the battleship in Fellini's And the Ship Sails On [E la nave va, 1983] resembles a real flagship of a real Austro-Hungarian admiral. But the point here lies in something totally different: the spirit, the soul of Life is Beautiful is authentic, and it moves us with the power of the oldest kind of magic, the magic of fairy tales. 

At first sight, this fairy tale looks pretty awkward on paper. Guido deceives his four-year-old son Giosue into thinking that Auschwitz is just a game. Participants in the game receive points for successfully overcoming difficulties, and the winner will receive a "real tank." But does not this device of the "game" correspond in an essential way to the lived reality of Auschwitz? One could smell the stench of burning human flesh, but still did not want to believe that all of this could be true. One would rather find some notion that might tempt one to survive, and a "real tank" is, for a child, precisely this kind of seductive promise. 

There is one scene in the film that will no doubt generate a good deal of discussion. I am thinking of the moment when the protagonist Guido takes on the interpreter's role and "translates" into Italian an SS man's directives (informing the prisoners of the camp's rules of order) for the inhabitants of the barracks, including above all his own son. What this scene contains cannot be described in rational language, and says everything there is to say about the absurdity of that atrocious world, and about those who stood in opposition to the madness, unbroken in their spiritual strength. There is never any gigantism here, no sentimental or agonizing lingering over details, no red arrows shot demonstratively across a gray background. Everything is so clear and simple, so immediate and touching, that tears well up in one's eyes. The film's dramatic structure operates with the simple precision of good tragedy. Guido must die, and he must die at exactly the moment he dies and in exactly the way he dies. Before his death--and here we learn just how precious and beautiful life is for him--he performs a few Chaplinesque antics in order to give faith and strength to the boy after the latter has crawled out of his hiding place. That we don't see Guido's death when it comes says much about the film's unerring taste, its faultless style. But the swift, cracking report of the machine gun also has its dramatic function, and contains an important and shattering message. At the end, the boy sees his "prize" rolling toward him--the "real tank." But here, sadness over the ruined "game" overwhelms the story. We now understand that, somewhere else, the "game" would be called civilization, humanity, freedom--everything that humans ever regarded as valuable. And when the boy, reunited with his mother and suspended in her arms, cries out "we won!" his words come to resemble, through the power of this moment, an elegy shot through with grief. 

I notice that Benigni, the creator of the film, was born in 1952. He is the representative of a new generation that is wrestling with the ghost of Auschwitz, and has the courage (and also the strength) to lay claim to this sad inheritance. 

Imre Kertész was born in 1929 into a Jewish family in Budapest. In 1944, at the age of 15, he was deported first to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald. Since 1953, Kertész has been a professional writer, but a proscription placed upon his writing by Hungary's communist government forced him to make his living as a translator of German (his translations of Freud, Nietzsche, Canetti, and Wittgenstein are well known in Hungary). He first attracted wide attention in 1975 with his semi-autobiographical novel Fateless (which appeared in English in 1992), and since that time his work has been widely translated and commented upon throughout Europe. An English translation of his Kaddish for a Child Not Born appeared in 1997. [. . . .]

from Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 267-272. © Yale University and The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Johann Baptist Metz

The dead of Auschwitz should have brought upon us a total transformation; nothing should have been allowed to remain as it was, neither among our people nor in our churches. Above all, not in the churches.

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