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See How they Gush: Holocaust Museum's "Literature" expert wrote words in 1997 that he now wished he hadn't (hint: Binjamin Wilkomirski has been exposed as a fraud).


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September 10, 1997

Re: Holocaust Literature

Author: dklevan@inetgate.ushmm.org

Bill and Bob's comments about relying on "the classics" of Holocaust literature resonated for me in interesting ways. On the one hand, I agree with them that Wiesel's Night is not only one of the most powerful survivor memoirs that I have read and probably one of the most accessible to multiple reading levels. On the other hand, Holocaust literature has evolved over time as more survivors are willing to record their experiences and more diaries and documents from the time of the Holocaust are published. Additionally, there is much more interest in non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust now than in the past, and this corresponds to an increase in publications of their stories.  

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was published within years after the end of WWII. It has been translated into god knows how many languages. It is inargualy "a classic." But some argue that it is nonetheless not always the best literary tool for teaching about the Holocaust (since it focuses on the experiences of a girl in hiding in Amsterdam, it's narrow focus does not reflect the experiences of the bulk of Europe's Jews during the Holocaust). Anne's diary has also been re-edited since its original publication. Whereas, her father felt that some of Anne's writings about sexuality and adolescent conflict with her mother were inappropriate for public view, they were excised from the original edition. The latest edition of Anne's diary has been published including these previously removed passages. So, which edition is the "classic?"  

I encourage teachers to consider recent Holocaust literature for use in their classes. There is no doubt that Night and Diary of a Young Girl have served generations of teachers well, but that does not mean that there aren't other publications that work as well or, in some cases, better.  

Art Spiegelman's Maus books have been used successfully by teachers with students of different learning levels. There are multiple narratives and themes addressed in Maus and the information is delivered both through artwork and words. Messages in the narrative can be both simple and complex -- and often highly metaphorical. As is the case with Night, Spiegelman's Maus is useful for examining language as well as history.   A book that is not new, but that teachers frequently overlook is Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. This book is appropriate for advanced readers in high school and is an excellent example of not only an insightful survivor's memoir, but also a great example of beautiful writing. Levi truely a wordsmith, and I also recommend his works that are not about his experiences in Auschwitz. He frequently dissects the language of the camps, and the neccesity to construct new language. (BTW - There was recently a film released called The Truce which is based on Levi's The Reawakening which chronicle's his attempts to return home following liberation).  

Other excellent examples of Holocaust literature are not biographies or memoirs at all, but poetry, journals, and other works recorded by Jews in hiding, ghettos or elsewhere. Two wonderful examples of children's poetry, writing and artwork from the Theresienstadt ghetto are I Never Saw Another Butterfly and the lesser known but fascinating We Are Children Just the Same which compiles works from an underground boys magazine in the ghetto. In one entry, a Jewish boy in the ghetto actually compares his lot to that of American slaves based on his understanding from having read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  

Oops. . .

Finally, I encourage both Bob and Bill to read a very recent publication -- Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments. Although I consider this an "adult level" book and have difficulty imagining using it with most students, it is probably the most powerful survivor memoir that I have ever read.

It is beautifully written, and as Jonathan Kozol writes in his review for The Nation:  

"This stunning and austerely written work is so profoundly moving, so morally important and so free from literary artifice of any kind at all that I wondered if I even had the right to try to offer praise.   "Fragments will very likely be compared to Elie Wiesel's Night, an equally understated memoir recollected in a similarly pure and simple style. But Wiesel was 15 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz, so he understood, at least to some degree, the genocidal context of his own experience. We read Fragments in a different way, participating in the chaos of a child's desperate incomprehension, his longing to find reference points that might explain the inexplicable. Night remains, for me, the classic work, the quintessential and enduring testament of Holocaust survival. Although universal in its implications, it nevertheless belongs to a narrowly specific time in history. Fragments, on the other hand, is likely to be read as much by child psychologists as it will be by historians. It poses questions asked by those who work with spiritually tormented children everywhere: How is a child's faith in human decency destroyed? Once destroyed, how can it be rebuilt? Or can it never be? What strategies do children learn in order to resist obliteration in the face of adult-generated evil? Is it right to ask them later to renounce these learnings? Is it too dangerous for them to acquiesce? But, if they can't renounce the skills required in a time of darkness, can they ever truly live within the light of normal day? What does "normal" mean in a world that will so easily sequester and destroy those it has first dehumanized? To ask children to believe in goodness, and even more important, in the reliability of goodness, is to assume or to pretend that we believe in it as well."  

For the complete text of Kozol's review see URL: http://sparc20.medctr.luc.edu/~ael/heros/kozol/children-camps-bk-revie w.html   Also, a Real Audio clip of a National Public Radio interview with Wilkomirski is available on-line at: http://www.realaudio.com/contentp/npr/nc6d02.html  

David Klevan
Museum Educator,
High School Programs
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum



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