Is the Holocaust best understood through fiction? That was the theme of a recent revue of Ruth Franklin’s novel, Higher Truth appearing on the Jewish internet journal Tablet. The revue provided a setting for an unlikely week-long exchange between Holocaust denier Michael Santomauro and me. I contacted Michael before submitting this article and he agreed to allow his name to appear but asked, “please reference me as a Holocaust Revisionist -and an amateur one at that.” A degree of humility that likely allowed for our extended discussion.
Author and Auschwitz survivor Yehiel Dinur dies of cancer at 84
By Tom Segev
Ha’aretz, Monday, July 23, 2001
Author Yehiel Dinur, who used the pen name K. Zetnik, died last Tuesday of cancer at his home in Tel Aviv, at the age of 84.[…].
Dinur, a survivor of Auschwitz, was one of the first Israeli authors to write about the Holocaust.[…]
His work was translated into dozens of languages. His books contained detailed descriptions of the horrors of Auschwitz, including torture, cannibalism, and sexual abuse of children.[…]
Dinur appeared as a prosecution witness in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Describing his two years in Auschwitz, he said: “Time there runs differently than it does here, on the face of the earth … Residents of that planet had no names. They had no parents and no children. They didn’t dress as we dress here. They weren’t born there and didn’t give birth. They breathed according to different laws of nature. They didn’t live according to the laws of the world here, and they didn’t die. Their name was a number…”
With time, as Israel’s cultural memory developed, there were those who opposed teaching K. Zetnik’s books in the schools and even described them as kitsch bordering on pornography. Dinur himself worked throughout his life to distribute his books to schools, even setting up a multi-million shekel foundation that worked with the Education Ministry on this goal. But with the passing years, many schools preferred to teach the works of Primo Levi instead.
The revelation of his identity during the Eichmann trial apparently put him under great stress. At one point, speaking of the other prisoners in Auschwitz, he said: “They went away from me, they always went away from me, and always left me behind… I see them, they are looking at me, I see them…” When Judge Moshe Landau attempted to interrupt him and get him to answer the prosecutor’s questions, Dinur suddenly collapsed, fainting, in what is today remembered as one of the most dramatic moments of the trial.
In the early 1970s, Dinur traveled to Holland to undergo a new and controversial treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The treatment involved receiving injections of LSD that caused him to enter a trance, during which he would describe his Auschwitz experiences and the attendant psychiatrist would videotape them.
In April 1998, the cover of The Jewish Journal featured the person who called himself Binjamin Wilkomirski. Naomi Pfefferman (“Memories of a Holocaust Childhood,” April 24, 1998) compared his writing — his one and only book, called “Fragments” — to that of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. During an emotionally filled performance at a Beverly Boulevard synagogue, Wilkomirski was accompanied by a lady who called herself Laura Grabowski. Both claimed to be soul mates who, at long last, were reunited survivors of Dr. Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz.
The Boston Phoenix
March 25 — April 1, 1999
by Adam Kirsch
- VILLAGE OF A MILLION SPIRITS: A NOVEL OF THE TREBLINKA UPRISING, by Ian MacMillan. Steerforth, 257 pages, $24.
The holocaust is an irresistible subject for fiction; like a wound only recently scabbed over, it keeps drawing our sickened attention. Its paradox — how could a nation that in so many ways epitomized Western civilization commit acts that that civilization finds literally unthinkable? — demands repeated explanations precisely because it can never be explained. And yet, at the same time, the Holocaust is an impossible subject for fiction. For fiction, like any art, enjoys an essential irresponsibility, a freedom that comes from being aesthetically rather than ethically committed. And when a writer tries to create aesthetic pleasure out of the ethically atrocious, he comes close to blasphemy.
Ian MacMillan’s novel raises this dilemma once again, in especially acute form. For MacMillan is not, like Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel or other classic Holocaust novelists, a survivor; his story about life at the Treblinka concentration camp is not remembered, but invented. And it claims fiction’s universal passport, entering even the parts of the camp that most writers would find unrepresentable. Indeed, the book’s second chapter is a precise and vivid account of a young man’s riding a train to the camp, disembarking, entering the gas chamber, and dying; we never see him again. The gas chamber, the modern symbol of utmost evil, is for MacMillan another fact that must be described.
As the subtitle suggests, the novel is draped over a historical event, a small and futile revolt that took place in Treblinka in August 1943, just before the camp was to be dismantled. MacMillan alternates between this uprising — as seen from the outside by Magda, a young Polish woman who goes into labor as it takes place — and the year leading up to it, primarily as seen by three inmates of the camp: Janusz Siedlecki, a half-Jewish prisoner; Anatoly, a slow-witted Ukrainian guard; and Joachim Voss, a squeamish, alcoholic German officer. The bulk of the novel is not about the uprising, but about daily life in the camp: indeed, the dailiness of life at Treblinka is MacMillan’s point. For what he most wants to communicate is the way that the camp’s routine and isolation made the unbelievable quite ordinary. The real lesson of the Holocaust, he implies, is how easily we accommodate ourselves to evil.
This point is, of course, an important and true one. What disturbs about MacMillan’s novel is not its moral message — and not the expected scenes where a character tries to visualize the number one million in order to make sense of the number of dead, or where the Nazis play Mozart as Jews listen — but its purposeful sensualism. MacMillan describes everything, in graphic detail. A woman’s water breaking:
She rubs it between her thumb and fingers, her hands shaking. It is a clear, slippery liquid, not urine.
He is now breathing rapidly, accepting the harsh, salty taste of the air. It sears his throat and he feels vomit rising.
A pile of corpses being burned:
… he sees one face halfway up the pile, that of a child, begin to sweat … his mouth begins to move, almost as if the dead child is beginning to feel the heat and is starting to writhe in agony.
Carrying a dead body:
Janusz grabs the wrist of the corpse’s left arm and pulls, feeling tendons popping in the shoulder. Then he feels a tearing, so that the skin of the hand begins to pull off, like a glove.
Of course, this sensualism is itself a moral statement: it says, in effect, that the horror of Treblinka destroys the syntax of narrative, so that the only thing left is the stuttering “and … and … and” of sense impressions. MacMillan himself makes this point when he writes, about Janusz’s thoughts of the dead: “There is no qualitative difference to these observations. It might just as well be a list of odd facts of the sort that you could find in a science book.”
This is true, but MacMillan does not realize the implications for his own novel. Describing everything closely, precisely, graphically, still does not drive home the truth of the Holocaust. In fact, it may do the opposite: acts and sights so unbearable, unable to be admitted to the mind as truth, take on the qualities of fable, or worse, of movie violence. It is not that we deny their factual status, but that we cannot feel them in the way that we feel our own experiences. And this reduces us to the level of voyeurs, looking on as scenes of torture are enacted for our aesthetic, or even sensual, pleasure. Next to this central problem — the way that fiction can make unreal what should be most real — it is almost beside the point to judge whether the novel is well written or well plotted. I cannot help but feel that, in this case, MacMillan has tried to do something that fiction cannot, and should not, do.
Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant for the New Republic.
The man who bore witness
Primo Levi, an obsessive chronicler of his life as a Holocaust survivor, gets a biography from someone else.
PRIMO LEVI: Tragedy of an Optimist By Myriam Anissimov Overlook Press, 452 pages
_Globe_and_Mail_ ([email protected]) | Saturday, March 6, 1999 |
Two hundred years from now, readers who wish to know our century will turn to the prose of Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz.
Levi was born into a cultured middle-class Jewish family in Turin in 1919. Myriam Anissimov, in this first full-scale biography of the Italian author and chemist, records that Levi’s father, Cesare, was an electrical engineer and an avid reader of literature. From him Levi learned that the humanities and the sciences need not be separate worlds.
Levi was fortunate to have entered university before the Fascists instituted their racial laws banning Jews from higher education. Still, no professor of chemistry was willing to supervise his thesis. The young physics lecturer Nicola Dallaporta helped Levi get his degree. He told Levi after the war that Providence had chosen him to become the chronicler of the slave-labour camp, a concept Levi refused to accept since his Auschwitz experiences had convinced him that there was no Providence, and no God.
Upon his return to Turin, Levi felt the need to bear witness: “I had a torrent of urgent things to tell the civilized world. I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore.” But the civilized world was not very interested in what he had to say. No large publisher would accept his powerful account, Survival in Auschwitz. Anissimov reports that the book received a few positive reviews but was “distributed rather than sold.”
On the morning of April 11, 1987, Levi plunged down the stairwell of his house, an apparent suicide. His death shocked his readers. How could this sober and diligent man, who had cast a rationalist’s penetrating light on our century’s most enormous crime, fall into the abyss? Anissimov does not provide a definitive answer, but presents a constellation of facts. She reports that after his return from Auschwitz, Levi experienced severe bouts of depression that he found increasingly difficult to overcome. She describes the complications he was having recovering from a prostate operation, his anxiety over his senile, 91-year-old mother, as well as his despondency over the media coverage being given to professional Holocaust deniers.
Kenneth Sherman’s essay Primo Levi and the Unlistened-to Story can be found in his book Void and Voice.
We Get Letters
On Jul 17, 2004, at 9:53 AM, Ken Sherman wrote:
I note that you have used my book review of “The Tragedy of an Optimist” on your website. I cannot see why, since the review neither supports nor denies your claims. It is merely the review of a biography. I would ask that you please remove it from your site.
Thanks for contacting me about the contents of my website.
Actually, I have NOT used your book review: I have excerpted portions of it. By my count, I have used fewer than 400 words, and my understanding is that the doctrine of fair use allows me to quote up to 500 words, so I believe I am within my rights in presenting this information.
As to its relevance, I found it of interest, and I feel that others may, too.
July 18, 2004 7:52:08 AM PDT
Thanks for your reply. I sold the electronic rights for that review to the Globe and Mail and will pass this matter along to their legal department.
TO: Editor/Publisher, The Holocaust Historiography Project
It has been brought to our attention that you have electronically reprinted copyrighted material on your web site. We request that you cease and desist reprint of material by Mr. Kenneth Sherman immediately. Our Policy does not grant any electronic publication.
We thank you for your cooperation.
The Globe and Mail
Date: Wed, 21 Jul 2004 16:54:25 -0700
To: “Bellefeuille, Francine” [[email protected]]
July 21, 2004 4:54:25 PM PDT
Dear Ms. Bellefeuille,
Thank you for contacting me. Please let me know what your “Fair Use” policies are.
We [the prisoners of Auschwitz] were able to understand very well, then, that on the great continent of freedom, freedom of communication is an important province. As with health, only the person who loses it realizes its true value. But one does not suffer from it only on an individual level: in countries and epochs in which communication is impeded, soon all other liberties wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinion of others becomes rampant, imposed opinions triumph. The well-known example of this is the crazy genetics preached in the USSR by Lysenko, which in the absence of discussion (his opponents were exiled to Siberia) compromised the harvests for twenty years. Intolerance is inclined to censor, and censorship promotes ignorance of the arguments of others and thus intolerance itself: a rigid, vicious circle that is hard to break.
The Drowned and the Saved
by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi
Summit Books: New York, 1988, pp. 103-104