After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence

After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence
Edited by David Cesarani and Eric J Sundquist
Routledge, 228pp, £26.99

Soon after the Russian Revolution, Isaiah Berlin and his parents left Riga and came to Britain. They were the lucky ones. Many of his family were killed by the Nazis in 1941. Berlin hardly ever wrote about the Holocaust in his later work and rarely referred to what happened to his Jewish relatives even in his private correspondence. Saul Bellow didn't write about the Holocaust until Mr Sammler's Planet in 1970, over a quarter of a century after his first novel. There are two references to the Holocaust in nearly 600 pages of Bellow's letters, published in 2010. Arthur Miller didn't start to address the Nazi genocide until the mid-1960s and made silence the central subject of his best Holocaust play, Broken Glass.

For many years, the consensus has been that on both sides of the Atlantic there was a brief period of attention followed by a long silence about the Holocaust. Survivors were reluctant to speak out. Others were reluctant to listen. Publishers and film producers weren't interested. This lasted for most of the 1950s and only in the late 1950s and early 1960s did this silence come to an end.

There was a sudden explosion of books and films: films such as The Young Lions (1958), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Exodus (1960); memoirs and stories such as Primo Levi's If This Is a Man (translated in 1958), Philip Roth's "Eli the Fanatic" (1959) and Elie Wiesel's Night (translated into English in 1960). This was just the beginning. From the 1970s on, there was an explosion of films, television programmes, memoirs and novels; Holocaust museums were opened; university programmes proliferated.

After the Holocaust is an ambitious attempt to challenge this consensus. Drawing on a growing body of scholarship, these essays argue that far from silence after the Second World War, there was a flood of memoirs, history books, oral histories and even films. Jewish survivors "were not 'silent'", writes David Cesarani in a rousing introduction. Rather, "We are overwhelmed by the extent of activity and its richness."

The book is full of fascinating material. Several chapters focus on the extraordinary work of postwar Yiddish historians and memoirists, many working against huge odds in eastern Europe. Archives and testimonies were gathered, published and translated. A first historiography of the Holocaust was pulled together. Fascinating individual stories emerge: the pioneering historian Philip Friedman, the writer Ka-Tzetnik, publishers and editors in Buenos Aires (where the original version of Wiesel's Night was published).

These essays challenge what Cesarani rightly calls "the condescension of posterity towards the survivor-writers, memoirists and early historians". The achievement is all the greater when we consider the context of postwar Europe: disrupted communications, disputed borders, a world that was economically shattered and ideologically fractured.

Even in the US, the picture was more complicated than previously realised. Psychologists and psychoanalysts produced a considerable literature about the "authoritarian personality" and the "fear of freedom", analysing the roots of fascism in personality structures. The first Hollywood films about Nazism and the Holocaust were made in the 1940s and 1950s by directors such as Orson Welles and Fred Zinnemann. In a fascinating afterword, Eric J Sundquist presents a very nuanced picture of the culture of silence, in which areas of silence coexisted with an outpouring of material. “We have now reached the point," he concludes, "where we can dispense with the myth of silence without dispensing with the question of silence."

So why were we mistaken? One problem that recurs throughout the book is language; specifically, "the wrong language". Many of the most important early works were published in Yiddish and Polish and never translated. Others took years to find their way into English. The first books by Wiesel and Levi weren't translated until the end of the 1950s. Vasily Grossman's extraordinary accounts of the Holocaust have only just appeared in English.

Second, the Iron Curtain came down and cut the west off from important work and archives. Third, the Jewish response was internally divided. Jews asked, where should the main archives be? In the new state of Israel or in the diaspora? In what language should they be documented? In Yiddish, Hebrew or French? What kind of narrative can make sense of the catastrophe of the Jewish genocide, bearing in mind that this was before the terms "Holocaust" and "Shoah" had been coined? And there was the indifference of so many non-Jews. As early as 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: "Do we give a thought to those who died in the gas chambers at Lublin? Not a word."

There is, perhaps, one further explanation. There was a silence. Sartre was right. Berlin didn't write on the Holocaust. Where Wiesel and Levi waited years to be translated, others waited in vain (this is the dark heart of Nicole Krauss's novel The History of Love).

There were Hollywood films but only four of those discussed here were made before the crucial turning point in the late 1950s. On one page, Sund­quist lists 16 Holocaust novels, only four of which were published at that time. All the ­major theological works discussed by John Roth were published after the 1950s had ended.

What does silence mean? It took so many forms. And what about the differences between the cultural mainstream and the periphery? Too many examples here stayed on the margins: histories and memoirs published in Yiddish in Poland and Buenos Aires, or translated by small presses in the US. So much of this fascinating work never made it into the western cultural mainstream.

Silence about the Holocaust was not a myth and it is unnecessarily provocative to use such a term. This book is a fascinating introduction to a wealth of new material but the last word should be with Sundquist: "We should also recall some of the many ways in which Holocaust silence has always been with us and always will be."

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide