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?