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17 October 2022

The moral corruption of Holocaust fiction

John Boyne’s shameless sequel to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas exemplifies a genre that expunges the genocide of its horror, and its Jewishness.

By Ann Manov

In his 1998 essay “Who Owns Auschwitz?” the survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész grappled with the problem of how to represent the Holocaust in literature and film. The paradox he expressed was that “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”. That price was the Shoah’s “stylisation”: its transformation into either “cheap consumer goods” or “a moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language”. In both cases, he argued, the Holocaust gradually becomes the realm not of reality, not of history, not of jaw-dropping, thought-defying tragedy, but of kitsch.

Kitsch has indeed come to dominate the field – from the Broadway adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank to Schindler’s List. At the other end of the spectrum, masterpieces, often by survivors – Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Améry – tend towards aesthetic and intellectual rigour, resisting closure and withholding comfort. Much of so-called “Holocaust fiction” is aimed at children and included in the “Holocaust curricula” that are mandatory in many jurisdictions, though fatally handicapped by a refusal to show children violence or even darkness. In the years since Kertész’s essay, however, a micro-genre of Holocaust fiction for adults has proliferated: The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Violinist of Auschwitz. Unlike the children’s fare, these have no excuse for their optimism. 

That John Boyne was not included in Kertész’s list of offenders is surely a matter only of timing: just a few years later, in 2006, Boyne’s children’s book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would exemplify the terrifying commercial drive to expunge the Holocaust of its horror, and its Jewishness. Its plot revolves around the nine-year-old narrator, Henry, who is confused and sad after his Nazi commandant father relocates the family to Auschwitz (which he pronounces as “Out-With”, a pun that does not make sense in German; he also calls Hitler “the Fury”, though he’s nine and perfectly capable of pronouncing the word Führer). He has no idea what’s going on, even though it was no secret that Jews were being deported to occupied Poland. Our innocent little Henry befriends a boy his age, Shmuel, who’s always hanging out by the perimeter fence – weird, given that he would more likely have been performing slave labour and would have been immediately shot if found attempting escape. They share snacks that Henry takes from his kitchen (Shmuel, despite being from Krakow, a highly developed city, and fluent in Polish and German – Yiddish is never mentioned – has only eaten chocolate once). Inexplicably, Henry doesn’t much question why Shmuel is bald, emaciated and imprisoned along with his entire family, which, by the way, is “disappearing” one by one (somehow Shmuel is also unaware that people are being executed). Henry crawls under the fence to help Shmuel look for his dad, and the two boys are immediately swept up in a death march and led into a gas chamber. Henry squeezes Shmuel’s hand and tells him he’s his best friend “for life”, and they are promptly murdered. When Henry’s family realises he is dead, they are sad.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas may read like a paint-by-numbers parody of Holocaust fiction, yet it has sold more than 11 million copies, been adapted into a major motion picture and become the most assigned Holocaust novel in English schools, with the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London finding that 35 per cent of teachers used it in lessons about the Holocaust. And this in spite of the fact that, according to the centre’s study, it has “contributed significantly to one of the most powerful and problematic misconceptions of this history, that ‘ordinary Germans’ held little responsibility and were by and large ‘brainwashed’ or otherwise entirely ignorant of the unfolding atrocities”. Boyne has, of course, defended his work, telling the Guardian that by relating to his central characters “the young reader can learn empathy and kindness”. OK.

With his latest treacly tome All the Broken Places – complete with title so maudlin it preempts all mockery – Boyne has gifted us with a Holocaust novel so self-indulgent, so grossly stereotyped, so shameless and insipid that one is almost astonished that he has dared. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas at least was written for children. One anxiously waits to see how this grown-up sequel performs.

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So far, it has been hailed as “a powerful novel about secrets and atonement after Auschwitz” in the Guardian and lauded in hundreds of positive reviews on GoodReads. As with the preceding novel, All the Broken Places has a heavy-handed, pedagogical plot. If the moral of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was “don’t murder Jewish little boys lest your non-Jewish one be killed”, that of Broken Places is “if you were complicit in the murder of Jewish little boys, you may be absolved if you later prevent the murder of at least one non-Jewish little boy”. Boyne resumes the story with Henry’s naughty older sister Gretel – now 91– gradually, and tediously, relating her life up to this point. (I advise against reading this book, but if you insist on doing so be warned that the remainder of this paragraph contains “spoilers”.) At the end of the war her father was immediately hanged, and she and her mother emigrated to Paris. They dated French guys, but then had their heads shaved in a humiliating ritual. Gretel said a lot of things like “We’re guilty too”, and her mother said a lot of things like, “Your father’s crimes! His. All his. Not mine. Not yours”, and “Those filthy Jews!” Anyway, Gretel emigrated to Australia, where she fell in love with a Treblinka survivor she didn’t even realise was Jewish. (He, apparently, wasn’t too curious about a “Gretel” in post-war Australia.) Once her past was revealed he left her, but his friend – a historian, of course! – subbed in. Now Gretel is a crotchety, rich widow in London. A new family moves into her building, with an abusive husband who threatens to kill his cute son. When Gretel tells him not to beat his wife, he whines, “But she can be so annoying.” Gretel threatens to turn him in, and he threatens to reveal her Nazi past. She murders him and finishes the novel in prison, which she says is not too bad. 

[See also: How Donald Trump rose to power]

Kertész bemoaned the way Holocaust art devolves into the dutiful repetition of “certain words”.  What are they? Boyne suggests a few contenders. How many times does All the Broken Places refer to the “truth”? Forty-two. Guilt? Thirty-six. Past? Thirty-four. Trauma, horror, and monster get ten uses each. The dialogue is leaden and expository: “My daddy’s not a monster”; “It doesn’t matter any more. It’s all in the past.” The narration is bloated and risible: “He was gone. Louis was gone. Millions were gone”; “I had witnessed too much suffering in my life and done nothing to help. I had to intervene.” 

This is not literature. As a grown-up sequel to children’s trash, All the Broken Places serves two roles. First, to demonstrate that Boyne definitely did not think that the Germans were innocent, definitely knew they were “complicit” and “guilty” and that history is “complicated”, etc, thanks very much. Second, to serve as a sort of fan fiction for those peculiar adults who long for the comfort of a childhood favourite.

As to this first goal, at least, it is a consummate failure, a wildly simplified narrative that misrepresents the extent of Nazi ideology. As in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne underestimates the family’s awareness of the Holocaust, lending his German characters an exaggerated naivety, or implausible deniability. To take one ridiculous example, how on Earth would a girl active in the Jungmädelbund (a girls’ section of the Hitler Youth), nursed on anti-Semitic propaganda, not notice that a guy named David Rotheram, who presumably speaks with a Yiddish accent, is Jewish? And while Boyne mechanically asserts that the past is “complicated”, he betrays no knowledge of those complications. He portrays Nazi officials as swiftly killed, omitting that hundreds of them held high-ranking positions in the post-war West German government. Simultaneously, he portrays their families as unscathed (save a head-shave), omitting that in the Russian zone – the only one tending to summary executions of Nazis – women were frequently raped by the occupiers. Boyne flaunts a teenager’s understanding of the causes and consequences of the Second World War: Germans were poor, then naughty, then poor again. Indeed, he at no point even alludes to any present-day legacy of Nazism: not the rise of the right-wing nationalist Alternative für Deutschland, not synagogue terrorism in Europe or America, not even, at any point, the mere concept of Holocaust denial. Instead, this sterile novel stays well confined within a London apartment building, unaware of and uninterested in the world outside.

As with so much Holocaust fiction All the Broken Places utterly fails in its stated purpose: making the next generation slightly less likely to participate in the next genocide. Achieving that goal would call for a radical revamping of Holocaust education, to focus on multiple genocides and on the horrifying fact that they were widely supported, and that the ideology that enabled them was believed even by – especially by – elites. In the case of the Holocaust, this ideology was Nazi racial pseudoscience: an elaborate thesis of eugenics supported by American funding (including from the Rockefellers) that also advocated the destruction of the disabled, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals and others. Boyne’s reduction of Nazi ideology to a fringe belief, expressed in infrequent outbursts – “those filthy Jews” – is all the more absurd now that he’s writing for grown-ups. The issue, in short, is that judging by the last ten years of Western political life, humans are less able than ever to apply any sort of epistemic reflection to the news cycle, political discourse and scientific opportunism, and God forbid authors like Boyne be those charged with changing this.

In the self-serving afterword here Boyne essentially repeats that he writes about Nazis so as to humanise them, “exploring emotional truths and authentic human experiences”. Setting aside his total inability to render human experience as anything other than a Hallmark card, he’s fundamentally wrong: the purpose of Holocaust education should not be to recognise the good in bad people, but to recognise the bad inside good people.

We don’t need anyone to teach us how to recognise the barefaced devil; the danger is the insidious and gradual creep of violence into the civilised and everyday. This is what the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s dictum – “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – warned of: art unable to recognise the break the Holocaust represented with the past, afraid to apprehend the failure of the civilising project. With this childish drivel in which the villains and victims come labelled and sorted, Boyne yet again seems immune to its lessons.

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
Transworld, 384pp, £20

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder