Second generation writers and artists and the shaping of Holocaust memory in Israel and America
In the shadow of history: (For Israel's Jubilee Year) Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought; 3/22/1998; Sicher, Efraim
Several authors discuss their experiences during the Holocaust in their writings. Helen Epstein portrays the sad memories of the Holocaust sufferings her parents endured through her books 'Children of the Holocaust' and 'Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search For Her Mother's History.' Theo Richmond deftly narrates his family's demise in his book 'Konin: A Quest.' One of the autobiographical works through which they shared their parents' stories include Julie Salamon's 'Net of Dreams: A Family's Search for a Rightful Place.'
We now stand half a century after the holocaust, as Israel marks its fiftieth anniversary, yet the issues raised by that cataclysmic event are no clearer now than they were in 1948 when the state was established; indeed, many of the attempts to forge a new identity and mold a collective memory now seem simplistic or have been discredited. In the renewed debate over the legacy of the Holocaust in Israel's collective identity and public memory questions are being asked that undermine the official line of the state's early years: What exactly is the place of the Holocaust in Jewish history? What is the place of Israel in Jewish history? Is it a new beginning, or a stage in the coming redemption? Why has the past refused to go away? Why has no happy medium apparently been found between forgetting everything in order to start new lives free of the past and remembering so much that any political or moral decision-making is crippled by the Holocaust complex? Something has gone seriously wrong with the shaping of public memory and it is not clear anything but confusion is being bequeathed to the future.
Not only has the memory of the Holocaust become disturbingly obsessive in Israel's national culture, as well as in the Diaspora, but it has thrown open questions of Jewish identity and, particularly, the national versus universalistic meaning of being a Jew and of Jewishness.(1) Moreover, the institutionalization of the memory of the Holocaust and its conscription to sometimes opposing ideologies has become inextricably entangled with the ongoing debate over Jewish identity and particularly over the identity of a Jewish State which inevitably dominates community politics in America and national politics in Israel. The status of identity (as the recent conversion law controversy showed) is no longer a matter of largely American or Israeli concern, but a messy story of rivalries and common causes between and within the two largest centers of Jewish population. The memorialization of the Holocaust, too, reflects common concerns as well as sharp differences. This is no mere academic question, since the competition for control of memory is also a contest for formation of identity of the State of Israel, and it is an issue which must no longer be a squabble over which historian is "right," but in which version of history and religion we believe we are living now.
One of the ways in which this confused public discourse gets aired and a major medium for the transferal and shaping of collective memory is their inscription in literature and art. Fiction, moreover, gives space in the imagination for what cannot be said otherwise, for what has not been experienced directly but must be reconstructed or even invented.(2) In Israel and in North America, with the passing of the survivor-witnesses, the task of transmitting the memory has been bequeathed to the second generation, to those who were not "there." This means that the indirect experience and the gaps in personal and collective history have to be largely imagined, so it is in writing (whether creative, testimonial, or academic) that we are seeing the emergence of narratives of post-Holocaust identity. In Children of the Holocaust (1979), Helen Epstein wrote about the "iron box" deep in her psyche of the buried Holocaust memory of her parents. Since then many children of survivors have, like other stigmatized minority groups, "come out" and told of their inherited traumas, exploring their own identity and unlocking the "iron box" of their family memory. Apart from Epstein's new book, Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search For Her Mother's History, and Theo Richmond's careful reconstruction of his family's shtetl, Konin: A Quest, autobiographies in which the children of survivors give voice to their parents' stories and space to their destroyed communities include Julie Salamon's Net of Dreams: A Family's Search for a Rightful Place, and Anne Karpf's The War After: Living with the Holocaust (both first published in 1996). In doing so they find their own voices, rather in the way Art Spiegelman's recording of his father's testimony in Maus becomes part of his own story, and his New York childhood is inset in the map of Auschwitz. These are journeys into a past which enable the second generation to know who they are, where their family comes from, and, most important, the sources of the neuroses with which they are inflicted as a result of the horror which history has written into their stories before they were born. Salamon's book is a travelogue of revisiting the camps, illustrated with tourist snapshots of the author and her family, while Karpf's quest for self-knowledge widens to a sociological and psychological attempt to break from the compulsive pathology of a victim status. Both authors write their books out of loss for a dead father and Karpf gives birth in the writing of the book to another generation, to whom she has to pass on the burden of memory.
The pent-up anger of Anne Karpf at the deafness of the world (including the Jewish community) to her parents' story is shared by Israel Rozenson, who writes letters from the Lebanese front in Sikhah 'im zikaron (Conversation with Memory, 1997) about the distortion of memory of Auschwitz by Ka-Tzemik and official histories. Like Karpf's book, Rozenson's epistolary essay is an act of resistance to the inevitable amnesia of time and to erasure or accommodation by a pragmatic Realpolitik. Above all it rewrites identity by starting the story "over there," to fill in the blanks in family and national genealogy, as Hannah Hertsig tries to do in her Tmunot mekhapsot kkoteret (Pictures in Search of Captions, 1997). This is a last-minute attempt to rescue memory from the boydem in the attic, though it comes too late to question parents about their untold stories of camp life and fighting as partisans which this Israeli reserve soldier discovers for the first time in the letters he has found. Though a minor off-shoot of the genre of the Memorbuch, this is a remarkable document if only because it is published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense in its educational and polemical series for soldiers and the larger population. Like the award-winning IDF film Beshem hadorot akharei (In the Name of the Generations After, 1994), made for the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps, this is an acknowledgment of the turnaround in collective memory which has replaced the former silence with a recognition of the place of the Holocaust victims in Jewish martyrdom and the contribution of the survivors to national building.(3)
The phoenix-like birth of the Jewish State fifty years ago could not after all escape the shadows of Jewish history in Europe, despite the attempt to create a new Sabra culture and despite the stigmatization of the Holocaust survivors in the early years of the state. The drive to start new lives, to succeed and assimilate, plus Ben-Gurion's determination to mold a nation out of what he called "avak haadam" (the human debris of the survivor-immigrants) and the political caution under Roosevelt and during the McCarthy years in the United States, all did much to delay the impact of Holocaust memory. After the Eichmann Trial a new consciousness of the Holocaust formed in both Israel and America, for now a sovereign Jewish state had taken justice into its own hands and Holocaust survivors had confronted the perpetrator as they took the witness stand in front of the whole world. Ben-Tsion Tomer's Children of the Shadows (1963) and Yehuda Amichai's Not of this Time, Not of This Place (1963) were indicative of the cathartic confrontation of an entire nation with its past and with Germany. Amichai's novel in particular gives an idea of the feeling of being "here" and "over there" at the same time, of some unfinished business which creeps into the imagination of those who were not there as they contend with the surreal existence of a state under siege, haunted by an archeological memory of an ever-present past that defies closure.
The Holocaust is a shadow that won't go away. It is indelibly inscribed in ethnic and cultural identity in Israel for reasons not unconnected with changes in Israeli society and politics, especially following the traumatic puncturing of national pride and aggressive independence in the Yom Kippur war, which led some Israelis to question their moral rights to territory that could only be held by force. The Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatilla massacres highlighted the self-doubts. If Nazi racism had singled out the Jews as victims, then leftist intellectuals felt that the Jew must abandon any nationalist ideology which excludes others, particularly one based on military occupation. According to this logic, the Palestinian Arabs became the Jews' Jews. In particular, Menachem Begin's use of the Holocaust to justify Israel's obsession with security was attacked by the Left. Influenced by the rise of the New Left in Europe in the sixties, this may be in part a response to a siege mentality, partly a defense mechanism for the vacuity of an Israeli identity which often denied the Jewish ground on which it stood. In any case it is a position that is inscribed in its various mutations in much of the discourse that touches on the Holocaust and on the role of the establishment of the state in Jewish history.
If the generation of 1948 had cut off history, their children could cut off their fathers, the pioneers of the Palmach, and the heroes who conquered the land. Like the grandchild who rebels against its father and so takes after its grandfather, the children of the post-Yom Kippur War baby-boom started questioning their identity without holding sacred the Zionist truths which negated the Diaspora and stigmatized Holocaust victims as "sheep to slaughter." Some were quick to buy the Americanization ("Cocacolanization") of Israeli society and decided their birthplace was purely coincidental, that the world was a free consumer market of life-styles and materialistic aspirations. Others began questioning their personal and collective identities. In the eighties, we started hearing of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, who voiced their inherited traumas in film, literature, and art. At the 1988 International Gathering of Children of Survivors in Jerusalem they discovered the "iron box" was shared by many around the world and that there was a growing psychological literature of case-histories of children of survivors in therapy.
The Holocaust was a trauma whose intergenerational after-effects were for many years overlooked in the treatment of the offspring of survivors. Moreover, the disbelief encountered by survivors and the social pressure to assimilate in new countries where they found refuge, as well as the need to start new lives, often led to a silencing of the past. There were things that could not be said and there were things which could not be possibly spoken. Some children grew up without being told the stories of their survivor parents and discovered those stories in a cathartic release of trauma at a belated stage, by reading about the Holocaust, or when their own children were told stories by the grandparents. Being brought up in that silence, or, conversely, having lived the Holocaust daily through overexposure to their parents' nightmares and to the constant repetition of their story, has not enabled a coherent transmission of memory to the next generations - the more so when in different countries collective amnesia, on the one hand, and political appropriation of the past, on the other, has distorted the shaping of memory.
The Israeli short-story writer Savyon Liebrecht has speculated that homes which maintained almost total silence about the Holocaust bred creativity because of the space available for fantasy. The child of eight or so begins to suspect that this thing that has gone terribly wrong in the family and made the child's home different from others is actually part of some larger, collective, universal secret. The code of silence, claims Liebrecht, also gave her the gift to understand the unsaid and the unsayable. And perhaps because she grew up in a generation that did not know its grandparents, her stories harp on family occasions that allow her to invent them and to bridge the generation gap by telling stories: "I had to tell stories to myself. Mostly because the best way to break a silence is by telling stories."(4) One of her stories, "Kritah" (Excision, 1988), tells of the breaking of silence when a grandmother relives her camp experience of forty-five years previously. Henia cuts her granddaughter's hair to excise the lice the little girl has picked up at kindergarten, but she is also passing on to the third generation her story, much to the consternation of her daughter-in-law who shrieks that four-year-olds should be hearing about Cinderella, not Auschwitz. Cutting away here undoes the cutting away or excision from a past by a new Israeli culture. The wall of silence between the survivors and their children is broken when the survivors tell their story to their grandchildren. Failure to communicate and schizophrenia are central to other stories by Liebrecht, such as "Horses on the Geha Highway" (1988) and "I Might As Well Be Speaking Chinese" (1992); here cracks or contaminating stains in the parental home yield their traumatic and secret inheritance after the death of the Holocaust victim.
As in many narratives by children of survivors, the Holocaust is not directly mentioned in Liebrecht's "I Might As Well Be Speaking Chinese." The Ghetto Uprising is only hinted at in the name of the street of the parents' home, and by the detail that one of the photos in the estate agent's office was taken in Germany: the home of memory is always "over there," however much home is the here and now of modern Israel. A wealthy blonde persuades the estate agent to admit her into her former home, now up for rent. The stains on the apartment ceiling she remembers from her adolescence are still there. The stains of memory are reminders of the emotional and communication gap between her parents, in particular of her father's deafness to her mother's complaints, and her mother's refusal of marital relations, which she discovered one night. That traumatic primal scene is one she tried to drown out in the bath, muffling the faucet with towels in a symbolic transferal of the act of silencing. Now she reenacts the primal scene with the estate agent who suddenly finds his client wants a different service from the one he had in mind. Liberated from the trauma, the woman reassures the estate agent, "You'll find tenants easily. It's a very good apartment. Just be sure to paint the ceiling."(5)
In making the estate agent the object of release of sexual repression, the woman is here releasing another trauma within the trauma. Like sex, the Holocaust is a taboo in the childhood home, a secret knowledge that is silenced and that forms a bond between the survivor parents which excludes the child. So by releasing her mother's sexual repression, the woman (who is not named in the story) is unconsciously touching the forbidden in an act of adultery that expresses incestuous desire and trying to wipe out its contamination, symbolized by the butterfly shaped stains on the ceiling. Moreover, the lack of communication between the parents is matched by the silence between the generations, the failure to transmit memory and adequately to prepare the next generation for the task of bearing the horror of evil. The act of release is described here as sexual, as an act in the gender battle, but it is not hard to see that it is itself an act of repression rather than repair - to wipe out the stains is both to listen to the mother and an act of denial.
In homes where the story of the parents' Holocaust experience was told only too much, where that experience was relived day in and day out, the burden of memory was a "Glass Hat" (as in Navah Semel's 1986 story collection of that name, Kov'a zkhukhit), weighing down the children of survivors and invisibly setting them apart from their contemporaries. A persistent theme of these stories is the communication gap not only between survivors and the next generation, but also with the rest of the world. Blindness is an obvious metaphor for the inadequacy of response to Holocaust suffering in a collection by Esty G. Hayim, Rakdanit shekhora belahakat yakhid (Black Dancer in a Solo Troupe, 1997). In "Hi ohevet otkha, ken, ken, ken" (She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah), Mrs. Stein is deaf to the needs of her blind daughter, Julia, forcing on her the art and music of her pre-Holocaust Austrian home which no longer exists. As in Liebrecht's "I Might As Well Be Speaking Chinese," denial is symbolized by the woman's frigid lack of response to her husband, by her obsession with constant baths to clean herself from his seminal contamination, while the daughter has run away to France, to the place of the Holocaust scenario which so terrifyingly haunts the present. Mrs. Adela Miller, the Holocaust survivor in the story of that name in the same collection, is so obsessed by communication that, when she makes endless calls to her dead daughter in Vienna, angry neighbors protest her monopoly of the only public pay phone in the neighborhood by having her taken away, symbolically still inside the phone-booth.
Like Cynthia Ozick's Rosa, whose shawl milked and stifled a baby in the camps and whose shawl stifles the phone link with her daughter in New York until she finds someone in Miami Beach to listen to her, Adela Miller represents the inability to communicate the survivors' story in an indifferent society at a time when the traumatic effects of the Holocaust and the desperate need to tell and to be silent were enough to stigmatize the survivor as crazy. The survivors are nowadays portrayed as worthy of empathy and compassion, not to be dismissed as crazed weirdoes. Above all they are to be listened to through the medium of story as links in the generational chain, however much they have caused emotional disturbance in their children, have failed for want of role-models in some aspects of parenting, or were overprotective and suffered from separation anxiety. Let's not forget that in the camps separation was often for ever).
Something may have died in the victims in the camps, and now that they again face mortality the responsibility of caring and the burden of memory weigh all the more on their children. The children of survivors, the "memorial candles" who carry the names of the dead and who bear the burden of replacing murdered relatives,(6) have to discover their personal and collective identity like anyone else but they are handicapped by having to match up to their parents' expectations as children of the Holocaust They must also cope with its daily aftereffects on their parents and with the survivors' sometimes humiliating dependency on them as they age, though they may in fact be prevented from knowing their past or their own story and identity by their parents' silence. In many cases the second generation do not know the names of their relatives who perished, and their family history is filled with blanks, with what the second-generation French novelist Henri Raczymow once termed "la memoire trouee" - a memory not of what was lost, but of loss of memory of what was destroyed in the Holocaust and not transmitted.(7)
The plight of the second generation is shared by some of the children hidden during the Holocaust who discovered only recently that they were not who they thought they were, but after growing up with non-Jewish families under false identities had been brought to Israel after the war as orphans with new names. The trauma of this revelation is described in the title-story of Rinah Uziel-Blumenthal's Etsba'ot elokim (God's Fingers, 1997). The shock of discovering in middle age that you are not who you had thought you were dissolved the solidity of personal identity, and, as in the on-going scandal over the "lost" Yemenite children, undermined the forced construction of Israeli identity.
A different kind of rhetoric is now being heard that has exploded the former silence. By the mid-nineties the return to the past had become something of a national obsession. School trips to Poland, renewed searches for lost family, and the reevaluation of the cultural heritage of East European Jewry coincided with a deepening polarization of Israeli politics, a precarious balance of political factions and coalitions, but increasingly controlled by the religious parties and the right Meanwhile, the Middle East peace process and the end of the cold war each helped both to normalize Israel's situation and to accentuate the risks involved, especially when Iraq's biological and chemical warfare capability threatened Israeli cities during the Gulf War (and again during the recent crisis): the irony was not missed that to defend themselves from chemical weapons (manufactured with the assistance of German companies under the guise of pesticide), Israelis had to sit in sealed rooms wearing gas-masks (some of them German-made), once more helpless victims, not powerful macho Sabras.
The new Israeli gave way to a rediscovered old Jew, though one perhaps there all the time lurking in the bottom drawer, waiting for someone like A. B. Yehoshu'a to go back in time and space in Mr. Mani or Mas'a el ha-elef(Journey to the End of the Millennium) and reclaim a pre-Zionist Sefardic past. I think this last example shows that secular and religious worlds are not quite exclusive, despite the psychological, political, and legal barriers between them (not least the laws affecting identity). However, nobody can deny that there are different views of Jewish history on a collision course.
Traditional patterns of redemption view the Holocaust as signaling the final end of exile (as did the Hazon Ish) or perceive in the declaration of independence the birth-pangs of the third redemption (as did the disciples of Harav Kook). The late Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik regarded the Holocaust as an ex-post facto situation in which the modern Jonah could not evade the Divine call for His Beloved. Michal Govrin's novel Hashem (The Name, 1995) takes up these questions in the wake of the religious revival that has swept Israel since the eighties. It is an ambitious novel which does not just debate a theological point but attempts a tikkun, or healing of the soul, and cosmic repair. The partially silenced story of survivor parents, in particular a father's first wife who committed suicide in the camps, is only one from the past that Amalia is trying to erase. The ending of the novel is open, leaving it unclear whether Amalia commits suicide or whether her writing does help repair her soul and relieve her guilt (ashema) as family scapegoat, so that she can find her own identity (hashem - her name as well as God's). She weaves the sacred textile of the curtain of the Holy Ark and the text of her story in the days of the 'Greet count from the Exodus from Egypt on Passover to the revelation at Sinai on Pentecost - days of a mystical symbolic process in Cabala and Jewish history from bondage to redemption, from destruction to rebirth, from Holocaust Day to Independence Day.
The left-dominated media and the literary establishment that came to the fore after the Six-Day War takes a very different view of Jewish history and history in general. In Raft Bukaee's 1997 film Marco Polo, for example, the story of the legendary explorer is more or less faithful to the facts until we touch Jewish history. Tamara is the daughter of victims of German crusaders led by one Adolf, and thus she represents the second generation of Holocaust survivors when she falls for the film's hero in a crude allegory of sexual love conquering racial hatred and fanaticism (read: also Jewish nationalism and religion). This fantasy resists Zionist or religious eschatology which places the Crusades and the Holocaust in a series of catastrophes that can only be ended by the return to Zion, but in doing so it effaces all separate identity to the point of self-hatred.
In the United States the reasons for the reassessment of the legacy of the Holocaust were bound up with the growing sense of security among American Jews, on the one hand, and the central position of Israel in Jewish communal politics and fundraising, on the other, especially when Israel seemed threatened by extermination prior to the Six-Day War and when ethnicity became the in-thing in the seventies. Rampant assimilation among the Jewish population of the United States and criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinian Arabs may have downgraded Israel's place as a second home; Alan M. Dershowitz has pointed to the increasing comfort and acculturation of American Jews as reason to fear the American Jew's disappearance.(8) Yet the Holocaust has remained the major symbol of Jewish identification after the disappearance of issues which could engage American Jews actively (such as Soviet and Syrian Jewry). Many a bar/bat-mitzvah is now presented in a central part of the confirmation ceremony with a certificate attesting to the adoption of a Holocaust victim, an identification which reconnects the initiate with the lost Jewish way of life that the immigrant generation had worked so hard to forget in their struggle to become Americans; this is something, however, that can turn the Holocaust into an absolute criterion of Jewishness.
The Holocaust has finally entered popular culture as an American experience, accessible in films such as Schindler's List and in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. This does not make the place of the Holocaust in public memory any less controversial, nor is a consensus any more viable. On the contrary, appropriation of the Holocaust for all kinds of agendas has made it more likely the Holocaust will be met as a trivial, vulgarized trope, as a representation of a memory or as a memory of a memory. If there is a pattern in the shaping of the memory as the Holocaust passes into history, it sounds much like a survivalist creed in a postmodern world of sex and violence, rather than the legacy of the survivors who had somehow maintained their human dignity and a Jewish identity.
That seems to be the bottom line of After, a novel by Melvin Jules Bukiet, a child of survivors who takes up the story left off by the surviving witnesses - what came after liberation of Buchenwald by the Americans. What came after is a postmodern free-for-all that makes nonsense of any moral or spiritual redemption, any Jewish referentiality meaningless, a chaos devoid of law or identity. This is a postmodernist rewriting of Defoe after Auschwitz:
Crusoe washed up on shore, woke with sand-covered lips, salt-caked shirt and trousers, crazy, hungry, bruised by the waves, curled into a question mark beside a dead crab on the sandy crescent of the new world that was not, above all other qualities, his, his absolutely, if temporarily, for as long as he could compel the scattered palms to relinquish the coconuts necessary to slake his thirst, and give him strength to proclaim his kingship among the seaweed citizenry of his realm. Property laws aside, survival is nine-tenths of dominion.(9)
Bukiet's portrait of the survivors is hardly flattering, and their scramble for ill-gotten gains, including reclamation of the gold stolen from the victims' teeth, is made to look as legitimate as anything else that goes in this genocidal world.
Destruction, however, has marked time into Before and After, and it is a chronology that cancels the promise of a better future. All eschatologies, the Jewish and the Christian, are mocked. Here and in his short-story collection Stories of an Imaginary Childhood(1992), Bukiet has invented an imaginary past, "Proszowice," in order to provide a prehistory for what has been destroyed and is no more, an absence which has left a trace in the present, like the construction of the East European past by Alain Finkielkraut's "imaginary Jew." As the prominent French historian Pierre Nora has noted, the community of memory or the "milieux de memoire" that represented a whole culture and way of life, that gave meaning and identity to its inhabitants and their descendants, has been replaced with a constantly reinvented past and traditions.(10) The resulting simulacrum is more like a museum of artifacts that are reinterpreted rather than a living tradition,(11) like many American attempts to invent a past-though if anything the Jews suffer from a surfeit of memory, and the proliferation of Holocaust museums and monuments may be welcomed as a belated rescue of memory. Yet for Jews it is doubtful whether there are "lieux de memoires" beyond these imaginary objects of mourning. Claude Lanzmann has spoken of the "non-lieux de memoire"(12) to describe these blanks in the map of memory and the difficulty in resisting closure which will finally bring forgetfulness by divorcing "here" from "there" and "then" from "now" (a connection which Lanzmann takes pains to maintain in his film Shoah by emphasizing the presentness of the past and the "hereness" of the camps). Bukiet inscribes the present moment as a palimpsest in a chronology of disasters; there is not even anybody to whom to pass such a fragmentary and fragile memory except the "last Jews" who will somehow always survive and prosper, laughing in the face of history. In this Bukiet rejects the traditional Jewish response of the ethical command to remember, a religious duty incumbent on the individual who connects with the collective past in daily commemoration, a portable site of memory that chronicles the history of destruction and exile.
A very different view of the memory of trauma transmitted to the second generation is offered by Thane Rosenbaum in his short-story collection Elijah Visible (1996). Each story tells of a different Adam Posner, a different Adam of the new age. Each speaks to an alternate response to trauma and memory ranging, on the one hand, from a totalizing paranoiac obsession, ascribing all of life to the trauma of the past, all disasters a replay of the Holocaust ("Cattle Car Complex"), to the other extreme, denial and amnesia in a carefree "who needs it?" attitude, the insistence that life must be lived without the burden of the past. At one end of the scale the memory of trauma is so paralyzing that Adam cannot take any meaningful action in life, cannot be an efficient and responsible transmitter of the memory. He teaches the Holocaust to college students and when he invites a survivor-relative to his class he is shocked to encounter an aging man about town, a fun-loving man of the world who careers wildly around Central Park on a hired bicycle and tells his students the story of Adam's father which he has never heard before ("Act of Defiance"). The opposite extreme is the painter struggling with memory of his parents' traumatic past who lets a luscious Aryan blonde push aside the memorial candle for his mother and lure him into the pleasures of the flesh ("Romancing the Yohrtseit Light"). The canvases of smudged memorial candles suggest that when there is nothing to remember memory is an abstract blur of confused colors. In such a canvas, the real issues of faith after Auschwitz amount to little more than a tennis match, like the one a rabbi with atheist tendencies (a parody of Richard Rubenstein) plays on a bet whether G-d was there in the camps ("The Rabbi Double-faults"). In all these stories, the trauma of the parents' Holocaust experience is a crippling inheritance, especially when memory is silenced, while in America's plurality of ethnic identities and memories remembrance risks becoming a meaningless ritual.
The Passover festival becomes meaningful to contemporary American Jews at a mock-seder in the title story of Elijah Visible only when Adam forces his family to face the Holocaust past which they have always repressed and silenced, and forces them to accept their moral responsibility for carrying on the story. They have cast off their Holocaust survivor cousin in Europe and with him their Jewish heritage. Now he is on his way to visit them: "Elijah had not visited the Posners this year, but Cousin Artur was on his way."(13) By contrast, when the camp inmates are given the chance to celebrate the Passover shortly after liberation in Bukiet's After, the retelling of the Exodus ends in a mockery of the seder, rendering meaningless the traditional narratives of communal identity in this new liberation of slaves (the option of Brikhah and fighting for the new Jewish state chosen by many DPs is dismissed in an orgy of postwar racketeering and prostitution).
A tendency towards hedonistic pragmatism can nevertheless reveal an anguished search for faith and for meaning. A first novel by Toronto poet Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996), which beat Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace to win the 1997 Orange Prize, is a long poetic evocation of the loss left by the Holocaust and of the attempt to heal the loss through love. Michaels imagines herself into the body and mind of a child hidden during the Holocaust on a Greek island: Jakob Beer searches for a language which is not a language of denial and of destruction in order to give name and therefore existence to his lost sister, Bella. Jakob does this in poetry and in English, which is a neutral language never occupied, a nowhere from which to return and dig the archeology literally destroyed by the Nazis of the peat bogs of his native Biskupin. For Jakob as for Seamus Heaney excavating the peat-bog of his native Ireland in his well-known poem, "Digging," the pen is a stubborn witness to roots.
Jakob Beer is rescued out of that archeological quagmire and smuggled by his rescuer Athos Roussos to his Greek homeland under his greatcoat. The rescue effects a rescue of memory and of self, not just for the Jewish child but also for his rescuer. Like other hidden children, Jakob must grow up unable and indeed forbidden to say who he is, while the Jews on the island are rounded up and taken away. The construction of identity must be achieved from a vacuum, from a void of knowledge and memory, which must be discovered through an exploration of imagined time and space. In a sense Jacob's rescuer gives birth to him from under his coat: in nurturing him through love he finds peace for himself, and they "carry" each other through the war to postwar Canada, where Athos finds a job in a university geography department.
Archeology and geology are the sustaining metaphors and historical analogies of the narrative, just as they are the sustaining interest of Jakob's rescuer. Athos recalls the demigod of pre-Nazi European humanism rooted in Greek classicism and Greek landscape; his is a Hellenism far more real than the Hebrew tradition which is learnt from translations pulled down from a bookshelf. The Rousseauesque (or in this case Roussosesque) philosophy and wisdom which Athos passes on to his protege, a lesson of ardent passion for man and nature, drives Jakob in his own poetry and in his love for Michaela, another alter-ego of Michaels. In a succession of narrative loops, this poetry and passion touch Ben, a child of survivors, for whom it is an outlet for the silence of his own Holocaust survivor parents, as well as a working through of the survivors' syndrome. That is imprinted on his psyche through transference of constant anxiety and denial of the past, as well as a working through of resentment at having been designated the role of memorial candle for the child who did not survive (Ben is in fact not a name but Hebrew for a son, as if naming was to tempt fate, and not naming is an act of denial of loss).
Michaels writes with an intensely sensuous and seductive passion. Her women are vehicles of that passion, though never fully given life beyond their dimension of male desire. They are also vehicles of transmission, whether as daughter-in-laws who are entrusted with the secrets of the kitchen, or biologically as potential mothers. The autobiographical sign of the author's signature is a fugitive one, which looks to love for the expression of humanity capable of surviving the cataclysmic catastrophes which have overcome humankind since time immemorial. Michaels has said of Jakob that he "needs to come to terms with the past, to remember and honor the dead before he can truly love those who are alive, and embrace the redemption of love."(14) Writing restores time and space to the lost Jews who vanished in Polish mud; it resists the denial of history, which, like the prehistoric valley in which Toronto is built, buries its relics just below the surface: "Redemption through cataclysm; what had once been transformed might be transformed again."(15)
Jewish identity, insists Anne Michaels' narrator, is possible without faith and religion, reminding us of the American scholar Walter Berm Michaels' definition of Jewishness as a "deconstructive performative" that does not depend on race or nation in the consanguinity of victimhood.(16) For Anne Michaels faith is defined by absence, as is the candle-light by the surrounding darkness, the existence of God confirmed by His hiding, a cabalistic notion expressed in aphorisms more reminiscent of Dostoevsky, rendered poetically in the style of Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, than the Chasidic masters retold by Martin Buber or Elie Wiesel. It is a hope for memory and for a future, yet it remains a solitary hope that appeals to a belief (apparently discredited by postmodernism) in a morality based on love and learning (not necessarily the same as knowledge and understanding) as the only way of connecting with a history in which the individual is powerless in the face of horror and violence. It is as if remembering was an act of moral vigilance, as if "doing good" on behalf of the dead guaranteed what Athos calls their "moral progress." True, there is a Jewish practice of doing good deeds "on behalf" of the deceased, so that what they cannot accomplish should be reckoned to their credit, but here "doing good" amounts to little more than being "good," with all the ambiguity of the term and devoid of any reference to repairing the world or reaching out beyond intimacy to a larger community of faith or nation.
In Israel, as well as in America, the literary configuration of "Over There" ("Eretz sham") challenges conventions and taboos in public discourse, as well as confronting Adorno's declaration that writing poetry "After Auschwitz" would be barbaric. To find a language that speaks in a way that recovers literary value without accepting a canonical Jewish voice or the "Zionist myth" means also to redefine oneself as writer and Jew, as well as one's relation to the Diaspora past, and to redefine ideas of community and nation. These are themes which undercut the narratives of self-definition in Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and in David Grossman's See Under: Love, as well as to some extent in Cynthia Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm and in Art Spiegelman's Maus. The situation is complicated by the legitimization of a new diasporism and the proliferation of competing histories. Not only has the Holocaust been appropriated for the postmodernist agenda of fluidity of biological or racial identities in a global village, but its appropriation more than anything else deconstructs narratives of Jewish self-definition because nobody can agree whether Auschwitz leads to Jerusalem - as in the kitschy Hollywood ending of Spielberg's Schindler's List, - to Hiroshima - in the trajectory of a common human evil, - or to Miami Beach - where survivors could forget in very different kinds of camps, as in the black humor of Thane Rosenbaum's sketches of the survivor communities, or Cynthia Ozick's "Rosa."
In his 1986 novel 'Ayen 'erekh: ahavah (See Under: Love), David Grossman confesses that to emerge sane from the Holocaust complex, from the imagination's White Room at Yad Vashem is not easy: "In the White Room everything comes out of your own self, out of your own guts, victim and murderer, compassion and cruelty. . . ."(17) In order to imagine the Holocaust, a necessary condition for mourning and working through, Planet Auschwitz must be understood as real, as a place where, even there, stories could be told. Grossman works to challenge the "unrepresentability" of the Holocaust and its canonical place in official discourse. His novel is paradigmatic of the struggle to claim legitimacy for art in the wake of destruction and to find a status for the post-Holocaust Jew beyond that of victim.
That search is personally agonizing for Israeli artist Haim Maor, a child of survivors and the foremost Israeli artist to deal with what it means to live after, to inherit the Holocaust. Maor is, I suppose, representative in the sense that his art expresses a response of his generation to the inherited trauma as he articulates his own story, a personal identity which confronts public and collective memory in a problematic way. Like Grossman's Momik, for which he served as a model,(18) he heard stories about the Holocaust from his blind grandfather, a tombstone engraver, and like Navah Semel he wears an invisible glass hat which weighs down on him with the burden of memory, a magnifying glass of pain which could not be voiced. Together Maor and Semel revisited the dead in Poland, "accompanying them without coffins or shrouds, and sealing the cycle of mourning which has not yet ended. Because we did not dare weep for them properly. We internalized the pain, substituting rituals and official memorial days for the scar. Beneath the invisible coffin-lids the dead seek their mourning."(19)
In succeeding exhibitions From Birkenau to Tel-Hai, The Faces of Race and Memory and Haim Maor: The Forbidden Library, Maor has inscribed for his family the tombstones which they never had, having inherited from his grandfather's life-story the task of inscribing the faces of his lost family, but also of his parents and himself. In his exhibited installations planks resembling coffin lids carry portraits of his family, but as in some interchangeable puzzle we can never be sure of identity. This is a personal story, an autobiography which tattoos Van Gogh with the artist's Auschwitz number, and deconstructs conventions of the self in Western art from Faiyum to Andy Warhol. Identity becomes fluid and blurred; no image gives certain knowledge. One self-portrait shows Maor's head with a missing segment of the wooden board (of a coffin) on which it is painted, that same "missing memory" of which Henri Raczymow spoke in describing the black hole in the psyche of the second generation.
Brought up in that European cultural tradition from which the survivors had been violently wrenched and for which they felt nostalgia, Maor turns Christian iconology on its head, portraying himself in a triptych of the crucifix, and reveals the image of man to be bestial, driven by sexual passion. Adam and Eve have tasted from the Tree of Knowledge and cannot now return to some innocent state which did not know the evil of Auschwitz. Haim Maor: The Forbidden Library, which was shown, among other locations, at Ben-Gurion University's Central Library, in Beer-Sheba, is a Pandora's box of"forbidden" knowledge, a counter-library that subverts the "official" library and the Sabra myth associated with the man whose name that university bears. This is a private library of untold stories in which the failure to tell the story succeeds in conveying the impossibility of telling it,(20) so that we cannot walk away feeling we have "mastered" the lessons of Auschwitz or feel easy that now we "know."
In a series of nudes, Maor has photographed figures bound and blindfolded. The victim is universalized. The Mark of Cain (in a self-portrait of that tide) is the self facing the post-Auschwitz human condition: Cain could equally be Abel, as in Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car," when the Jewish mother Eve leaves a cryptic message for Cain, who is son of Adam but also "ben adam," a human being capable of sending his mother and brother to their deaths. The viewer enters Haim Maor's "forbidden library" and is confronted by a collage of family photographs and rows of "mug shots." One is not supposed to be able to tell convicts from Jews, victim from perpetrator. Prejudices, as in the earlier Faces of Race and Memory (1988), are externalized so that the viewer is made to experience the stereotyped responses in himself or herself. We recall Vladek's outburst in Maus when his son gives a ride to a black, as well as Spiegelman's playful stereotyping in his depiction of masks of Poles, Germans, and Jews.
In order to identify victim and perpetrator as equally human, as equally susceptible to absolute evil (or complicit in it), the artist confronts us with a comparison of the two lives of Haim Maor and a German woman called Susanne (Sanna), whom Maor befriended on his kibbutz - the Susanna in "Susanna - Shoshanat Ya'akov," an exhibition for Israel's fiftieth Independence day at the National Jewish Museum in Washington DC., which opened April 30, 1998. A retrospective show of Maor's work, it focuses on the question of Jewish and human identity as seen by a leading Israeli artist, and plays on double identity that coalesces German and Jewish opposites and deconstructs Israeli and Jewish identity.
Sanna's story remains an enigma: was her family involved in the atrocities? Did they collaborate in any way? Or did they stand by passively? Sanna has become something of a fetish in Maor's work, and one can understand that some would be disturbed at this fascination with the body of a German woman whose pose is not the commercial relationship of model and artist, not just the female held under male gaze, but the object of power who must stand and sit to command, while also playing Eve to Maor's Adam, his Jungian anima and shadow.
The present exhibition achieves a new level of a relationship which started with a stereotypical suspicion of the Aryan and now superimposes the images of Jew and German so that they cannot be easily separated. By playing with various identities, the artist compounds the enigma of "Susanna" with the encounter with Africa, where she resides, hiding and perhaps denying her German past. With its folklore motifs and traditional masks that hide identity, Africa can turn Itsik Manger's Golden Peacock into a menacing Nazi eagle, while the bowl of fruit offered by "Susanna" becomes an ambiguous propitiatory tribal offering. The striped African cloth provides a bar-code for identification, but also a prayer-shawl shrouding the German woman in a Jewish identity of Zion - which is also spelt "tsiyun," a grave marker once again reminding us of the inert presence of the Holocaust, but stripped of any orienting Israeli or Jewish geographical and historical signposts. In conversations with me, Maor has spoken of feeling a "stranger" in his own land, and his own search for identity seems to need to explore "Susanna" and Africa in order to find himself.
In Maor's earlier exhibitions, "Susanna" is shown as a frontal nude, like the artist, and both cover their genitals in shame at their shared legacy. The use of similar images in Maor's installations (for example a self-portrait of the artist covering his breast like a Jewish mother waiting to be shot) thus forces on the spectator the voyeuristic viewpoint of the perpetrator, while the demonization of woman externalizes male desire and raises against the artist the inevitable charge of pornography.(21) The manipulation of the viewer into positions of oppressor and oppressed is an almost violent brainwashing, as in much political discourse in Israel, that warns us at the same time that art does manipulate. In the exhibition Haim Maor: The Forbidden Library signs reading "shower" and "selection" teach the simplistic but far from superfluous lesson that language can deceive us into blindly obeying authority, while forbidden words like "love" and "father" remind us of their suppression in memory. It also draws attention to the way language has been corrupted to serve the sinister ends of the "Final Solution." And, as in David Grossman's "encyclopedia" in See Under: Love, Maor seeks to restore the missing entries in our knowledge.
We pass through twelve stations of the cross in the "Forbidden Library" until we reach an execution chair underneath a predatory bird (a leitmotif in Maor's work) surrounded by mirrors at a dead end from which there is no escape ("Echo Chamber," 1988-93). At the opening of the exhibition Haim Maor: The Forbidden Library in 1994, I refused the artist's request to sit myself down on the execution chair and identify myself as being "over there," a potential victim of the Holocaust and of oppression everywhere. I frankly found the whole exercise distasteful and provocative in its almost violent bullying of the viewer into compromising positions. Not just because I was a resistant reader who did not wish to deconstruct the identities of victim and perpetrator (and hasn't Primo Levi said that they are distinct and separate?),(22) but because we live here and now, fifty years after Israel has rebuilt a state. If the continuity of universities and yeshivot, of poets and rabbis, of birth and marriage, is scarred by the unfathomable loss of the six million, it is nevertheless a continuum which remembers the rupture and which continues despite and because of it. We are not the victims, nor are we rootless cosmopolitans. Maor's art can be seen as a public working through of the Holocaust trauma, which challenges his society to face unthinkable and disturbing questions, in particular forcing Israelis to confront the children of Germany without assuming any firm or consistent identity of Jew or German. But in working through inherited trauma there comes a stage of separation from the dead, from the corpses, when the "memorial candle" discovers its own identity, achieves the tikkun of becoming whole and passes on the legacy by telling the story of the Exodus to the next generation.(23) That is the step facing us as the State of Israel reaches middle age.
An earlier version of part of this essay was presented at the 29th convention of the Association of Jewish Studies, Boston 1997, in a special session on the Second Generation.
1. See Robert S. Wistrich, "Israel, the Diaspora and the Holocaust Trauma," Jewish Studies Quarterly 4, 2 (1997): 191-199.
2. On the ways in which literature reconstructs the unknown past in order to form personal and collective identity in Israel and America, see my "The Burden of Memory: The Writing of the Post-Holocaust Generation," in Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory After Auschwitz, edited by Efraim Sicher (Urbana & Chicago: Illinois University Press, 1998), pp. 19-88.
3. On the fiftieth anniversary of Israel's independence the Ministry of Defense produced a booklet on Israel and the Holocaust, Masuot (edited by Yosef Rappel) and at the independence celebrations a Holocaust survivor was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement to symbolize the contribution of survivors to the state. It was also announced that army officers were to take special courses on the Holocaust, though visits to Yad Vashem have been mandatory for some years.
4. Savyon Liebrecht, "The Influence of the Holocaust on My Work," in Hebrew Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust, edited by Leon Yudkin (London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1993), p. 130.
5. Savyon Liebrecht, Sinit ani medaberet eleikha (Jerusalem: Keter, 1992), p. 23.
6. See Dina Wardi, Nosei hakhotem: Dialog 'im bnei hador hasheni lashoah (Jerusalem: Keter, 1990), English translation: Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust (London: Routledge, 1992).
7. Henri Raczymow, "Memory Shot through with Holes," translated by Alan Astro, Yale French Studies (Special Issue: "Discourses of Jewish Identity in Twentieth-Century France"), no. 85 (1994): 98-105.
8. See Alan M. Dershowitz, The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century (Boston: Little Brown, 1996).
9. Melvin Jules Bukiet, After (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 97.
10. Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," Representations no. 26 (1989): 7-8.
11. On the museum culture of memory see Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Making Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge, 1995); on the postmodernist simulacrum see Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, translated by James Benedict (London & New York: Verso, 1993).
12. Claude Lanzmann, "Les non-lieux de memoire," in Au sujet de Shoah:Le film de Claude Lanzmann (Paris: Belin, 1990), pp. 281-282.
13. Thane Rosenbaum, Elijah Visible (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 103.
14. Anne Michaels, Address to the Toronto Writers' Festival in 1997, quoted in Pearl Sheffy Gefen, "One Woman's Search for Faith," Jerusalem Post (Magazine Section) (23 January 1998): 24.
15. Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), p. 101.
16. Walter Benn Michaels, "'You Who Never Was There': Slavery and the New Historicism, Deconstruction and the Holocaust," Narrative 4, no. 1 (1996): 1-16.
17. David Grossman, See Under:Love, translated from the Hebrew by Betsy Rosenberg (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989), p. 210.
18. As the artist confirmed in a conversation with the present author, January 3, 1997.
19. Navah Semel, "An Eye in a Plank," in Haim Maor, The Facts of Race and Memory (exhibition catalog, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1988), n.p.
20. This last point is made by the Israeli art historian and literary scholar, Haim Finkelstein, "The Crumbling of Memory," in his exhibition catalog, Haim Maor: The Forbidden Library (Beer-Sheba: Avraham Baron Art Gallery, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 1994), n.p.
21. An obvious objection is that in Nazi photographs, the victims cover their private parts out of a deep-seated tradition of modesty, not shame, and their exposure was part of the Nazi attempt to humiliate and dehumanize them. A similar issue was raised in the controversial installation by second-generation Israeli artist Roee Rosen, "Live and Die as Eva Braun-Hitler's Mistress in the Berlin Bunker and Beyond: An Illustrated Proposal for a Virtual Reality Scenario," exhibited at the Israel Museum, November 1997-January 1998. In asking us to experience depravity, the artist is stripping away the cliches that prevent our dealing with the Holocaust, but ignores the obscenity of an identification which must remain repulsive to a Jewish sensibility of humanity as created in the Divine image. Likewise, not only survivors may find difficulty in identifying the "little Nazi inside you," as Grossman put it in his novel. See the vocal protests reported in Meir Ronnen, "Sex and Suicide with Hitler," Jerusalem Post (14 November 1997): 16.
22. Primo Levi, "The Memory of the Offense," in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, edited by Geoffrey Hartman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 130-137.
23. For a description of this stage see Wardi, Memorial Candles, pp. 214-258.
EFRAIM SICHER teaches British and comparative literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A graduate of London University, Professor Sicher did his doctoral work at Oxford, and held a Junior Research Fellowship at Wolfson College. His previous publications include books and essays on a wide range of topics in English and comparative literature from Charles Dickens to Arnold Wesker, as well as modern Jewish culture. His collection of essays on Holocaust memory, Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz, appeared earlier this year. He is at present completing a book on representation of moral space in the nineteenth-century novel
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