In the second part of his ongoing series exploring the debates around artistic representations of the Holocaust, Alan Polak considers what role fiction can play in our understanding of history.
Why, with the dearth of historical documentation, including both survivor and perpetrator testimonies, would anyone read a book written by someone who wasn’t there? What could we possibly learn from something like The Reader or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? I will examine these specific examples, among others, in later posts, but for now let us consider why artistic representation – particularly written representation – is so controversial and yet so vital to our understanding of and engagement with the Holocaust. If we must indeed “never forget” then this engagement is a key to our ability to learn from the events of the Holocaust.
There are those who dismiss fictional representations of the Holocaust with the claim that survivor autobiographies are the only way to communicate about the Holocaust. Berel Lang has claimed that testimony is “more adequate and more compelling – in sum, more valuable” as a method of writing. The reason for this, he says, is that in order to make sense of the Holocaust the author of an imaginative work must add to, or embellish on, historical details in order to construct a narrative.
Lang discounts even those who would write for survivors, seeing any intermediary as a barrier between survivor and text. In this thinking, any author who was not there must rely on some form of imagination or fictionalising of events and as a consequence he or she misrepresents the Holocaust. Lang argues that many writers struggle with what they hear from survivors and so they produce a kind of “translation” of the survivor testimony, a kind of fiction. For those who oppose Holocaust art this is often the root of the problem: imaginative writing, faced with the reality of the Holocaust, loses the ability to address the actual issues of the Nazi genocide. In a case where the truth is essential, imaginative representation diminishes the facts of the Holocaust and for Lang this is the key: “personalising” the event, by adding to it, diminishes what is its very essence: its impersonality.
This kind of thinking suggests that all written accounts of the Holocaust fall into one of two possible categories: fact or lie. Lang’s reasons for this are in a way understandable. He points to the use of such fictions as a means of denying the past; if anything is possible then nothing is for certain and historical fact can be called into question by those who seek to deny the Holocaust. However survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi have written books that are either explicitly or implicitly about the Holocaust despite featuring fictional creations.
Given this it would appear that what is actually being questioned is who can write about the Holocaust. Levi and Wiesel’s fiction proves that the Holocaust can be represented in fiction or art, so it seems that the issue here is whether those who were not there should use it as artistic inspiration.
Limiting artistic exploration to survivors does not allow the Second Generation – the children of survivors – access to the events their parents suffered through, much less anyone who comes after the events. This would suggest that the ability to explore the impact and ongoing meaning of the Holocaust, and its relevance to us today should end with the death of the last survivor of the camps or the last Nazi perpetrator. However, if the Holocaust is off-limits to those who were not personally there, then this would lead to a silence on the Holocaust once the last survivor has passed away.
To be clear there are many examples of Holocaust art that clearly push the borders of taste, and whose underlying motivations must be questioned. As a medium, films (such as Uwe Boll’s recent film Auschwitz) often seem most capable of crossing this line. But Holocaust art, when undertaken in good faith, is as much concerned with how to represent the suffering of millions of wholly innocent people as more “factual” books are and it is these books and films that we will look at in more detail.
Equally importantly they serve a vital link between the events of the past and the present for those of us who were not there to “never forget”. Ultimately they are a way for us to engage with the Holocaust, for as Yehuda Baeur argues: “we are all the survivors of man’s madness.”
Alan Polak is a member of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz team.