NOVEMBER 3, 2020
THIS SUMMER ALONE, I read three novels whose approach to fiction might be described, to repurpose an old gender studies critique, as “add Holocaust and stir.” In a literary market that is saturated with beach read after unfortunate Shoah-tinged beach read, contemporary fiction about the Holocaust that engages with it in a meaningful, original way is notable. Rather than rehashing real horrors with a fictional veneer or adding gravity to an otherwise nondescript romance by setting it in 1939, two bold new novellas — one translated from the French, the other from the Hebrew — challenge popular assumptions about how we represent the Holocaust, and the aesthetic and ethical stakes of doing so.
Yishai Sarid’s The Memory Monster, beautifully translated by Yardenne Greenspan, is presented as a disgraced Holocaust scholar’s report to a board member at Yad Vashem. The narrator, once a distinguished historian, explains how his life, livelihood, and personhood became consumed by the many upsetting aspects of his profession. After writing a dissertation about the gruesome specifics of death camp extermination procedures, his specialized knowledge lands him a job as a tour guide at Yad Vashem. He begins leading tours of Poland for groups of Israeli teenagers and then, having gained a reputation as a skilled guide, becomes the Israeli government’s go-to host for politicians and ambassadors on tours of death camps. Such work is upsetting, traumatizing even; it takes a great deal of emotional resilience to voluntarily spend one’s life thinking about, discussing, and physically exploring these sites of atrocity. But it’s a noble job, to be sure, and one can imagine that the rewards could outweigh the difficulties.
Sarid’s first subversive act is to challenge this notion. The horrific details, presented blandly and repeatedly, have a desensitizing effect on both the narrator, who spends his life immersed in them, and the reader, who receives them. This serves as a critique of the way the Holocaust is discussed and taught; when second-grade synagogue classes regularly include slideshows of heaps of emaciated corpses, or in this case when a tour guide prattles on day after day about the chemistry of Zyklon B, is there not a disturbing normalization process at work? Once such horrors lose their power to shock, haven’t we crossed into dangerous territory? Indeed, as the story progresses, the narrator begins to lose control of his emotions and mental equilibrium, slipping into the clutches of the “memory monster.” At what point does prolonged exposure to profound immorality put us at risk of becoming immoral ourselves? The business of Holocaust education, Sarid asserts, is a double-edged sword: it can, presumably, instill morality in the next generation and further the cause of “never again.” But at what cost? And what if it doesn’t even do that?
Because of his expertise, which encompasses matters like the exact location of crematoria at each camp and the specific mechanics of gas chambers, the narrator is asked as well to serve as a consultant for an Auschwitz virtual reality simulation project. The project creator, the narrator explains, “sent me samples of the figures he’d already designed, but they were faceless.” This is perhaps Sarid’s most damning indictment of the way Holocaust education is treated; here, the torture and murder endured by millions of Jews literally becomes a video game, and those Jews are rendered completely anonymous, just as they were by the Nazis. And Holocaust tourism, Sarid finds, is equally bleak, if less absurd. The politicians the narrator encounters are apparently interested in the tours only insofar as these sites of unthinkable cruelty can provide politically expedient photo ops. The teenagers are apathetic at best, perhaps unsurprisingly; they are generally more interested in getting drunk than in learning about Jewish history. When they do show interest or emotion commensurate to the enormity of the setting and the subject, it is in the disturbing form of misdirected rage and violent prejudice: on one tour of Majdanek, the narrator explains, “on the few hundred meters’ walk from the gas chambers to the dirt monument and the crematoriums, I heard them talking about Arabs, wrapped in their flags and whispering, The Arabs, that’s what we should do to the Arabs.”
This is just one of several scenes that belies the notion that Holocaust education, difficult as it is for both teacher and student, is worthwhile because it results in a moral reorientation of sorts for the next generation, a wholesale rejection of the kind of hatred at the root of genocide. But this response on the part of the teenagers reveals that touring death camps has not had anything close to its intended effect. On the contrary, excessive focus on Jewish victimhood has a corrupting potential, The Memory Monster suggests, laying bare the vicious cycles that lead victims to become perpetrators and the traumatized to wield their trauma against others. Sarid’s biting satire of the perverse ways tragedy is weaponized in the service of politics reaches a fever pitch when the Israeli government calls upon the narrator to assist with a “memorial event” located at one of the extermination camps in Poland. The proposal shown to the bemused narrator for this event, which is to be called “Israel’s Show of Power at the Site of Extermination — The People of Israel Live,” features “a picture of the gate to Auschwitz and the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, on the backdrop of the Israeli flag.” The symbolism could hardly be more blatant.
Sarid’s incisive critique of Holocaust memorialization, the corruption within it, and the perverse forms of nationalism it can engender is courageous. American culture is often more hostile to criticism of Zionism than Israeli culture itself is; one wonders if a Michael Chabon or a Nicole Krauss could write such a controversial book without being eviscerated by the press. For an American readership, then, Sarid’s novella is extraordinarily refreshing in this sense. But its strength goes beyond this: anything but moralistic, it leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions about the complex politics of Holocaust memorialization and its many layers of irony. It unabashedly critiques the link between Holocaust remembrance culture and the tendency of certain strains of Jewish and particularly Israeli culture to overrate the centrality of aggressive survivorship to Jewish identity, and how this culture in turn nurtures the militarization, settler colonialism, and Islamophobia that combine to create the perfect storm of violent right-wing nationalism. But Sarid is not a left-wing ideologue, and his portrayal is nuanced and subtle at every level. The urge to enact vengeance for the Holocaust, he suggests, can be lethally misguided — as with the violent, chauvinistic kinds of Zionism espoused by some of Sarid’s characters — but in other cases it is understandable if not defensible. The narrator’s desire for revenge against the Germans, which is ultimately his professional downfall, is presented with empathy; even if it is the result of stress, is he really to blame for wanting to find someone to blame? Sarid affirms the validity of the revenge impulse even as he critiques the ugly forms it can take. Ultimately, he presents Jewish rage unapologetically, and that, too, is radical. The Memory Monster presents challenges to all sorts of unspoken norms about Jewish culture’s treatment of the Holocaust; it will likely unsettle if not anger people across the political spectrum, and therein lies its value.
Jean-Claude Grumberg’s The Most Precious of Cargoes, like The Memory Monster, is an exceedingly economical translated novella “about” the Holocaust. Its style is drastically different; where Sarid’s prose is cynical, Grumberg’s (dexterously translated from French by Frank Wynne) is deeply earnest — or so it appears.
As the novella opens, a train packed with deported French Jews hurtles toward an unknown but certainly grim fate. As they speed toward doom, a young father realizes that his ailing wife will be unable to breastfeed both of their infant twins; without enough milk, both will starve. In a twist on Styron, he selects one of the babies at random, refusing to make that sort of Sophie’s Choice but making another kind of unimaginable decision: in hopes of saving one child’s life, the father throws the other baby from the speeding train. The imagery is poignant: for lack of swaddling, the child is wrapped in the father’s tallis (prayer shawl). The grim irony, of course, is that the child who remains on the train may now have sufficient sustenance to survive the journey, but will ultimately suffer a fate at least as terrible as the child thrown into the snowy Polish landscape.
Because The Most Precious of Cargoes seems, on the surface, to be a fairy tale — complete with conventions of the genre such as anonymous, archetypal characters and enchanting imagery — the child is, amazingly but not surprisingly, retrieved by a poor woman in the forests of Poland. And because this is a fairy tale, she happens to be unhappily childless; the Jewish father’s tragic loss is her miraculous gain. With some support from another forest dweller — naturally, a simple Gentile with a heart of gold — and despite some resistance from her husband at the prospect of risking their lives to save that of a Jew, the woman raises the baby girl as her own. One day, in the marketplace, who should appear but the girl’s father, who has managed not only to survive but to locate his abandoned daughter.
Were the novella to end there, it would be touching for some readers, and unendurably saccharine for others. It seems to be a story about the power of love and the lengths to which it can push us: love drives the father to make a devastating choice and the Polish couple to risk their lives. It seems to be a story of redemption: for the desperate father and his shocking decision, as well as for the Polish antisemite who makes a profound sacrifice for a Jewish child. It seems to be the rarest of Holocaust stories: a hopeful one.
And it is rare indeed, but not for that reason. This unlikely, fabulistic tale is entirely self-aware; cynical readers who cannot believe they are reading a Holocaust fairy tale have their incredulity affirmed in the novella’s epilogue. With a brilliant metafictional gesture reminiscent of Philip Roth, a new narrative voice steps in and implores readers to consider the relationships between storytelling and history, between myth and truth. The question is not whether this unlikely story is true, but rather what we talk about when we talk about true stories. The epilogue not only acknowledges that it is difficult to suspend disbelief when confronted with a fairy tale, but also asks us to consider the implications of suspending disbelief in the first place. Having woven a myth from the horrific threads of history, Grumberg asks: Why invent fairy tales when history is already rife with the makings of horror stories? In other words, what is the purpose of myth? Grumberg’s postmodern fairy tale raises another question as well: What is the fairy tale here? Which part is more far-fetched: the serendipitous altruism of the Polish woman, or the fact that a parent would be forced to go to such lengths in the first place? Thus, Grumberg employs perhaps the most unsubtle of literary mediums in the service of subtlety.
Grumberg has done literally what so many have done figuratively — made from the Holocaust a myth. In doing so, he implores us to consider the stakes of mythmaking. Certainly this sort of interrogation of the nature and purpose of fiction is not new. From Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Roth’s The Counterlife to Susan Choi’s recent National Book Award–winning novel Trust Exercise, boundary-pushing, reflexive stories about storytelling, even well-done ones, are not unique. But Grumberg takes a risk in applying this approach to Holocaust literature. Perhaps fiction about the Holocaust has been spared some aspects of postmodern inquiry because of the sensitive subject matter; if we believe as per Adorno’s oft-misquoted dictum that it is chutzpahdik to write poetry after Auschwitz in the first place, tearing it apart critically is all the more so. In this sense, Grumberg’s work is as daring as Sarid’s; giving the same treatment to Holocaust literature that Sarid gives to Holocaust education, Grumberg presents a challenge to a set of norms that society has suggested are unchallengeable. But as history has shown, and as Sarid’s novella represents, uncritical acceptance of post-Holocaust culture has human costs. How we think, talk, teach, and write about the Holocaust matters, and both of these novellas not only assert this notion but are themselves powerful positive exemplars of it as well.