Our Future’s Past

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April 1, 2003
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By Anita Norich

Fifty years ago, the major cultural questions about the Holocaust concerned the ethics and limits of representation. How can anyone turn this horror into imaginative literature? Isn’t a stunned silence the most dignified and proper response? If, as is commonly supposed, metaphor compares two things in order to make the unfamiliar comprehensible, is its use now a perversion? Who has the authority to produce culture after this? What kind of culture? Can those who were not there write about it? Surely comedy and comic books are inappropriate; surely no Nazi can be the hero or even the focus of a literary work; surely “special interest” groups – gypsy, gay, feminist – are too narrow to encompass the depth of the Holocaust. Fifty years later, these questions about appropriateness, representation, commensurability – even authority – seem almost quaint.

Increasingly, over the past 20 years or so, as survivors age and living memories fade, concerns about the limits of representation have yielded to the pressing question of the object of representation. What will survive and how? Holocaust literature now reflects – I would even say it anticipated and precipitated – the ongoing cultural wars about the meanings of post-modernism, one of the names we give to the crisis over referentiality, authority, and interpretation, or one of the names we give to a world overwhelmed by a war that ruptured our belief in some of the promises of the Enlightenment (that reason could flourish, that identity was not destiny) and of modernism (that the self could determine its own fate, that the hero is within).

In some sense, we are now where we have always been culturally, driven by a need to commemorate and uncertain how to do so. There is a continuing focus on the realistic, the historical, the politics and poetics of identification. In Washington, D.C., we can get an identity card that encourages us to relive imaginatively the fate of a real live or dead Jew. In Kazimierz, the old-new Jewish quarter of Cracow, Poles meet Jews from all over the (Westernized) world who have come to view the life of Jews in their natural habitat. Except, of course, there are very few indigenous Jews to be found there. The living continue to march – through Warsaw and Ponar and Auschwitz and any number of places – trying not to step on the unburied dead. The maxim that “those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it” has been replaced by a magical sense that “those who know the past will never be condemned to repeat it,” and that to see the past is to know it. Standing at the site and seeing the sights give us the illusion of reproducing that past and keeping it ever-present.

A quite different cultural response foregrounds the unfamiliar, the distance between now and then. It recognizes with some terror and certainty that art does not reproduce reality. It does not reproduce the material and iconographic – the cattle cars, the piles of hair and shoes and glasses, the gates of Auschwitz, the numbers on the arm; rather, it reproduces the disproportions between the enormity of the loss and the words we use to express it. The monument in Hamburg that is designed to disappear does not remind us that the memory of the Holocaust must not fade, even though its victims and perpetrators will; it reminds us that annihilation is an ongoing process. We can no longer depend for meaning on physical or temporal proximity. A movie like “Life Is Beautiful” does not remind us that humor existed there and then too; it leaves us stunned at the distance between this humor and that reality. Poetic metaphor, in this view of artistic production, does not compare two things in order to show their similarities (as much Holocaust literary criticism has assumed), but rather to show their differences, to give us an uncanny sense of the distinction between the red of roses and of blood, chimney smoke and the smoke from those chimneys, the air we breathe and the air we may become.

This sense of estrangement, and this self-consciousness about our distance from the Holocaust will, no doubt, continue. Some things seem clear: as survivors are replaced in the cultural world by the second and third generation, there is an increasing urgency to describe their experiences; as globalization increases, the Holocaust is placed in an increasingly comparative perspective, linked to other traumas, others’ hidden identities, other historical periods, other peoples; as history recedes, historical novels arise. The new and the old will continue to comment on one another, and post-modernism will continue alongside realism and representation. Beyond that, it seems foolhardy to predict the future of Holocaust literature. Like the rest of us, writers are affected by, respond to, sometimes try to affect the historical, political, economic, and social experiences of their day. Future responses to the Holocaust will depend on the “present” in which writers find themselves. In the future, our view of the past will be determined by whether or not the U.S. goes to war with Iraq and the outcome of that war. It will be understood through the prism of rising rates of assimilation and fundamentalism within Jewish communities. It will be determined by whatever happens in the Israeli matzav, the neutral word, “situation,” wherein Israelis try to contain the terror of the present. It will be influenced by the bull or bear markets and by global warming and by the next elections. The future, we have long known, is shaped by the past and responds to it. But the past, too, depends on the future.

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Anita Norich is Associate Professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer and co-editor of Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. She teaches, lectures, and publishes on a range of topics concerning Yiddish language and literature, modern Jewish culture, Jewish American literature, and Holocaust literature.

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