In the title story of his new collection entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, the American author Nathan Englander creates the character of the Holocaust-obsessed Deb.
A secular Jew in contemporary Florida whose family has been in America for generations, Deb likes redemptive Holocaust stories that reveal humanity formed from inhumanity – and plays the Anne Frank game, asking which neighbours could be trusted to hide her and her family.
In a post-Holocaust generation, artists and audiences – we are all like Deb: We look to the Holocaust for uplift, for drama, for a story that lets us debate life-and-death dilemmas that we are highly unlikely to ever face ourselves.
How do we do that without falseness, self-congratulation, prurience or melodrama? That’s an issue for Englander and a host of other writers and thinkers to consider as Holocaust Education Week begins in various Canadian cities. In Toronto, where Englander speaks Thursday at the Royal Ontario Museum, the event takes the “culture of memory” as its theme, looking directly at how the Holocaust is represented in the arts.
“I am personally obsessed with the Holocaust,” Englander said in a phone interview from New York, revealing that he and his sister played the Anne Frank game. “We were raised with this idea there would be a second Holocaust … It was a way of seeing the world: Who can we trust?”
Englander grew up in an Orthodox family in suburban New York but is now secular, and points out they were not the children of survivors.
“Ours is a total construct. I have no personal experience of the event,” he said. “These images of train tracks, jackboots … these are educated into me.”
Apart from the direct experiences of a dwindling number of survivors, some of whom will appear during the week’s program to offer their testimonials, the Holocaust is now an indirect cultural memory.
“At this point, the Holocaust is simply out there; it’s cultural property. Everybody appropriates it for their own purpose,” said Sara Horowitz, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, who will interview Englander at the ROM event.
Horowitz notes that the authors of the first Holocaust literature, themselves survivors, were very aware of difficulties implicit in making art out of genocide. She points to the work of the French memorialist Charlotte Delbo and the Spanish-French novelist Jorge Semprun, Gentile resisters imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald respectively, as examples of texts where the author regularly interrupts the narrative to confront the fragility of the victim’s voice and the paucity of language.
“There are moments when the self who is doing the writing can’t recognize the self of the Holocaust,” she said, describing Delbo’s disbelief at the gap between the person who experienced the horrors and the person who is now sitting safely in a café writing about the horrors.
But once the Holocaust became a topic for writers who had not experienced it, that struggle can be replaced with a narrative completion that is false. Horowitz, who writes and teaches about the literary legacy of Anne Frank, points to the 1955 play based on her diary: It ends with a voice-over of Frank’s famous statement that, in spite of everything “I still believe people are good at heart,” a line that occurred neither at the end of her diary nor at the end of her life in Bergen-Belsen.
“That is falsifying; it’s dicey. It allows us to leave the play feeling good about humanity, not answering the difficult questions,” Horowitz said, adding in reference to Englander’s character, “I think Deb wants some coda like that.”
Meanwhile, Horowitz puts Englander in the category of second-generation writers born after the war who explore a world in which the Holocaust is a given, asking: “How is it we live in a world in which the Holocaust happened?”
The writer himself makes no apology for the contents of his Holocaust-obsessed imagination, saying: “I am very interested in how people take ownership of the past … Are you the owner of the memory of the Holocaust? … I must have the right to this material, these characters. I know they must be mine because I know where I get them from – inside my head.”
Englander argues there is no question we should not be able to ask. In that regard, he has a powerful interpretation of the much-cited statement by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
“It’s a living line and built into it is a moral question. Everyone in hearing the line doesn’t say, ‘Oh we had better not write poetry’ but ‘What does it mean? How do we go on? How do we find beauty?’ … When I was a religious kid looking for answers, what I found in literature is the bravery to ask questions.”
Holocaust Education Week events
Holocaust Education Week is an event organized in some Canadian cities around the date of Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazi pogrom that targeted synagogues. (Other cities, including Winnipeg, organize springtime programs timed to Holocaust Remembrance Day.)
Halifax: The Atlantic Jewish Council continues Holocaust Education Week programming Thursday with a 7 p.m. presentation of the Italian-language film Primo Levi’s Journey in Room 117 of the Dunn Building at Dalhousie University. See www.theajc.ns.ca
Montreal: The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre concludes its educational series this Sunday with opportunities to meet local survivors from from 10 : 30 am to 4 pm. See www.mhmc.ca
Ottawa: The Jewish Federation of Ottawa is in the midst of Holocaust Education Month. The launch event on Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Soloway Jewish Community Centre is an address about Raoul Wallenberg by Robert Rozett, director the Yad Vashem Library. See www.jewishottawa.com
Toronto: The Holocaust Education Centre launches a week of programming Thursday. See www.holocausteducationweek.com
Vancouver: The Holocaust Education Centre commemorates Kristallnacht with a talk by former CBC correspondent David Halton about the failure of the press to challenge Nazism in the 1930s. Sunday at 7 p.m. at Temple Sholom Synagogue. See www.vhec.org