Page 35 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

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The Holocaust in Jewish Novels
o f
major literary forms would seem more resistant to
the imaginative assimilation of the Holocaust than the novel.
The novel has traditionally been committed to the imitation of
reality through a fa ithfu l recording of the touch and feel of
things. But the Holocaust was a “reality” incredible to those
who endured it and, because it was unprecedented, hardly to be
imitated in a literary action by those who did not. Neither can
any enduring literary emotion be founded on the touch and
feel of gas chambers, or mountains of charred bodies or heaps of
victims’ clothing. The novel has also traditionally recorded and
celebrated the action of the individual w ill against the limiting
circumstances of society. But for the Jews caught in H itler’s
death trap, there was almost no opportunity for the exercise of
the will; there was, as Matthew A rno ld once said of the heroes
of literary works from which no pleasure could ever be derived,
everything to be endured, nothing to be done. People died not
for anything they did or failed to do, but for being the descen­
dants of grandparents who had chosen to remain Jews. Finally,
as Irving Howe has pointed out,1 whereas poets could find ma­
terial for poetry in the very fact that their subject—European
Jew ry—had disappeared, novelists could hardly sustain themselves
through an extended lament for that which was lost and never
to return again.
The challenge to the literary imagination of assimilating the
Holocaust is, by implication, one of the subjects of the very book
which has established itself as the classic account of the destruc­
tion process by an imaginative writer, Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958) .
Although a professional novelist who has devoted himself en­
tirely to the exploration of the Holocaust kingdom in many
l Introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (New York: Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, 1969), p. 54.