Page 37 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

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ALEXANDER / THE HOLOCAUST IN JEWISH NOVELS
27
construction of Jewish history itself. By so doing, they imply
not only that the Holocaust is to be understood primarily as
an event in Jewish history, but that the major catastrophes o f
Jewish history in the diaspora are so many announcements of
the Holocaust, of which they are the prototypes. Some charge
that the effect o f this approach, which is typified by the work of
Isaac Bashevis Singer and by the well-known novel o f Andr£
Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just (1959) is to detract from
the unique character o f the Holocaust. Thus the narrator of
Singer’s The Family Moskat remarks that “every generation had
its Pharaohs and Hamans and Chmielnickis. Now it was Hitler.”
The Manor (1967) , The Estate (1969) , and The Family
Moskat (1950) by Singer may be read as a trilogy in which the
life o f Polish Jewry is traced from 1863 to 1939, the very moment
of the Nazi bombardment and invasion o f Warsaw. Awareness
of the Holocaust pervades the entire work, and not on ly the
last volume, which studies the prospective victims o f the Holo-
cause and the reasons for their victimization. A l l of Singer’s
characters who are shown, in the 1880s, deciding whether to be
Jews or assimilationists, speakers of Yiddish or of Polish, follow­
ers of Torah or of socialism, are in fact determining the fate of
their descendants. They are not only determining whether those
offspring w ill live or die; they are also determining whether the
mass murder of Jews w ill turn out to be a crime of meaning or
only an indiscriminate part of man’s inhumanity to man.
But it is not only the nineteenth century that falls under the
Holocaust shadow in Singer’s novels. The Slave (1962) , a novel
ostensibly dealing with the plight o f Jews in seventeenth-century
Poland in the aftennath of Chmielnicki’s massacres, asks nearly
all the questions characteristic of Holocaust literature. “ ‘Why
did this happen to us?’ ” asks one character. “ ‘It was God’s
w ill,’ ” answers a second. “ ‘But why? W hat sins did the small
children commit?’ ” “There was a lim it to what the human mind
could accept. It was beyond the power of any man to contem­
plate all these atrocities and mourn them adequately.” The Slave
shows us Jews who are forced to dig their own graves before
they are executed. It berates the Jewish community for failure
to resist the murders, and it preaches the sacred duty of remem­
bering forever those who were slaughtered. It dwells on physical