The Certainties of History and the Uncertainties of Representation in Post-Holocaust Writing

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2012


What does it mean to survive the pathology of history, to survive, that is, the imprint of a past whose shape imperils and impales one still? This haunting question lies just beneath the surface of the literature of Holocaust survivors, resurfacing in response to the invocation of trauma. The literary articulation of individual and collective experiences of the Holocaust, "stories which shouldn't even exist to be told," as Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger insists (83), reveals the attempts to create the unfolding wholeness of narrative—a story's comfortably familiar beginning, middle, and end—out of fragments, those broken pieces of memories hard to bear, harder still to articulate. In such narratives the past collides with the present, moving it aside for the more pressing demands of a memory fragmented by the shards of historical rupture. In summoning the sharp edges of memory reawakened, those "scraps of time," as the Holocaust writer Ida Fink so painfully describes them, such literature gives voice to and thus extends the trauma of the Holocaust (3-4). The literary evocation of trauma, however, is not without its obvious and inevitable risks. How is the survivor able to sift through the detritus of events elongated by fear, the "ruins of memory," to borrow a phrase from Fink, and the tortuous language of horror that is so painfully incomplete (5)? To be sure, the task of memory is complicated by the problem of transmission. For, as Eli Wiesel makes clear, memory is slippery, deceptive, distorted by ambiguities arising from the trauma, from both the defenses of forgetting and the impossibility of doing so. How is one able to transmit memory that is in itself subject to the influences of time and repression? For memory is given to the imprint of time's passage and the layering of experience, observation, and judgment that are, in concert, finally a measure of something we might call perspective; that is, the ability to view one's past through the filter of extenuating experience and the practice of living in a post-Holocaust world. And even were one to argue, and rightly so, that trauma arrests time's reassuringly sequential passage, instead returning reiteratively to the psychic place of traumatic origin in which time is contained in the recurring emotional replay of the experience of the event, the unfolding narrative of life, if only as perceived dissociatively, continues. Thus, to transmit such experiences becomes a matter of requiring memory, for the moment of narrative disclosure, to stand still, that is, to assume the shape, not of memory, but of narrative. But, as Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On asks, "How can one 'translate' such experiences into ordinary language?" (94). How, that is, can one give a guiding structure to trauma, especially when traumatic reenactment is static, motionless, unaffected by time's salutary movement? How can one transform memory into the therapeutic structures of narrative, thus "turning," in Holocaust scholar Berel Lang's terms, "an oppositional impulse into its own strength" (9-10)? It is no surprise that we characteristically find tropes of unspeakability in literary attempts to describe the atrocities of the Holocaust. Yet, as Lang suggests, calling attention to the "unspeakable" nature of Holocaust representation as well as "those variations on the unspeakable that cover also the indescribable, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the incredible" ultimately meet up against "yards of writing that attempt to overcome the inadequacy of language in representing moral enormity at the same time that they assert its presence; certainly they hope to find for their own assertions of such inadequacy a useful—telling— place in its shadow" (18). The paradox of "telling" the unspeakable is as characteristic of Holocaust representation as it is in refiguring a post-Holocaust life for the survivor. The narrator of Imre Kertész's semi-autobiographical novel Fatelessness, for example, expresses this tension in his hesitant but no less positioned "readiness to continue my uncontinuable life" (262). The contradictory language of Holocaust expression, its incompleteness, its characteristic elliptical tropes and omissions, and the resulting syntactical recanting of language's normative usage—continue/uncontinuable, speakable/unspeakable—give way to a fresh vocabulary, a language whose clashing images and forms of expression evoke the...




Pennsylvania State University Press


University Park, PA

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Studies in American Jewish Literature

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