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The Persistence of Memory

Though many publishers passed, the memoirs of Holocaust survivors will now see the light of day

June 26, 2002|LEWIS BEALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elie Wiesel had a mission: to see that the memoirs of Holocaust survivors made it into print. But the Nobel Peace Prize winner and author couldn't find anyone--not mainstream publishers, not even Jewish organizations--who wanted to take on the task.

Wiesel says this situation reflects what happened right after World War II, when "nobody wanted to publish these stories. They were too sad, too morbid. Then, at one point, there were too many. Because there were programs about the Holocaust on TV, and conferences, it became a popular subject. But there has been a feeling over the last 10 years that the marketplace has become saturated. So they say unless it's a bestseller, they don't want to publish it."

But Wiesel had connections and wasn't afraid to use them. Thanks to the clout he has with his publisher, Random House, he received a $1-million grant from the firm to begin a nonprofit publishing venture to issue Holocaust memoirs. The first 12 of these books will be released over the next three years under the aegis of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Will these books be widely read? It is still highly unlikely. Even though first-person accounts, such as Wiesel's "Night" or Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz," have proven successful in the past, the pain and horror of most of these memoirs is simply too much for the average reader to take. And there is a numbing sameness to many of them that does not add to the reading experience. Hence the reluctance of mainstream publishers to add them to their lists.

"After you've read the early or more distinguished ones, people don't want to read these accounts anymore," says Publishers Weekly executive editor Daisy Maryles. "Unless there's something new or unusual, which you're not going to find anymore, the actual audience will not be that vast."

"These are documents that do not have a commercial value," says Menachem Rosensaft, a New York securities lawyer and family friend of Wiesel's who is editing the series. "We are hoping that works that are not commercially publishable might become available to those historians and students of the Holocaust who want to read them, and become available to libraries and also be used in classroom curricula."

It's not that there haven't been plenty of books published about the Holocaust. A search on Amazon.com using the term "Holocaust" came up with some 5,000 hits. Yet the "final solution" has been mined so relentlessly that without a completely new take on the subject, publishers will not be interested. A controversial work like Daniel Goldhagen's 1997 book "Hitler's Willing Executioners," which purported to show how Hitler could have enlisted so many Germans to participate in the Holocaust, can manage to break through this clutter. But projects like that one do not come along every day.

"We just don't have the freedom when we take on 150 books a year to take on a lot of books that have a very low sales potential," says Jonathan Segal, a vice president at Alfred A. Knopf, a Random House subsidiary. Segal is Wiesel's editor, and is acting as a liaison between Random House and the Holocaust project. The memoir writers, he says, "are not professionals; this is a historical and human resource. If you're going to judge them against Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that's a false analogy. We have to be realistic sometimes in what their appeal to the marketplace might be."

The project, known formally as the Holocaust Survivors' Memoirs Project of the World Jewish Congress, was launched in 2000. Thanks to the media publicity, Rosensaft received more than 750 manuscripts from survivors living in the U.S., Israel, Latin America, Germany and other countries.

Most of the memoirs were in English but Rosensaft, who read more than 500 of them himself, also plowed through works in Yiddish, German, Spanish and French. Reading them all, he says, was "at the same time heart-wrenching and tremendously inspirational. You read about individuals not only facing death, but facing and coping with the murder of their families and the most horrendous form of persecution and oppression. At the same time, you read about their commitment to living, the ability to find the strength to survive, to save others and help them to survive."

Wiesel and Rosensaft agreed that the first volumes to be published should reflect a wide range of experiences, including some that had not been written about before. So, while the finalists naturally include memoirs of people who survived the Jewish ghettos and the death camps, there are also tales told by a Jewish woman who was dropped from the 1936 German Olympic team; a woman whose mother was a German convert to Judaism and managed to keep her entire family alive in Germany during the war; and a man who is one of the few survivors of Sobibor, a death camp in Poland in which hundreds of inmates successfully revolted against their captors.

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