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On the other side of darkness

Holocaust Literature An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work Edited by S. Lillian Kremer Routledge: 1,500 pp., $295, two volumes

March 28, 2004|John Felstiner | John Felstiner is the author of "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew," which won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, and editor of "Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan," which received translation prizes from the Modern Language Assn., the American Translators Assn. and PEN West. He teaches at Stanford University.

Years ago in Long Island, I visited a Berlin-born poet, Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss. As a young woman in 1921, having written to Rainer Maria Rilke admiring his poetry, she'd evoked Rilke's fervent response about her good fortune, about the Jews' God "to whom you belong" because "every Jew is emplaced in Him, ineradicably planted in Him, by the root of his tongue."

Later, Blumenthal-Weiss had her own poetry to write. "Landscape With Concentration Camp" begins: "The earth is black, the sky sheer steel." Although her husband was gassed at Auschwitz and her son Peter murdered in Mauthausen, she survived Westerbork and Theresienstadt. Her lines "For Peter" (1946) sound like this in translation:

When they say Murder! I must learn

That this word, that this single term

Means you, means you a mere child's blood,

You: Boyish! Jubilant! Brave moods! --

God taketh. One time hath God given.

You're gone -- and I should go on living?

When this woman in her 80s asked what brought me to see her and I said I was studying Holocaust poetry, she drew a blank. What did that phrase mean? The abstract topic now sounds callow, hollow, in the face of Ilse's loss and desolate voice.

Think too of the German-speaking Paul Celan, whose lexicon never had the word "Holocaust" for what he'd been planted in, by the root of his tongue. The German language "passed through frightful muting, through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech," he said, and it "gave back no words for that which happened," for das was geschah. In the ballad-like "Deathfugue" (1945), he writes:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink.

"Black milk," Schwarze Milch, which is a way of saying there are "no words for that which happened."

Celan's voice makes us approach this very welcome "Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work" with a measure of caution. For besides the word's academic pigeonholing, we've become habituated to a misnomer. From the Greek for "wholly burned," "Holocaust" echoes biblical Hebrew olah, meaning a burnt offering whose smoke "rises" to God. Can this designate the slaughter of a people emplaced in Him, as Rilke put it? Does the sacred aura of "Holocaust" fit Celan's poem "Psalm," with its cry, "Blessed art thou, No One"?

What's more, and worse, for years the word, the fact, the Holocaust specter, has been exploited by any person or faction with a grievance, whether trite or momentous. Legal abortion is called a Holocaust; Jewish victims are perpetrating their own Holocaust in the Middle East; American Jewish assimilation is a Holocaust. Scare tacticians crave that absolute alarm.

Against analogy-mongering we need the keen, deep sense that literature can give, of how the European catastrophe actually impinged on human bodies, personhood, spirit. To clarify contemporary as well as historical imagination, we need the sound and texture and tempo of one life after another after another.

That potency, which makes the now-indispensable misnomer also a prime slogan, has given rise to a crucial question of definition: Whose Holocaust? Twenty-one years ago an Israeli conference took the title "Holocaust and Genocide" to acknowledge as well the Armenian massacres of 1915. As for the Holocaust years 1933 to 1945, the catchphrase "6 million" Jews is always in danger of turning glib, and is anyway deemed inadequate, misleading. Didn't the Holocaust extend to Slavs, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled, mentally ill and various political victims?

Well, yes and no. All these were designated victims, but not with the same drastic and particular ferocity. Hitler's "Final Solution" was actually Endlosung der Judenfrage, "Final Solution to the Jewish Question." His "war against the Jews," as the historian Lucy Davidowicz called it, was different in kind as well as magnitude: a "unique event with universal implications," says survivor Elie Wiesel.

Although this unique two-volume encyclopedia, complete with an in-depth introduction, more than 300 entries, nine appendixes, several bibliographies and a thorough index, emphasizes the Jewish experience, nowhere does the publisher's brochure or the encyclopedia's preface use the word "Jews."

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