Trying to Show the Unknowable

The ordeals, strategies, problems and triumphs of Holocaust literature.

‘A novel about Auschwitz,” Elie Wiesel once wrote, “is not a novel, or it is not about Auschwitz.” The testimony of Holocaust survivors, he seemed to imply, is inherently true, while literary representations of the Holocaust are, at some level, inherently false.

Of course, it is not a simple matter. As Ruth Franklin argues in “A Thousand Darknesses,” her superb study of Holocaust literature, every canonical work, including “Night” (1958), Mr. Wiesel’s famous book about his imprisonment in Auschwitz, blurs the distinction between fiction and reality. If the best works do so self-consciously, as she contends, there is always the danger that certain works will cross the line into bad faith, inviting charges of distortion or fraud.

And indeed, in recent years, a number of Holocaust stories have been exposed as hoaxes. The case of Binjamin Wilkomirski stands out. After being lauded by survivors for faithfully conveying their ordeal, his purported memoir, “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood” (1996), became a scandal when it was discovered to be, like the author’s name and personal history, a fabrication. Ms. Franklin does not discuss “Fragments” in detail, but it offers a touchstone for her investigation, showing the tension between Holocaust testimony and the fiction derived from it—in this case, fiction posing as lived experience.

Despite the hazards of trying to represent events often said to be “unknowable,” Ms. Franklin insists on the moral authority of the imagination and shows the power of literature to uncover the truths that are latent in documentary material. There is the case, for instance, of the postwar German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, who rewrote an obscure Holocaust memoir by one Jakob Littner and turned it into a superior work of art. For “Schindler’s Ark” (1982), the novelist Thomas Keneally based his narrative on careful research of Oskar Schindler’s life, almost to the point of making the book (as one critic said) a “workaday piece of reportage” rather than a textured work of fiction. For the film “Schindler’s List” (1993), as Ms. Franklin observes, Steven Spielberg more freely manipulated the factual history to create, for his audience, the potent illusion of “witnessing” the Holocaust.

Ms. Franklin is especially drawn to difficult cases. Tadeusz Borowski, a non-Jewish Pole, was a prisoner at Auschwitz and served in the camp’s Sonderkommando—the squad that processed the dead and their belongings—if only for a day. Although fellow survivors reported that he acted heroically in the camp, he suffered, Ms. Franklin concludes, a “psychological wound.” In the stories collected in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” published soon after the war, he adopted the voice of a cynical narrator who alternately mocks Jewish victims and recoils in disgust at their suffering. By implicating himself in the workings of the camp, Ms. Franklin says, Borowski found a powerful way to explore the tangled roles of victim and perpetrator.

In other cases, fiction’s autobiographical core is even more perplexing. Imre Kertész draws on his own experience in Auschwitz for his novel “Fatelessness” (1975), but the naiveté of his narrative voice denies us the consolation of straightforward testimony. “We can never be certain,” Ms. Franklin says, “of an episode’s truth-value.” In his quasi-autobiographical novel “Blood From the Sky” (1961) the Ukrainian-born French writer Piotr Rawicz presents two capricious storytellers who deliberately obscure facts and recount brutality in language at once florid and sardonic. Together they create a form of “anti-witness”—not false witness but witness whose immersion in evil has made mental and moral clarity impossible.

Nonfiction writers may seem to be more trustworthy, but we must not always take their words at face value, Ms. Franklin warns. Primo Levi, whose profession as a chemist helped him survive Auschwitz, presented his own experience—in “If This Is a Man” (1947)—in language of scientific clarity. But he also took many liberties in telling the stories of his comrades. In W.G. Sebald’s mesmerizing blend of fiction, encyclopedic detail and travelogue in “Austerlitz” (2001) and “The Emigrants” (1993)—both grounded in the experiences of Jewish children in the Holocaust—Ms. Franklin finds a painstaking strategy for restoring people and places to life. “Restitution,” Sebald called it.

Questions of authenticity became acute once therapists and cultural theorists asserted that trauma was transmissible, permitting readers (and filmgoers) to “bear witness” to events they had not experienced. The archetypal test case is Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” Because Kosinski cagily led readers to believe that his story of an unnamed boy wandering through a violent Eastern European landscape was based on his own childhood, Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller, among others, hailed it as a Holocaust masterpiece. Once it became known that the story’s incidents were invented—and that Kosinski’s family had hidden safely from the Nazis during the war—the book was condemned as a sadomasochistic fairy tale. By exploring the gray zone between witness and voyeurism, however, Kosinski had suggested that the lies of literature could provide surprising access to horrific events.

If the documents on which historians depend can prove unreliable, the best of Holocaust literature, Ms. Franklin emphasizes, has the advantage of being “self-conscious about its own unreliability.” True enough. But since the events of the Holocaust, not to mention its vast historiography, play very little role in her book, an important dimension of the problem is left out of account. (A more practical drawback is that she provides no endnotes or bibliography.) Still, by scrupulously defending the integrity of literature, Ms. Franklin has offered her own eloquent testimony.

Mr. Sundquist is a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.”


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