Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Holocaust Literature: A Brief Note

The Guardian reports about a discovery of a young Polish girl's diary who died in Auschwitz, calling her a "Polish Anne Frank." The book blog provides a necessary, if predictable, response.. warning that:


Much of the interest in Anne Frank was to do with the story of a young girl approaching womanhood and her experience of first love. The coverage of Rutka's diary has wasted no time getting to this aspect of the story: "She described her crush on a boy named Janek and the anticipation of a first kiss," runs the Associated Press story, which goes on to quote this passage: "I think my womanhood has awoken in me. That means, yesterday when I was taking a bath and the water stroked my body, I longed for someone's hands to stroke me... I didn't know what it was, I have never had such sensations until now." This is the Holocaust as chick-lit, bringing a disturbing element of sex and voyeurism.

The last line is slightly harsh I think but the point is well made. There will definitely be readers who will try to usurp Rutka's experiences for their own emotional needs in the process of "identification" with the story and the character. This is actually the danger with all narrativizing. Just that in case of Holocaust, and even in case of similar events of less magnitude, this style of reading becomes a grave moral problem. This is the reason why I don't think Anne Frank's diary should be on the reading lists of young people or people who read like young people do -- look for "story" and characters they can "identify" with. I am not denying the literary merits of these human documents but their role should be to complement historical reading -- reading about figures, processes, bureaucracies and other impersonal details -- so that these are rescued from meaningless abstractions back to emotional and real specifics. The purpose should be to commemorate and mourn the victims and not to find a cathartic outlet for one's own petty emotional grievances.

Also another Holocaust diary. This time a young boy....

6 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

And so let the Holocaust Industry continue its murder of reality.

And so, as our empathy is engaged, let us suspend moral judgement.

Alok said...

To be honest, ultimately it is the readers themselves who are responsible for this ghastly commercialisation and trivialisation. we get what we want...

Cheshire Cat said...

Sorry, I don't agree, to publish the girl's diary is a gesture, a deliberate exposure to the world. It was not enough that the girl suffered during the Holocaust, she must also be robbed of her privacy, her dignity after her death... It is one thing to memorialize, quite another to cannibalize the deaths of thousands of individuals in the service of kitsch.

Alok said...

I can't say about this particular work but regarding Anne Frank's diary, it is clear what happened, how she was appropriated by the "chicken soup for the soul" crowd by systematically selective reading and, of course, completely decontextualizing the whole thing. She was herself quite conscious of what she was writing and its literary value.

I still think these works are important... we just have to be careful reading them i.e. not to read for some petty emotional thrills. Dying anonymous deaths and forgetfulness and oblivion are injustices too. These accounts are invaluable for a proper mourning and memorializing in this context.

antonia said...

problematic is probably the public focus on her sexuality or her relationships and not that she also has some one or two things to say about 'the political situation'...

Alok said...

actually in america Anne Frank is a very controversial figure, specially in the context of Jewish identity politics. When the diary was first adapted into a very successful play and then an equally successful movie (i havent seen or read either) all the jewish references were removed and the "message" was universalized and sentimentalized, a message of tolerance and world peace etc and her line-"In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart" was quoted out of context and was emphasised.

On the other hand many jewish figures lament the fact that she has become the main symbol of the holocaust victimization because she is not "a good jew" because after the war she wanted to be a Dutch first of all and didnt much care about religious identity. Even in her diary she is dismissive or at least not too enthusiastic about Jewish customs and traditions.

I think the key thing is to read with moral alertness and be resistant to cheap and easy sentiments and messages. This is the problem will all reading in fact, but it is even more serious and urgent in this case.