The Holocaust was not an aberration of
history, it was the ultimate and inevitable
consequence -- the final solution, in other
words -- of a long historical
It is necessary to speak, to write, and keep on speaking and writing (lest we forget) about the Jewish Holocaust during the Nazi period even if words cannot express this monstrous event.
It is impossible to speak or write about the Holocaust because words cannot express this monstrous event.
This is the dilemma of the Jewish writer today in every corner of the world. For the question is not: WHAT to speak/write about, but HOW to speak/write about this unforgivable enormity as we live the end of the Post-Hitlerian era, until some other unforgivable enormity is committed and erases the memory of this era. There comes a time when even the reality of the event itself appears fictitious (as recent movies and novels have clearly demonstrated). But perhaps that is how it should be, for only in fiction, in the realm of imagination can the impossibility of being a Jewish writer become a necessity.
I am often asked, as a survivor of the Holocaust and as a writer: "Federman, tell us the story of your survival." And I can only answer: "There is no story. My life is the story. Or rather, the story is my life." That is the crucial question that confronts the Jewish writer today: how to distinguish his life from his story -- reality from fiction?
In my novel TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT, published in 1976, the protagonist, a French Jew survivor of the Holocaust, speaks these words:
Take my case for instance. What do you think I would be today if it were not for Hitler? Do you know what I would be today? I mean if nothing had happened. No war, no occupation, no collaboration, no deportation, no extermination -- no Holocaust. Yes, do you know what I would be today? A tailor. A little Jewish tailor slaving in a tailorshop on Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. Or else an instituteur in some intellectually retarded school in the province of France. But let me assure you [and here the author and the protagonist merge into one], I would not be a writer (an experimental writer, I am told), dealing with such an important topic as the Holocaust. No, I would not be here, making up my life as I go along. Certainly not. Therefore, funny as it may seem, disturbing and grotesque as it may sound, Hitler in a way was my savior. Yes, I know, it's laughable, preposterous, but it's true.
This passage, though fiction, raises a fundamental question: How many European Jews would be tailors or mediocre school treachers today were it not for Hitler? How many of them would have remained unfulfilled and silent, instead of becoming writers -- Jewish writers -- speaking and writing about the Holocaust were it not for Hilter and his gang? One need only name those who have touched us the most: Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Améry, Primo Levy, Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld, Samuel Pisar, and many others who have confronted the necessity and the impossibility of writing about the unforgivable enormity in which they were implicated, and in some cases were led to destroy themselves after the fact.
Many of us have become writers, displaced writers, as a result of the Holocaust, that beautifully sad affair for art. Many of us have found a voice to speak, and write, during the Post-Hitler era because of our tragic and traumatic experience during the Hitler era. For it is a fact that the label of "Jewish writer" was invented after World War Two, out of necessity, I suppose, after the Holocaust became known as a truth instead of a falsety or a lie.
There were Jewish writers, of course, especially novelists, before the Second World War, in many parts of the world as well as in America, or rather there were many writers who happened to be Jewish before the war, but they were writers first, and only incidentally, occasionaly considered "Jewish writers" (except for those who wrote in Yiddish, or that small group of American Jewish writers during the first half of the century -- the Tenement Writers -- who depicted Jewish life in America).
Most of the pre-war Jewish writers did not have much to do, much to say about Jewish life, Jewish history, Jewish tradition, Jewish religion, or Jewish suffering, and no one expected them to deal with these questions. A case in point, Kafka who was labeled a Jewish writer only after World War Two. Before that, he was simply a great writer, an experimental writer. Perhaps the same could be said of Marcel Proust, even though only half-Jewish. Most of the pre-war Jewish writers were more concerned with social and political issues related to the human condition in general, or to the society in which they lived, rather than with specific Jewish problems. Some in fact, were more concerned with aesthetic problems rather than social, political or religious questions. I mean, of course, the fiction writers, not the theologians or historians of Judaism. It is true that the Jewish background of some of these story-tellers became part of the texture of their writing, but it was not the essential part. Few of these writers felt the need to be moral or religious spokesmen for the rest of the Jewish people. As a matter of fact, many of them avoided revealing their Jewishness, their religion, their ancestry, in their books at any rate.
To the contrary, the post-war Jewish writers, whether or not he had suffered directly from the Holocaust, found himself forced to assume responsibility, moral responsibility for the entire history and suffering of the Jewish people. It was demanded of him, expected of him. André Schwarz-Bart with LE DERNIER DES JUSTES, Elie Wiesel with most of his books, but also many American writers such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Henry Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and many others quickly responded to this demand, and took upon themselves the heavy burden of Jewish suffering. Indeed, most Jewish writers -- I mean the fiction writers, and not the historians or the psychologists or the statisticians -- in Europe as well as in America, felt morally responsible, and historically committed, and therefore became the chroniclers of the Holocaust. The list is endless. It was demanded of them, expected of them. And yet, we do not ask of an artist, a painter, a sculptor, a composer, a musician who happens to be Jewish (and there are many such artists working in contemporary arts, many of them survivors of the Holocaust) to paint, sculpte, compose or play Jewish subjects and thereby express Jewish suffering. Some have tired, but in most cases have failed miserably, from an artistic point of view, that is.
The writer, however, the Jewish writer at any rate, must not evade his moral responsibilities, we are told, nor can he avoid dealing with his Jewishness. It is required of him, of her. And the writer himself feels obligated to tell and retell the sad story, lest we forget. In other words, even the fiction writer must become the historian of the Holocaust. He must tell the truth, the "real story." But how? How? That is the crucial question that confronts us today.
Let us listen then to the voice of one of these writers as he confronts that subject once again. This time it is the protagonist of my novel entitled THE TWOFOLD VIBRATION (1982) who speaks -- an unnamed Old Man, eighty-two years old, himself a writer, who, in the near future, witnesses history repeat itself in a twofold manner as he awaits deportation to the space colonies: "The stupefying truth," he says to the author-narrator of the novel, named Federman, "is that the Holocaust is the epic event of the 20th century never striking bottom in the resonance of its tragic fact. Even the most banal aspects of life in the death camps, the most basic, the most innocent questions one asks about the daily routine of the deportees, such as did they brush their teeth? did they cut their nails? did they blow their noses in the camps? did they make love? did they ever smile? reach the level of Greek tragedy, or at least the level of the Theater of the Absurd. And therefore should not be left unanswered, especially now." And the Old Man then remembers and paraphrases the young Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski, who committed suicide in 1951, after having survived Auschwitz: "This way to the showers, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Dear Children, for it is the law of the camps that people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. It's an old historical trick. Here little boys, little girls, have a piece of chocolate to take away your fear. It only take three minutes for the gas to choke you. Deception is the only permissible form of charity in the process of extermination." But the Old Man concludes: "However, in this story, my story, if I deal with the death camps at all, it will have to be made clear that the central concern is not the extermination of the Jews, including my entire family, mother, father, sisters, but the erasure of that extermination as a central event. And it is, I believe, this ambivalence towards erasure that charges my life emotionally and informs its risks."
The Jewish Holocaust (but, of course, one could say the same of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or other more recent ethnic cleansings in various parts of the world) was a total universal affair in which all of mankind was implicated, and is still implicated. Therefore, as we continue to live the Post-Hitlerian era, it is essential to deal with the Holocaust in an effort to come to terms, once and for all, with its incomprehensibility, for it remains a collective undertaking. However, the central event in fiction, and more specifically in my fiction, is not the extermination of the Jews, but the erasure (the cancellation, the denial) of that extermination as a central event. This, I believe, is our problem today, the problem of the fiction writer (whether approached from a moral, political, or religious point of view), that is to say: the subtle and necessary displacement of the original event (the story) towards its erasure (the absence of the story), even if one must rely on fictional gimmicks, or typographical symbols to do so. For instance little (x-x-x-x) in parentheses to mark the death, the ultimate absence of four human beings (my parents and sisters), as I have done in all my fiction.
The critic Charles Caramello stated in an essay about my fiction that: "The extermination of Federman's family at Auschwitz ..." -- [I hope it is understood that when I use the name Federman, I am not only referring to a specific individual, but to all the Jews who shared an experience similar to that of Federman] -- "... represented in his fiction only as (x-x-x-x), seems to be its central unspeakable event." And Caramello goes on suggesting that perhaps it is a form of "evasion [...] yet urgent and obsessive." Indeed, the linguistic and typographical games I have played in my fiction may be a mere cover-up, a partial cancellation of the past, but nonetheless they point to the inadequacy of language in the face of an event as hideous and as unspeakable as the Holocaust.
In much of contemporary fiction, especially when it deals with tragic events, silences are what empowers the surface triviality of the work. None better than the great Samuel Beckett has demonstrated the power of silence in his work, and how no utterances can ever give shape to the chaos of life, how language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there. And yet, often the mere spewing forth of words in a digressive and discontinuous fashion allows the writer to avoid a confrontation with his past while pretending to write about it. Thus the writer inscribes the central unspeakable event within an aesthetic of fiction that proscribes both necessity and impossibility. This concept of evasion and digression, as it has been termed by certain critics of contemporary fiction, brings us squarely to the heart of the problem.
How often have we heard people say, when confronted with a tragic event, perhaps not of the magnitude of the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, or some of the more recent tragic disasters (natural or unnatural) that killed thousands and thousands of people, but simply the death of a friend, of a relative, of an acquaintance even, yes, how often have we heard, and ourselves have used such clichés as: I cannot find the words to express my grief; words are not enough to tell you how sad I feel; this leaves me speechless; there are no words capable of expressing the depth of my sorrow; if only I could find the words to speak my sadness; and so forth. Yes, one could go on playing verbal and syntactical games, endlessly reshuffling those poor words, those miserable semantic pillows, as Samuel Beckett called them, that try in vain to express what words supposedly cannot express, but that would be useless and senseless; it would lead nowhere.
And yet, the writer, especially the Jewish writer, is expected to find words, the right words, to express the unspeakability of the Holocaust. Many writers have tried to tell and retell that story -- the gruesome experiences of the Jews in the concentration camps. But too often the telling of these "stories" merely melodramatizes them, sentimentalizes them, reduces them to inoffensive anecdotes, acceptable dramas, or else transforms them into Hollywoodian soap operas, without ever reaching the central event -- the hole, the void, the absence, the silence at the center of the Holocaust. Therefore, what the writer should attempt to express, what demands to be expressed, is not the event itself, however tragic, however frightening, repulsive, hideous, incomprehensible it may have been, what should be told and retold is not the story of the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews in the camps, but the absence of words to express that event. In other words, it is the impossibility of speaking or writing such an event, the absence of an adequate language which should become the primary and necessary concern -- the "urgent and obsessive" concern -- of the writer today, and especially the Jewish writer.
But to say this has also become a cliché, a dead end. To say that it is impossible to say what cannot be said is indeed a dead end in today's literature, unless one makes of this gap, this lack, this linguistic void the essential moral and aesthetic concern that displaces the original event towards its erasure, and thus transcends "the story." In other words, it is no longer through the functions of memory that one will confront the issue, but with the powers of imagination. It is no longer remembered events, however sad they may be, that will give us the solution (if a solution is needed), but the mystery of invented events, and the process that allows such inventions.
That, in my opinion, is what the writer today -- including, of course, the displaced Jewish writer -- must constantly confront. It is this impossibility of saying the same old thing the same old way which must become a necessity, and thus enable the writer to reach us again, to move us again, and force us, perhaps, to understand what we have not been capable of understanding for more than fifty years. It is NOT through content but form, NOT with numbers or statistics but fiction and poetry that we will eventually come to terms with the Holocaust and its consequences.
To be a Jewish writer today is not merely to be a good story-teller, but someone who questions and challenges the very medium of story-telling, or what I have called elsewhere "the arrogance of story-telling."
The late Edmond Jabès, an Egyptian Jew who lived in exile in Paris and wrote in French, was perhaps the only Jewish writer since World War Two who implicitly acknowledged in his work the impossibility of speech when dealing with the Holocaust and the concentration camps. By raising the central question of writing and the fundamental question of the book, he asked relentlessly, how can we speak what cannot be spoken, and perhaps should remain unspoken, and thus confronted the real issue. It is in this sense, in this impossibility of saying while saying, that the Jewish writer may eventually come to terms with his obsession about the suffering Jew. For as Jabès wrote in THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS, as if speaking for all of us: "I could have been this man, I have shared his shadow. Tell us of the shadow we have in common."
The tragedy of having to relate an original event -- to relate the origin -- is that it has not end, and that it has to be written, to be inscribed somewhere. All events are produced as texts eventually, produced outside the events, as texts. Contemporary literature (Jewish or non-Jewish) has shown us how impossible it is to step our of language. It has taught us that we are bodies devoured by language, and bodies who devour language. What the movement of contemporary fiction expresses, especially experimental fiction, to the ultimate limits of self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness, is the moment of its own devouring, of its own necessary consumation. There-fore, if fiction communicates anything, it can only do so by a displacement, a slippage -- a verbal continuum which may somehow someday reach the right destination, the right aggregate, but not by looking backward to the past and its beginning, but by looking to its own process in the present. The the stories and the statistics of the Holocaust are of great importance, but more important perhaps, for us today, is what is inscribed in our Post-Holocaust consciousness.
Allow me to clarify. The difficulty of being Jewish today merges with the difficulty of writing, for, as know since Biblical times, or as Edmond Jabès put it: "Judaism and writing are but the same expectation, the same hope, the same erosion." By the process of a silent displacement toward essence, the Jewish situation becomes exemplary of the situation of the man of speech and of writing. The Jew is the one who writes and who is written. The difficulty of being a Jew and of being a writer, that is to say the difficulty of being a perpetual survivor, forces us to ask ourselves if we are still capable of literature in the Post-Holocaust era. That is the dilemma of the Jewish write today. When confronting the recent history of the Jews, we must constantly ask ourselves if we are capable of transforming the impossiblity of being [a Jewish] writer into a necessity.
After all, events as such do not count much. What counts is the account of the events. In history as well as in literature, it is the struggle of the accounts that counts. The Holocaust, for most of us today, and even for those who experienced it, survived it, is only a story, a series of ugly stories, turned into fiction. Unless we recognize and accept this inescapable fact, we are kidding ourselves. Those who survived the camps told their stories; those who never went to the cmaps told the stories too. They had to, even fifty years later. But whatever the case, we are never confronting the monstrous reality of the moment, but a retelling of it, a representation, a memory, a fiction. Always a fiction. That is the great displacement of all displacements.
What becomes apparent suddenly, as the writer attempts to tell his story, is that the Jewish experience of the Holocaust transcends itself into a maze of creative processes. The impossibility of telling the story, the impossi- bility of recapturing the historical reality in all its mind-boggling horror becomes not only the essential force of Jewish writing, but the aesthetic formula for all fiction written today (I mean serious fiction), as well as the basis for all contemporary literature -- Post-Modern and Post-Holocaust.
Jewish writing then, like all other modes of contemporary writing, must shift its vision and its energy from content to form (from the WHAT to the HOW), but not because the content is too difficult to express, but because, as we have learned to recognize, content is form, and it is the form of a text that will eventually allow us to grasp the tragedy of the Holocaust. William Blake once wrote: "Fire delights in its form." That, for me, is not merely a mystical statement, but a profound thought that carries in itself a real force that reveals that form is never more than the extension of content.
In his "urgent and obsessive" effort to come to terms with his story, and the story of his people, the Jewish writer rejoins all the other contemporary writers who reflect upon their task, who ask questions within the book as they formulate a redefinition of fiction while writing fiction, and as such redefine themselves as writers. It is in this sense that the Jew and the Writer merge into a single being who confronts the necessity of his existence and of his survival in a perpetual displacement of words.
DEBRIS & DESIGN OF THE HOLOCAUST
How to speak the unspeakable? How to represent absence? These questions have been asked, over and over again, for more than fifty years now. But perhaps they were the wrong questions to ask. To say that it is impossible to say what cannot be said, to represent what refuses to let itself be represented, is indeed a dead end, unless one makes of this impossibility, of this void, this absence, the essential moral and aesthetic concern which displaces the original event, the Unforgivable Enormity of the Holocaust, towards it erasure. Perhaps these were the wrong questions to ask, because once the fire is out, only the smell of smoke remains -- and the debris.
The horrible fire is extinguished, and in spite of all the frantic activities still going on in the world today to gather, to record, to preserve, to remember what refuses to speak or be represented, the Unforgivable Enormity will inevitably vanish into its own silence and its own absence.
The historians, the statisticians, archivists, memorialists have done their work. The accounts have been written, the monuments have been erected, the memorials have been sanctified, the museums have opened their doors to the Holocaust tourists, and still the Unforgivable Enormity refuses to make sense. The bodies have been counted. The damage estimated. The reparations paid. The great fire is now extinguished. But the smell of the smoke that always lingers after a great fire still pervades.
And so when the historians close their books, when the statisticians stop counting, the memorialists and witnesses can longer remember, then the poet, the novelist, the artist comes and surveys the devastated landscape left by the fire -- the ashes. He rummages through the debris in search of a design. For if the essence, the meaning, or the meaninglessness of the Holocaust will survive our sordid history, it will be in works of art.