There was a gasp of disbelief when it became known that Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio, enjoyed dressing up as a member of the Waffen/SS as part of historical reenactments of World War II battles. Mr. Iott’s subsequent defense of his hobby and appreciation of the over-achieving German military has not done him any favors. Nor has his counter-attack on Eric Cantor, the current Minority Whip and the highest-ranking Jewish Republican member of Congress, helped much. In the process of digging his hole ever-deeper, Mr. Iott explained his admiration for the soldiers he recreates by saying, “They were doing what they thought was right for their country. And they were going out and fighting what they thought was a bigger, you know, a bigger evil.”
When he says that, Iott is engaging in a naïve, if amoral, act of radical empathy. In Iott’s mind, his German alter-ego, Reinhard Pferdmann is a tragic character, who fought valiantly for what he believed—conveniently ignoring that part of what he believed-in was an ideology of racial purity that legitimized the murder of millions.
Moral idiocy aside, Iott is achieving what many of us seek in literature – a vicarious experience that allows us a measure of understanding of another’s life and experiences. It is the particular life and experiences in question that make Iott’s activity a perversion of imagination. The legacy of the Holocaust makes such a life unworthy of memorializing in a manner lacking explicit condemnation.
What about when those life experiences include surviving the Holocaust? There we run into the opposite problem, where the importance of the lives lost makes memorializing them either in a fictional or a non-fictional setting a sacred and fraught act. There rightly are no “historical reenactments” of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Likewise, to read a work of Holocaust fiction or memoir actively discourages empathy because it is generally accepted that one who was not there cannot truly understand the experience of surviving the Holocaust. Ruth Franklin’s new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press) takes a look at this complex issue which she’ll be discussing on Tuesday, October 19 at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The program will feature an introduction by Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor at The New Republic.
Scandals involving fake Holocaust memoirs (Fragments and Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years) are despicable frauds, not only because they serve the pernicious ends of Holocaust deniers, but because they have made the requirement of fidelity to historical and biographical facts obscure the role imagination plays in transcendent literature. In fact, the lack of artifice in seminal works like Elie Wiesel’s Night, have long set the standard for other Holocaust-themed works. While Rich Iott labors under a surplus of misguided and selective imagination, Holocaust literature risks a paucity of it. Franklin would argue that fidelity to true imaginations (as opposed to Iott’s frivolous ones) is as great a responsibility as fidelity to the facts (which Iott selectively ignores).
In her thorough survey of the major memoirs and novels about the Holocaust, Franklin identifies the essential contributions the best of these works makes to the perpetuation of the Holocaust narrative. She covers the writers you would expect like Wiesel and Primo Levi, but she also spends significant time on lesser-known and equally worthy authors like Imre Kertesz. While Franklin is an advocate for the power of imagination, she is particularly hard on authors of the “Second Generation” whom she accuses of “identity theft.” Likewise, she sees promise in the “Third Generation” of writers like Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer who by not having to deal directly with the Holocaust, have been able to shed new light from oblique angles. She also spends significant time on Thomas Keneally’s “non-fiction novel” Schindler’s Ark and its adaptation into Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.
And why should you care? Because memory is preserved in many different ways. To be critical of the selective memory of World War II war reenactors only does half a job. We should be equally rigorous in how the legacy of World War II reads on the pages of our books.
Filed under: Arts Tagged: | A Thousand Darknesses, books, Elie Wiesel, Eric Cantor, holocaust, holocaust literature, Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, Imre Kertesz, memoir, Oxford University Pr, Primo Levi, Rich Iott, Ruth Franklin, The New Republic