To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse reviews Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews [Books in Review, May] as though she were grading an essay test in Holocaust History 101: the following facts are missing from the answer, and therefore the student fails. She even tosses in that comforting crumb with which we teachers are prone to preface our comments leading up to a failing grade on a paper: Mr. Epstein is, she says, “a professional and engaging writer.” (“Golly, Mr. Fonda,” one can hear her saying after the show, “how did you ever learn all those lines?”)
But Mr. Epstein—admittedly a student, not himself a survivor—is not writing history, let alone a summary in which every fact must be explicitly presented. And although Mrs. Wisse, who finds it hard to “trust” Epstein’s persona because of his errors in Yiddish, has no confidence in our individual and collective knowledge, implicit in this novel are those basic truths about ghetto life for whose omission she takes off points. Mr. Epstein builds on our existing knowledge and emotions to tell not a conflicting but an augmenting story.
It is hardly a work to engage the interest of that “ignorant or hostile audience” Mrs. Wisse believes Mr. Epstein has intended “to charm.” It is for those readers who know where and to what the deported children are going that there is drama in the disputation over what they should be told; for those who comprehend the sorrow and the strength in ghetto families that there is poignancy in the lives of the orphans; for those with reverence for the political coherence and cultural riches of the ghetto that there is anguish in the collapse of those for whom even such support is not enough.
To see King of the Jews as farce, the M*A*S*H of the Holocaust, is to confuse hospital hijinks with emotional turmoil, light-hearted made-for-living-room lust with a struggle for survival; it is to confuse gags with often stunning irony. Mrs. Wisse finds the characterizations, as well, farcical, flat: “orphans, or representative types—the rabbi, the rich man, the thief . . . move atomistically through the novel, arousing little compassion in one another, and even less in the reader.” But such is the stuff of which allegory, too, is made; allegory and, surely by no coincidence, Brecht’s distancing effect. Deprived of the catharsis which literarily-induced compassion provides, we are forced to see the real-life millions these characters represent, just as, denied the habitualized responses called up by scenes depicting storm troopers and concentration camps, we must look afresh at scenes less easily made graphic; offered a narrative lacking the very words by which the enemy is called, we must name him for ourselves.
The facts of the Holocaust will continue to be related by such authors as Elie Wiesel (Mr. Epstein’s colleague, by the way, at Boston University). The truths of the Holocaust must ever be taught. But in our commitment to the lesson, we must not fall into the Socialist Realist’s trap of believing that there is only one mode appropriate to the telling.
Natalie Jacobson Mccracken
To the Editor:
. . . Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews is not a fairy tale and not a historical dissertation, but a novel. King of the Jews is a well-written and interesting book, and many of its scenes will remain in our minds, though I concede that it bears no more resemblance to actual ghetto life than did the TV program Holocaust. . . .
I.C. Trumpelman, the central character of the book, is based on Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. . . . But Trumpelman bears little resemblance to the real Rumkowski. I met Rumkowski in the fall of 1943 and worked for him for four months, during which time I saw him daily. . . . What was he like? In my eyes, a traitor to his own people, a war profiteer, a man without scruples . . . a man obsessed with power, and extremely vindictive. . . . Rumkowski was a feared dictator. . . .
At the end of her review, Mrs. Wisse mentions Epstein’s use of Jewish cannibalism. Yet I can assure her that cannibalism did exist. I myself witnessed a scene of cannibalism at Bergen-Belsen one day before liberation, a scene I shall never forget. But how can an American or a Canadian understand the hunger suffered—and the transformation from a sane mind to cannibalism?
I would like to raise one final question: shouldn’t the writing and reviewing of Holocaust novels and publications be left to those who were there and survived?
Cila Landau Eichengreen
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
It is the role of a critic, as of the teacher grading essays, to evaluate the quality of a given work by discriminating as carefully as possible between its strengths and weaknesses. I do not see what Natalie Jacobson McCracken finds objectionable in this process. Clearly, if Leslie Epstein’s work had nothing to recommend it, I would have said so. To call him a competent writer, by my schoolmarm standards, was hardly to throw him a crumb, but to grant him the cake—without the icing. Since Mrs. McCracken casts me in the role, however, may I suggest that transforming me from imperious schoolmistress into adolescent movie fan in the same paragraph is not my idea of the artful.
As it happens, my criticism of Mr. Epstein’s book was not based on my concern for the facts, though I do not see why “basic truths” should be the corollary of fundamental errors. If an English-speaking character in a foreign-language novel says, “the gool went to skulk” instead of “the girl went to school,” we may not learn much about the author’s higher artistic purpose, but we will know a good deal about his imperfect mastery of his subject. Since Mr. Epstein takes pains to establish the credentials of his narrator as a reliable witness, the credibility of this witness would appear to be judgeable on literary grounds.
A more serious distortion is Mrs. McCracken’s invocation of “allegory” and “Brecht’s distancing effect,” which are by no means synonymous except as equally convenient obfuscations of the actual category to which this book belongs. Mr. Epstein does not represent one thing by another, which is still, to my knowledge, a condition of allegory. Neither does he dip selectively into history, as Brecht does, for situations that may be manipulated so as to serve his own passionate and immediate ideological ends. Mr. Epstein’s novel offers an interpretation of a recent historical event, one which he has researched with some care and depicted so that the similarities between his novel and actuality should be explicit and unmistakable. I have no idea what Mrs. McCracken believes to be the “basic truths” of ghetto life, for in the world I inhabit the interpretation and understanding of the history she seems to find so obvious are still matters of anxious political and psychological debate. As an interpretation of that history, Mr. Epstein’s book is not a fix for those who want a fresh charge out of the Holocaust, but a text through which the events have been rendered and ask to be comprehended. As such a text, one with a distinctly contemporary, American flair, it manages both to diminish its subject and to diminish the Jews, whom it does not regard allegorically.
Cila Landau Eichengreen does not seem to have understood my review. I objected to Mr. Epstein’s teasing us with the idea of cannibalism precisely because it did occur, and because the moral scruples of the artist confronting this subject should be at least as keen as those of a person, or a character, who happens to be in that extremity of starvation. I sympathize with the desire to limit discussion of the Holocaust to its survivors, at least during their lifetime, but open season has already been declared on the subject. The best one can do is to demand the best of those who approach it.