Commentary Magazine

The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination

It was not through words that the world first took in the nature and degree of the atrocities wreaked upon Jews by Germans a half-century ago. You could not read of the last and worst of these atrocities in the newspaper of record, which suppressed reports of such events even as they were occurring, but certain early depredations you could glimpse, fleetingly, in the newsreels: the crowns of fire and smoke bursting through the roofs of burning synagogues on the night of November 9, 1938, the pyres of burning books in the city squares, the genial faces of young men as they hurled intellect into the flames. Sitting peacefully in an American movie house, you could see all these things with your own eyes, and—through film’s illusion of simultaneity—you can see these same scenes today.

The burning synagogues and the burning books are what are currently termed icons—incarnations of a time when, nearly all over Europe, Jews were becoming defenseless human prey. Other images are equally indelible: the photo of the terror-stricken little boy with his cap askew and his hands in the air (impossible not to absorb those desperate eyes, those small elbows, that civilized cap, without belief in the true existence of absolute evil); and, at war’s end, the hellish frames of a British bulldozer shoveling a hill of skeletal human corpses into a ditch. In the film the bulldozer blunders forward and shovels, backs up, repositions itself and shovels again. The camera will admit us to these horrors as often as we dare to revisit them. And we must suppose that some of these images, through repetition, have become so recognizable, so clichéd, that the most liberal hearts can be hardened against them. I recall a private letter from a celebrated novelist: “These old events,” he wrote, “can rake you over only so much, and then you long for a bit of satire on it all.” Satire?

There is another image less well-known than the fires and the boy and the bulldozer; it is more overtly brutish by virtue of its being less overtly brutish. And if satire means a parody of normality, then perhaps this scene is travesty enough to gratify the most jaded observer. A city street, modern and clean, lined with leafy bushes and arching trees, on a fine bright autumn day. The road has been cleared of cars to make room for a parade. The marchers are all men, fathers and breadwinners, middle-class burghers wearing the long overcoats and gray fedoras of the 30’s; they appear gentlemanly but somber. Along the parade route, behind mild barriers, a cheerful citizenry watches, looking as respectable as the marchers themselves, all nicely dressed, men and women and children, but mostly women and children—these are, let us note, business hours, when fathers and breadwinners are ordinarily in their offices. The weather is lovely, the crowds are pleasant, the women are laughing, the marchers are grave; here and there you will notice a child darting past the barriers, on a dare. The marchers are Jews being taken away in a scheme preparatory for their destruction; they are being escorted by soldiers with guns. Perhaps the watchers do not yet know the destiny of the marchers; but what a diversion it is, what a holiday, to see these dignified gentlemen humiliated, like clowns on show, by the power of the gun!



We may tremble before these images, but we are morally obliged to the German lens that inscribed them. The German lens recorded truthfully; its images are stable and trustworthy: the camera and the act are irrevocably twinned. Though photography can be kin to forgery (consider only the egregious slantedness of so many contemporary “documentaries”), at that time the camera did not lie. It yielded—and preserved—an account of ineffaceable clarity and immutable integrity. And later, when the words disclosing those acts of oppression first began to arrive, we knew them to be as stable and as trustworthy as the camera’s images. The scrupulous voice of Elie Wiesel; the scrupulous voice of Primo Levi; the stumbling voices of witnesses who have no fame and have no voice, yet whose eloquence rises up through the scars and stammerings of remembered suffering. The voices of Christian conscience and remorse. All these words were consequential in a way the pictures were not. The pictures belonged to their instant; though they could serve memory, they were not the same as memory. You could not quarrel with the pictures. You could not change what they insistently and irremediably saw. But as the words rushed in in torrents, as they proliferated, becoming more and more various and removed, some broke through the gates of memory into the freer fields of parable, myth, analogy, symbol, story. And where memory was fastidious in honoring history, story turned to the other muses. Where memory was strict, fiction could be lenient, and sometimes lax. Where memory struggled for stringency of historical precision, fiction drifted toward history as a thing to be used, as imagination’s stimulus and provocation.

And just here is the crux: the aims of imagination are not the aims of history. Scholars are nowadays calling historiography into radical question; history is seen as the historian’s clay; omniscience is suspect, objectivity is suspect, the old-fashioned claims of historical truthfulness are suspect; the causes of the Peloponnesian war are sometimes what I say they are, and sometimes what you say they are. But even under the broken umbrella of contemporary relativism, history has not yet been metamorphosed into fable. Scholars may not agree on what happened, but they do consent to an actual happening. Your Napoleon may not be my Napoleon, but the fact of Napoleon is incontrovertible. To whatever degree, history is that which is owed to reality.

Imagination—fiction—is freer than that; is freed altogether. Fiction has license to do anything it pleases. Fiction is liberty at its purest. It can, if it likes—in the manner of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or Mel Brooks in the French Revolution—place Napoleon in command of the armies of Sparta. It can alter history; it can invent a history that never was, as long as it maintains a hint of verisimilitude. A fictional character represents only itself. You may be acquainted with someone “like” Emma Bovary or “like” Anna Karenina, but if you want the true and only Bovary, you must look to Flaubert, and if you want the true and only Karenina, you must look to Tolstoy. Bovary is not a stand-in for French women; she is Flaubert’s invention. Karenina is not a stand-in for Russian women; she is Tolstoy’s invention. Imagination owes nothing to what we call reality; it owes nothing to history. The phrase “historical novel” is mainly an oxymoron. History is rooted in document and archive. History is what we make out of memory. Fiction flees libraries and loves lies.



The rights of fiction are not the rights of history. On what basis, then, can I disdain a story that subverts document and archive? On what basis can I protest a novel that falsifies memory? If fiction annihilates fact, that is the imagination’s prerogative. If fiction evades plausibility, that too is the imagination’s prerogative. And if memory is passionate in its adherence to history, why should that impinge on the rights of fiction? Why should the make-believe people in novels be obliged to concur with history, or to confirm it? Characters in fiction are not illustrations or representations. They are freely imagined fabrications; they have nothing to do with the living or the dead; they go their own way.

And there the matter ends; or should. Nothing is at issue. But there are, admittedly, certain difficulties. Embedded in the idea of fiction is impersonation: every novelist enters the personae of his characters; fiction-writing is make-believe, acting a part, assuming an identity not one’s own. Novelists are, after all, professional impostors; they become the people they invent. When the imposture remains within the confines of a book, we call it art. But when impersonation escapes the bounds of fiction and invades life, we call it hoax—or, sometimes, fraud. Three recent exemplars have captured public attention; all have provoked argument and controversy.

In 1995, Alan Dershowitz, famed equally for his contribution to the legal defense of O.J. Simpson and for his authorship of books of Jewish self-consciousness, published a review of The Hand That Signed the Papers, an Australian novel on a Ukrainian theme. Dershowitz took issue with both plot and substance, and accused the twenty-four-year-old writer, Helen Demidenko, of “the most primitive manifestations of classic Ukrainian anti-Semitism: all Jews are Communists, cheats, smelly animals, and otherwise subhuman.” According to Dershowitz’s summary of the novel, when the Soviet commissars—all Jews—arrive in Ukraine in the 1930’s, they burn down a house with a family inside; understandably, the surviving child becomes the so-called Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. “A Jewess from Leningrad,” Dershowitz continues, “refuses to treat a sick Ukrainian baby, declaring ‘I am a physician, not a veterinarian.’” Demidenko’s “subtle goal,” he concludes, is “to explain the Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust so that the murders go unpunished,” and her “greatest anger is directed against the Jewish survivors who sought to bring their Ukrainian tormentors to justice.”

Soon after the appearance of Dershowitz’s review, the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations threatened to bring a legal action against him under Australia’s racial-vilification law. Dershowitz responded by welcoming a lawsuit as “an excellent forum for reminding the world of the complicity of so many Ukrainians in the Nazi Holocaust.” That the dispute concerned a work of fiction appeared to vanish in the legal and political tumult. Meanwhile, however, the novel rose to fourth on Australia’s best-seller list, and received the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. The judges praised Demidenko for illuminating “a hitherto unspeakable portion of the Australian migrant experience.” Demidenko herself insisted that her story was based on her own family’s travail.

As it turned out, all parties were duped: the protesting reviewer, the infuriated Ukrainians, the publisher, the prize-givers. Helen Demidenko was in reality Helen Darville, a daughter of British immigrants pretending to be Ukrainian in order to augment her credibility. Allen & Unwin, Darville’s publisher, confirmed that the novelist “had made some stupid mistakes,” but argued that “we still have a book of great power, a book daring to deal with awesome topics.” Dershowitz’s objections went largely unaddressed. But after the exposure of Demidenko as Darville, the threat of a lawsuit was quietly withdrawn.



A more ambiguous instance of novelistic impersonation occurred in Ecuador, where Salomon Isacovici, a Romanian-born survivor of the camps, set out to tell his experiences under the German terror. He enlisted the help—and the Spanish-language facility—of Juan Manuel Rodriguez, a former Jesuit priest; it is not clear whether Rodriguez was amanuensis, ghost, or coauthor. In 1990, the manuscript, entitled Man of Ashes, was published in Mexico under both names and promoted as “cruel and truthful testimony of the Nazi concentration camps.” Mexico’s Jewish community praised it as a genuine work of witness and awarded it a prize. Isacovici died early in 1998, but three years before, he had announced in a letter that he was “the legitimate author,” that Man of Ashes was his autobiography, and that Rodriguez was hired only to assist with “the literary and structural parts of the book.” Reporting in the Forward, Ilan Stavans, a writer and editor educated in Mexico, quotes Rodriguez as claiming that he “wrote the entire book, its title included, in six months, based upon [Isacovici’s] manuscript and mutual conversations.”

Rodriguez continues to insist that Man of Ashes is not Isacovici’s memoir, but is, rather, the product of his own literary imagination. “I transposed many of my philosophical views to Salomon,” he told Stavans. “My philosophical formation helped achieve the transplant and succeeded in turning the book from a simple account to a novel of ideas.” The University of Nebraska Press plans to issue the book in English as Isacovici’s memoir, with Rodriguez named as co-author, and Rodriguez is considering a suit. “Salomon is my novel’s protagonist, I am his author,” he states. “I invented passages and details, and afterward he believed he had lived through them. For him the book is autobiography; for me it is a charming novel.” Quite aside from “charming” as a description of Holocaust suffering, how may we regard what appears to be an act of usurpation? When Rodriguez declares a narrative of survival to be fiction, is the Holocaust being denied? Or is it being affirmed in terms of art?



The same query, steeped in similar murk, can be put to the extraordinary history of Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, published as the memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a self-declared Latvian Jew. The book, brought out by Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag in 1995, and last year by Schocken Books in New York,1 purports to be the therapy-induced recovered memory of a boy, born in Riga, who was deported at the age of three to Maidanek, a camp in Poland. Lauded as a literary masterpiece, Fragments won the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah in France, a Jewish Quarterly literary prize in Britain, and a National Jewish Book Award in the United States. It has been endorsed by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, translated into more than a dozen languages, and eloquently blurbed by established writers. Its success lent credence to the theory that profoundly repressed memory, even of events very early in life, can be retrieved; and it also offered, in a child’s pure voice, a narrative of German oppression to set beside the classic accounts of Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank.

All this began to disintegrate when Daniel Ganzfried, a Swiss writer and the son of a Holocaust survivor, undertook to verify Wilkomirski’s assertions. He found, instead, inconsistencies of dates and facts, as well as documents identifying Wilkomirski as the child, born in Switzerland in 1941, of an unwed Swiss Protestant woman named Yvonne Grosjean. He also uncovered legal papers proving Wilkomirski’s adoption by a middle-class Zurich family. These disclosures have caused uneasiness among Wilkomirski’s several publishers, but so far none has been willing—at least publicly—to call him a fraud. Holocaust historians note that no child younger than seven would have been spared instant gassing—demurrals that were, however, not voiced during the period of rhapsodic prize-giving. Wilkomirski—or, rather, Bruno Doesseker, as he was known before his imposture—is in seclusion, complaining of illness, and Ganzfried, apparently, is reluctant to display the records he gathered.

One claim in Wilkomirski’s defense (reminiscent of Rodriguez’s charge against Isacovici) is that he is no fraud, and that there can be no hoax, because he believes in his written story, and takes it to be his own. Perhaps he does. In that event we might wish to dub him insane. Even so, his conviction, if conviction it is, has done harm: it led a survivor living in Israel to suppose that he had recovered his lost son, whom he had thought long dead. In the meantime, though, Wilkomirski’s publishers, and Wilkomirski himself, have not dared to suggest that Fragments might indeed be a work of the imagination. The conflict between the freedom to invent and an honest confrontation with the constraints of the historical record remains muddled—and, often enough, muddied. If the subject were, say, the Homeric wars, the muddle might be benign, even frolicsome, a simulacrum of trickster literature. But the subject is the Holocaust, and the issue is probable fraud, hoax, or delusion. What is permissible to the playfully ingenious author of Robinson Crusoe—fiction masking as chronicle—is not permitted to those who touch on the destruction of six million souls, and on the extirpation of their millennial civilization in Europe.



Yet the question of the uses of the imagination does not and cannot stop even here. Beyond the acrobatics of impersonation, or the nervy fakery of usurpation, lies a sacred zone consecrated to the power of art: or call it, more modestly, literature’s elastic license. I have in mind two novels, Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, and The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink—one first brought out in 1979, the other published only last year; one long acclaimed, the work of a contemporary American literary master, the other by a highly praised German writer. Both novels clearly intend to attach their stories to the actuality of the death camps.

Sophie’s Choice followed by a dozen years Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Confessions of Nat Turner, and, like the latter, became a celebrated best-seller. It was soon a staple of Jewish book groups, whose interest was alerted by those portions of the novel which approached Auschwitz. But it was also a richly literary Bildungsroman—the often charming story of Stingo, an untried young Southern writer whose attraction to New York lands him in Brooklyn, “the Kingdom of the Jews.” In Mrs. Yetta Zimmerman’s rooming house Stingo meets Nathan Landau and his lover, a beautiful Polish woman named Sophie. Nathan is Jewish and mad—a paranoid schizophrenic, erratic when lucid, brutal and suicidal otherwise. Sophie is tormented by a horrific past, which she discloses to Stingo, piecemeal, as the two halves of the novel, Brooklyn and Auschwitz, begin to converge. And it is on account of Sophie’s Auschwitz tribulations that Sophie’s Choice has had an enduring reputation as a “Holocaust novel.”

There is some justification for this claim, at least for the well-researched historical sections dealing with the Final Solution in Poland. Primo Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, affirms that 90 to 95 percent of the victims of Auschwitz were Jews, and Styron’s factual passages do not depart from this observation. His information concerning Polish Christians in Auschwitz is far thinner; it is, in fact, nearly absent. He gives us Sophie herself, but fails to surround her with the kind of documentation that he supplies for the deportation of Jews—exact dates of arrival in Auschwitz, for instance, as when he recounts the gassing of a contingent of Greek Jews, or when he enumerates figures for the Jewish population of Warsaw before 1939, or when he notes that the “resettlement” from the Warsaw Ghetto took place in July and August of 1942. Wherever the fingerprint of Styron’s Holocaust research appears—and it appears frequently and accurately—it points to Jews.

When he turns to Polish Christians, he apprises us of the Nazis’ Lebensborn project, which sent “Aryan”-looking Polish children to be reared as Germans in Germany; of the Polish resistance movements, many of them zealously anti-Semitic—though the two resistance workers featured in the novel are passionately concerned for Jews; of a boxcar filled with the corpses of Polish children rejected for Lebensborn; and of the rescinded plan to tattoo Polish Christian prisoners. Sophie’s father and husband are depicted as serious Jew-haters. For the 75,000 Polish Christians murdered in Auschwitz, Styron’s novel provides no data, no detail; or, rather, Sophie alone is the detail. Seventy-five thousand Polish Christians were murdered in Auschwitz, and that is fact enough. Incontrovertibly, the factory of inhumanity that was Auschwitz produced complete equality of unsurpassed human suffering. Nor may suffering be measured in numbers, or by majorities, or by percentages. But if Styron’s Auschwitz research leads voluminously to Jews, it is because the murdered Jews voluminously outnumbered the murdered Polish Christians.

What does it signify—does it signify at all—that the author of Sophie’s Choice chooses as his protagonist an inmate of Auschwitz who is a Polish Catholic? Here is a fictional decision that by no means contradicts a historical reality. It is the truth—but is it the whole truth, the representative truth? And again, under the rules of fiction, why must a writer’s character be representative of a statistical norm? Under the rules of fiction, if Bovary is not typical of most French women, and if Karenina is not typical of most Russian women, why should William Styron’s Sophie be representative of the preponderant female population of Auschwitz? What does the autonomy of the imagination owe to a demographic datum? Or ask instead, what does individual suffering owe to the norm? Will the identity of the norm dare to compromise or diminish or denigrate one woman’s anguish?



Come now to Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader,2 a novel by a practicing judge, a professor of law at the University of Berlin, and recently a visiting professor at Touro Law School, a Jewish-sponsored institution in New York. This work, too, is an admired favorite among Jewish readers. Its narrator is a law student who is presented as a self-conscious member of the “second generation”—the children of those who were responsible for the Nazi regime. The narrative begins postwar, when an intellectual teen-age boy, the future law student, strikes up an unexpected friendship with a streetcar conductor, a woman markedly older than himself. The disparate friends rapidly become lovers, and their affair takes on an unusual routine of added romantic pleasure: in scenes tender and picturesque, as in a Dutch interior, the boy reads aloud to the woman. Only many years later—the occasion is a war crimes’ trial—is the woman revealed as an illiterate. And as something else besides: she is a former SS guard in a camp dedicated to the murder of Jews. An unsuspecting youth in the arms of an unconfessed female Nazi: over this retrospective image falls, unavoidably, the shadow of what some call Nazi porn.

Contemplating the predicament of young Germans after their nation’s defeat, the narrator asks, “What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? . . . Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt?” “Our parents,” he explains,

had played a variety of roles in the Third Reich. Several among our fathers had been in the war, two or three of them as officers of the Wehrmacht and one as an officer of the Waffen SS. Some of them had held positions in the judiciary or local government. Our parents also included teachers and doctors, and . . . a high official in the Ministry of the Interior.

In short, an educated generation. To the narrator’s observations, let us add Goebbels, a novelist and playwright, Speer, an accomplished architect, and perhaps also Goering, an art collector with a taste for masterpieces. None of this can surprise. Germany before World War II was known to have the most educated population in Europe, with the highest standard of literacy. Yet the plot of Schlink’s narrative turns not on the literacy that was overwhelmingly typical of Germany, but rather on an anomalous case of illiteracy, which the novel itself recognizes as freakish.

And this freakishness is Schlink’s premise and his novel’s engine: an unlettered woman who, because she could not read a paper offering her a job in a factory, passed up the chance and was sent instead to serve in a brutal camp. After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.

Again the fictive imagination presses its question: is the novelist obligated to represent typicality? If virtually universal literacy was the German reality, how can a novel, under the rules of fiction, be faulted for choosing what is atypical? The novelist is neither sociologist, nor journalist, nor demographer, nor reality-imitator; and never mind that the grotesquely atypical turns out to be, in this work by a member of the shamed and remorseful second generation, a means of exculpation. Characters come as they will, in whatever form, one by one; and the rights of imagination are not the rights of history. A work of fiction, by definition, cannot betray history. Nor must a novel be expected to perform like a camera.



If there is any answer at all to this argument (and the argument has force), it must lie in the novelist’s intention. Intention is almost always a private, or perhaps a secret, affair, and we may never have access to it. Besides, the writer’s motivation does not always reveal itself even to the writer. It would seem, though, that when a novel comes to us with the claim that it is directed consciously toward history, that the divide between history and the imagination is being purposefully bridged, that the bridging is the very point, and that the design of the novel is to put human flesh on historical notation, then the argument for fictional autonomy collapses, and the rights of history can begin to urge their own force. The investigation of motive is history’s task, and here a suspicion emerges: that Sophie in Styron’s novel was not conceived as a free fictional happenstance, but as an inscribed symbolic figure, perhaps intended to displace a more commonly perceived symbolic figure—Anne Frank, let us say; and that the unlettered woman in Schlink’s novel is the product, conscious or not, of a desire to divert from the culpability of a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur.



Everything the camera has guilelessly shown—the burning of Jewish houses of worship, the burning of Jewish books, the humiliation of Jewish fathers, the terrorization of Jewish children, the ditches heaped with Jewish dead—touches on the fate of Jews in 20th-century Europe. The pictures are fixed. In the less stable realm of words, the ghastly syllables of “Auschwitz” have resolutely come to denote the destruction of Jewish lives, Jewish academies and libraries, the whole vast organism of European Jewish civilization. Then how is it possible for a writer to set forth as a purposeful embodiment of the inmost meaning of the camps any emblem other than a Jewish emblem? It is possible the way it is possible to plant crosses, with heated intent, over the soil of Auschwitz. Sophie is not so much an individual as she is a counter-individual. She is not so much a character in a novel as she is a softly polemical device to distract us from the epitome. The faith and culture of Catholic Poles were not the faith and culture of the millions targeted by the explicit dogmas of the Final Solution. Styron’s Sophie deflects from the total annihilation of Jewish presence in a Poland that continues with its land, language, religion, and institutions intact.

And when a writer describes in his novel the generation complicit in Jewish genocide as rife with members of the judiciary, physicians, lawyers, teachers, government officials, army officers, and so on, what are we to think when he fabricates a tale of German brutality premised on the pitiful absence of the alphabet? Who would not pity the helplessness of an illiterate, even when she belongs to the criminal SS? Have we ever before, in or out of fiction, been asked to pity a direct accomplice to Nazi murder? Here again is a softly rhetorical work that deflects from the epitome. It was not the illiterates of Germany who ordered the burning of books.

In the name of the autonomous rights of fiction, in the name of the sublime rights of the imagination, anomaly sweeps away memory; anomaly displaces history. In the beginning was not the word, but the camera—and at that time, in that place, the camera did not mislead. It saw what was there to see. The word came later, and in some instances it came not to illumine but to corrupt.



1 Translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 155 pp., $20.00.

2 Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. Pantheon, 160 pp., $21.00.


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