Commentary Magazine

Imagining the Holocaust

Throughout every facet of contemporary culture the Holocaust—the systematic murder of six million European Jews under Hitler—has become the particular image for the barbarism of our time, the modern paradigm of man’s inhumanity to man. As A. Alvarez wrote in these pages some twelve years ago, specifically about the impact of the Holocaust on literature, the concentration camps “have become symbols of our own inturned nihilism . . . in them, the language of our sickness was created.”1 A corresponding effort to understand and explain the Holocaust has proceeded by analogy, pointing out alleged resemblances between what happened in the death camps and other atrocities that have occurred in modern times, or between the Nazi machinery of destruction and the real and sometimes imagined structure of modern life in general. In the same article Alvarez went on to suggest that the concentration camps of World War II were “a small-scale trial run for a nuclear war”; that they bore a resemblance to contemporary mass technological society with its apparatus for the annihilation of personal identity; and that an analogy between them and the general Angst of the post-modern age might be inferred from such texts as Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” Other apparent parallels to the Holocaust that have been invoked in recent years range from the Soviet prison camps of the Stalin era to the various civilian massacres committed during the Vietnam war.

Yet all such comparisons to the particular horror of the Holocaust are ultimately inadequate, most of them for obvious reasons. Before the Holocaust occurred, history simply Had not provided anything remotely resembling the apocalyptic totality and programmatic terror of the Nazi effort—so nearly successful—to destroy the Jews of Europe. Not even the long and barbaric history of anti-Semitism offered precedent for the colossal scale and cunning efficiency which the execution of atrocity assumed in Nazi hands, the bizarre ordinariness of its procedures, or, for that matter, the utter disbelief engendered among those who heard the earliest reports of it.

If the Holocaust was exceptional in history, the literary imagination likewise never conceived situations or images equal to the actuality of the events themselves. Even the modernist movement’s most flamboyant and surrealistic celebrations of violence, like Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Marinetti’s gun-toting Futurism, or Celine’s journeys to the end of nihilism, failed to anticipate the precise shape of the Nazi war against the Jews. Nor, despite the endeavors of critics like George Steiner to draw a connection, do Kafka’s bureaucratic night-mares approach the infinitely darker logic that came to full expression in the Holocaust

The exceptional quality of that logic, in whose name the most extreme cruelties were committed and suffered as routine activities of daily existence, has rendered the Holocaust a kind of anomaly, as though there still remains something unbelievable in the fact that it transpired within the ordinary course of human history. And the same exceptional quality has also frustrated nearly every attempt over the past thirty years, on the part of philosophers, theologians, critics, and artists alike, to discover within the Holocaust some universal significance.

The intractability of the events themselves, their resistance to all efforts of the imagination to apprehend them, becomes most evident first in the written record of the Holocaust, in the documents composed during the war by both Germans and Jews, and in the autobiographical memoirs and depositions made in its aftermath. All such accounts bear the imprint of the particular meaning which the author discovered for himself within the terms of his own experience, yet these individual meanings tend to be eclipsed by the immense spectacle of six million dead. On the other hand, the bare statement of the main facts, the mere recitation of atrocity, is likely to appear too implausible to be believed; it rebounds off the imagination, leaving scarcely a trace.

The amount of documentary material dating from the Holocaust, both German and Jewish, is staggering—more than fifteen million pages. In A Holocaust Reader,2 an anthology of primary documents prepared as a companion volume to her magisterial study, The War Against the Jews, Lucy S. Dawidowicz has now provided a clear and definitive guide to this literature. As Mrs. Dawidowicz points out in her introduction, virtually all the documents dealing with the Final Solution, from the Jewish side as well as from the German one, are highly ambiguous and problematical, and present special difficulties to the historian who relies on them. The extreme political and social exigencies of the Holocaust forced both Germans and Jews, each for different reasons, to adopt methods of concealment in their writings. Jews as well as Germans employed code-names and euphemisms to disguise the import of their messages. The Jews, moreover, because they understood only too well those locutions which the Nazis were willing to tolerate, were also frequently compelled to utilize an obsequious and accommodating style that imitated Nazi-Deutsch, a language whose syntactical and semantic structures were already designed to distort reality through language.

An even greater obstacle to the historian than the stylistic distortions of these documents are their omissions and silences. The Germans, as is well known, were careful not to refer openly to their extermination of the Jews, a fact which makes Heinrich Himmler’s statement about the Final Solution, in a secret speech to the SS, especially revealing: “In our history, this is an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory” (emphasis added). Similar lacunae characterize the Jewish documents. As Mrs. Dawidowicz remarks, no records exist for some of the most crucial episodes in the Holocaust, none for the relations between the underground movements and the Naziappointed Jewish councils, none concerning the actual decisions involving the life and death of the Jews in the ghettos. Still more flagrant distortions arise in documents composed after the war—both in the depositions made by Germans attempting to exonerate themselves from criminal prosecution, and in accounts of Jewish survivors, whose historical accuracy is often marred by political bias, plain sentimentality, or even “existential guilt” over having escaped death.

The incomplete and misleading features of these documents suggest the actual fragmentariness of our knowledge about the Holocaust, as if the story had only been partially retrieved from a secret niche in history—a fact literally true of the Jewish documents, many of which were preserved in clandestine archives. Through judicious selection, Mrs. Dawidowicz has organized the documents in her anthology to provide an “infrastructure” for a historical narrative of the catastrophe, and she has wisely—perhaps for reasons of tact—divided the German and Jewish testimony into two sections, including among the latter secret memoranda, underground poems, and appeals. Yet while the combined power of the two sections on the reader is overwhelming, from the earliest specimens of Nazi anti-Jewish legislation and the painfully quixotic, even naive Jewish responses to them, through the interim stage of ghettoization, to the graphic descriptions of the death camps themselves, the course taken by the Holocaust as it emerges from these collected documents seems both inexorable and utterly lacking in logic. This sense of illogic in turn is heightened by the almost awesome disparity between the German and Jewish texts. A report by the SS General Jürgen Stroop, on the one hand, and a long narrative by Yitzhak Zuckerman,3 on the other, though they both describe the Warsaw uprising and the destruction of the ghetto, might have been written about two wholly distinct events, or have been composed on two different planets.



Primary documents can never themselves comprise the totality of the historical past, but the special difficulties which historians, relying on such documents, have encountered in formulating even partial explanations of the Holocaust suggest the still greater difficulty confronting anyone who would attempt to understand the human reality behind it. Numerous such attempts have of course been made—theological, philosophical, psychological. Inevitably, most have focused upon the varieties of behavior that emerged within the Nazi death camps, among the victimizers as well as among their victims.

Among the different interpretations the best-known are the psychoanalytic ones, particularly that of Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor himself (though of a labor, not a death, camp),—who in The Informed Heart tried to show how the concentration camps were deliberately designed not only to murder but to degrade their prisoners psychologically, to reduce them in a state of childlike helplessness which made resistance on their part impossible. Despite the partiality of his views—Bettelheim approved of acts of defiance even though in the circumstances of the camps they were tantamount to suicide, and implicitly criticized prisoners who failed to. “resist” in this way—his theory has remained the standard account of behavior in extremity.

In The Survivor,4 Terrence Des Pres has now attempted an alternative description, in direct repudiation of Bettelheim, on the basis of a systematic study of testimony composed by survivors themselves. From seventy-seven accounts, written by former prisoners in both German and Soviet concentration camps (mostly the former), Des Pres has selected a number of common themes, patterns, and reactions, and through extensive quotation from his sources has constructed a composite voice to describe the anatomy of life in the camps.

As it emerges from his reconstruction, the world of the death camps concealed beneath its surface layer of atrocity an “underlife” of social order in which prisoners collectively resisted the absolute evil oppressing them Within this substratum of existence, Des Pres discovers a fundamental decency, a “structure of humanness,” characterized by symbolic gestures like gift-giving, as well as by acts like stealing and smuggling, which would be considered criminal in more normative circumstances but which in the camps were crucial to physical, if not to spiritual, survival.

About all this, Des Pres is partly right. Although the point has been made before, it is valuable enough to be repeated: prisoners often helped one another to survive, some even died to do so. Others, however, did not. While the acts of betrayal, theft, and murder, all committed for the sake of survival, are understandably less well documented than those of collective generosity, Des Pres hardly mentions them. In his theory, “naturalness” of existence was typical in the death camps, and the primary values of life—conscience, dignity, and the like were not only affirmed there, but rediscovered for the first time in the modern era. From out of this “naturalness,” lies Pres also means to instruct and exhort his reader. This is the polemical aim of his book, which goes beyond the historical specifics of the camps: what survivors learned there, he says, is the basic lesson of human existence, which he defines as “the plain happiness of work and communion with others.”

The major effort of this book, an “archaic, quasi-religious” meditation, is thus to make the survivor into a new hero for our time. About the precise nature of this heroism, however, Des Pres is either confused in his mind or so ambivalent as to appear confused. At times he claims that those who survived did so because they chose to live, while those who did not failed to make this choice—as if there were no Nazis, as if the most compelling reality in the camps were not murder. At other times Des Pres suggests that survival has a biological foundation—he discovers the essential behavior of the survivor throughout the whole biosphere, from polymers to man—which renders survival a “biological imperative” of life itself. Yet how precisely the same behavior can be both a “biological imperative of life” and a demonstration of heroic choice is a contradiction Des Pres never acknowledge, let alone resolves.

At still other times, Des Pres speaks of the Holocaust as the inevitable consequence of the nihilism at the heart of Western civilization, as the direct result of the “mind-body split” and its attendant negation of biological reality: the survivor in this reading becomes “the first of civilized men to live beyond the compulsions of culture.” But in what way survivors, who lived through the Holocaust to reassume a role in culture. can be said to live “beyond the compulsions of culture,” Des Pres never explains. And even within the camps themselves, how is it possible that survivors can ever be said to have lived “beyond culture”? Des Pres’s own reconstruction of their “underlife” shows it, in fact, to have been strikingly similar to the structure of all civilized societies, unless their “naturalness” sometimes seems a little too good to be natural. Although he remarks elsewhere that “civilization broke down in the camps”—a statement which would seem to conceal some kind of truth beneath its murky abstraction—his accounting for this breakdown does not explain very much. Why, for example, did nihilism, “the destiny of Western culture,” not lead to holocausts throughout Western culture? Why did this supposedly inevitable consequence of the “mind-body split” and the deepest evil tendencies of civilization take its form as a genocide of the Jews?



Not once in his entire book, not in a single quotation from all the testimony of survivors, does Des Pres ever refer to the Jewish identity of his subjects, or to the role—which many of them acknowledge—played by their Jewishness in enabling them to survive. For Des Pres, such facts undoubtedly constitute evidence of a lower order, the order of mere historical evidence. In his version, the Holocaust was actually less a historical reality than a literary one: “Amid the Smoke of burning bodies, the great metaphors of world literature were being ‘acted out’ in terrible fact.” And, again: “The camps are there, in Milton’s poem, and in Dante’s, in the underrealms of Homer and Virgil, in Shakespeare’s Lear.” Des Pres later suggests that literary archetypes of Hell might even have culturally “determined” the camps. The problem with a speculation like this is not its carelessness—in not a single literary archetype of Hell are the tormentors of the damned also human; what is most wrong, even offensive, about it lies in the suggestion that the significance of the Holocaust is a literary one. For Des Pres, there seems to be no difference between an imagined terror and a historical one, or between imagining an event and living it. The ultimate thrust behind this presumption is to effect a kind of identification among the survivor, his tormentor, and all the rest of us: “And yes, we are monsters. We are victims. But we are also survivors.” Des Pres even has a more personal identification in mind; concluding a section in which he has described the courage and strength of those who “chose” not to despair of life, he writes grandiloquently:

They turned to face the worst straight on, without sentiment or special hope, simply to keep watch over life. . . . As one survivor says, “It was then, faced with this spectacle of physical decay, with death rising like a tide on all sides, that I decided in my mind that I must live.” That is the moment of waking, of return; and this book, as I write, enacts the same resolution, the same kind of turn . . . [emphasis added].

One might have expected some small qualification in the passage I have italicized—a “similar” instead of the repeated “same”—but it appears that Des Pres really does mean to equate living through Auschwitz with writing a book about it.



The enthusiastic reception accorded The Survivor corroborates the presence of a widespread impulse, one which the book faithfully serves, to reduce the overwhelming reality of the Holocaust to mere metaphor. This urge is understandable enough: it is a kind of last human stand against the death camps, an attempt to rescue something from the wreckage, to resist the apparently absolute incomprehensibility with which the camps still threaten the imagination. The risks which such attempts run, and the corrupt romantic posturings to which they can lead, are amply demonstrated by Des Pres’s book. In contrast, Lawrence L. Langer in The Holocaust and the Literary imagination5 is scrupulously careful not to mistake literature for reality, and never to compare our own world with l’univers concentrationnaire—to use the term coined by David Rousset, a non-Jewish survivor, to describe both the death camps’ concentrated intensity and the way in which their concentricity isolated them from every value formerly associated with humanity.

Langer’s study of Holocaust literature is meant to answer a question: can any literary treatment of the Holocaust do justice to it? Do we not traduce the awful compelling brutality of the events them-selves when we presume to mediate them through the devices of the imagination? The question ultimately derives from the controversial statement by Theodor Adorno, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and Langer is hardly the first to deliberate it. The greater originality of this book lies in its study of the specific literary techniques used by various authors to convey the details of the experience of atrocity; on the basis of these techniques Langer himself defines what he calls “the literature and aesthetics of atrocity.”

The aesthetics of aesthetics, in Langer’s view, begins with the disruption of the classical notion of tragedy, which envisions death as a significant event Tragedy gives meaning to human suffering by imposing form on violence: losing his sight, Oedipus gains insight, and through Aw recognition of his moral blindness the audience understands his fate. In this way tragedy always ends by affirming a moral order, according to which even the death of a hero ran be made significant. But where the tragic form is predicated upon the existence of this moral order, the literature of atrocity, Langer argues, is predicated upon the total dissolution Of such an order—as it was, in fact, dissolved in the camps, where brutality became ordinary and the routine of mass dying displaced individual death. This historical reality both haunts and determines the literature of atrocity. Unlike any other literature, which tries to create anew the world of the usual and familiar, the literature of atrocity works to disfigure the sensibilities of its readers, to tear them away from their own world and its securities.

The greater part of The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination is devoted to a series of precise considerations of the different ways in which novels of atrocity illustrate the impossibility of recreating in full the universe of the Holocaust, yet nevertheless discover a metaphoric language which successfully embodies the discontinuity between the death camps and everyday reality. Thus, in Mr. Theodore Mundstock, Ladislav Fuks systematically demonstrates the degree to which the prospect of atrocity can prove more terrifying than its actual experience. In Herod’s Children, Use Aichinger paints a nightmarish, surrealistic world in which all the traditional values of civilization, particularly those which center around childhood, are successively caught up and consumed in the fires of total destruction. In several of his earlier works, Jakov Lind creates an imaginative universe founded upon a unique brand of Holocaust humor verging on hysteria and horror, where tragedy turns into mad comedy.

In all these works—and in some thirteen others, including the poetry of Paul Celan and Nellie Sachs, the novels of Pierre Gascar, Jerzy Kosinski, André Schwarz-Bart, Heinrich Böll, and Jorge Semprun—Langer shows how art in confronting the Holocaust, ultimately turns into a kind of anti-art: the devices of narrative itself are finally exposed as inadequate to the atrocities. Lacking recourse to the cathartic resolution of—tragedy. these books deliberately leave their readers in a state of uncertainty—is what they depict real or fantasy, history or fiction? As Langer remarks, many of the novels themselves resist aesthetic form: through their rough edges, the historical atrocity persistently seeps in. But then, he argues, a cruel and ugly age requires a cruel and ugly art, and quotes one of Jakov Lind’s characters: “You can’t make a better world by spiriting away the shit that’s lying around the country with high-sounding words.”

Langer’s own discussions of this art are lucid, precise, and neat—perhaps too neat. One fault of the book is that Langer has not recognized the genuine significance of his subject. Because his critical method is almost entirely descriptive, rather than analytical, he never explains why. certain novels succeed in capturing the explosive reality of atrocity, while others do not or—since most of the books he deals with happen to be unusually-successful novels in their own right—how they differ. In his recounting, many of these novels sound curiously alike, as though all fictional attempts to recreate a world in which everything was possible might be equally successful, and all in the same way.

Although he is certainly correct that these books prove the exceptional and unprecedented nature of the Holocaust, Langer violates his own premise by attempting to derive from them a general theory, an entire aesthetics of atrocity. In the end his literature of atrocity remains a literature of the Holocaust, and cannot be removed beyond the edge of the gigantic shadow cast by the camps. As much as the Holocaust itself, the literature of the Holocaust remains absolutely unique—a vocabulary for an unassimilable event, inapplicable to any other.

Finally, even by Langer’s definition, the literature of the Holocaust is suffused with a curious paradox: although it never escapes beyond the borders which set l’univers concentrationnaire apart from the rest of the world, its special capacity to penetrate this reality derives not from its particular subject, not from the deepest abysses of its trauma, but from the power of the imagination—the power not only to represent the reality of atrocity, but to do what literary art always does: to observe the will in action, to grasp the implications of character, to recreate human society. Which is to say, like literature in general, the literature of the Holocaust is about the dilemmas of moral choice, its temptations, triumphs, and failures.



For there to be an exercise of moral choice, however, there must be conditions of choice. It is perhaps for this reason that most successful novels about the Holocaust, nearly all the novels which Langer discusses, surprisingly do not focus directly upon the Jews and their fate but instead linger on the periphery of the camps, on the way to them, or in their aftermath. The protagonists of these books tend to be non-Jews or, occasionally, halt-Jews—people agaìnst whom, in other words, the most lethal conditions of atrocity were not directed, for whom there did exist an authentic choice—to share the vietmization of the Jews, or not to share—and for whom the demands of morality and the exigencies of the historical moment constituted a genuine conflict

There have, of course, been many serious attempts to deal immediately with the fate of the Jews in the camps—the work of Elie Wiesel is perhaps the outstanding example. Yet even his books constitute only an apparent exception to the rule. To take but one example, there is a climactic episode in Wiesel’s semi-fictional memoir, Night, in which, Langer writes, “All the feelings which somehow define our world as a ‘civilized’ place of habitation are sacrificed.” The young narrator is describing the execution by hanging of two adult men and another boy who have been convicted of “sabotage” in Auschwitz. “The two adults were no longer alive,” he recalls. “Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.” The image—one of the most famous in all the literature of the Holocaust—is like a snapshot of atrocity, but its power derives solely from its content, as it was brutally given by the Nazis; there is nothing “imagined” about it (except, perhaps, for the buried allusion to the crucifixion). Yet here, precisely when the experience of atrocity begins to assault the imagination, Wiesel falls back on rhetoric. Instead of confronting the human brutality, he indicts God. The episode concludes with an older man’s questioning the narrator: “Where is God now?” The boy, hearing “a voice within me,” responds, “Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . . That night the soup tasted of corpses.”

As testimony of the genuine ordeal of faith which every prisoner in the camps endured, Wiesel’s book is surely unassailable. But through its failure to move beyond rhetoric, Night again suggests the sheer intractability of that experience to the resources of the literary imagination. All the horror—and disbelief of the situation are stated, but what comes across is the trauma alone, not the suffering through of a moral dilemma. Even a literature of the Holocaust, if it is to work as literature, must retain at least the bare possibility of moral struggle. Yet this, it would appear, is precisely where the literary imagination falters—before what it sees as the undífferentiated quality of the deaths Which the six million died, and the absolute degree of their victimization beforehand.

If the center of the Holocaust always lies somehow just beyond the reach of literature, there are successful treatments of this material that get at the evil circuitously, from the outside. The work of Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish writer who had been a political prisoner in Auschwitz and other camps, is the most powerful example. In a number of stories composed immediately after the war, some of which have now been reissued in English under the title of one of them, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,6 Borowski succeeds in getting inside the head of a participant in atrocity. The first-person narrator of these Stories, and their chief protagonist, vorarbeiter Tadeusz, is a Polish prisoner-of-War and minor kapo, or camp functionary; he is solidly entrenched in the camp’s inner hierarchy, deep into its corruption, and in a voice of utterly controlled irony, narrates its bizarre routine of atrocity (like the discovery of a new method for burning people alive: “You take four little kids with plenty of hair on their heads,” etc., etc.).

Although Borowski himself is said to have behaved with great courage in the camps, his choice of narrator and subject matter clearly indicates a decision to accept moral responsibility for the atrocities which he witnessed. Because of their blunt message—“There is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself”—no one comes out of these stories entirely clean, not even the Jews, who are either seen to be as corrupt as the non-Jews or who harbor all the dreams, messianic visions, and demands for justice that these stories aim to expose as sentimental baggage. But the brunt of responsibility is borne by the narrator himself, who undertakes an effort of self-degradation as brutal and almost as chilling as the stories he tells. The title story, “This Way for the Gas,”7 describes Tadeusz’s initiation into atrocity as he volunteers to help unload the Jews arriving in cattle-cars and direct them to the gas chambers. The heat, the dirty turmoil, the unwillingness of the Jews to comply quietly with his orders, finally overwhelm his sense of detached self-control:

You see, my friend you see, I don’t know why, but I am furious, simply furious with these people—furious I must be here with them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber. Damn them all! I could throw myself at them, beat them with my fists. It must be pathological, I just can’t understand.

The intensity of such passages carries a charge that seems, in retrospect, to have persisted in the symbolism surrounding Borowski’s suicide in 1951, when he stuck his head inside the gas oven in his apartment, even though the immediate causes behind his death were unrelated to the trauma of his camp experience.



A completely different approach to the central problem of the Holocaust, though one just as concentrated and furious as Borowski’s, is Michel Tournier’s novel The Ogre.8 This magnificent fairy-tale succeeds in confronting directly, and transmuting into art, the consequences of that experience for the imagination.

Abel Tiffauges, the protagonist of The Ogre, is a moose-like giant who, in a thoroughly unpredictable fashion, manages to penetrate the innermost sanctuaries of the Third Reich, and ultimately the institutions for Aryan purity which were the mirror opposites to the concentration camps within the Nazi universe. The Ogre traces Tiffauges’s strange odyssey through his diary of left-handed “Sinister Writings” and through conventional narrative: his brief period of service in the French army at the beginning of the war as a trainer of carrier-pigeons, then his adventures as a prisoner-of-war among the Germans, first as forester in the private hunting-preserve of Hermann Goering, and finally as chief assistant in a Napola or paramilitary school intended to educate and produce the future elite of the Third Reich from the most “perfectly” Aryan youth.

Incident by incident, Tiffauges’s descent into “the bestiary of East Prussia” corresponds to the downfall of the Third Reich; each ring of his descent takes Tiffauges, a gentle ogre, into a world of genuine ogres—Goering, the Ogre of Rominten, and later Hitler himself, the Ogre of Kalten-born, to whom every year the German people present a whole generation of children as a birthday present. Against this descent, which culminates in the destruction of the Napola and its army of children by the Russians, Tournier juxtaposes an elaborate, stunningly contrived system of eschatological signs, as read through the deep eyes of Tiffauges, who is convinced both that the entire war presages the apocalypse and that his own fate is intimately linked to the fate of the world. The complexity of Tiffauges’s eschatology, with its signs mediated by inversions both malign and benign, defies summary, but its basic element is the legend of St. Christopher, upon whom Tiffauges models himself, emulating the act of carrying, phoria, through which Christopher earned his sainthood when he bore the infant Christ upon his shoulders across an unnavigable river. As the defeat of the Germans comes nearer, Tiffauges’s symbolic system condenses into historical fact, into the specific shape of the Holocaust. Tiffauges rescues a Jewish child who has escaped Auschwitz, and from him learns about the existence of the death camps. Simultaneously, Tiffauges recognizes that the child, Ephraim, is even more densely inhabited by fate than himself, and that Auschwitz is the absolute malign inversion of the entire symbolic system invented in his imagination—“an infernal city remorselessly building up which corresponded stone by stone to the phoric city he himself had dreamed of . . . reflected in the horrible mirror, inverted and raised to hellish incandescence.”

Through the juxtaposition of Tiffauges’s personal odyssey, culminating in the appearance of Ephraim and his revelation of the existence of the death camps, with the system of apocalyptic symbols which Tiffauges invents, Tournier has created an authentic allegory of the relation between history and literature, between the Holocaust and the modern imagination. Tiffauges is a kind of mad symbolist poet let loose in the world, making out of history an ingenious poem, without the slightest inkling that the “poem” will finally collapse into reality, into the shape of Auschwitz. As Tiffauges bears Ephraim on his shoulders out of the Napola—it is fittingly enough the first night of Passover—The Ogre, a novel about the apocalypse, becomes as well a novel about the possibilities of redemption. In its latent messianism, with Tiffauges literally turning himself and history into a vehicle for the destiny of the Jews, the book becomes a kind of liturgical poem of lamentation, though of a highly secularized sort, faithful at once to the unspoken demands of Jewish history, and to the unyielding requirements of the tragic imagination.


1 “The Literature of the Holocaust,” November 1964.

2 Behrman House, 397 pp., $12.50; paper, $4.95.

3 Published in COMMENTARY, December 1975, under the title “From the Warsaw Ghetto.”

4 Oxford, 218 pp., $10.00.

5 Yale, 300 pp., $12.50.

6 Selected and translated by Barbara Vedder, introduction by Jan Kott, Penguin, 180 pp., $2.95.

7 First published in COMMENTARY, July 1962.

8 Translated from the French by Barbara Bray, Doubleday, 373 pp., $7.95; paper (Dell), $150.

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