Commentary Magazine

The Literature of the Holocaust

In the twenty years since the war ended the flood of literature on the Nazi atrocities has never slackened; gradually, however, its style has changed and its direction. To the libraries full of documentary material, and the shelf upon shelf of more or less abstract analyses of the madness, a little genuinely creative work is slowly being added. There have, of course, been concentration-camp novels by the hundred, but even setting aside the cheaply sensational, few of them could claim much as literature. With rare exceptions, there are qualities that elude even the best, leaving them in some half-world of art.

The root of the trouble lies in the enormity and the truth of the events they describe. Consider, for example, Josef Bor's Terezín Requiem1 and Elie Wiesel's Night, 2 both serious works by serious men, both well thought of, and both imaginative rehandlings of incidents that really took place. Bor's work is about a performance of Verdi's Requiem, conducted by Raphael Schacter in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. The subtitle is “A Narrative of the Human Spirit”—justifiably, for the whole thing was an extraordinary triumph: the organization of a big choir, soloists, and orchestra, constant rehearsals, and a final performance in the teeth of the Nazis, the transports, and the whole chaos of the time. It is, in short, a real-life allegory of art poising itself precariously against destruction.

Night is more personal and very much more painful, less an allegory than a scantily fictionalized autobiography. A young boy and his father are transported from a Hungarian ghetto to Auschwitz, where they endure months of degradation, brutality, and hunger. Finally, as the Red Army closes in, they are evacuated through the frozen countryside to Buchenwald. There the father dies slowly of dysentery, while his son nurses him fearfully, guiltily, resentfully. It is here, not in the cruelty, that the sense of shock which vibrates so continuously through the book is located:

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But 1 had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like—free at last!

Wiesel's pain lies in the discovery that neither love, filial piety, nor his intense Talmudic training can stand up against extremes of starvation and fear. On the road to survival everything goes, leaving only the most primitive terrors and desires.

As a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism. But like The Terezín Requiem and dozens of other equally sincere, equally distressing books, it is a failure as a work of art. As the passage above shows, when what Wiesel has to say becomes intolerable for him, he falls back on rhetoric. The terror and the failure are stated, but their real potency is never quite expressed. So they become unreal, remote, something out there. Perhaps the answer to that is a massive “So what? The atrocities and their exposure are more urgent than art.” I don't believe this, and for reasons beyond the obvious one: that from the fragile, tentative, individual discriminations of art emerge precisely those moral values which, if understood and accepted, would make totalitarian atrocities impossible.

It is partly a question of time. The atrocities have in no way been diminished by their twenty years' distance, but their meaning has changed slightly, and in changing it has become more, rather than less, urgent. In the beginning, the horror of the camps was heightened by a certain relief—“Thank God it wasn't me”—and this in turn provoked guilt. To judge from their writing, even former inmates seem to have felt obscurely guilty at having survived when friends and family had gone under—as though survival were almost a mark of cowardice, as though it certainly meant, for them, that they had had to compromise with the omnipresent and contagious corruption. For the rest of us, there was the far obscurer guilt of being Jews who had never been exposed to the camps at all. In these circumstances, the rhetoric of so much concentration-camp literature was comforting; it enabled us to feel engaged while in reality preserving our safe distance. Since then the situation has changed. The question of survival is less obvious, but more ubiquitous, more pervasive. I once suggested (in a piece for the Atlantic Monthly, December 1962) that one of the reasons why the camps continue to keep such a tight hold on our imaginations is that we see in them a small-scale trial run for a nuclear war. Between 1940 and 1945, four-and-a-half-million people died in Auschwitz; the same number would die in minutes if a hydrogen bomb landed on London or New York. Then there are those other curious, upside-down similarities: the use of modern industrial processes for the mass production of corpses, with all the attendant paraphernalia of efficiency, meticulous paperwork, and bureaucratic organization; the deliberate annihilation not merely of lives but of identities, as in some paranoid vision of a mass culture. And so on. It adds up to a perverted, lunatic parody of our own engulfing but otherwise comfortable technological societies. So the literature of the camps has become, insidiously and unanswerably, our own under-literature. Its connections with our lives, our despairs, our fantasies are subterranean but constant and powerful. When the façade of our bright, jazzy, careless affluence rifts, and our well-conditioned domestic psyches explode, what oozes out is the same sour destructiveness—passive or active, the need to destroy or be destroyed—as once, for some years, contaminated almost the whole of European morality. If our century has invented unprecedented ways of making life easier, it has also provided us with multitudinous, sophisticated, and equally unprecedented means of annihilation. The camps are a proof of that, and a working model. In them the language of our sickness was created.


All this is more or less cliché, more or less accepted. The problem is to know to what extent the acceptance implies understanding, and the understanding affects our behavior:

Probably, we shall never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city. . . . The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it. For if tens of millions were killed in concentration camps out of the inexorable agonies and contractions of super-states founded upon the always insoluble contradictions of injustice, one was then obliged also to see that no matter how crippled and perverted an image of man was the society he had created, it was nonetheless his creation, his collective creation (at least his collective creation from the past) and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the more hideous of questions about his own nature?

That is how Norman Mailer began “The White Negro.” His thesis was that contemporary stresses were so great that psychopathic behavior had become an existential necessity. But I presume that he was defining something rather closer to himself than hipsterism; rather, he was working out how he could preserve his identity as a creative artist against the sheerness, violence, and anonymity of his society. The answer he came up with was: By behaving badly. Since the camps and the bomb were also created in our image, then anything goes.

There seems a certain paradoxical sanity in this. The camps are no longer such “a world apart” as they were when David Rousset wrote his book of that name, and they seem to be getting increasingly closer. Indeed, something like the Eichmann, Dering, and Frankfurt Trials should, I think, be continually in progress, not for the sake of revenge—which is a concept scarcely relevant to such obscenities and so many million deaths—nor to humiliate the Germans—which seems, anyway, to be impossible—but simply to remind us of the kind of society we have created, and what we are capable of.

Anyone trying to create imaginative art out of the experience of the concentration camps has to face much the same problems as Mailer defined in “The White Negro,” but in a much more extreme form. He has, in fact, to do the impossible. He must create a coherent artistic world out of one which was the deliberate negation of all values. He must exercise his imagination on situations which, in proved, lived fact, were beyond the imagination, and on circumstances where the imagination, with its power of making things come nervously close, was potentially the most dangerous and destructive of all qualities. He has to take the utterly psychopathic as his norm, and make art out of the forces of anti-art.

It is here that so many of the holocaust novels fail. Wiesel and Bor, for example, both write as though the stories they told were essentially like any other—however much more terrible; as though, that is, they were available to normal human values. If the results seem excessive, even a bit journalistic, that is less because the authors overwrite than because the feelings are so fiercely present in the barest recital of the facts that any attempt to elaborate, underline, or explain them seems like wild overstatement. The process by which a child is not merely forced to witness the gradual death of his father, but is also forced to acknowledge that he is glad and relieved when the old man dies—in short, when he psychically becomes his father's murderer—may fit naturally enough into the shorthand of dreams and psychosis; it is, however, beyond the conventional language of guilt and grief and suffering. Similarly, the episode Bor describes is beyond propaganda, even propaganda for the human spirit. The camps, of course, can be used devastatingly for political ends, as the Israeli and Eastern European governments well know (Poland now has a Department of Martyrology specifically for this). But in being so used, they lose a good deal of their inner truth and power; they become, in a way, less important.


The difficulty is to find language for this world without values, with its meticulously controlled lunacy and bureaucracy of suffering. Perhaps the most convincing way is that by which dreams express anguish: by displacement, disguise, and indirection. The most powerful exception is the Pole, Tadeusz Borowski, who alone managed to convey the full force of the concentration camp experience while he was still close to it in time.3 His style is curt, icy, and brutally direct; and he assuaged his survivor's guilt by a kind of moral self-destruction: he identified with the evil he described. Although in reality he is said to have behaved with great courage in Auschwitz, in his stories he transforms and degrades himself. The first-person singular narrator is well up in the prisoners' hierarchy and well in with it; he is a politico, a spiv with a cushy job, egotistical, well-fed, and mostly impervious to the horrors around him. His anger is all for the weakness of those who go under, forcing him into the parallel weakness of being shocked and sickened. Indeed, anger is the dominant, the determining force in these stories. Czeslaw Milosz, writing of Borowski in The Captive Mind, called him “a frustrated lover.” He meant, I take it, that the springs of feeling were poisoned in Borowski by the facts he had to face, leaving only a dry rage that such things should be. So all he could do was present a bare record of how and why love had to fail. Borowski himself has been quoted as describing his work as “a journey to the utmost limit of a certain kind of morality.” But he eventually took the step beyond that limit. His anger turned increasingly on himself; he gave up his creative work and immersed himself increasingly in Stalinist politics. Finally, having escaped the Zyklon B of Auschwitz, he gassed himself at home in 1951.

Borowski's work brings home the full double force of that phrase, l'univers concentrationnaire. It refers not only to the closed world without value of the camps, but also to the insupportable concentration of the universe on one man's back. It suggests what happens when a sensitive man experiences so much that he can no longer properly cope with his reactions, and the burden of them becomes intolerable. All that remains to do is to record the bare facts clearly, sharply, and without comment. The judgments are there by omission. Around Borowski's stories there is a kind of moral silence, like the pause which follows a scream.

Something of the same method was used by the brilliant young Polish director, Andrzej Munk, in his recent, though posthumous, film about Auschwitz, The Passenger. The main story concerns an ambivalent, deviously Lesbian conflict between a German woman overseer and a Polish prisoner. But it is played out against a background of routine, rather than polemic, horror: children queue docilely for the gas-chamber, while a comfortable, fatherly German soldier sets in order the pellets of Zyklon B; the incinerators belch thick, human smoke, and nobody notices; the whistle of a transport bringing new “material” interrupts a Bach concert, at which the camp staff sit poker-backed, proper and smilingly absorbed; the camp orchestra tootles away while the corpses are brought in after the day's labor; the S.S. amuse themselves with nightmare sports with naked women and dogs. The brutalities are casual, habitual, anonymous, and to one side. Emotionally, they seem to occur only in one corner of the screen.

Like Borowski, Munk died before his time, killed in a car crash before he could finish The Passenger. Considering the minute amount of traffic in Poland, even in 1961, this in itself was almost an achievement. Yet it seems, in a way, to have been inevitable. The concentration camps are a dangerous topic to handle. They stir mud from the bottom, clouding the mind, rousing dormant self-destructiveness. In the last few years I personally have known half-a-dozen suicides or near suicides; and each has prefaced his act with a fierce immersion in the literature of the camps. That is why I suggested that these places, these crimes, have an existential meaning beyond politics or shock or pity. They have become symbols of our own in-turned nihilism, which their disproportionately vast scale heightens, even justifies, by making individual suffering seem so insignificant. In his fumbling way, I imagine Arthur Miller was after something like this when he thumbed an emotional lift from Dachau in After the Fall. Granted, he cheapened all those deaths by using them to say things which were trite, vulgar, and reeking of self-pity. But quality apart, there was a kind of sense in his maneuver: the camps have become a focus of contemporary suffering. The worse things get, the closer and more meaningful they become; as in some modern Grail Legend, everyone was wounded by that Dolorous Stroke. So the crime against humanity, as Mailer suggested, becomes also a projection of one's own inner violence and misery. Clearly, it is at this point that the apparently trivial aesthetic question of tone becomes vital.

Borowski's ultimate brutality with himself helped him to take the camps straight and yet make art out of them. More recently, a number of holocaust books have appeared which are surprisingly convincing as novels in their own right. But a great deal of the imaginative effort which went into them is devoted to finding ways round the basic premise: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

The least evasive, most conventional, and probably earliest (the dates of the original publications are not given in the translations) are the stories of the Czech writer Arnost Lustig, Night and Hope4 and Diamonds in the Night 5 . These have something of Borowski's directness, but they lack almost entirely that sense the Pole gives of the utter decadence and corruption of everyone in the camps, particularly the narrator and his fellow prisoners. Lustig's figures have the remnants of a certain pathetic loyalty to each other, and a certain pitiable innocence. And for a good reason, which is also the source of the stories' power: his murderous, agile scarecrows, who treat death, starvation, and pain as casually as the weather, are all children. It is only when you pause to take this in—Lustig never insists on it, scarcely even bothers to mention it—that the stories become unthinkable.

Herod's Children,6 a recent novel by an Austrian, Ilse Aichinger, has the same subject—a group of young, mostly Jewish, children in Nazi Vienna—but the treatment is the exact opposite of Lustig's. The style of Herod's Children is oblique, poetic, and highly-strung as a racehorse. The young heroine wanders through the book in a kind of hallucinated trance in which sharp impressions, insights, symbols, action, and fragments of poetry continually shift and merge. The book has about it an air of slightly transposed high feeling which I don't much like, a sensitivity so acute that it ends by being sensitive only to itself. It is saved from hyperaesthesia only by the harshness of the events it describes, and by a feeling, common to all holocaust literature, of desperation of purpose—as though writing the novel were the author's only hope of survival. The result is something like a dream: full of odd shifts and flights and happenings, and infused with unbearable but continually displaced emotion.

Aichinger's dream of sensitivity in the teeth of horror, and Lustig's tender yet indignant factuality, both manage to present visions of childhoods twisted beyond all possible repair, yet still retaining something of their original alertness and spontaneous generosity. They also represent the two most obvious and accepted solutions for coming to terms with the camps. The Czech's unflickering sense of fact is a way in for a political interpretation; his stories could be used as documents (and have been). In contrast, the Austrian's sensitivity is an oblique insistence on art and personal interpretation as the only possible means of salvation or understanding. But both miss something of the adult sense of intolerable violence right under the skin, of the camps exploding at this instant in our lives.

It is this quality which is achieved in two of the most complete and original disaster novels, which are also the most recent: Jorge Semprun's The Long Voyage 7 and Piotr Rawicz's Blood from the Sky.8 Both were originally written in French, though neither author is a Frenchman (Semprun was born in Spain, Rawicz in the Ukraine); both have a studiedly Parisian manner, hard, clever, cynical, highly intellectual; both find imaginative ways around the atrocities, so that they tap the reserves of threat and terror without ever quite meeting them head-on. Otherwise they are totally different.

Rawicz never mentions the concentration camps, though he himself was in three of them. He has written a strange portmanteau of a novel, stuffed with fantasies, poems, parables, bits of philosophy, and a lunatic humor which is rarely funny but often frightening. The hold-all in which all these notes and queries are packed is the story of a young, wealthy, highly cultivated Ukrainian Jew who, thanks to blond hair, blue eyes, and cunning, escapes the camps altogether. He is doomed to live, with an alias and an identity not his own, while his whole society is being exterminated. And he is by no means certain if he has the better bargain. The fantastic threat of the story comes and goes, yet remains compulsive. Oddly enough, the fragments and diversions strengthen it. The sour-mouthed poems, the notes on disgust, weary meditations and mad allegories, all contribute to the same condemnation: the whole world has become murderous, hypocritical, corrupt, and moneygrubbing; and the victims are as contaminated as their torturers. The Jews, the Nazis, and the Jew-hating, German-hating Poles all swim in the same filth; the effort to keep afloat only provokes in the author weariness and self-disgust. It is an imaginative projection of the dead-end moral nihilism embodied in the camps. If at times the writing is too brittle, the brilliance too “brilliant,” the cynicism too tricksy, these may be necessary defenses. Like Dante's terza rima, they are a means of preserving a degree of detachment between the artist and the inferno; they insulate the book from the screaming and outrage in the next room, and also from a pity which could not be handled.


Where Rawicz uses diversionary tactics to convey intensities which he could not otherwise express, Semprun, in a unique way, seems wholly to have assimilated his experience in Buchenwald. Granted, The Long Voyage is not quite about his time there; his subject is the journey to the camp and the return, but by using a complicated Proustian time-scheme, he transforms this into a summation of his whole life. The figures from his childhood, his companions in the Resistance, his fellow transportees and camp inmates, the S.S., the guards, the peasants from the neighboring German village, and the liberators are all seen sub specie of the concentration camp. Semprun uses Buchenwald and the knowledge of what happened in the same way as Matthew Arnold used his literary touchstones. How do people measure up to it as men? How do they react, justify their part in the process, or their refusal to see? What is the mentality of the modern bureaucratic killer, his accomplices, and his victims? How do you choose or fail to choose your fate when the conditions become so extreme that you can no longer avoid the responsibility?

Semprun's style is tough—tougher perhaps for being excellently translated into Hemingwayese—but the toughness is not of a muscle-flexing kind. It is, instead, a question of a certain hardness of intelligence, probing away at the complex fate of having an identity. He is also—and this alone would make him unique in the field—genuinely funny at times, with the burnt-out wit of a man who has come through: “Remember, getting there is half the fun,” the narrator remarks to his companion when the going gets particularly rough. In this poised, questioning setting, the rare details of camp horror—such as a ghastly hunt of Jewish children by the S.S. and their dogs—explode like some shouted obscenity.

What Semprun is doing, in short, is exploring the possibilities of human behavior in inhuman circumstances. The extreme situation is a catalyst which works in two ways: it either disintegrates a personality or precipitates it. He is trying to demonstrate imaginatively that from the absence itself of morality a morality can emerge. And this seems to have been a part of the experience as it really was. One of the most moving moments of the Dering trial in London9 came in the testimony of a French woman doctor: soon after she arrived in Auschwitz she asked a colleague, also a woman, whether or not she should cooperate with the S.S. in their experiments. The other doctor replied, in effect, “We have probably only a few weeks to live. In that time we can at least try to behave like human beings.” Semprun's achievement is to have made this form of bare moral survival into an aesthetic, creative procedure. Instead of taking the easy way out—sensationalism, journalism, hysteria, self-pity—he uses intelligence, humor, and pity to make something positive out of hell. The technical accomplishment is an image of the personal achievement involved. If the book was hard to write, it must have been doubly hard to have arrived at the point of being able to write it in that way.

Rawicz's effort, on the other hand, is channeled in the opposite direction; he makes his art out of disintegration. His hero survives by an act of treason to himself and his people, by assuming an identity which is his own turned upside down; the aristocratic Jewish poet comes through by becoming a cloddish, anti-Semitic Ukrainian farmhand. Inevitably, this betrayal of himself produces guilt, nightmare, and the glimmerings of madness. Hence Rawicz's schizophrenic style—a style, that is, dictated by what the psychologists call “inappropriateness of affect”: trivial incidents provoke despair, and horrors make for icy control or manic humor; nowhere is it ever possible wholly to get through to anyone else.

Before Semprun and Rawicz published their novels, the literature of the concentration camps was a specialized subject, a subdivision of the history of an insult to humanity. The real destructive nihilism acted out in the camps was expressed artistically only in works like Beckett's Endgame or Waiting for Godot, in which the naked unaccommodated man is reduced to the role of helpless, hopeless, impotent comic, who talks and talks and talks in order to postpone for a while the silence of his own desolation. But this was only an abstraction from l'univers concentrationnaire, an echo at best of its state of mind. The Long Voyage and Blood from the Sky, however, provide two opposite ways of coping with the nihilism at the same time as they show it in action; they people hell and describe its geography. By making it potent to the imagination, they make it also relevant to our own, mercifully more humdrum lives. And this, as Rawicz insists in the postscript to his book, is the purpose of the whole operation:

This book is not a historical record.

If the notion of chance (like most other notions) did not strike the author as absurd, he would gladly say that any reference to a particular period, territory, or race is purely coincidental.

The events that he describes could crop up in any place, at any time, in the mind of any man, planet, mineral. . . .


1 Knopf, 112 pp., $3.50.

2 Hill & Wang (1960), 116 pp., $3.00 (cloth), $1.35 (paper).

3 Two of his stories have appeared in translation: “A Day at Harmenz” is in The Modern Polish Mind, ed. Maria Kuncewitz, Little, Brown & Co., 440 pp., $8.50; and “This Way for the Gas” is in COMMENTARY, July 1962. They were originally in collections published in Poland in 1946 and 1948.

4 Dutton, 206 pp., $3.95.

5 Arthur Vanous, 273 pp., $.90.

6 Atheneum, 238 pp., $4.50.

7 Grove, 240 pp., $4.50.

8 Harcourt, Brace & World, 316 pp., $4.95.

9 See Mary Ellmann's article in the July COMMENTARY.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.