The Holocaust in literature
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. This fall, students are learning about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students will begin interviewing local Holocaust survivors and will write their memoirs on the basis of the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. Many students used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the value of literature in transmitting Holocaust memory. Here are a few excerpts.
The role of literature in preserving history is controversial but important. Understandably, there are people who are reluctant or even vehemently opposed to recording the Holocaust through the lens of art, concerned that the act of rewriting events in a fictional context may undermine the significance of the tragedy. Others may worry that historical inaccuracies are inevitable in these artistic works, thus doing a disservice to the victims and betraying their memories.
I would argue otherwise: that literature and historical facts can and should build upon one another, used to educate and not obscure. For me, reading our history textbook this semester has not always been easy, but reading the short story A Ghetto Dog by Isaiah Spiegel took the experience to a different level. Such is the power of narrative. As Menachem Kaiser wrote in his article “The Holocaust’s uneasy relationship with literature” (The Atlantic, Dec. 28, 2010), “literature affects us in ways that even the most brutal history cannot.” Literature makes the event close, immediate and personal. It’s hard for me to imagine being a Jew in Second World War Europe, but personal accounts and narratives come close to letting us immerse ourselves in the tragedy.
– Athina Leung
In his article “The Holocaust’s uneasy relationship with literature,” Kaiser argues that Holocaust literature is an important part of history. It can provide the emotional connection that reading facts cannot. It is a window to understand what people felt without having to experience the ordeal that the characters or author went through. Literature has the power to move the human heart. Facts are important, but they do not give the reader the ability to connect with history in ways that a more emotional and personal experience can provide.
– Tina Macaspac
I found the assigned reading, “The Holocaust’s uneasy relationship with literature,” to be incredibly relevant and thought-provoking. This article discusses the various difficulties associated with Holocaust literature, including the opinion by some historians that the only valid way to recount the Holocaust is through historical facts and memoirs. I agree that acquiring factual knowledge about the Holocaust is integral, and that reading historical documents is essential. However, I find myself disagreeing with the perspective that Holocaust literature is distasteful or discrediting to the Holocaust. Rather, literature provides an alternative, more emotional perspective that one cannot acquire from reading a fact-based history textbook. This week, for example, we read the short story A Ghetto Dog, which narrates the tale of the Jewish widow Anna and her dog Nicky. While I was aware of the facts (in this case, Jews being rounded up by Nazi troops) from a historical perspective, the story emphasized the feelings of helplessness and exhaustion that Holocaust victims and survivors felt. It touched a part of me in a way that facts and statistics could not.
– Emma Proctor
In A Ghetto Dog, the widow Anna and her dog Nicky are persecuted under the Nazi regime and forced to move into a ghetto. It is very clear from the beginning that Nicky is extremely important to Anna, and that he is her last remaining tie, not only to her deceased husband, but to her home.
The Nazis took livestock and any useful animals away from the Jewish people in order to make a profit. The livestock had value, which is why they were kept alive. People’s dogs, however, were not valuable to the Nazis, and that is one reason the dogs were killed.
Another reason was psychological. To the Nazis, it was important to wound people emotionally in order to conquer them. In the story, there were Jewish children dragging their dogs on ropes and leashes, bringing their pets, beloved family members, to be put to death. Dogs were part of a support system and, as with Anna, were reminders of home. To kill these dogs was to kill hope of return. The deaths of dogs were a stern reminder that just as easily as they could kill animals, Nazis could kill humans.
– Yukiko Takahashi-Lai