Speaking of the Shoah

There are times when one must speak about the unspeakable.

I have always felt that the Holocaust was (and is) essentially nonrepresentable for those who did not suffer in the Inferno, an event of such unthinkable consequence and horror that anyone who did not experience it could scarcely claim the right to speak about it. For by doing so we almost inevitably cheapen it, turn it into worn and soiled currency, lapse into unforgivable glibness irrespective of our sincerity or ethical engagement. How can one speak about that which one has not only not undergone but cannot truly imagine? The point was forcefully made by Hannah Arendt in her Essays in Understanding, where she articulated her belief that “the ongoing problem—finding a mode of representation adequate to the transgressive nature of the phenomenon which, at the same time, does not fall into mystification—is endemic to the material and perhaps unresolvable.” Such indefeasible horror would appear to resist both language and mind—unless, we might think, one has been reduced to the level of the bestial.

In the words of Bernhard Schlink from The Reader, addressing the incommunicable nature of the Holocaust, “We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable... because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion…instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt.” Or as George Steiner put it in an incisive and harrowing essay called “The Long Life of Metaphor,” the problem “as to whether there is a human form of language adequate to the conceptualization and understanding of Auschwitz, as to whether the limits of language do not fall short of the limits of the Shoah experience, is now ineradicably installed in Jewish existence.” According to Steiner, we are still trying to come to terms with “the exit of God” from language.

Indeed, even God Himself, according to Yiddish poet Simcha Simchovich in a collection appropriately called Remnant, may have been unequal to the monstrousness of the event:

God Himself hid his face, in panic,

on that day.

Further, it seems to me that any honest and committed attempt to engage with the reality of the Holocaust, in whatever degree so unscaleable an effort is remotely possible, would require one as a Jew to change one’s life drastically, categorically, irreversibly. Assuming that he or she is somehow capable of assimilating even partially the sheer and brute occurrence of this Inconceivable, how would it then be possible to live in the daily sunlight untouched by the weighty and tenebrous shadow of History? To write poems in defiance of Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that after Auschwitz poetry was no longer possible? To concern ourselves with market brands? To root for the home team? One recalls Rabbi Mordecai Levy of Zemyock’s rhetorical question in André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, “And tell me, Brethren, how a truly Jewish heart could laugh in this world?” And yet we do laugh, write poems, attend sports events, and shop happily. Life, as they say, goes on, despite the premonition that those who suffered in the camps might turn from us in posthumous rejection of a contentment masked by occasional professions of anguish and condign donations. The paradox is not easily avoided.

Primo Levi phrases the question with terrible intensity in Shemá, a title poem based on the central Jewish prayer “Hear, O Israel”, in which he demands of those who “live secure/In your warm houses” and who “return at evening to find/Hot food and friendly faces” to recall the incendiary words in which he brings to mind the cataclysms of Jewish history, words that should be burned into the Jewish soul:

Engrave them on your hearts

When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,

When you go to bed, when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house crumble,

Disease render you powerless,

Your offspring avert their faces from you.

In essence, how can literature and communal speech come to terms with that which resists imaginative and psychological closure? This is very near to the great German-Jewish poet Paul Celan’s perhaps unresolvable question: how can language itself escape moral and ideological pollution or manage to convey that which is incommensurate with the conceptual or evocative power of the word? Celan, of course, was thinking of the German language he loved so profoundly but felt had become too morally contaminated to be handled without the prospect of contagion and too intellectually suspect to be used as a medium of reference. The renowned German-Jewish critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki confronted this reductive conundrum in his extensive oeuvre, in particular The Author of Himself, by reacting in the opposite way. Rather than paring his words to the bone or ceasing to write altogether, he determined instead to use the German language superbly—as if one could separate a language and a literature from a history and a people.

But with respect to the Holocaust, the question involves any medium of representation or reference, any language whatsoever. How can one, in the words of Celan’s exegete and translator John Felstiner, “name the eclipse without profaning it”? And as Alan Munston remarks somewhere, the Holocaust “is very difficult to write about, because it requires not the large gesture, but great tact.” But to what extent is such tact even possible? The acclaimed American-Jewish thriller novelist Daniel Silva in his A Death in Vienna opted to rely on a simple descriptive record of life in the camps, a victim’s transcript almost devoid of commentary. There is no attempt to purple up the atrocity; spareness suffices. Perhaps this is as close as we can get to “tact”—though even here, the imagination cannot contain the enormity of the unconscionable.

Moreover, the experience of the Holocaust is not only intrinsically nonrepresentable in any artistic or discursive medium but must also be recognized as an inherently Jewish experience before it can even be approached as one of “universal import,” which latter would lead to a more generic and softer form of indignation, dread or loathing. The effort to extend the Holocaust threat to apply potentially to all peoples is dangerously misguided since the only people in the world who have to face the threat of genocide, generation after generation, are the Jews. The Armenians will not face another genocide. The Tutsis (and the Hutus in Burundi before the Rwanda slaughter) need no longer fear the specter of annihilation. Aboriginal societies in the West do not have to worry about another impending wave of extermination.

But for the Jewish people, the prospect of genocide is a menace that never dissipates. Rather than adulterating their concern by pretending to be socially enlightened and flattering themselves on their ostensibly higher calling under the rubric of “social justice,” Jews should not make a fetish of universal tolerance when the whole point is particular survival—especially now, not only with regard to the Muslim Middle East but in Europe as well where a conceptual Zyklon B is in the air. The evidence for a renewed, 1930s-like upsurge of antisemitic rhetoric and activity, as noted by reputable commentators like David Hornik, Giulio Meotti, Jonathan Tobin, Robin Shepherd and many others, is starkly undeniable. “European intellectuals may think they operate on a different level from street thugs,” writes Tobin, “But the logical next step from the hounding of Jews on the editorial pages and in academia is clear.” Shepherd, for his part, is apprehensive that the antisemitic virus may spread to the U.S. The fact remains. “The Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that led to it,” writes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, correctly, in The Caged Virgin, “cannot be compared to any other form of ethnic cleansing.” To fasten on its presumptive universality without first understanding its Jewish dimension is to dilute its singular and interpellant character.

The quandary deepens for the Jew who is, in some mysterious but ineluctable way, morally beholden to those who perished in the camps, as if, as Jews, we feel that those of us who died died for those of us who didn’t. How does one come to terms with a revelation of such unforgiving magnitude? The tendency is to move in two directions at once, away from the Holocaust through assimilation or sentimental trivializing and toward it in virtue of the compulsion to assuage the guilt of survival and to retrieve or forge an identity from communal suffering. Gershom Scholem put the matter with his customary clarity in his 1963 “Letter to Hannah Arendt” in which he states the contradiction of a people who manifest “on the one hand, a devotion to the things of this world that is near-demonic; on the other, a fundamental uncertainty of orientation in this world.” The dilemma of negotiating the relation between wanting to live the good life and needing to remember the evil one is likely insoluble.

But the Holocaust will not go away. We are still asking the question, though with renewed urgency, that the Psalmist posed in Psalm 44: “why sleepest thou, O Lord?...Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression?” One might also mention Charles Hartshorne’s “process theology,” the theory of a God Who is mutable and developing and Who suffers with us in the course of a shared History—which leaves us with an evolutionary Being who just happens to be immortal. Even the most radical fringe of Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism would have trouble defending so thin and undemanding and humanized a form of religious faith. Abraham Heschel goes so far as to propose that “Judaism is God’s quest for man,” which tends to encapsulate man within his own historical parentheses, though the argument elaborated in his book God in Search of Man cannot, in my estimation, let Divinity off the hook any more than a God subject to Darwinian laws is thereby absolved.

The Hebrew Rabbinate is especially perplexed by the sheer unaccountability of human evil festering beneath an indifferent heaven, although Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi and spiritual head of the Shas Party in Israel, appears to have settled the issue to his satisfaction by deposing that Holocaust victims were the souls of re-embodied Jewish sinners who “had been incarnated to atone.” The good Rabbi, it would seem, is merely righting the retributive balance by bringing back the recreants who escaped punishment the first time around to pony up for their transgressions later on. How to explain a million and more murdered children escapes the rabbi’s juridical attention. Rabbi Yosef’s egregious, administrative attempt to balance the books should be seen as one more expression, albeit an extreme one, of how the Holocaust in itself, together with the passionate need to justify the ways of God to man (assuming He is not absconditus), is fundamentally the obdurate and undisclosing fact for Jewish life in our time—that which we are struggling to domesticate.

Thus the question of theodicy, of whether it is still possible to “assert eternal Providence” in the midst of our contemporary Gehenna, continues to baffle and repel understanding. For the condition of the Jew is precisely the reverse of the little Christian boy’s in Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale, who was murdered by Jews and flung into a cesspit where he persisted miraculously in singing the Alma Redemptoris. But the fictive fate of the Christian is the real fate of the Jew, only the question now, in the apparent eclipse of hope and, for many, the imminent death of faith, is how to sing the Alma Redemptoris in the face of an absent or detached God or, what is even worse, a God who has capitulated to the void that He could not fill. As Celan writes in one of his strangest poems, “Unoccupiable I”:

The Supernothing threw

its lot with me;

all ice,

it gives up the fight.

Even the word we have turned into currency points up the difficulty of imagining and naming the nature of the cataclysm that could not have occurred under the watchful and custodial gaze of a benevolent Creator: “holocaust” originally and properly signified a whole burnt offering or sacrifice to the gods or to God and is consequently a disturbing misnomer which capitalizing does little to rectify. (Celan used instead the periphrastic “that which happened,” and in his “Conversation in the Mountains” referred to the Lord as HearestThou and No One, the God who does not answer Jewish prayers.) Others will use the standard Hebrew term “Shoah” (calamity)—and others, like this writer, will use the words interchangeably. In effect, the word “Holocaust” is inappropriate whether God exists or not, yet we are constrained to use it in common speech for lack of any other readily comprehensible word to designate what is both unimaginable and ineludible, that which cannot be experienced by proxy or adequately described but which must somehow be confronted and absorbed.

Given these factors, an earned redemption from the stain of false consciousness may well be beyond the strength and capacity of most of us who live in elegiac proximity to the unspeakable, yet it must be undertaken.

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas identifies a strange ontological force or phenomenon that he calls the “there is” (an adaptation of the Heideggerian concept of Dasein), something independent of personal initiative, like insomnia or infirmity, which vanquishes and depersonalizes consciousness. “In the maddening experience of ‘there is’,” Levinas writes in Ethics and Infinity, “one has the impression of a total impossibility of escaping it.” The Holocaust is the great and inescapable “there is” for Jewish consciousness and life in our time, which insists absolutely that we come to some sort of terms with it.Yet the relationship of the relatively unscathed individual with a collective and tragic history of this amplitude must always be a scalene one, not only because it is unimaginable but because responsibility is not for the self, as Levinas argues, but “initially for the Other. This means that I am responsible for my responsibility.” As if this were not enough, this responsibility, Levinas rightly claims, is “untransferable”; it cannot be assumed by another who comes to relieve us of the burden of confrontation or to cleanse us of our sins of omission, let alone those of commission.

As a character in The Last of the Just asks, now that the sky has shattered, “If God is in little pieces, what can it mean to be a Jew?” The Jew remains perpetually vulnerable to the unthinkable—this is what it means to be a Jew. And for this reason the Holocaust must be remembered, grappled with, revived in thought for all its horror and incommensurability—and for all our deficiencies of character and our paucity of genuine empathy. The “injunction is simply to keep this moment in Jewish history,” writes the French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in The Imaginary Jew, “so that it does not gradually disappear into oblivion.” Forgetfulness may subsidize the ubiquitous drive to extermination to which Jews are always susceptible. The horror must be spoken even if it cannot be truly imagined, even if we feel facile and inadequate before that which we have not suffered, even if it is diminished and falsified as in Norman Finkelstein’s reprehensible The Holocaust Industry, and even if it remains fundamentally incommunicable.

The bottom line is: we still need to talk about what we cannot talk about. We still need to speak the unspeakable, regardless of our inherent human shallowness and petty infatuations. The indifference of many, both Jews and non-Jews, must be countered, just as the enmity of Islamists, Holocaust-deniers and those apostate Jews who have turned against their own people must be decisively checked. As we strain to avoid another cataclysm, the word and the text, the repository of memory, must be kept alive in the face of the unqualifiable. Awareness precedes action. Recollection influences the future. And speech is a prelude to engagement. This is the only way to try to ensure that Never Again does not become Ever Again.

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