The moral corruption of Holocaust fiction – The New Statesman

Posted By on October 19, 2022

In his 1998 essayWho Owns Auschwitz? the survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertsz grappled with the problem of how to represent the Holocaust in literature and film. The paradox he expressed was thatfor the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid. That price was the Shoahs stylisation: its transformation into eithercheap consumer goods ora moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language. In both cases, he argued, the Holocaust gradually becomes the realm not of reality, not of history, not of jaw-dropping, thought-defying tragedy, but of kitsch.

Kitsch has indeed come to dominate the field from the Broadway adaptation of theDiary of Anne Frank to Schindlers List.At the other end of the spectrum, masterpieces, often by survivors Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Amry tend towards aesthetic and intellectual rigour, resisting closure and withholding comfort. Much of so-called Holocaust fiction is aimed at children and included in the Holocaust curricula that are mandatory in many jurisdictions, though fatally handicapped by a refusal to show children violence or even darkness. In the years since Kertszs essay, however, a micro-genre of Holocaust fiction for adults has proliferated:The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Violinist of Auschwitz.Unlike the childrens fare, these have no excuse for their optimism.

That John Boyne was not included in Kertszs list of offenders is surely a matter only oftiming: just a few years later, in 2006, Boynes childrens bookThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamaswould exemplify the terrifying commercial drive to expunge the Holocaust of its horror, and its Jewishness. Its plot revolves around the nine-year-old narrator, Henry, who is confused and sad after his Nazi commandant father relocates the family to Auschwitz (which he pronounces asOut-With, a pun that does not make sense in German; he also calls Hitler the Fury, though hes nine andperfectly capable of pronouncing the wordFhrer). He has no idea whats going on, even though it was no secret that Jews were being deported to occupied Poland. Our innocent little Henry befriends a boy his age, Shmuel, whos always hanging out by the perimeter fence weird, given that he would more likely have been performing slave labour and would have been immediately shot if found attempting escape. They share snacks that Henry takes from his kitchen (Shmuel, despite being from Krakow, a highly developed city, and fluent in Polish and German Yiddish is never mentioned has only eaten chocolate once).Inexplicably, Henry doesnt much question why Shmuel is bald, emaciated and imprisoned along with his entire family, which, by the way, isdisappearingone by one(somehow Shmuel isalsounaware that people are being executed). Henry crawls under the fence to help Shmuel look for his dad, and the two boys are immediately swept up in a death march and led into a gas chamber. Henry squeezes Shmuels hand and tells him hes his best friendfor life, and they are promptly murdered. When Henrys family realises he is dead, they are sad.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamasmay read like a paint-by-numbers parody of Holocaust fiction, yet it has sold more than11million copies, been adapted into a major motion picture and become the most assigned Holocaust novel in English schools, with the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London finding that35 per cent of teachersused it in lessons about the Holocaust. And this in spite of the fact that, according to the centres study, it hascontributed significantly to one of the most powerful and problematic misconceptions of this history, thatordinary Germans held little responsibility and were by and large brainwashed or otherwise entirely ignorant of the unfolding atrocities. Boyne has, of course, defended his work, telling the Guardian that by relating to his central characters the young reader can learn empathy and kindness. OK.

With his latest treacly tomeAll the Broken Places complete with title so maudlin it preempts all mockery Boyne has gifted us with a Holocaust novel so self-indulgent, so grossly stereotyped, so shameless and insipid that one is almost astonished that he has dared.The Boy in the Striped Pyjamasat least was written for children. One anxiously waits to see how this grown-up sequel performs.

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So far, it has been hailed as a powerful novel about secrets and atonement after Auschwitz inthe Guardianand lauded inhundreds of positivereviews onGoodReads. As with the precedingnovel,All the Broken Placeshas a heavy-handed, pedagogicalplot. If the moral ofThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamaswas dont murder Jewish little boys lest your non-Jewish one be killed, that ofBroken Placesis if you were complicit in the murder of Jewish little boys,you may be absolved if youlater prevent the murder of at least one non-Jewish little boy. Boyne resumes the story with Henrys naughty older sister Gretel now91 gradually, and tediously, relatingher life up to this point. (I advise against reading this book, but if you insist on doing so be warned that the remainder of this paragraph containsspoilers.)At the end of the war her father was immediately hanged, and she and her mother emigrated to Paris. They dated French guys, but then had their heads shaved in a humiliating ritual. Gretel said a lot of things like Were guilty too, and her mother said a lot of things like, Your fathers crimes! His. All his. Not mine. Not yours, and Those filthy Jews! Anyway, Gretel emigrated to Australia, where she fell in love with a Treblinka survivor she didnt even realise was Jewish.(He, apparently, wasnt too curious about a Gretel in post-war Australia.) Once her past was revealed he left her, but his friend a historian, of course! subbed in. Now Gretel is a crotchety, rich widow in London. A new family moves into her building, with an abusive husband who threatens to kill his cute son. When Gretel tells him not to beat his wife, he whines, But she can be so annoying. Gretel threatens to turn him in, and he threatens to reveal her Nazi past. She murders him and finishes the novel in prison, which she says is not too bad.

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Kertsz bemoaned the way Holocaust art devolves into the dutiful repetitionofcertain words.What are they?Boyne suggests a few contenders. How many times doesAll the Broken Placesrefer to the truth? Forty-two. Guilt? Thirty-six. Past? Thirty-four. Trauma, horror, andmonster get tenuseseach. The dialogue is leaden and expository: My daddys not a monster; It doesnt matter any more. Its all in the past. The narration is bloated and risible: He was gone. Louis was gone. Millions were gone; I had witnessed too much suffering in my life and done nothing to help. I had to intervene.

Thisis not literature. As a grown-up sequel to childrens trash,All the Broken Placesserves two roles. First, to demonstrate that Boyne definitely did notthinkthat the Germans were innocent, definitely knew they were complicit and guilty and that history is complicated, etc, thanks very much. Second, to serve as asortof fan fiction for those peculiar adults who long for thecomfortof a childhood favourite.

As to this first goal, at least, it is a consummate failure, a wildly simplified narrative thatmisrepresentsthe extent of Nazi ideology.As inThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne underestimates the familys awareness of the Holocaust, lending his German characters an exaggerated naivety, or implausible deniability. To take one ridiculous example,how on Earth would a girl active in theJungmdelbund (a girls section of the Hitler Youth), nursed on anti-Semitic propaganda, notnotice that a guy named David Rotheram,who presumably speakswith a Yiddish accent, is Jewish?And while Boyne mechanically asserts that the past is complicated, he betrays no knowledge of those complications. He portraysNazi officials as swiftly killed, omitting that hundreds ofthem held high-ranking positions in the post-war West German government. Simultaneously, he portrays their families as unscathed (save a head-shave), omitting that in the Russian zone the only one tending to summary executions of Nazis women were frequently raped by the occupiers. Boyne flaunts a teenagers understanding of the causes and consequences of the Second World War: Germans were poor, then naughty, then poor again. Indeed, he at no point even alludes to any present-day legacy of Nazism: not the rise of the right-wing nationalist Alternative fr Deutschland, not synagogue terrorism in Europe or America, not even, at any point, the mere concept of Holocaust denial. Instead, this sterile novel stays well confined within a London apartment building, unaware of and uninterested in the world outside.

As with so much Holocaust fictionAll the Broken Placesutterly failsinits stated purpose: makingthe next generationslightly less likely to participate in the next genocide. Achieving that goal would call for a radical revamping of Holocaust education, to focus on multiple genocides and on the horrifying factthat they were widely supported, and that the ideology that enabledthem was believed even by especially by elites.In the case of the Holocaust, this ideology was Nazi racial pseudoscience: an elaborate thesis of eugenicssupported by American funding (including from theRockefellers)that also advocated the destruction of the disabled, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals andothers. Boynes reduction of Nazi ideology toa fringe belief, expressed in infrequent outbursts those filthy Jews is all the more absurd nowthathes writing for grown-ups. The issue, in short, is that judging by the last ten years of Western political life, humans are less able than ever to apply any sort of epistemic reflection to the news cycle, political discourse and scientific opportunism, and God forbid authors like Boyne be those charged with changing this.

In the self-servingafterwordhere Boyne essentially repeats that he writes about Nazis so as to humanise them, exploring emotional truths and authentic human experiences. Setting aside histotalinability to render human experience as anything other than a Hallmark card, hes fundamentally wrong: the purpose of Holocaust education should not be to recognise the good in bad people, but to recognise the bad insidegoodpeople.

We dont need anyone to teach us how to recognise the barefaced devil; the danger is the insidious and gradual creep of violence into the civilised and everyday. This is whatthe philosopher TheodorAdornos dictum To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric warned of: artunableto recognise the break the Holocaust represented with the past,afraid to apprehend thefailureofthe civilising project. With this childish drivel in which the villains and victims come labelled and sorted, Boyne yet again seems immune to its lessons.

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The moral corruption of Holocaust fiction - The New Statesman

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