If holocaust literature is a genre, then I have recently read some of its best examples. Rachmil Bryks was a holocaust survivor from Poland, who wrote his stories in Yiddish, many of them during the holocaust itself in the Lodz ghetto and even in Auschwitz. They were published after the war, and eventually translated into other languages. The collection I read was titled A Cat in the Ghetto, and included the title story and several other stories. The longest story was “Kiddush Hashem”, a gut-wrenching portrait of life (and death) in Auschwitz. It is never easy to read such stories, but I do recommend Bryks’ stories because of their honesty and authenticity.
For similar reasons, I found The Pawnbroker, the 1961 novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last several years. The Pawnbroker is the Harlem-set story of a holocaust survivor trying to cope with the pressures of everyday life with a profoundly-damaged body and brain. It has to be a difficult task to describe the innermost thoughts and feelings of a holocaust survivor, especially for a writer who did not have first-hand experience. But in The Pawnbroker, I would say that Wallant came as close to the mark as could be hoped for. With spare, hard language and experimental syntax, Wallant seemed to draw quite effectively from the stylings of Nathaniel West and James M. Cain. Sadly, like West himself, Wallant died young after completing four novels. But his Pawnbroker left us a character as memorable and as broken as Orwell’s Winston Smith, and it’s hard to overlook the parallels between 1984’s dystopian society and the reality of Nazi terror, which left so many broken victims like Wallant’s iconic Pawnbroker.