Tag Archives: holocaust

Choose your ghetto

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.

The Trespassers

I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.

The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?