The day after Christmas, as I was folding copious amounts of neglected laundry, I switched on the end The Sound of Music, which for some reason is always broadcast at Christmas time. Why is this? Because presents and snowflakes are mentioned in the song “My Favorite Things,” which is played incessantly on the radio during the holiday season? This all seems a bit of a stretch.
But I digress.
Anyway, I turned it on as Maria and the Captain were professing their undying love for one another, which was soon followed by the incredibly glorious wedding, month-long honeymoon, rousing rendition of “Edelweiss,” and escape from Austria.
As I watched the family ascend the mountains on route to Switzerland, I said the following to my husband:
“I hate Nazis.” He didn’t even look up from the book he was reading.
“Way to take a stand on the matter,” was his deadpan response.
Well, I do my best. Anyway, there’s not much else I can do about the Nazis except hate them; they are a nearly extinct group of peoples, after all. I can hate them and stoke that hatred by reading about them, because for whatever morbid reason, I am drawn to books about the Holocaust.
As I reviewed the list of books I read this past year, I noted that two were what is called “Holocaust literature,” which is now considered a genre of its very own. One was The Reader by Bernhard Schlink; the other, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. A third, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, is not necessarily “Holocaust lit,” though it follows a Jewish boy’s escape from Prague to New York City.
I suppose I’m drawn to Holocaust lit the same reason writers feel compelled to write about it: One does not need to conjure up an antagonist, or a hero, for that matter. Hitler and his compatriots are pretty easy to hate. The stories are similar, some with awful endings, some with murky and ambiguous endings, and, of course, some with morally satisfying endings. The difference is how the story is told: memoirs and diaries a la Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel have become scarce. Now, the Holocaust is often remembered through fiction and biography, where authors experiment with point-of-view. Fiction authors use original approaches: for instance, Marcus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, is narrated by Death. Sophie’s Choice is narrated by a man in love with a non-Jewish Polish woman who is haunted by the aftermath of the Nazi invasion and her time spent in a concentration camp.
I would imagine that Holocaust stories are easy to outline- the story practically tells itself- but horribly difficult to write.
One review of a particular book called the holocaust an “unspeakable horror,” which rang false to me because- we do speak about it. We talk about it and imagine it and read about it and write about it and still, the gruesomeness continues to resonate in our minds, minds which cannot wrap around the unfathomable- that a group of intelligent, western-civilized men and women- leaders of the modern world- would follow a monster and take part in the mass genocide of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and many, many others. And we can’t wrap our heads around the fact that it happened less than a hundred years ago, that Holocaust survivors still live and breathe among us. And it kills us to read these stories- our hearts break again and again-yet we read them anyway.
While most books about the rise and fall of the Third Reich are written so that we “may never forget,” words about the Holocaust are spoken and written for other reasons. Carelessly. Thoughtfully. For political reasons. For false emotional impact. For lessons that can and cannot be taught.
I realize that this is my first post of the New Year, and as such, it is rather bleak and a bit scattered. I write it to remind myself that careless talk is cheap, but that there is the power in the mindful use of the pen, or rather, of the word processing program on the computer. Today, more words have been written exposing the evils and atrocities of the Nazi party than were ever written extolling its “virtues.” There is a nary a person who would publicly acknowledge sympathy with the Nazi party, and we can attribute that to the conscious efforts of those who revealed the Holocaust through the written word. And though I do not believe the Holocaust is a greater tragedy than what happened in Rwanda, or in Russia when Stalin executed more Jews than Hitler, or any other historical mass genocide, I will always be drawn to Holocaust literature. Because it reminds me that though guns and bombs end lives, they rarely do so before words have been slung with abandon.
As Marcus Brody said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a movie that prominently features Nazis): “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword!” Of course, in that case it was because Dr. Jones Sr. blinded a man with a fountain pen, but for the purpose of this article, let’s remember that the nationalistic rhetoric of an angry Austrian-born German politician with a Charlie Chaplin mustache instigated World War II.
In 2011, remember to wield your pen as if it were a weapon: carefully and with great purpose. Not only in your stories, but in your e-mails, your essays, in the forums, and in notes you jot to family members. Though most of our words are heard by few, and are lost in the great, vast unknown, every once in a while a speech or a book has the impact to change a life.
Is it weird to end this post with a Happy New Year?
For 100 completely useless points, what is the source of this hilarious invocation of Godwin’s law?:
“You know, the Nazis had pieces of flare they made the Jews wear.”
Is this the end of holocaust literature? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/02/holocaust-jewish-literature
A scholar argues that Americans are obsessed with the holocaust. http://www.historiography-project.com/clippings/1999/05/a-scholar-argues-that-american.html