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Our Darkest Years: The Literature of the Holocaust

Our Darkest Years: The Literature of the Holocaust

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Peter Tarlow

Peter Tarlow

We do not need to be professional historians to know that the Holocaust was the darkest period in Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. The German nation collectively undertook two wars in the 1940s: a war to conquer the world and a genocidal war to destroy not only Jewish culture but Jewish life itself. Just as in the age of the Biblical Noah, the 1940s were also a time when malevolence covered the face of much of the “civilized” world. Some historians have called this period of total evil “an eclipse of God”, others wonder if the Germans not only murdered Jews but our sense of humanity. These were years, to quote Hannah Arendt, when the world experienced “the banality of evil.”

The literature of the Holocaust, either written during these tragic years or afterward, is vast, dark and deep. To enter this period of time is to enter into a black forest that overwhelms our ability to understand the depths of human cruelty.

This month we look at two representative works from this darkest of periods, it was a time when humanity ceased to be human. One author wrote during the Holocaust and the other one after the war, one was a young girl, and the other a fully grown man. Both were victims, but only one survived and the other perished in the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. Ironically, the one who perished was the optimist and lived a life of hope. The other one, the pessimist, survived and became a living memory for those whom the Nazis murdered. Both authors wrote in languages that were not their own. The young girl was born in Germany, escaped to Holland and wrote in Dutch. The man was Hungarian, chose to write in French, and after the war came to live in the United States. Both authors became universally well known. Translators have made their works available in countless languages and both have helped us to understand the un-understandable, the depths of cruelty to which we humans are capable of reaching and also our ability to find goodness in a world filled with evil.

Despite their differences, both are symbols of these evil years, and both have become beacons of light to a world where too much darkness, systemic anti-Semitism and racism still exists.

We begin with Anne Frank (1929-1945) whose diary became a classic. Hidden in a tiny attic, Frank wrote her diary during the modern world’s darkest days. Yet despite the tragic times in which she lived, her diary demonstrates the strength of the human soul even in the midst of incomprehensible inhumanity. We might consider Anne Frank to be extraordinary, simply because she was ordinary. She did not intend to become an author or famous. She was merely a young girl trying to live a normal life during abnormal years and under abnormal circumstances.

Although we shall never know for certain, it appears that Anne wrote her diary only for herself. In her diary, she described herself and her conflicts with others, and left for us a portrait of her family and her co-hiders. We find in her diary private thoughts that perhaps she would never have wanted anyone to read. In the diary, she indicated that she hoped to write fiction or become a journalist. In 1944, she heard a BBC Dutch language broadcast indicating that the allies would want anything that could be used to demonstrate the horrors of the German occupation and the cruelty of the German soldiers. From this broadcast, Anne began to edit her journal with the hope that at the war’s end she might be able to add to the collective narrative of life under Nazi occupation.

Anne Frank’s diary is now part of school curricula around the world. Despite the fact that the Germans discovered her family’s hiding place and murdered many of her family members and her, Anne’s father and the diary survived. The diary has become a testament to hope and light in the face of hatred and darkness. President John Kennedy summed up Frank’s work best when he stated: "Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank." Anne Frank, the young girl perished but her words live on.

Elie Wiesel’s story is different and yet parallels that of Anne Frank’s. Wiesel was born a year before Frank but unlike her, survived the war, married, had a child and died peacefully in 2016. During World War II, Wiesel lived in occupied Hungry-Romania. The Germans arrested the citizens of Máramarossziget (Sighet), including Wiesel and his family. Intent on murder, the Germans occupiers sent everyone including Wiesel to Auschwitz to die. Wiesel’s father and Elie were lucky. The Germans enslaved them, allowing them to live as long as they were able-bodied slaves. Eventually, the Germans transported both father and son to the Buchenwald concentration camp where the Germans beat his father to death. Wiesel bore the psychological scars of the suffering he observed and his disgust at not being able to aid his father until the end of his life. The numbers the Germans tattooed on his left arm: A-7713 became a permanent symbol of Nazi inhumanity. In 1945, just prior to the planned German death march for the few concentration camp prisoners still alive, American soldiers liberated the camp’s prisoners including Wiesel.

Wiesel did not write about the Holocaust for the first 10 years after liberation. He worked as a newspaper reporter. In 1958, he wrote his first book in French: “La Nuit” (Night in English translation.) The book is a memoir of his experiences in the concentration camps. La Nuit has sold over 10 million copies and has been translated into all of the world’s major languages. That book was also the start to an incredible literary career during which Wiesel wrote more than 30 books.

Wiesel did not see himself as a writer but as an activist. He not only protected Jewish victims wherever they might be in the world, but he also fought for anyone persecuted due to race, nationality or religion. Were he alive today, we might be sure that he would have protested the inhuman cruelties of Isis, the Taliban and Al-Qaida. In the Jewish world, Wiesel fought tirelessly first to free Soviet Jews and then Ethiopian Jews demanding that both groups be allowed to immigrate to Israel. In the same manner he defended Israel from all who sought to defame it.

Wiesel’s activism resulted in accomplishments and awards. In 1986, he chaired what would become the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. It was this council that spearheaded what was to become the United States Holocaust Museum that today stands proudly on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum seeks to protect the vulnerable around the world. In 1986, the Nobel Award Committee awarded Wiesel its highest honor: The Nobel Peace Prize. He received this award for his efforts to end racism, political repression, violence and hatred. At the acceptance ceremony, Wiesel summed up his life’s work by stating: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”

Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, each in their own way, teach us the price of silence in the face of hatred and through their writings remind us of the importance of never allowing hatred and bigotry, exemplified by Nazi Germany, to raise its ugly head again. In a time when we see anti-Semitism, racism and inhuman actions once again on the rise and once again we note the silence of so many, these authors’ works cry out to us: Never Again! Do we hear their cry?

Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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