The revisionist Holocaust: Silence, the true memorial

The Argument

As the world remembers the Nazi horror, a new movement insists that only those who directly suffered have the authority to explore the experiences of horror.

April 30, 2000|By Adam Spiegel | Adam Spiegel,Special to the Sun

Once again, the Jews are victims.

A new wave of post-Holocaust Jewish intellectuals has revised the rules for remembering their 6 million dead. Silence and muted utterance, this movement insists, are the appropriate modes of expression. This revisionist position denies Jews access to the healing process through redemptive expressions of grief. Until now, such catharsis has found voice in literature, music, painting and sculpture as a source of relief from unremitting pain.

Ironically, the new orthodoxy is reminiscent of the policy of stunted speech and restricted expression that was rigidly enforced by Nazis in the death camps.

It derives from two sets of perceived conditions that confront second-generation Jewish survivors.

The most daunting is their status as observers whose knowledge of the Holocaust comes from the memories of others. Secondhand witnesses to a history they did not experience directly, they define their knowledge as "vicarious memory."

The second obstacle is inherent in the very idea of artistically rendering the Holocaust.

It asserts the futility of bridging the gap between conventional artistic devices that describe a broad range of human experience on the one hand, and the unfathomable brutalities of industrially implemented mass murder intended to exterminate an entire culture on the other.

These intellectuals reject attempts to develop a creative idiom capable of faithfully portraying their parents' experience. Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List" is derided as an inauthentic Hollywood charade. So are literary fictional narratives that transmute facts in the crucible of art.

They oppose efforts that personalize Holocaust history by translating abstractions and numbers into human drama -- attempts to soften the distinction between victim and survivor.

James E. Young's empathetic reflections on post-Holocaust art in "At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture" (Yale University Press, 256 pages, $35) examines the intellectual tenets of the new orthodoxy.

An English professor of impressive literary agility, Young teases meaning from their primary charge that artistic reconstructions of the Holocaust contain an inherent flaw: the impossibility of manufacturing matter out of anti-matter. When the Nazis extirpated a 1,000-year-old civilization from Europe, they created the equivalent of a Black Hole. To imagine that a credible, recognizable culture can be conjured from a void is absurd.

What is possible, says Young, is art that simulates silence. Post-Holocaust architecture emphasizes emptiness and undefined space. These memorials, some completed and some now planned, stress the importance of viewing the Holocaust as a "post-memory," a history to be experienced as ephemeral and incomplete.

Deftly employing new technologies in electronic and graphic arts, they use overlay grids and gauzy silk-screens to create impressions of chimerical reality. Primary emphasis is placed upon minimalist, inchoate artistic statements -- a legacy of their "vicarious memory" of Holocaust events.

Given a subject of such nebulous, inaccessible dimension, the ordeal of creating a marketable product requires enormous technical proficiency. Whether they have surmounted these obstacles, especially in music and the graphic arts, remains open to debate, says Young.

Complicating all such efforts is the unspoken issue of guilt. What is seldom discussed is the first-generation Holocaust survivors' implacable mandate, now seared into the second generation's consciousness: "Let Us Never Forget."

The essence of the second generation's plight is captured in this excerpted poem introducing Daniel Schwartz's "Imagining the Holocaust" (St. Martin's Press, 353 pages, $29.95):

" ... all the living are guilty

little children

who offered bouquets of flowers

are guilty

lovers are guilty

guilty are those who ran away

and those that stayed ...

the dead are taking stock of the living

the dead will not rehabilitate us."

Nor can rehabilitation be extended to those whose capacity for artistic regeneration is fettered by "vicarious memory."

To the contrary, it traps them in a double bind that is all the more painful because it is self-inflicted. Unable to remember an unknowable past, yet enjoined never to forget it, they embrace silence as a logically defensible alternative.

This counter-strategy employs a tightly reasoned rationale that cedes unquestioned Holocaust remembrance only to those who endured it. Elie Wiesel, perhaps the Holocaust's most prominent writer, is granted sweeping authority to portray its ineffable horror in authentic detail.

For the same reason, he is authorized to delineate its spiritually redemptive capabilities. Here Wiesel exults in the "God-given" gift of the written word to explore the spiritual connection between man and his creator:

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