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Unfinished Still Life - Canadians Write the Holocaust
by Norman Ravvin

Are young writers, painters, playwrights, and musicians sitting down at a café table in some distant Kosovar town, right at this moment, contemplating how they should respond to the most recent war in their homeland?

The ability to transform atrocity into art-and the question of whether it is even seemly to do so-has become central to our creative traditions ever since Hitler's war forced atrocity, and the difficulty of responding to it, to the forefront of our culture. Even if we were born long after World War II, we've inherited this problem, as the barbarism in Kosovo reminds us only too painfully.

One aspect of the Balkan wars that is startlingly different from World War II is the immediacy and clarity with which images of suffering have been beamed around the world. In newspapers like The New York Times, colour photos provide an irrefutable record. One picture that particularly struck me was of a young Albanian man pushing his grandmother in a wheelbarrow as they fled to a safe border. That was how the cutline explained the image of a man dressed in blue jeans and a green jacket with an "S" embroidered on one arm, resting on one knee beside the supine figure of a kerchiefed old woman, her eyes shut, clutching a cane. The man looked tired, stunned by what was happening to his family. It remains to be seen whether the instantaneousness and ubiquity of these images will inspire, or simply deaden, artistic response.

Since the end of World War II, the range of how we react to and deal with the Holocaust has become dizzyingly diverse. To stay abreast of these developments, we must attend, not only to the work of historians, novelists, and writers of personal memoir, but also to what is going on in architecture, philosophy, museum studies, painting, and filmmaking. But this is not how things began. The first decades after the war were marked by a sustained and stunned artistic silence. Only a few extremely intrepid artists sought to contend with the Holocaust in their own idiosyncratic ways. At the end of the war, for example, Pablo Picasso's response to the disclosure of the death camps was a kind of still life-the image of bound, emaciated corpses lying under a tabletop, on which sit a pitcher, bread knife, and bread. A few years earlier, Charlie Chaplin had turned to comedy, to clowning, to prick what he viewed as the overblown persona of the fascist dictator-as if the artist needed only to look behind the noise and vulgarity of Hitler to find exactly nothing. Released in 1940, The Great Dictator was, incidentally, Chaplin's first sound film, suggesting that, on the topic of Nazism, Chaplin could not do without voice-its careful refinements and its excesses.

The relationship between comedy and the Holocaust is under discussion again with the startling success of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. To my mind, Benigni's film answers no questions about its subject. It only raises them. What does Benigni mean to say about the war with his jaunty fable? And, In what way can we see the lager differently by considering the possibility of laughing our way through it? But Benigni's film should also remind us that shortly after the appearance of The Great Dictator, Canadian poet A.M. Klein employed a rather sophisticated form of comedy as part of his attempt to contend with Nazism. His 1944 long poem, "The Hitleriad", published by the influential New Directions Books of New York, satirizes, in the style of Alexander Pope, the Nazi ideal. It's aim is to belittle: to deny Hitler the stature of a true historical figure. "So you may say," Klein writes,

he was a miracle

of bold persuasion and of iron will-

And sure he needs no courage who has skill!

What skill? And what persuasion? Skill to use

Hatred as bomb, and rhetoric as fuse?

Persuasion to persuade the Swabian mind

It was the unwhipped cream of humankind?

The journalists-among them soon-to-be novelists like Meyer Levin-had had their say upon entering the death camps with Russian or American liberators. And the important tradition of Yizkor Bicher, or Memory Books, was well-established in every country where survivors lived: carefully, in a multitude of languages, survivors toiled at recovering their lost communities through memoir. But Klein was one of the first to deal with the war in an artful way. In this respect, he was a precursor to John Hersey, whose novel about the Warsaw Ghetto, The Wall, was published in 1950; a precursor as well to Eli Wiesel, whose breakthrough novel, Night, appeared in 1958; and to André Schwartz-Bart, whose The Last of the Just won the French Prix Goncourt in 1959. Klein's 1951 novel, The Second Scroll, appeared at a time when the most common response to the disaster in Europe was still silence.

Even before "The Hitleriad", Klein, in his journalism, attempted to place the destruction of the European Jewry within a literary context. Writing of Chaim Nachman Bialik in 1942, eight years after the poet's death, Klein laments that Bialik "shouldst be living at this hour!" He views Bialik's "The City of Slaughter" as a paradigmatic text, one that signals an end to Jewish passivity in the face of atrocity, and calls for self-defence. Klein recognized Bialik as part of a long tradition of "secular writers" who responded to suffering. Still, since Klein tended to see viable literary response to the Holocaust within religious terms, he claimed that the best of the Jewish writing he calls secular had as its foundation an undeniable "piety and faith". Ultimately, it is piety and faith that underwrite Klein's magisterial response to the war in The Second Scroll (of which a new scholarly edition is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press).

In his novel, Klein repeatedly relies on the relationship between disastrous and celebratory events to draw meaning from the catastrophe that befell the European Jewry. As his narrator, ostensibly on assignment to write about the new poetry of Israel, flies across the Atlantic in pursuit of an elusive uncle, he sees himself as a latter-day reconnaissance man, "spying out the land", like the tribal leaders sent by Moses to find what awaited the Israelites in Canaan. The biblical spies discover a land of "milk and honey", while Klein's post-Holocaust traveller rejoices as his plane, approaching Europe, hangs "suspended, even as over the abyss of recent history there had risen the new bright shining microcosm of Israel." As he nears Israel, the "murmur" of the airplane's motor sounds to him like music, "willed, ululative, Messianic, annunciatory."

This elated interpretation of recent history informs a later episode that is modelled on a tradition of Jewish folk fables. In Safed, while visiting the synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the narrator stumbles upon an archetypal scene of Jewish faith and continuity, one, he suspects, has "been static against that background for centuries". The old sage, however, prompts the narrator to anticipate much more than the maturation of a bar-mitzvah boy. The keeper of Luria's synagogue assures the visiting Canadian that he lives "in Messiah's days". The proof of the era's auspicious character can be found in the teaching that, "before the coming of the Messiah there would be the chevlai yemoth ha-moshiach, the pain and agony of the days of the Messiah. Has any generation known deeper pain and bitterer agony than our own?"

Klein's way of responding to the Holocaust, then, is an early expression of what Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Religion, refers to as the dominant position held by contemporary orthodox thinkers on the Holocaust: "from the perspective of faith, the Holocaust is not a singular event unprecedented in history but a continuation of similar atrocities that can be understood within the context of faith like other catastrophes in the past. The covenant remains unchanged..., untouched by the epoch-making events of our era." It is in the novel's exultant conclusion that Klein most explicitly affirms his faith that the suffering of the Holocaust has been transcended through the resurrection of Israel as a nation-state. His narrator abandons his tone of reportage, and the narrative takes on a surreal visionary quality. At the funeral of his Uncle Melech, who has been murdered by Arab marauders, a crowd gathers-a scene reminiscent of the crowds that descended on Jerusalem in biblical times with offerings for the High Holy days. The funeral takes on the character of a "national demonstration", reaffirming the continuity of Jewish national culture and faith: "A vast congregation it was, solemn, sacerdotal, gathered as for some high mythic rite in which were concealed its most personal experience and its most deeply cherished verities."

It is worth noting that Klein's novel had as its motivation, not religious devotion, but the twin secular pursuits of tourism and journalism. The book's narrative is modeled on a diary Klein kept as he travelled to Israel, Europe, and North Africa in 1949. At the time, Klein was on a fact-finding mission sponsored by the Canadian Jewish Congress. His novel, then, arose from the journalistic research first published in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle under the title, "Notebook of a Journey". For an author who has become famously resentful of what he saw as a lack of communal support for his literary endeavors, it is ironic that a community organization underwrote the travels that supplied the background for what would become one of Klein's most important works.

In the years since Klein's death, the Holocaust has become a matter of public and secular discussion, even of daily life. And with the passing of Klein's generation, the reception of the Holocaust entered a new, complex phase. Even our ability to claim with confidence that the war came to a decisive end has come under suspicion. In his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi asks: "How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the dueling code? How much is back or is coming back?"

For writers after Klein, the Holocaust has not only coloured traditional faith; it has interrogated language, literature, and the underlying values of Western society. Some commentators cite the trial of Adolph Eichmann as a turning point in the public consciousness of the Holocaust (see Da Capo Press's recent re-issue of Eichmann Interrogated: Transcripts from the Archives of the Israeli Police). Certainly, it was seen as an opportunity by Israeli leaders to educate a young generation about the lives of its elders. But the trial's symbolic power reached far beyond Israeli society, thanks in part to the report on events in Jerusalem that Hannah Arendt filed with The New Yorker magazine. The well-known thesis she put forward was one of the early provocative arguments aimed at explaining the Nazi genocide, not through the discussion of broad existential questions, but through an understanding of the role of the individual in modern bureaucratic society-of the banality of evil.

In his 1971 novel, St. Urbain's Horseman, Mordecai Richler places the main character, Jake Hersh, at the less sensational 1963 trial of Nazis in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt trials were aimed at bringing to justice representatives of the low- and middle-ranking Nazis who served as camp functionaries, and whose cruelty was often self-motivated, rather than the result of orders from above. As Jake attends these trials, he is confronted by the well-known and horrifyingly matter-of-fact description of the dead after a gas chamber is opened: "The bodies are not lying scattered here and there throughout the room, but piled in a mass to the ceiling. This is explained by the fact that the gas first inundates the lower layers of air and rises but slowly to the ceiling. That forces them to trample and clamber over one another. At the bottom of the pile are the babies, children, women and aged; at the top, the strongest. Their bodies which bear numerous scratches occasioned by the struggle which set them against one another, are often intertwined. The noses and mouths are bleeding, the faces bloated and blue."

In stark contrast with William Styron, who quotes Arendt and George Steiner at length in an effort to explain the fictional drama portrayed in Sophie's Choice, Richler neither contextualizes nor philosophizes about the material offered as evidence at the Frankfurt trials. His method is simply to include it in fiction. For Richler's Jake Hersh, the crimes described at the Frankfurt trial remain an engaging enigma, a source of anger and disgust.

But because Jake is unable to find meaning in the Holocaust, these very events begin to colour every aspect of his daily life. In the opening scene, Jake awakens from a dream in which Josef Mengele is tortured in the way that he and his Nazi compatriots tortured their victims at Auschwitz. Mengele's "gold fillings" are extracted "from the triangular cleft between his upper front teeth with pliers. Slowly, Jake thought...." An inveterate newspaper clipper, the walls of Jake's "attic-study" are "plastered with photographs of wartime Nazi leaders and their survivors." He fashions his "aerie" as a place where he can focus his energy-and his anger-on escaped war criminal Josef Mengele. The wall clock is adjusted to "show the time in Paraguay-the Doktor's time."

The Holocaust is fully present for Jake in his recurrent fantasies of the disasters modern life might visit upon his family: "in Jake's Jewish nightmare, they come. Into his house. The extermination officers seeking out the Jew vermin. Ben is seized by the legs like a chicken and heaved out of the window, his brains spilling on the terrace. Molly, whose experience has led her to believe all adults gentle, is raised in the air not to be tossed and tickled, but to be flung against the brick fireplace. Sammy is dispatched with a pistol."

Although Richler means to criticize Jake's obsessive relationship with the Holocaust, the novel also points to a changing perception of it. Its presence as an everyday concern, as an unworked-through nightmare, surreally present for those who had no experience of the war, is one of the legacies with which contemporary authors have struggled. This struggle is made even more troubling by the tendency, as Susan Sontag has written, for the ethos of Nazi and fascist culture to be aestheticized and eroticized in both high- and low-brow art. Writing in 1974, Sontag describes this trend as the rise of "Fascinating Fascism": "Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetic is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp. Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous...."

The change in the acceptability of certain attitudes toward the Holocaust marks an important shift from the approach taken by historians, religious scholars, and a handful of artists in the immediate post-war years, as well as a reemergence of attitudes that contributed to the Nazi rise to power. The attraction of the images and phantasms raised by Nazism have gained an inexplicable hold over the popular imagination. Writing in 1979, historian George Mosse warned of the danger of such developments: "Hitler as the pop hero and villain, Hitler as the central theme in an exciting drama-this is the result of the Hitler wave now upon us. Adolph Hitler has been taken over by the entertainment industry; books about his victims are in less demand. Indeed, the present Hitler revival comes uncomfortably close to presenting the Führer standing in splendid isolation without his subjects and without Auschwitz."

Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers anticipates this renewed attraction of Nazism. In the novel's climax, Hitler makes a seemingly nonsensical appearance when Edith, the narrator's wife, and her mentor, F., journey to Argentina for, what F. ominously calls, "a little sun and experiments". In the guise of a hotel waiter, Hitler is said to enter their room with a passkey, and to maintain a masterly position as he administers to F.'s and Edith's sexual yearnings by way of certain unmentionable "sordid exciting commands". F. admits that he and Edith remained suppliant before their visitor, even when he "made" them "kiss the whip". Hitler concludes this bizarre scene by drying their "parts" and pronouncing, with brutal deadpan irony, "I had millions of these at my disposal."

Critics discuss the ensuing action without making much of Hitler's part in the narrative. But his appearance, signalled by a "professional knock" on the hotel room's "blond door", is a key to the novel's otherwise bizarre conclusion. Behind the door-which seems itself to be complicit in some prevalent Aryanized vision-stands the Hitler of pornographic movies and trash novels, both of which draw on Nazism as a paradigm for images of domination and enslavement. Dressed as a kind of sadistic flasher, Hitler wears "the old raincoat and mustache, but underneath he was perfectly nude. We turned toward him." This attitude of supplication, even veneration, is F. and Edith's automatic response to their visitor. Even more startling is F.'s nonchalant acknowledgment that "[w]hat followed was old hat... [for which] we had, indeed, been well prepared".

The scene acknowledges that Nazi processes of degradation and enslavement have become acceptable-even exciting-to the popular imagination. Cohen is playing with fire here, but there is a provocation in his stance that the reader cannot duck: Cohen points to the perverse and irredeemable uses to which images related to the Holocaust have been applied. Amid all the explosive material is an ethical centre supported by Cohen's suggestion that any eroticized interest in victimization and the abuse of power must inevitably bring about demoralization and spiritual death.

Anne Michaels' recent book, Fugitive Pieces, exemplifies how the demands of creating art about the war have shifted yet again. Gone is the artist's feeling of impotence before the difficulty of her subject. Gone, as well, is the sense, summed up in Theodor Adorno's famous remark, that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry.

The main character in Fugitive Pieces is a survivor named Jakob Beer who finds himself in Toronto after the war, and who becomes a writer of poems that are referred to as "ghost stories". After Jakob's death, a younger figure, whose narration closes the novel, speaks in awe of Jakob's ability to "recount the geology of the mass graves, it's as if we hear the earth speak." In one instance, Michaels quotes from the psalms, thus reminding us of the tradition that was so dear to Klein. But the bulk of the novel is given over to an evocation of Jakob Beer's idiosyncratic poetic response to loss, which, of course, allows Michaels-herself a poet-to offer her own poetic rendering of post-Holocaust life. With this novel, we have abandoned Klein's traditional form of literary response to catastrophe, which was always tempered by the memory of innumerable churbanim. We have left behind Richler's documentary presentation of a gas chamber, including unadorned and uninterpreted data offered as a stark object around which Jake Hersh cannot navigate. We have even bid farewell to Leonard Cohen, whose allegory of Nazism's effect on popular culture does not, in all its provocation, present an imaginative portrayal of the actual events of the Holocaust. For her part, Michaels weaves an elegiac, and nightmarishly lush, representation of the Holocaust. "I want to remain close to Bella," Jakob writes of his sister, a musical prodigy whose love of the piano is remembered in counterpoint with the events of her death. To remain close to Bella, Jakob says, "I blaspheme by imagining":

At night the wooden bunk wears through her skin. Icy feet push into the back of Bella's head. Now I will begin the intermezzo. I must not begin too slowly. There is no room. Bella's arms cover herself. At night when everyone is awake, I will not listen to the crying. I will play the whole piece on my arms. Her skin is coming apart at her elbows and behind her ears. Not too much pedal, you can spoil Brahms with too much pedal... The cuts on Bella's head are burning. She closes her eyes... Against her sore scalp the feet are wet and send the ice into her. The two notes at the beginning of the adagio Beethoven added after, at the publisher's; the A and C# that change everything. Every raw place on her scalp bursts with cold. Then I can play it again. Without the two notes.

When they opened the doors, the bodies were always in the same position. Compressed against one wall, a pyramid of flesh. Still hope. The climb to air, to the last disappearing pocket of breath near the ceiling. The terrifying hope of human cells.

At the end of this passage is the image of a gas chamber we recognize from St. Urbain's Horseman; yet how different is the context from Richler's novel. Presented formerly as part of documentary evidence, it has moved into the imaginings of Jakob Beer, where it is linked with the more intimate imaginings of his sister's fate, of which he knows nothing. Here, we have not simple descriptive language, but a highly poetic context: the bodies of the dead become a "pyramid of flesh", and the victims' last acts are given motivation, in this case, hope, which Michaels connects with a biological drive coded into "human cells".

Although Jakob Beer's poems are said to recount "the geology of mass graves", only bare fragments of this poetry are seeded into the novel. Where are these poems?, the reader wonders. Who has seen them? Do they take as their model Paul Celan's "Todesfuge"? Or Leonard Cohen's Flowers for Hitler? Or are they mere phantoms-unwritable and unreadable? Poems better left unsaid? Fugitive Pieces may represent the state of the art of Canadian Holocaust fiction, with its seeming willingness to poeticize and visualize what we've come to know as the worst of our era. But in the phantom poems of Jakob Beer, we return, whether Michaels intends us to or not, to the dilemma confronted by Picasso immediately after the liberation of the death camps. The unfinished still life. The artistic impasse. The heartbreak that hides behind fiction's lush façade. 

Norman Ravvin is Chair of the Centre for Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia University. His recent books are a story collection, Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish, and a volume of essays, A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory.


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