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Historical Contemporaneity and Contemporaneous Historicity: Creation of Meaning and Identity in Postwar Trauma Narratives



This paper contends that traumatic memories are not inherently memories of an experienced trauma. It explores a new perspective on post-1945 Jewish-American fiction. Analyzing Jewish-American novels from three generations—survivors, their children, and their grandchildren—the author traces the trajectories and changing perspectives in the narrative productions of these three generations. The analysis uses Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of cultural trauma to analyze generational trajectories in identity formations.
Vol 6, No 1 “Boundless” (2017) | ISSN 2153-5914 (online) | DOI 10.5195/contemp.2017.206
Historical Contemporaneity and
Contemporaneous Historicity
Creation of Meaning and Identity in Postwar Trauma
Thorsten Wilhelm
This paper contends that traumatic memories are not inherently memories of an experienced
trauma. It explores a new perspective on post-1945 Jewish-American fiction. Analyzing
Jewish-American novels from three generationssurvivors, their children, and their
grandchildrenthe author traces the trajectories and changing perspectives in the narrative
productions of these three generations. The analysis uses Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of
cultural trauma to analyze generational trajectories in identity formations.
About the Author
Thorsten Wilhelm is a doctoral student in the English Department at Heidelberg University
and an Exchange Scholar at Yale University. He received his MA in History and English
Literature and Linguistics from Heidelberg University. His research focuses on the ongoing
effects of the Holocaust in Jewish-American fiction. He looks at how these intergenerational
trauma narratives form identities and collective trauma. Apart from this, his interest in
nineteenth-century literature has him working on bibliographical histories of engravings for
the novels of Charles Dickens.
Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture
Vol 6, No 1 Boundless” (2017) | ISSN 2153 -5914 (online) | DOI 10.5195/contemp.2017.206
Generational Trauma
Like other narratives, trauma narratives follow a
process of “coding, weighting, and narrating,”
constituting a co(n)temporaneous past that
exceeds the bare facts. The past becomes not just
contemporaneous, but cotemporaneous in its
experiential quality. For that, it is necessary to
distinguish between stories that retell an individual
trauma and cultural narratives that evolve from
the continuous generational engagement with such
traumas. Humans tell stories to interlink their identities with others and establish a
contemporaneity: a contemporaneity that allows storytellers to approach as closely as
possible a reality they may or may not have experienced themselves.
In this quest, the past
is a vital source ofand a powerful force indefining the present(s) and the future(s).
Contemporaneity is distinct for each generation: every generation, every individual seeks to
create a unique version, which is invariably filled with their own pertinent questions for both
present and future. One “generation feels keenly what another barely notices,” one
“appreciates (or dreads)” what “another takes for granted.”
It is this drive for an
understanding and need to experience something of an other’s past trauma that fuels the
trauma narratives of those who have not lived through the Holocaust.
Commemorative Narratives
Related to this urge to re-present memory, history, and trauma is the attempt, in narrative,
to build a whole self with a stable, independent identity. It is an attempt grounded
temporally for both individual and collectivity. To achieve this goal, accounts of the
(traumatic) past, present perceptions, and dreams and hopes for the future need to unify
into a coherent narrative, making trauma narratives both a disruptive and a unifying factor
for identity formation, which is why Ron Eyerman sees the role of memory in identity
formation as the narrativized account of one’s past—the “part of the development of the self
or personality.”
Memory, thus, is the key anchor in the tides of time, allowing us to
Jeffrey C. Alexander, “The Social Construction of Moral Universals,” in Remembering the Holocaust.
A Debate, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7.
Eugene Hollahan, “Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision by Daniel Fuchs; Saul Be llow and History by
Judie Newman,” Studies in the Novel 20 (1988): 104.
Rachel M. Herweg, Die jüdische Mutter: Das verborgene Matriarchat (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Buchgesellschaft, 1994), 6.
Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael P. Kramer, “Introduction: Jewish American Literatures in the
Making,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael
P. Kramer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5.
Ron Eyerman, “Slavery and the Foundation of African American Identity, in Cultural Trauma and
Collective Identity, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al. (Berkeley: Polity Press 2004), 6465.
Historical Contemporaneity and
Contemporaneous Historicity
Creation of Meaning and Identity in
Postwar Trauma Narratives
Thorsten Wilhelm
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construct our individual and collective selves.
Remembering the past, then, isas Proust
describes in In Search of Lost Timenot an actualization of the past. In remembering, we do
not recreate a Rankean past “as it actually was” but as we perceive it at the present
moment: it is re-presented.
In remembering, one constructs a revivified narrative of a past
in which the memory is formed by a present subjectivity.
This kind of remembrance, for those who have not experienced the Holocaust, is
fraught with complications. Gary Weissman stresses the desire of children of Holocaust
survivors “to become a prisoner, to actually feel the horror – in short, to witness the
Holocaust as if one were there.”
This longing is not, as Weissman accurately puts it, “limited
to those who are the children of Holocaust survivors,” but pertains to “many people who
have no direct experience of the Holocaust but are deeply interested in studying,
remembering, and memorializing it.”
As such, discrepancies among factual reality, survivor
memory, and non-survivor imagination become complicated. “Finally, it was hearing stories
[…] at the very scene of the crime,” which allows those without a Holocaust experience “to
come closest to something of the missing horror, however fleetingly.”
The closeness to and
of the narrative is the means of connecting to a place and a time that otherwise could not be
made co(n)temporary. Hearing the stories transforms hitherto historically significant places
into those that are personally informed.
Conceptually, only the survivors have a direct link to some aspects of the Holocaust.
Their individual trauma is specific to their experiences and gives rise to individual stories and
memories which, in and of themselves, create access points for the post-Holocaust
generations who want to connect to the trauma of their ancestors. To achieve this
connection, “the tendency to privilege and identify with those histories that resonate with
one’s own sense of identity” is the vital touchstone to make the past trauma a
contemporaneous identity.
The generations of children and grandchildren of Holocaust
survivors implement their forebears’ memories into their own memories and identities.
imagining the narratives they hear, or do not hear, they form memories of a possible story
which are realized as actual memories of events they did not, in reality, live through.
Nevertheless, the experiential quality is quite similar. Hearing their parents’ stories and
Jeffrey K. Olick, “Introduction,” in The Collective Memory Reader, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered
Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 37.
Christoph Münz, “Alles Was Ich Tun Kann Ist diese Geschichte zu Erzählen: Erinnerung und
Gedächtnis im Judentum und Christentum,” in Die Gegenwart des Holocaust: “Erinnerung” als
Religionspädagogische Herausforderung, ed. Michael Wermke (Münster: Lit, 1997), 73.
Alan Megill, “History, Memory, Identity.” In The Collective Memory Reader, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick,
Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 196.
Gary Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust
(Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press 2004), 4.
Weissman, Fantasies, 4. We remember also Lawrence Langer’s now-famous statement about the
high standards and dangers of engaging scholarly with the Holocaust.
Weissman, Fantasies, 5.
Weissman, Fantasies, 7.
In the following, I use the term first generation for the generation of Holocaust survivors. The
second generation are the children of the survivors. The third generation denotes the grandchildren of
survivors. Although these distinctions are somet imes identical with literary or cultural generations, that is
not always the case.
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imagining themthat means actualizing these narrativesin the present re-members
within their pertaining contemporary identity. Memory, here, is not a remembrance of
isolated incidents, but the construction of a meaningful narrative which allows for an
inscription into others’ contemporaneous identities: the formation of a usable past, a livable
present, and a wishable future.
Processing Trauma
In this endeavor, writers become makers of meaning and architects of reality because their
subject matter is the whole temporal continuum of which man tries to make sense by binding
together past, present, and future.
Where does fact end and fiction begin? How factitious is
fiction? How fictitious is fact? I inquire into the narrative collectivization of a historical event
over three generations of literary engagement to analyze how, to borrow Jeffrey Alexanders
phrase, “a specific and situated historical event, an event marked by ethnic and racial
hatred, violence, and war, becomes transformed into a generalized symbol of human
suffering and moral evil.”
I will follow the theory of cultural trauma developed by Alexander, who sketches the
history of the perception of the Shoah from Nazism-related war “atrocities” via a progressive
narrative to a tragic narrative that went hand in hand with inaugurating the Holocaust’s
status as unique and universal.
This development is essential in understanding the
emergence of the Holocaust as an event of cultural trauma that is very much alive for later
generations whose predecessors, although being closer to it, felt no or little connection to.
This phenomenon is in addition and contrast to what Marianne Hirsch called “postmemory,”
a form of nonmemory or absent memory of the later generations that spawned a varied and
Remembering here takes on two meanings: first, to bring them back to mind and hand them down
from generation to generation and, second, to inscribe themselves, through this memorial act, as
members of the collectivity of the traumatized.
Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press,
1989), 26.
See, in this context, the Heraclitian sentiment that “[e]verything changes and nothing remains
still. You cannot step twice into the same strea m” (Rapp 2007, 67). According to Heraclitian philosophy,
history is a constant temporal stream, which is never the same at two different points of time. See also,
the Augustinian doctrine that “if the present time were always present and weren’t blending into the past,
it wouldn’t be time anymore but eternity” (Me ijering, 1979, 59). Time is seen as a wh ole that cannot be
put into human histo-temporal categories, but is instead an auxiliary construction to grasp reality
(Harpham 1985, 81; Stein 1984, 7). It follows, that “beliefs in a historical past from which men might
learn any simple, substantial truth” are false, as “there were as many ‘truths’ about the past as there were
individual perspectives on it” (White 1973, 332). For Nietzsche (2010, 42), “[t]he unrestrained historical
sense, pushed to its logical extreme, uproots the future, because it destroys illusions and robs existing
things of the only atmosphere in which they can live” (Grass 1983, 128–29; Anchor 1987, 12122).
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 3.
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 332.
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 3.
Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
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complex literary output in the attempt to approach the trauma.
This “postmemory”
deserves further analysis vis-à-vis Alexander’s theory.
Whereas Alexander “explores the social creation of a cultural fact and the effects of this
cultural fact on social and moral life,”
I explore the literary narratives produced both as
cause and effect of this social construction and its metamorphoses over the generations. The
of Jewish American fiction establishes dialogues between individuals and groups
and, thus, allows for interrelated and/or opposing representations of identity. As part of the
literary tradition, the narratives form horizons on which we see how individuals and
collectivities inscribe their identities as created by inclusion and exclusion of aspects of the
collective identity.
Individually, those who lived through the Holocaust are traumatized by the atrocities
they experienced. Collectively, this trauma was transmitted to the following generations who
are traumatized by its aftermath. The survivors’ tales foster a tradition of Holocaust
narratives that perpetuates the trauma, transmitting it to the following generationsthereby
engaging in a certain healing process. But these tales also constitute a connective collective
through the need of later generations to incorporate the traumatic
contemporaneity into their own contemporaneity, that is the identities they narrate both of
and for themselves. First-generation testimonies, especially Elie Wiesel’s Night, use narrative
stylistic features to draw the reader into, and stir engagement with, the trauma stories by
simultaneously propagating the incomprehensibility and incommunicability of the Holocaust.
These individual renditions establish a collective narrative of the trauma that
traumatizes even later generations. This can be seen, Alexander argues, “when members of
a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks
upon their group consciousness, making their memories forever and changing their future
identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.
He asserts that a cultural trauma is not a
priori in the world, that is events, on the cultural level, are not inherently traumatic.
Rather, what creates a cultural trauma are the individual and collective attributions to an
Ellen S. Fine, “Intergenerational Memories: Hidden Children and Second Generation,” in
Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide, vol. 3, Memory, ed. John K. Roth and
Elizabeth Maxwell (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2010), 187.
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 3.
I will not attempt to define a comprehensive and exhaustive canon of Jewish American fictionlet
alone literature. This effort has been undertaken and is currently being worked on by eminent scholars
such as Ruth R. Wisse and Justin Cammy, to name but two. Following Jan Assmann, I will merely use my
individual “canon” as a principle of the interrelation of collective and individual identity formation through
and in works of fiction. I hold that the works I analyze describe, form, change, and discard the normative
consciousness of a whole population and the individuals who relate their identities to it (Cammy 2008;
Wisse 2000).
See Joseph Soloveitchik’s “covenant of fate” in denoting such a formation of a collective identity
along the narratives about the Holocaust trauma (Kaplan 2005, 5).
Jeffrey C. Alexander, “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma,” in Cultural Trauma and Collective
Identity. ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 1.
Jeffrey C. Alexander, Trauma. A Social Theory (Cambridge, MA: Polity. 2012), 13.
Alexander, “Toward a Theory,” 8.
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But trauma leaves ruptures “in the web of meaning,” thereby constricting the
construction of “meaningful histories.”
That is why fictional traumas are sometimes no less
traumatizing than factual ones. Trauma “becomes a thing by virtue of the context in which it
is implanted.”
As such, trauma generates traumatic narratives that must be remembered in
order to be worked through and spoken out.
Individual and collective traumatic memories
continue through narratives, which, again, change over time as new memories are found or
formed in the construction of coherent narratives by victims and following generations.
Accordingly, the original trauma, while being worked through, is re-enacted by subsequent
Generationally, our present and past involvements are causally connected. On one hand,
our perception of the past depends on present influences. On the other, the past influences
our perception of the present.
Trauma narratives, hence, play an important role in studying
post-Holocaust Jewish-American fiction, as highlighted by Yael Zerubavel, who contends that
[e]ach act of commemoration produces a commemorative narrative, a story
about a particular past that accounts for this ritualized remembrance and
provides a moral message for the group members. […] collective memory
clearly draws on historical sources. Yet it does so selectively and creatively. […]
the commemorative narrative […] undergoes the process of narrativization.
Post-1945 Jewish-American fiction, in many respects, constitutes such “commemorative
narratives.” In Alexander’s theory, trauma simultaneously constitutes a disruptive and a
constructive force in identity formation.
Remembering becomes an act of putting memories
into meaningful narrative sequences that invest one’s present with meaning, irrespective of
whether the remembered entities are based on fact.
There cannot, of course, be a single adequate and accurate memory; rather, there is a
multiplicity of memories.
This highlights the basic principle: while “survivors persist in
writing memoirs to bear witness to their encounter with death. […] Children of survivors are
trying to come to terms with the wounds they have inherited.”
In this process, imaginative
narratives are paramount because they create meaningful stories that allow for coherence
and grounding by filling gaps either fictionally or by incorporating other people’s memories.
Necessarily, this process, to a lesser extent, pertains also to survivor testimonies, since no
Bernhard Giesen, “The Trauma of Perpetrators: The Holocaust as the Traumatic Reference of
German National Identity,” in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al.
(Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 113.
Neil J. Smelser, “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma,” in Cultural Trauma and Collective
Identity, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 34.
Giesen, “Trauma of Perpetrators,” 113.
Connerton, How Societies, 2.
Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 237.
Cf. the Holocaust trauma and second-generation identification, not with the following generations’
own present reality but with their parents’ memories. It shows the need to incorporate the traumatic
memories, which constitute a connective collective experience to interlink one’s identity with others.
Fine, “Intergenerational Memories,” 78.
Fine, “Intergenerational Memories,” 78.
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survivor can represent the Holocaust or even one concentration camp experience in its
which is why works engaging with the tradition of Holocaust testimonies can be
seen as “works born of belated trauma.
There is not one Holocaust trauma, but a range of traumata born from the specifity of
one’s experiences at a certain time and location within the event. Each trauma is specific to
the context in which it occurs. Taken together as an evolved and evolving collective
narrative, the respective experiences and traumata form a story of a collective trauma. At
the same time, the Holocaust trauma constitutes several collective identities that must be
differentiated: the identity of survivors, of the second and third generations, and of all those
living in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Each identity is marked by specific scripts, which
the individual has and which she follows to ground herself. To analyze the use, function, and
implications of these scripts, one must analyze the intergenerational “contingent,
sociologically freighted nature of the trauma process[es].”
Such an intergenerational
approach to the literary productions is significant because the effects of the cultural trauma
have not yet been studied in depth. An analysis based on Alexander’s theory shows that a
good many studies of Jewish-American fiction
fail to see that there is an interpretive grid through which all “facts” about [the
Holocaust] trauma are mediated … [It] has a supraindividual, cultural status; it
is symbolically structured and sociologically determined. No trauma interprets
itself. Before trauma can be experienced at the collective (not individual) level,
there are essential questions that must be answered, and answers to these
questions [and the questions themselves] change over time.
These changes are overtly and covertly reflected in the literary outputs of each generation.
When we are interpreting the world and our perceptions of it, we do so by constructing texts
that reflect our rootedness in our respective contemporaneitiessocial, historical, communal,
regional, geographical, religious, temporal, and so forth.
We should not forget that, although the Holocaust traumatized each survivor,
spawning a plethora of narrative and creative engagements, Jewish-American fiction is more
than a mere literature of the Holocaust. Third-generation works such as All Other Nights, in
which Dara Horn explores another kind of Jewish trauma experience during the American
Civil War of 18611865, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, in which
Nathan Englander explores a wider range of questions about Jewish identity in a post-
Weissman, Fantasies, 15.
This is a form of individual, i.e., psychological,” trauma and not one of cultural trauma as
Alexander conceptualizes it. These two concepts, while compared, should not be intermixed or blurred.
Marita Grimwood, in her study Holocaust Literature of the Second Generation (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2007) underlines the inherent transnationality of second-generation literaturea fact easily
expandable to both first- and third-generation writing as well. According to Grimwood, “[s]econd-
generation writing is by its nature an international field. While not wishing to elide the cultural specificities
of immigrant experiences and memorial traditions, it is clear that in this case drawing rigid boundaries
between national literatures is both arbitrary and limiting. Owing to the nature of postwar migration, even
pinning a given writer down to a single country can be difficult” (2). In the following, however, we contend
that analyzing works written from within a specific cultural contextthe United Statesnevertheless
accounts for certain features pertaining and originating specifically from this context.
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 7.
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 7.
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Holocaust world, producing particularly illuminating narratives in looking beyond the trauma
by building upon it.
First-Generation Testimony
The 1970s saw the beginning of a tradition of sharing testimony of one’s experiences during
the Holocaust with a more widely interested audience. Before that, stories of the traumatic
experiences were not welcomed by the larger public. Perceptions of the survivor also
Ellen S. Fine’s statement that “the afterlife of the Holocaust […] has expanded in
the 1990s” reflects this growth of testimonial material.
Direct testimony fostered the emergence of survivors as a new concept in the trauma
discourse because they provided a “tactile link with the tragic event. As their social and
personal role was defined, they began to write books, give speeches to local and national
communities, and record their memories of camp experiences on tape and video.”
trajectory of silence and testimony can be seen in the example of Elie Wiesel, who at first
imposed a pledge of silence upon himself:
I knew that the role of the survivor was to testify. Only I did not know how. I
lacked experience, I lacked a framework. I mistrusted the tools, the procedures.
Should one say it all or hold it all back? Should one shout or whisper? […] And
then, how can one be sure that the words, once uttered, will not betray, distort
the message they bear? […] So heavy was my anguish that I made a vow: not
to speak, not to touch upon the essential for at least ten years. Long enough to
see clearly. Long enough to listen to the voices crying inside my own. Long
enough to regain possession of my memory. Long enough to unite the
languages of man with the silence of the dead.
The survivors’ testimonies emblematize the problems that arise on expressing and working
through the traumatic events. Lived-through atrocities or witnessed atrocities together form the trauma
that the survivors need to work through. Temporal, geographical, and, most importantly, linguistic
distance is needed to be able to construct a meaningful narrative. Although clearly based on fact and
actual events, each testimony is also a novel or, to use Claire Colebrook’s (1997, 16) expression, a
“discursive event.” Hence, it incorporates historical facts into “a collection of new relations,” filling up gaps
and establishing links to foster coherence. The consecutive literary traditions, then, are clearly and
unavoidably works of fiction. The factual element in second- and third-generation literary productions is
based on historical evidence and the accounts of those who were there. The fictional element is that
they imaginatively connect to the factual events trying to grasp, or even experience, the trauma they
have inherited as parts of their past. In connecting to their parents’ trauma, the second generation faces
elemental difficulties. For one, they do not have actual memories of the trauma they have inherited from
their parents’ stories and physical and psychological suffering. Also, their parents’ actual memories—
emotional and bodily reactionscannot be transformed into their own memories one to one. Nevertheless,
their imaginative effortas realized in their works—allows them to approximate their parents’ memories in
their “affective and psychic effect” that Marianne H irsch (2012, 31) terms “postmemory.” The concept of
postmemory is based on the premise that, for the children, who actually had to cope, if not with the
trauma itself, then with its aftereffects, the Holocaust is “a memory not of theoretical abstraction or
ideological strategies, but of proximity charged with feeling” (Hoffman 2004, 180).
Fine, “Intergenerational Memories,” 51.
Alexander, “Social Construction,” 66.
Elie Wiesel, A Jew Today (New York: Vintage, 1978), 18.
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Wiesel’s Night and the implications of his “vow” deserve reevaluation considering
intergenerational trauma narratives, especially since Wiesel claims that his work is born from
silence. “I entered literature through silence,” Wiesel states in an interview,
I seek the role of witness, and I am duty bound to justify each moment of my
life as a survivor. […] Words can never express the inexpressible; language is
finally inadequate, but we do know of the beauty of literature. We must give
truth a name, force man to look. The fear that man will forget, that I will forget,
that is my obsession. Literature is the presence of the absence. Since I live, I
must be faithful to the memory. […] I must be the emissary of the dead, even
though the role is painful. If we study to forget, live to die, then why? The
question is the answer; what I do, what I write, is the answer. I write to
understand as much as to be understood. Literature is an act of conscience. It is
up to us to rebuild with memories, with ruins, with efforts, and with moments of
Caruth thought-provokingly approaches the theoretical stance of the unknowability,
incomprehensibility, inexplicability, and inexpressibility of the Holocaust and its ensuing
traumata with an interest “in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing,”
because it is at this intersection “that the language of literature and the psychoanalytic
theory of traumatic experience precisely meet.”
The nexus where knowing, not-knowing,
and the emerging narratives to imbue meaning in the events through language meet is vital
in this context. Contrary to Caruth’s theorem of the incomprehensibility of the initial trauma
experience, however, Richard McNally contends that the trauma is available to the victim
initially and fully. In the cases where there is a silence, that silence is either voluntarily or
involuntarily imposed on the victims as a result of personal needs or the public audiences’
reaction to the trauma narratives.
This is not a form of repression, since the memory of
trauma remains virulent in the victim, but a form of not talking about it.
In the narrative quest for understanding and meaning creation (as highlighted in
Alexander’s theory of a coded, weighted, and narrated collective narrative in the face of
destroyed meaning), the trauma narratives make the initial, individual experiences and
memories of the trauma available to those who have not experienced it or who have
experienced it differently. There, in the open space of public and literary discourse, is the
“truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address” merged with “what is known, but
also [with] what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.”
Moreover, the
collective narrative starts to haunt those who have not experienced the horrors themselves
but are drawn into the victims’ traumatic narratives.
Wiesel published the Yiddish …Un die velt hot geshvign with significant differences to the
later Night. All English versions of Night are translations of the French version. Most
importantly, Wiesel’s work allows for an analysis of fictional versus historical truth and of
how the narrativization of memory shapes the perception of the Holocaust. Apart from that,
Heidi Anne Walker/Elie Wiesel, “How and Why I Write: An Interview with Elie Wiesel,” The Journal
of Education 189, No. 3, REFLECTION and RENEWAL (2008/2009): 4950.
Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore , MD: The Johns
Hopkins University Press 1996), 3.
Richard J. McNally, Remembering Trauma (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press 2003).
Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 4.
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Night lies in the middle of a significant transitional period in the social construction of the
Holocaust. Not only is Wiesel’s account located at a point in time when communal perception
of the Holocaust began to change from a progressive to a tragic narrative, but also, he
helped in making that transition.
Night, as a paradigmatic narrative, has had a strong impact on subsequent discourses
about Holocaust trauma and how it has been narrativized. Wiesel artistically and poetically
recounts the unspeakable events and uses historical and fictional reappraisal to bridge the
void of silence and memory loss through testimony and narrative. Thereby Wiesel powerfully
shows that the inexplicability and unspeakability is no hindrance to speak of it and to find
linguistic expressions to approach the subject. As Naomi Seidman emphasizes, Wiesel’s—and
trauma discourses in generalstylization of the unsayable is not what cannot be expressed
at all but “what cannot be spoken in French.”
Wiesel’s use of narratological techniques to
tell his experiences, to relate to his experiences, and to mediate these experiences, as well
as the way those techniques establish or reestablish a certain degree of identity after the
trauma, help understand the literary productions of the following generations. These
productions are, in themselves, new building blocks for new identities. Seidman, in her
comparative analysis of Night and …Un die Velt holds the different endings to be two
“entirely different account[s] of the experience of the survivor.”
She sees the ending of
Night to be a projection of Eliezer, the surviving protagonist, into the post-Holocaust world in
which the witness becomes a torn mediator between the need to speak and the silence and
death born by an unspeakable event. Seidman conceptualizes this as a change in the
witness’s identity, arguing that …Un die Velt portrays the enraged “Yiddish survivor [who]
shatters that image as soon as he sees it, destroying the deathly existence the Nazis willed
on him.” This depiction would fit into the context of what Alexander calls the progressive
narrative, an enraged but teleologically oriented outlook that underlines the need to shatter
the trauma for life to go on. In Night, on the other hand, the narrative projects liberated
Eliezer’s death-haunted face into the postwar years when Wiesel would become a familiar
figure,” and when the outlook had changed to a tragic narrative, which constituted the
survivor as an eternally maimed figure who needs to be held in awe because of the message
delivered by the witness of trauma.
An interesting counterpoint is Louis Begley’s 1991 novel Wartime Lies. Begley, who
spent the war years hiding in Poland with his mother under a fake identity, willalthough not
a survivor of a concentration campbe dealt with as a witness of the traumatic events of the
Holocaust. Begley, in contrast to Wiesel, never claims that his account is mnemonically or
historically accurate (he writes, after all, nearly fifty years after the events). On the contrary,
he offers the possibility of fictional freedom and narrative contortion. Begley claims “the
freedom to invent, consistent with the profound moral and psychological truth of the story.
He holds that “the passage of time and exile” functions as “a psychic screen” that helped him
grapple with the topic.
Like Wiesel, he needed temporal distance.
Naomi Seidman, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,Jewish Social Studies: New Series,
3 (1996): 8.
Seidman, “Scandal,” 7.
Seidman, “Scandal,” 7.
Louis Begley, Wartime Lies (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), 201.
Begley, Wartime Lies, 201.
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However, in contrast to Wiesel, who stresses mnemonic and historical accuracy, Begley
emphasizes that Wartime Lies represents one possible memory and possible identity. This
does not necessarily make his account a lie, but allows for a deeper understanding of the
process of fictionalizations. Both Wiesel and Begley stress that temporal distance is crucial in
understanding and narrating the experiences, but Begley writes that Wartime Lies is
“quintessentially a work of fiction and not an autobiography or memoir, and that I had to
write the story […] in the form of a novel. The form was no less necessary than the
emotional distance from the events I was going to evoke conferred by exile and the passage
of time.”
A valuable excursus here is the Holocaust hoax Fragments. Memories of a Childhood,
1939-1948 by Binjamin Wilkomirski alias Bruno Doesekker alias Bruno Grosjean, because it
unfolds questions about the possibility of such strong identification with the Holocaust that
one creates one’s own account of it.
To be more precise, Wilkomirski identifies so deeply
with the ex post facto collective narratives as to make them his new, lived identity.
Fragments provides an interesting counterpoint to the survivor testimonies and bridges the
gap not only to authors like Saul Bellow,
Philip Roth,
and Cynthia Ozick,
who are
contemporaries of the Holocaust, although spatially and experientially removed from the
events, but also to second- and third-generation writers. I do not intend to qualify one
account as more genuine or less truthful than another. It is much more fruitful to analyze the
implications that arise with this account and its receptionthe need to identify with a
traumatic event and a certain narrative about it, as well as the need to establish one’s own
account of a memory that one has without it being one’s own memory. It is a striking
example of how a collective trauma can be used to inscribe one’s identity.
In a poetic narrative mode, the novels engage with the individual’s universal problems of
contemporaneity in a present infused with traumatic narratives. Tradition, community, and
culture are paramount. In the historical nexus, the individuals need to inscribe themselves
into their respective version of history by creating meaning from the past. A whole self and a
livable present is possible only by bringing past, present, and future into co(n)temporaneity.
Second Generation
The second generation’s literary output is marked by the conflict arising from the inherited
parental trauma, which they feel as if it were their own but of which they have no personal
memory. They must necessarily overcome past traumata: not only the Holocaust, but also
forgetfulness, fragmentation, their personal fears, and unrealized hopes. Living in the
present cannot be achieved if the individual is overwhelmed by the past. The protagonists in
second-generation novelsmainly members of the second-generation themselvesyearn for
a present wholeness of self and a stable identity. The parents’ trauma poses a tremendous
legacy that counteracts this yearning. Not only do the children bear witness to the trauma,
but they also must “never forget!” so that later generations will know what happened and
Begley, Wartime Lies, 200.
Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948 (London: Picador, 1997).
Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (New York: Penguin, 1995).
Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer (New York: The Library of America, 2007).
Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl (New York: Vintage, 1990).
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that the trauma may be, at some point, healed. Second-generation accounts are marked by
features like parental silence as to their experiences, parental stories of the horrors without
hope or contextualization, witnessing the parents’ futile attempts to start over again, and the
self-imposed role as witness to the results of atrocities as well as to their parents’ survival.
All of this results in a feeling of helplessness, rage, and near incapability of establishing a
stable and independent identity in the face of this legacy.
While the second generation bears the brunt of the ongoing trauma of the Holocaust, it
is an indispensable link in working through the collective trauma. As proxy to the trauma, the
second generation is overwhelmed by the individual and collective obligations to create a
future. In doing so, the second generation is torn in the conflict between its inheritance and
its own selves.
Thane Rosenbaum’s Second Hand Smoke novelizes such helplessness, rage, and
difficulties a child of survivors faces. Trained by his mother to be a Jewish nemesis who
pursues all anti-Semites and finally fights back, Duncan Katz grows up as “a child of trauma.
Not of love, or happiness, or exceptional wealth. Just trauma. And a nightmare, too.”
Significantly, his parents’ silence about their Holocaust past fills Duncan with fantasies about
the events that allow him “to encounter them” imaginatively in the hope to feel at least
something, “to be swallowed up […], to become a prisoner, to actually feel the horror” his
parents felt and thereby break the excruciating tension he experiences between their
Holocaust suffering and his seemingly comfortable post-Holocaust world.
Duncan is a
witness to “the damage that could never be undone. The true legacy of the Shoah. Lives that
were supposed to start all over but couldn’t. Halting first steps, then the stumbles. The
inexhaustible sorrow of the parents; the imminent recognition of the children.”
For Duncan,
children of survivors are “[c]hildren of smoke and skeletons,” so that, inadvertently, the
“Holocaust shaped those who were survivors of survivors. Inexorably, cruelly, and unfairly
The development of the narrative is further crafted around the dilemma of survivors
who lost children during the Holocaust and had children again. They face the problem of
whom to love and whom to care for when their post-Holocaust children are mere surrogates
for the lost ones.
Duncan, born after the Holocaust, lacks an identity without the possibility of a memory
separate from his parents’ trauma. He is indoctrinated by his survivor mother to “avenge our
The “ghosts of a robbed childhood” roam this novel of rage, hopelessness, and
remembering without the ability to relive the real events.
Yet, he revisits Auschwitz on his
trip to Poland, where he wants to find the brother he had never known he had until an uncle
reveals Duncan’s mother’s darkest secret. In Birkenau, accompanied by his Yogi brother,
Duncan experiences a terrifying catharsis that enables him to come to terms with the
imagined past and gnawing rage.
Thane Rosenbaum, Second Hand Smoke: A Novel (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), 1.
Weissman, Fantasies, 1.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 2.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 2.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 32.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 19.
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It is this possibility of cathartic moments, by linking first- and second-generation trauma
narratives, that constitutes the importance of this generation. Duncan, raised and trained by
his traumatized mother “to be alone, to do without,” faces his greatest fears in the barracks
of Birkenau. He is “paralyzed by the fear of being abandoned. Even my insides know it. My
intestines are strangling each other.”
Duncan, the Nazi hunter, bodybuilder, and martial
artist, who fulfills his mother’s dreams of an unquenchable flame against anti-Semitic
atrocities, is incapable of crushing the fantasies of being selected, incarcerated, and tortured
by the Nazis that surface from his (post-)memories. These memories are fantasies born from
countless testimonials he read and that constitute the overall collective narrative of the
Holocaust from which the post-generations draw their knowledge. Duncan needs his brother,
Isaac, who, though born after the Holocaust in a DP camp, is held to be a death-camp
survivor by his Polish neighbors and works as a yoga teacher in Warsaw, to make sense of
these fears and come to terms with past and present traumata. “Your parents died too soon,
and then your wife left you and took your child,” Isaac reminds Duncan. “Your stomach is not
wrong; you just don’t know how to live with the grief.”
Isaac highlights the close
connectedness between the past trauma and the present grief. Duncan must separate the
two to establish a contemporaneity instead of his state of a past overwriting his present.
Duncan, Isaac points out, should acknowledge that his mother’s experiences were of a
different nature because she experienced the death camps. Isaac explains to his collapsing
brother that he “can’t live a normal life with images of the Holocaust playing in [his] head” by
showing Duncan the numbers that their mother branded on his forearm: “I am not afraid of
them,” Isaac says. “You have no numbers, and yet they terrify you. You are hiding from
yourself. You are a stranger to yourself. We are locked in this barracks, but you are trapped
in yourself even tighter. You buried yourself alive in your own tomb.”
Duncan’s problems
originate in his struggle to live an identity that is not his but is created by the narratives he
forms from his parents’ silence and trauma, as well as the seemingly infinite number of
Holocaust books cluttering his apartment.
At first, Duncan only realizes that he is
caught in a time warp, trapped in a cattle car. Everything is about loss. It feels
like there is no difference between my life and what happened to our family
during the war. […] My life is like one big atonement. Everything is Kaddish.
Kristallnacht all over again, but this time the glass is not from broken
storefronts, but families.
Duncan emblematizes the second-generation paradigm. He is excruciatingly aware of the
difference between then and now, as indicated by his choice of words like “dress rehearsal,”
“time warp,” and “what happened during the war.” In fact, it is especially this awareness of a
seemingly unbridgeable temporal gap that makes it so unbearable for him. At the same time,
he feels the need to pass on the trauma and, in an everlasting process of mourning, violates
the very principles of the Kaddish because for him “[t]o mourn is to forget.”
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 262.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 262.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 262.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 26263.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 264.
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transforms the second-generation burden, that is, the inability to feel what his parents’ felt
during the Holocaust, into his “birthright,” which constitutes “a permanent scar.”
To heal this scar, Duncan needs his brother, who symbolizes the connection to the
actual trauma and helps Duncan see that he cannot continue to make his parents’ past
trauma his own contemporaneous identity. Isaac tells Duncan that “rage is all about holding
on to something that you don’t need but are afraid to let go. You have a life force inside you.
It is time to use it for living, and not as a prison.”
After living through his own personal
but imaginedAuschwitz nightmare, Duncan is finally able to heed this advice. He
establishes his own narrative, in which he incorporates the narrative of his parents’ past but
which no longer overwrites his own present identity.
Third Generation
Focusing on continuing the legacy, second-generation literature faces the dilemma that it can
only approach the trauma, memory, and history imaginatively. To come to terms with the
trauma, second-generation writers incorporate historical (factual) accounts into their fictional
narratives. With direct contact with survivors and witnesses quickly becoming less possible,
such incorporation and transmission become even more pressing for the third generation.
Unlike the children, the survivors’ grandchildren have more distance to the actual accounts.
However, scholarship suggests that many survivors find it easier to recount their experiences
toor to revisit the Old Country accompanied bytheir grandchildren instead of their
children. Compared to the third generation’s curiosity about their ancestors’ past, distance
and closeness produce a plethora of new ways of engaging with the trauma. What is more,
members of the third generation are more deeply ingrained in the American collective
identity and are more likely to engage with the Holocaust in their individual way.
Dara Horn’s The World to Come highlights the difficulties the third generation faces: the
need to bear witness to memories and traumata of the Holocaust in a world where true
witnesses are dying out fast. However, The World to Come emphasizes that such a world to
come is not as bleak as it seems. Even in the face of a history full of trauma, pogroms, and
atrocities, the past is viewed as an inalienable part of a person’s contemporaneity. “I
believe,” says Ben, the protagonist of The World to Come, “that when people die, they go to
the same places as all the people who haven’t yet been born. That’s why it’s called the world
to come, because that’s where they make the new souls for the future.”
One’s predecessors
are bound to one’s present identity because one is formed by their actions, decisions,
choices, and lives. Simultaneously, the past intricately shapes and influences present and
future, which is then bound back to a new generation arriving. Past, present, and future are
inextricably linked in Horn’s narrative conception of the world to come.
The World to Come is filled with these intricate relapses into a past before the Holocaust,
a past where trauma already existed in the cloth of narrative. But for Horn, this history full of
memory and loss is precisely what constitutes the fascination with it. One character ties
“himself up in ropes of memory, caged himself in with iron bars of memory, drew the
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 264.
Rosenbaum, Second Hand, 264.
Dara Horn, The World to Come. A Novel, (New York: Norton 2006), 124.
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curtains and hid himself in the dark tomb which he filled with an entire world of memory
until all that was missing was color and light.”
It is a powerful play on the ambivalence
between the actual memory and the belated writing. The characters in The World to Come
are torn between preservation (the conservation of knowledge from all previous generations
that is taught to the unborn new generations in the world to come) and destruction (the vital
forgetting of being born into one’s present), liberation (the possibility to start anew), and
enslavement (the generational baggage that comes with the past). In that, they mirror the
difficulties of a generation that can approach the trauma increasingly only through
secondhand narratives. These stories of the past fill one’s present because the deceased
“give them all the raw material of their souls, like their talents and their brains and their
There still is hope because “it’s up to the new ones, once they’re born, what
they’ll use and what they won’t, but that’s what everyone who dies is doing, I think. They
get to decide what kind of people the new ones might be able to become.”
In this respect, Horn’s work is typical of third-generation writing, as it powerfully shows
that the third generation is also characterized by an urge to move on from, instead of merely
continue, the trauma. The worlds of the past, present, and future are continuously shifting in
and out of co(n)temporaneity. The world to come becomes the world before: the Yiddish
world of Eastern Europe and its plethora of narrative possibilities becomes a foil for the
present dreams for the future. Horn and other third-generation writers acknowledge the
Holocaust trauma but try to connect to this pre-Holocaust world to create a new life in the
post-Holocaust one. The world to comea future reference in itselfis where present and
future merge with the past through predecessorial instruction. In this process, imaginative
narratives are paramount because they create meaningful stories that allow for coherence
and grounding by filling gaps either fictionally or by incorporating memories of other people.
Future Contemporaneity
The selected novels deploy a historicization of fiction and a fictionalization of history. Memory
and historyas fact, as well as a fictional narrativeare used to produce meaning, to retell
the past(s) to create, shape, or meet the present. The novels are bound by their need to
bear witness to a traumatic past that entered the fabric of individual and collective identity,
although, for the nonwitness generations, it is a past they can never experience themselves.
Both first-generation writers such as Begley and second- and third-generation writers like
Rosenbaum and Horn constitute a conception of the past as being one possibility among
others. Survivors’ identities are shaped by the co(n)temporaneity of memories of a trauma
that shattered their identities and their past up to the Holocaust. For the following
generations, a considerable part of their identity is constituted by the co(n)temporaneity of a
past trauma they have not experienced first-hand but, as a collective trauma narrative,
overwhelms them nevertheless. If the process of remembering and forgetting is disrupted,
both survivors and following generations will suffer a loss of identitya footing in their
presentas the collective trauma narratives take over. The past, in this conception, is a
histonarrativistic nexus, that is constituted by individual and collective memories, facts and
narratives, toward which the individual feels an urge to connect. While for Wiesel, the
Horn, World to Come, 200.
Horn, World to Come, 124.
Horn, World to Come, 124.
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Auschwitz self, although shattered metaphorically as an image in a mirror, will always remain
a present reality, Duncan Katz, in Second Hand Smoke, needs to develop an identity that is
his alone and not a reenactment of other people’s memories. In The World to Come, what
Alexander calls a progressive narrative, is more palpable again. The co(n)temporaneous
identity consists of the past and moves into a future, which is causally connected to a past of
following generations. In this nexus, past, present, and future constitute a conflux of time in
the individuals’ minds, enabling them to move intellectually backward and forward in time
and generationally reshape the collective trauma narratives. Here, trauma can be both cause
and effect of disconnection. It might even be the case that reinvention is a new form of
trauma. The past is a necessary factor in the establishment of an identity grounded
contemporaneously. The lack of a past or its traumatization is a cause for fragmentation.
Memory and tradition together form identity in the process of making history
co(n)temporaneous. Likewise, the present can be used to create meaning in the past and
shape identity.
The particular version of a collective identity changes with each individual and new
generation, as everyone applies his or her personal history and views on collective history to
create a new identity. Individual traumata are continuously retold in different narratives to
work out and create meaning from various experiences. Collective traumata need to
incorporate these stories as well as to meet the audiences’ respective imaginative or real
contemporaneities. Identity is always in dispute within the novels and their audiences.
Identity, as presented and interpreted here, requires constant redefinition and
reinterpretation by each individual as well as by entire communities. It must be created from
our versions of our paststhe histories we construct from itand our presentthe meaning
we extract from our own worlds. Identity, like history, becomes something the individual
creates and chooses.
The characters grapple with their real or invented origins and where they will lead them
in the present and future.
The emphasis lies on the essentiality of the past and a
meaningful connection to traditionretelling stories of the past with ever-new meanings,
stressing the need to link the past and the present.
The authors and their characters
explore the origins of contemporaneous identities. They are united in their attempt to create
a meaningful world worth living in, and in their search for meaning and legitimacy in a world
that is shaped by the traumata, memories, aspirations, and choices of a nexus of
generations of ancestors.
Memory and the past, however, are not just relative or arbitrary
stories that can be reinvented according to the individual’s pleasure. Certain historical
landmarks are necessary, unalterable parts of each story, an underlying individual trauma
that cannot and must not be negotiated. Facts like the birth and death of people, or the
Shoah, cannot be invented away; one must take them into account while one reinvents one’s
own personal, meaningful story around or from them.
Bryan Cheyette, “On Being a Jewish Critic ,” in Anglophone Jewish Literature, ed. Axel Stähler
(London: Routledge, 2007), 34.
Josh Lambert, American Jewish Fiction (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 5.
Melissa Friedling, “Feminisms and the Jewish Mother Syndrome: Identity, Autobiography, and the
Rhetoric of Addiction,” Discourse 19 (1996): 109.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, “Philip Roth and American Jewish Identity: The Question of Authent icity,”
American Literary History 13 (2001): 86.
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The texts represent continued explorations in search of meaning in history and histories
they have inherited from their forebears. Moreover, it emblematizes their urge to interpret
these meanings in new terms for a new generation.
Nevertheless, the novels emphasize
that memory is almost never accurate; it is the meaning and the possibility of creating a
whole self in a contemporaneity. Historical truth is only the marginal framework in which the
manifold possible realities are narrativized.
These narratives create a special sense of identity and co(n)temporaneity: not only
identity in the sense of identifying oneself with the incidents of history and tradition but also
that one’s identity is constituted by these incidents as individual stories form collective
The novels allow this through their conception of “a unique identity which
springs from [an] origin and [a] story.”
Each individual has to take this basis of cultural
identity to start on their path toward creating and exploring their origins, thereby creating
and exploring themselves, thereby creating collective narratives to which others can relate.
New articles in this journal are licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 United States License.
This journal is operated by the University Library System of the University of Pittsburgh as part of its
D-Scribe Digital Publishing Program, and is co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Yosef H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: Washington University
Press, 1982), 18.
Max I. Dimont, The Jews in America: The Roots, History, and Destiny of American Jews (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 216.
Ruth R. Wisse, “Jewish American Renaissance,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American
Literature. ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael P. Kramer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003),
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Of the many literary and intellectual groups that fueled the emergence of Jewish literature in America, none was as well situated to take advantage of the country's opportunities as the cohort centered in New York City during World War II. While social conditions alone can never inspire a renaissance, the quality of Jewish culture – and even the language in which it was produced – always depended on the Jews' relations to the surrounding polity. The radical intellectual community dominated by Abraham Cahan between 1897-1917 had drawn tremendous energy from the concentrated mass of Yiddish readers and theatergoers, but the urgent needs of immigrant audiences riveted the writers' attention on crises of security and material subsistence. Subsequent groups of Yiddish poets and writers, like the Yunge (Young) and Inzikhistn (Introspectivists), managed to distance themselves somewhat from the social and national claims of their immigrant society, yet their reliance on a Yiddish readership put them essentially at odds with English America even as their work responded to its atmosphere. During the 1920s, when American nativism spurred a fear of immigrants and tried to set limits on the advancement of those who had already entered the country, Jewish enthusiasts of the Russian Revolution tried to introduce its egalitarian ethos into America, but their dependence on directives from the Soviet Union limited ever more of their autonomy of mind and spirit the longer they stayed under its ideological influence. © Cambridge University Press 2003 and Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Jewish Social Studies 11.1 (2004) 32-51 Three images have haunted me during the writing of this article. The first is taken from Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches," which he wrote in 1916 as a private soldier in the British Army during World War I. In this poem, Rosenberg gives the reader an ironic self-image of someone who is between cultures and who is unable to assimilate, even in wartime, into any one nation: Rosenberg's poetry is full of such subversive mergings across seemingly incongruous domains. His self-fashioning as a droll, cosmopolitan rat is an act of extraordinary imaginative poise in the most extreme circumstances. The second image is taken from Kafka's Metamorphosis, when the metamorphosed Gregor—a giant insect—inadvertently begins to cross the boundary from his bedroom into the living room as he becomes transfixed by his sister playing the violin. "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect on him?" Gregor wonders. In a letter to Max Brod, Kafka famously described his generation of Germanized Jews as four-legged animals: "[T]heir hind legs were still mired in their father's Jewishness and their thrashing forelegs found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration." Kafka understood only too well the empty spaces in which his characters were suspended. The final image is taken from Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, a book about impurity with a knowing impure form. In the Zinc chapter, at the beginning of the book, Levi is a young student performing his first experiments and is drawn into broader areas of speculation by the resistance of Zinc to chemical breakdown: Culture as purity, culture as impurity. It is these two clashing versions of culture that I will examine throughout my article. The title, "On Being a Jewish Critic," is meant to provoke rather than assert identity. The one thing that we can say with any certainty about Jewish identity is that it is always in dispute and open to redefinition and reinterpretation (whether religiously, ethnically, culturally, nationally). Being a Jewish critic does not mean that I claim a spurious personal authenticity, nor do I assert the primacy of an individual identity. It is in these terms that "On Being a Jewish Critic" is provocative. If I am regarded as a Jewish critic, then it is what I do with that regard which is the subject of this article. David Hollinger, in a valuable book called Postethnic America, quotes Ishmael Reed on Alex Haley's best-selling genealogy Roots. Reed argues that "if Alex Haley had traced his father's bloodline, he would have travelled 12 generations back to, not Gambia, but Ireland." This Hollinger refers to as "Haley's Choice." Haley chose not to trace his father's ancestry back to Ireland but took the matrilineal route to Gambia. I was struck by Reed's comments because I, too, could trace the Irish ancestry on my mother's side, for at least three generations, and then, I suppose, I could travel to Spain for a few more branches on one of the family trees (to spice up the East European shtetlah on my father's side), but this would have been patently ridiculous. The point is that all public identities are constructed and partial choices...
American Literary History 13.1 (2001) 79-107 Theodor Herzl, The Jews' State Golda Meir, "What We Want of the Diaspora" Against the prophets of doom who have predicted the de mise of a recognizable American Jewish community, I argue that America has finally become a legitimate homeland for Jews; that this hypothesis may be fully illustrated if not quite proved; and that Philip Roth's recent work exudes a contemporary spirit of Jewish self-examination and cultural inquiry, a fictional essaying that in itself exemplifies a new dynamic in American Jewish life. By homeland I mean a country where Jews are living meaningful, creative Jewish lives, and where their actions and deeds in the world reflect their Jewish identities. By legitimate I mean that in America, Jews can be deeply committed to the values, aspirations, and meanings embodied in Jewish history while at the same time remaining loyal to American institutions that ensure democratic freedoms. I mean, therefore, that American Jewish signals a new, unpredicted yet vital phase of Jewish history. I am not restating Jacob Neusner's polemic on America as the Promised Land for the Jews. In 1987, Neusner, the indefatigable Jewish scholar, proclaimed that "America is a better place to be a Jew than Jerusalem." "Here Jews have flourished," Neusner said, "not alone in politics and the economy, but in matters of art, culture, and learning." Moreover, since Jews "have found an authentically Jewish voice -- their own voice -- for their vision of themselves," Neusner concluded that "for here, now and for whatever future anyone can foresee, America has turned out to be our Promised Land" ("Is America" 121). Although I disagree with the assertion that by 1987 American Jews had arrived at a coherent "vision of themselves" (this would be truer for 1997 when he revised his thesis), Neusner rightly argued that Jews were building a stable, productive life in America, one that embodied and perpetuated "human value." Yet, in order to make a powerful claim even stronger, Neusner undercut the cultural, political, spiritual, religious, and scholarly achievements of Israeli Jews by unfavorably comparing them to those of American Jews. To mention just one area: Israel had failed to become a "spiritual center for the Jewish people" because Jews around the world (and especially in America) do not look there for "stimulation," "imagination," or creative impulse. "Today," Neusner asked rhetorically, "in all the Jewish world, who -- as a matter of Jewish sentiment or expression -- reads an Israeli book, or looks at an Israeli painting, or goes to an Israeli play, or listens to Israeli music?" ("Is America" 124). Whether or not he was doing so deliberately, Neusner's statement (as American literary scholars will recognize) closely echoes a famous disparaging remark made in 1820 by the British critic Sydney Smith about the obscurity of all modes of art of another fledgling nation, one, like Israel, barely 50 years old at the time. "In the four quarters of the globe," Smith wrote in the vaunted Edinburgh Review, "who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" (79). Smith's diatribe stung his American readers, though not long after he issued it Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820) invalidated it forever. Neusner's criticism, however, lacked credibility the moment he uttered it. Not only has the Jewish state achieved distinction politically, socially, and artistically, but it also holds a revered place in the American Jewish imagination, still signifying qualities of transcendent meaning: abiding hope, continued affirmation, promised redemption, unmitigated triumph. Moreover, there is no disputing the fullness of Jewish life available in Israel, a richness of actual and...
The Jews in America: The Roots, History, and Destiny of American Jews
  • Max I Dimont
Max I. Dimont, The Jews in America: The Roots, History, and Destiny of American Jews (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 216.
Jewish American Renaissance," in The Cambridge Companion to
  • Ruth R Wisse
Ruth R. Wisse, "Jewish American Renaissance," in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael P. Kramer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 199.