- "A" is for Auschwitz:Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the "Children’s Literature of Atrocity"
Since the early 1990s, children's books about trauma, especially the trauma(s) of the Holocaust, have proliferated, as well as scholarly treatments of those books. Despite the difficulties of representing the Holocaust, or perhaps because of them, there seems to be consensus now that children's literature is the most rather than the least appropriate literary forum for trauma work. Subjects previously thought too upsetting for children are now deemed appropriate and even necessary. Thus, in "A New Algorithm of Evil: Children's Literature in a Post-Holocaust World," Elizabeth R. Baer emphasizes the urgency of "a children's literature of atrocity," recommending what she calls "confrontational" texts, and proposing "a set of [four] criteria by which to measure the usefulness and effectiveness of children's texts in confronting the Holocaust sufficiently" (384).1 "A" is now for Auschwitz, and "H" for Holocaust (if sometimes for Hiroshima). And "B" is still for book, though no longer necessarily the Bible.2 Baer sees as exemplary texts like Roberto Innocenti's picture book Rose Blanche (1985), Seymour Rossel's nonfiction history The Holocaust (1981), and Jane Yolen's novel The Devil's Arithmetic (1988). Such books emphasize their protagonists' direct experiences of the Holocaust, experiences that extend to and presumably interpellate the child reader outside the story.
How to explain this shift away from the idea that young readers should be protected from evil and toward the conviction that they should be exposed to it, perhaps even endangered by it? It's almost as if we now expect reading about trauma to be traumatic itself—as if we think children can't otherwise comprehend atrocity. Just how new is this faith in exposure, experience, and confrontation, and how do we assess its significance with respect to contemporary children's literature and trauma studies?
Many people believe that the Holocaust fundamentally changed the way we think about memory and narrative, as well as about human nature. Presumably the exposure model became necessary because [End Page 120] we no longer have the luxury of denying the existence of or postponing the child's confrontation with evil. Certainly the Holocaust helped make the often entangled projects of literature and psychoanalysis especially ever more anxious and serious. Adorno's infamous declaration that "[to] write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" was received more as a call to narrative arms than a moratorium; Holocaust scholars have long insisted that Adorno was speaking poetically and not literally, saying we must write poetry after Auschwitz, just as we must put psychoanalysis to good use.3 Even so, the Holocaust has only recently become a coherent narrative project in literary, psychological, and theoretical discourse. Lawrence L. Langer's foundational study The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination was published in 1975, and is one of the earliest long critical treatments of the "literature of atrocity." If Western culture has only lately come to terms with the Holocaust, those terms are largely literary and psychological, beginning with Holocaust memoirs and diaries, then historical analyses, and finally fictionalized treatments alongside academic trauma theory.
Only now can Baer insist that there's such a thing as "sufficient" confrontation with the Holocaust. Not everyone would agree; one of the counter-tropes of Holocaust narrative is that confrontation is impossible or always insufficient, that such faith in literature is foolish, even unethical. In any case, the Holocaust has arrived as a legitimate subject, and has ushered in the wider sense that trauma writing can be children's literature. It's not surprising that the Holocaust has functioned as a sort of primal scene of children's trauma literature, through which a children's literature of atrocity has been authorized within the last decade, asserted around both the power and limitations of narrative.
The psychoanalytic conceit is not accidental. The recent surge of Holocaust and trauma writing has many causes and vectors, among them the success of the progressive social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the residual faith in literature as a form of identity, empathy, and community in a pluralist society. Holocaust writing would be unthinkable without...