restricted access Introduction: Holocaust representations since 1975
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Holocaust representations since 1975

2014 will mark the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the first Nazi concentration camps at the end of the Second World War. Far from receding from sight, however, Holocaust representations continue to pervade the public consciousness, both directly (the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received more than 38 million visitors in 20101) and in less obvious ways (the later novels in J. K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter series draw on Nazi iconography to depict racial prejudice in the wizarding world). Historian Dan Stone reminds us of the scope of Holocaust representations, describing:

the unfathomably large scholarly literature (by historians, theologians, sociologists, philosophers, literary theorists, political scientists, social psychologists, educationalists, and others) . . . the vast array of representations of the Holocaust produced by film-makers, artists, photographers, novelists, poets, musicians, [and] the many and varied attempts to memorialize the Holocaust in museums and monuments.2

While its prominent role in cultural, political, and scholarly forums has remained more or less stable over the decades, the specific ways in which the Holocaust has been represented have changed. Given the extent and variety of Holocaust representations, it would be reductive to attempt any “summary” of changes since 1975. However, some broad tendencies can be identified. The six articles here offer a sample of some of the interesting developments over this period, in literature, film, trauma studies, theology, and historiography. Despite their variety, it is possible [End Page 1] to discern some recurring themes: the transition from eyewitness testimony to more mediated representations; issues related to depictions of perpetrators; and the problematic role of empathy in engaging with Holocaust history.

Beyond the first generation

The canonical early Holocaust representations were, unsurprisingly, the accounts of victims. Survivors’ memoirs such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (first published in 1947 in Italian) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (first published in French in 19583) were marked by critical and popular acclaim, quickly becoming classics of the nascent genre of Holocaust literature. Such texts derive much of their impact and popularity from their function as testimony, a function arguably heightened in accounts by those who did not survive, such as Anne Frank (whose diary was posthumously published, in Dutch, in 1947). Although even survivor memoirs can never be entirely unmediated,4 they nonetheless assert the authority of experience; as Wiesel states in Night: “Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes.”5

This emphasis on experience has determined to a great extent the subsequent trajectory of Holocaust representations. This can be seen most clearly in the transition from witness accounts to what have become known as “second-generation” accounts, by the children of Holocaust survivors. Indeed, attention has now turned to “third generation” accounts, such is the pervasive impact of the Holocaust on the families of its victims.6 Whether such studies will extend into subsequent generations remains to be seen.

The practical, ethical, and aesthetic issues facing the second and subsequent generations are a heightened version of those facing all non-witness Holocaust representations: how can we represent a trauma so extreme that it has been seen as inexpressible by its very nature? Consider the Maus graphic novels, by Art Spiegelman, in which the author grapples self-reflexively with the difficulties of representing his father’s experience.7 As Susan Suleiman observes, the resulting emphasis is “not only on the story that is told but on the context of its telling, its effect and meaning for the one who was ‘not there’ but who is connected to it by familial bonds.”8 Spiegelman’s self-reflexive, genre-melding text is characteristic of second-generation narratives. The metafictional prose-poetry of Fugitive Pieces, the lyrical 1996 novel by Anne Michaels (the child of Holocaust survivors) is equally representative of second-generation Holocaust fiction, discussed here in Anna Hunter’s article (which also touches on third-generation author, Jonathan Safran Foer).

Occupying an arguably even more complex position in relation to the Holocaust is what Susan Suleiman has called the “1.5 generation”: those who survived the Holocaust as children, “too young to have had an adult understanding of what...