- Tales from Over There: The Uses and Meanings of Fairy-Tales in Contemporary Holocaust Narrative
In 1999, historian Tim Cole wrote, “at the end of the twentieth century, the ‘Holocaust’ is central to modern consciousness . . . [it] has emerged as nothing less than a ruling symbol in our culture . . . a dominant icon.”1 Certainly, few events have colored the history of the twentieth century to the same extent as the Nazis’ mass extermination of the European Jews and other “undesirable” social and ethnic groups between 1936 and 1945. Today the Holocaust is one of the most heavily represented historical events of the modern age, depicted in novels, feature films, documentaries, memoirs, exhibits, and memorials throughout Europe, Israel, and North America. This saturation, touching every facet of representational media within western culture, leads Cole to claim that “the Holocaust is being bought and sold.”2 Cole argues that this version of the Holocaust, readily available for consumption in easily digestible media bites, constitutes a “myth” developed as a culture-wide “response to the sheer horror of the mass murders, to meet contemporary needs, and as an attempt to find meaning in the murder of six million Jews.”3 Cole is concerned primarily with understanding the Holocaust as a historical event, and his conception of the term “myth” is primarily historiographical. Within this article, however, I will interpret the “myth” of the Holocaust in narrative terms, for as narrative “myth” has the power to make us “tremble by taking us to the edge of the abyss, after having forced us to face evil and all the darkness which also resides within us.”4 It is my contention that the multitudinous narrative accounts of the Holocaust have developed a meta-narrative that is now intrinsically present [End Page 59] throughout contemporary cultural responses to the event. This narrative is ultimately reproduced in mythic form as a generic Holocaust “story,” a cultural construction that perpetually seeks to return us to the edge of the abyss in search of understanding, possibly even redemption. Although it manifests in a variety of forms in a diverse range of narrative representations, one of the most striking generic features of this Holocaust “story” is its use of fairy-tale symbols, motifs, and narrative structures that permeate contemporary fictional texts. This tendency suggests that, within cultural memory of the twentieth century, the Holocaust itself may have become a form of dark fairy-tale.
The genres of Holocaust narrative and fairy-tale may seem deeply incongruous. Consider, however, that both are highly informed by generic convention; consider further that both are dependent for their meaning upon the reader, who must recognize the relationship between signifier and signified within narrative frames that very often mask the true content of the text. This article seeks to examine the apparently paradoxical relationship between these two genres in the hope of identifying whether, as a narrative device, this trend encodes a sophisticated attempt to target the reader’s processes of cultural memory-formation or whether it merely provides an easy and efficient way to provoke an emotional response. My argument will also lead us into an exploration of the contemporary reader’s position in relation to survivor narratives of the Holocaust as they are played out within modern fictional representations.
The links between Holocaust narratives and fairy-tales have been explored by Philippe Codde and Margarete Landwehr, among others. Both are concerned with the mythic or allegorical content of contemporary texts, but while Codde examines the relationship between myth and third-generation Holocaust narrative5 Landwehr takes the reverse perspective, reading the Holocaust elements embedded within modern retellings of classic fairy-tales.6 In both cases, the locus of investigation lies with images and events drawn from specific, well-known myths and tales. Codde, for example, identifies how pre-existing fairy-tales and myths provide narrative frames for the otherwise unnarratable trauma of third-generation survivors as they engage with postmemory. Allowing that one indicator of trauma is the absence of narratable memory, Codde argues that “third generation authors take the imaginative leap implied by the concept of postmemory . . . to fill in the blanks left by their absent history.”7 Under this theorization...