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The Shadow of Death: Letters in Flames (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 431-433 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0028

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The effort of Moshe Pelli to understand Jewish and Israeli literature on the Shoah is distinguished by a dual accomplishment. His introductory chapter presents an overview of Jewish literature on the Shoah, which recounts the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Europe's Jews in the historical context of deep-rooted prejudices and ethno-centric behavior. The literature surveyed is referenced as "letters in flame," and encompasses memoirs, testimonies, and poetry that speak of anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, hypocritical humanism, and theological issues as contributing factors in the murder of six million Jews. He pinpoints evolving characteristics of Shoah writing as conveyed by the literary critic Lawrence Langer and others.

Second, Pelli's cogent methodology provides a critical view of the literary structures and secondary sources under discussion. He sees additional sources in the basic narrative, and his literary analytical approach enables the reader to encounter literary themes and approaches in context and to appreciate different opinions on the Shoah imagination. His chapters are carefully planned and argued: anatomy of a literary composition, levels of interpretation, sample readings, several footnotes, and an acceptable bibliography.

Pelli's volume is divided into two sections. Section one, "The Holocaust Experience from Within," discusses the Shoah experience of survivors in an architectonic fashion: premonition of roundup and exclusion in Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939; issues of theology and indictment of faith in Elie Wiesel, Night; nature of Man in Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz; depiction of Planet Auschwitz in Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel Dinur), Star Eternal (Heb, Kokhav ha-efer); and the use and limits of metaphor in Shoah related matters in Jerzy Koseinski, The Painted Bird. Section two, "After the Holocaust—Experience from Without," embraces three Israeli writers on the reality of the Shoah from the view of a Jewish state that emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz, namely, Hanoch Bartov, The Brigade, Hayim Gouri, The Chocolate Deal, and Yehudah Amichai, Not of This Time, Not of This Place.

In his review of the television mini-series Holocaust presented on NBC television in April 1978, Elie Wiesel wrote:

The witness feels here duty bound to declare: What you have seen on your screen is not what happened there. You may think you know how the victims lived and died, but you do not. Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. Whether culmination or aberration of history, the Holocaust transcends history. Everything about it inspires fear and leads to despair: the dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy or capable of recovering.

The seemingly surrealistic category of Holocaust writing where time, identity, and historical reality are distorted is underscored by Pelli's treatment of Ka-Tzetnik's fragmentary chapters of Star Eternal that portrays a day in Auschwitz: second person voice in the present yet a lack of dialogues and lack of personality. An inverse universe abounds. Heavenly bodies are examined, and Abrahamic covenantal promise and divine guidance are shattered in the Holocaust universe.

Wiesel, who consciously associates the churban of European Jewry with the akeda, or "binding" of Isaac in the biblical story where Abraham is tested and Isaac is victimized (Genesis 22), raises in Night questions of God's presence in face of radical dehumanization. This act of questioning is a Wieselian din Torah with not against God, which does not diminish the divine-human paradox of the Shoah, but serves to make the event more significant and more troubling, and therefore also more full of hope. Likewise, Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, is a stark journey to hell and back of a highly intelligent detached Jewish Italian chemist. Pelli's artful rendition of Levi's prose conveys appropriately the dehumanizing process which bears witness to the depth of human depravity fed by hatred of the other and tolerated by a world standing silent. The sensitivity and authenticity of Levi's language conveys the hope that this depraved Auschwitz world will never be again.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi suggests that Jewish writers speak of the Shoah as tragedy, covenant, myth, apocalypse, and visionary. This is evident in Pelli's evaluation of the Hebraic writer who writes of the Holocaust as the event of Israel's destruction...



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