Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 190-205
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A Holocaust Lesson
These words are dedicated to those who died
because death is a punishment
because death is a reward
because death is the final rest
because death is eternal rage
These words are dedicated to those who died.
. . .
These words are dedicated to those who survived
because life is a wilderness and they were savage
because life is an awakening and they were alert
because life is a flowering and they blossomed
because life is a struggle and they struggled
because life is a gift and they were free to accept it
These words are dedicated to those who survived.
Sometimes the impact of sexual trauma doesn't seem to measure up to that of collectively experienced historical events, such as war and genocide. Sometimes it seems invisible because it is confined to the domestic or private sphere. Sometimes it doesn't appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn't produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones.
It has become no longer fashionable to talk about the lessons of the Holocaust, and in many ways I appreciate this change in critical engagement. I do not [End Page 190] want to universalize the experiences of those who died and those who survived. That is part of what I find so powerful about the dedications to Irena Klepfisz's poem "Bashert," which begins with two sets of dedications: one to those who died, the other to those who survived. These are long dedications, only portions of which I have excerpted here. They offer similar litanies, lists of reasons for life and of reasons for death. Klepfisz insists that there are no simple answers, no neat lessons to be learned. Despite our desires to master the past, to know what we should have done to survive, there is no way to attain such knowledge. No matter how much we read, how much we see and take in of that past, we cannot possibly protect ourselves from some future danger. What we learn from our engagement with these materials is much more elusive. These truths are much more complicated. As Klepfisz reminds us over and over again in her dedications, the same mechanism that kept one person alive might have been instrumental in the death of another.
Given this, what can it possibly mean to draw lessons from representations of the Holocaust, works like Klepfisz's poem, or images like those of Shimon Attie's "Sites Unseen"3 ? What do we gain from these engagements in the present? In what follows, I attempt to answer these questions by turning inward and looking at how these works might touch us in a more intimate way. I offer no grand claims. Instead, I offer a more intimate lesson that in its specificity might point the way to a different kind of critical engagement. I write personally about my own engagement with some of these works in order to explain what they have taught me.
To write about why I have been so drawn to Holocaust art, film, and especially literature is difficult. I didn't start out approaching these materials in the ways that I engage with them now. They have come to bear different meanings for me. I began to think about Holocaust and representation as a way of resisting approaches to Holocaust materials that I found intolerable. I didn't like Holocaust theology. I wasn't interested in where God was during the Holocaust. I really wanted to know more about where good people of conscience were. I wanted to understand what had happened as all too deeply and frighteningly human. I wanted to figure out what not to do, how I might survive some future onslaught on Jews, and I also, slowly but surely, wanted to look more closely at how and in what ways I might be complicit, how I might be a participant in social and political and...