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  • Shoah in Israeli Writing, with an Emphasis on Hebrew Poetry:Editor's Introduction
  • Zev Garber (bio)

Jewish literature on the Shoah recounts the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Europe's Jews in the historical context of deep-rooted prejudices and ethno-centric behavior. A number of these works indict antisemitism, anti-Judaism, hypocritical humanism, and the inactivity of influential leaders as contributing factors in the murder of innocents, including six million Jews.

Many writers and poets maintain that the Shoah is truly sui generis. Nothing can compare to the enactment of the human suffering and the historical evil that plagued the Jewish people and other minorities during the 1930s and the 1940s. In his review of the TV 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."1

In The Oath (translated from French, and published by Random House, 1973), Wiesel talks about Moshe, mad survivor of a pogrom, who has taken an oath never to tell of his ordeal. He is bound to silence as a testimony on behalf of all humanity to lie against death, to sanity against madness, and to the God of Torah against all lapses into paganism. To scream about radical dehumanization raises the possibility that the world is not listening or doesn't care, and this is a victory for absolute evil. Within the Jewish tradition humanity is made in the image of God and must imitate God. God's silence during epochs of Jewish pogroms may be interpreted as God's presence in suffering.2 If so, then what is the message to the Jews living in this Suffering Servant-like stance? What comfort to the Chosen People when its Lord of Hosts appears to be the "Lord of [End Page 1] Fires"?3 Further, does not silence convey the survivors' most dreadful fear: Shoah happened: is anyone listening, does anyone care?

One survivor's loyalty to the dead becomes another survivor's query, how to live in the silence of memory? This is the position taken by the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower.4 In a sensitive and provocative story, Wiesenthal tells the account of a Nazi soldier, a participant in the slaughter of innocents, terrified of dying with a burden of guilt, asking forgiveness from a concentration camp Jew (Wiesenthal), one who knows well the meaning of the Jewish moral millennium, a period ushered in when victim-survivor shakes hands and makes peace with the enslaver-destroyer. The Jew listens with horror and feeling to the German's deathbed wish, and walks quietly out of his presence without giving absolution.

But Wiesenthal is haunted by this memory and invites a distinguished group of respondents to tell what they would have done in his place. The contributors (Jews and non-Jews) reflect a wide variety of behavior and belief, discipline and experience. Their writing is a reciprocal tool: it reveals and at the same time it is revealing. That is, not only do they tackle a moral question from Auschwitz but they also explain and define themselves within and without that world. Though all agree that one cannot forget, there is a divide between commentators whether to forgive. And this speaks of many things: Can one forgive and not forget? Can the living forgive for the murdered dead? Does forgiveness perpetuate the very evil it wants to make easier to bear? Is following orders the same as giving them? Is it right to impose Nazi crimes on a postwar generation in Germany? Can forgiveness confront, not close, the cycle of pain? If forgiveness is not possible, can reconciliation be? And so forth.5

The questions are agonizing, the answers are blasphemous, possibly...


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