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  • Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism, and the Problem of English
  • Natania Rosenfeld (bio)
Alan Rosen . Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism, and the Problem of English. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005. 248 pp. ISBN 0-8032-3962-9, $45.00.

Alan Rosen has written a timely, valuable, and illuminating book that deals with the way the Holocaust experience has been carried into the English language through a number of literary and documentary texts from the 1950s through the 1990s. He observes a gradual change in the deployment of English as a tongue to which the Holocaust is fundamentally alien: in the earliest texts, English is artificially imposed on, or attributed to, non-English speaking victims as a vehicle for carrying over the European horror to American eyes and ears; in post-1960 works, that horror is conveyed through various literary estrangement-techniques whereby languages are mixed up and English is always shadowed by other tongues, in particular Yiddish; finally, in more recent texts by and about the children of survivors, English becomes almost—but never altogether—a "natural" language for describing the catastrophe. In the middle period, to which Rosen devotes the most attention, writers such as Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick convey both the compulsion, as American—or American emigrée—writers, to make English serve their purposes, and a deep ambivalence about which language, if any, best conveys what survivors actually went through.

As Rosen admits in his Conclusion (and ought perhaps to have admitted, even emphasized, earlier), Yiddish becomes nearly as much a focus of his discussion as English. Indeed, the thesis concerning English's problematic efficacy in relation to the Holocaust is somewhat diluted by the middle of the book, when it seems more and more evident that the "default" language of the Holocaust—the tongue that was murdered by the Holocaust and yet remains, paradoxically, pure as a vehicle to convey the Jewish experience [End Page 490] both before and during the Nazi era—is really Yiddish. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most scholarship, a great many films, and a good deal of the most recent imaginative literature about the Jewish experience of Nazi oppression is in the English language. What are the implications of this?

For one, an English audience—and particularly, an American audience—has been the most receptive to Holocaust stories. Apart from Israel, where for years survivors remained largely silent, America harbors the most substantial Jewish community in the world. For reasons analyzed by a number of recent commentators (sometimes faultily, even mean-spiritedly), that community has been open to the victims' stories, particularly in the last few decades. This question of audience is one Rosen chooses, for the most part, to leave aside. Instead, he focuses on the "untainted" quality of English which made it, in some cases, a virtual tool for survival—in a few stories, knowledge of English language actually saved the lives of endangered Jews—and in others, a less adequate mode for the translation of an experience that was perpetrated through German, received in Yiddish or Polish or any of a number of European languages, and which developed its own jargon in the camps, through a mishmash of German and numerous other tongues spoken by perpetrators and victims.

Rosen divides his book into three sections, with an Introduction and a Conclusion as well as extensive endnotes. A Preface introduces a sign Rosen deems emblematic, but perhaps makes too much of—throughout the book, he is so avid a close reader that certain minor readings, virtuosically executed and compelling, sometimes threaten to take excessive space. Almost always, this is forgivable, but the reader does at times lose sight of a thesis, and finally, this becomes a book of individual readings, some more convincing and intriguing than others. The sign Rosen dissects in his preface is one in Jerusalem with directions to Yad Vashem in the three languages of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, the latter effaced by an unknown vandal. Intriguing though this brief discussion is, it bears little relation to the chapters that follow, especially as Arabic never makes another appearance. (Perhaps it awaits Rosen's next project. Certainly an examination...


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pp. 490-493
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