- Sun Turned to Darkness: Memory and Recovery in the Holocaust Memoir
In this study of Holocaust memoirs, David Patterson begins with two controversial assumptions. First, he believes the experience of Jews in the camps was different from that of gentiles—necessarily different, because Jews, as the Chosen People, are partners in the covenant with God made at Sinai. Second, and as a result, he assumes any interpretation of that experience must be undertaken in light of that covenant, and in terms of that God. In nearly every memoir, according to Patterson, God “is there, either affirmed or denied, either silently or explicitly.” Yet, Patterson asserts, “in nearly every discussion of the Holocaust memoir He is the first one forgotten.” Patterson’s evaluation has value, if only as a corrective to the largely secular, often politically based theories that tend to dominate the critical discussion of the Holocaust and its literature. If God can be forgotten in the study of the Holocaust, what hope can there be for a religiously informed approach to literary and historical studies in general, which have grown increasingly profane, in both senses of the word? Patterson’s own approach, however, is beset with many problems of both theory and practice. The theoretical assumptions are, alternately, challenging and disturbing; but the deconstructive hermeneutics Patterson employs marginalizes and, at times, trivializes his work.
Patterson’s distinction between Jewish and gentile experiences in the death camps is an expression of faith, not a subject for verification. Yet it broaches the problem of special consideration for the suffering of some over others. We know that collectively the Jewish experience was, in fact, different, especially since, in most of the death camps, there were no gentile inmates. At Auschwitz, where there were, “selections” were suspended early in the war for all but the Jews, whose clothing and diet were inferior to other camp inmates, whose punishments were more brutal, and whose “healthcare” was more treacherous—and that, of course, applies only to those Jews not sent immediately to their deaths upon arrival. But what of the experience of Jews and gentiles individually—the experience described, after all, in the memoirs Patterson discusses? Weakened by disease, crazed with thirst, stupefied by malnutrition, numb with exposure, and exhausted by overwork, did those wearing a colored triangle have a qualitatively different experience from that of those wearing a yellow star? Few of us would care to measure individual suffering on such a scale, let alone construct comparisons in order to determine who endured more. Some commentators, though, have suggested that criminals in the camps may have benefited psychologically from their sense of guilt, however cruel and unusual the punishment, and that political prisoners may have been sustained by their commitment to a cause or outrage at injustice, while the very senselessness of the Nazis’ war against the Jews may have further contributed to the mental and emotional anguish of Jewish inmates. [End Page 143]
Patterson, in a sense, wants to move the points of reference for this discussion from the historical and psychological to the spiritual, in his exploration of “the essential role of the eternal in the Holocaust memoir.” In so doing, he claims to have discovered “what is distinctively Jewish in the Holocaust memoir and what distinguishes it from other memoirs; the One who is invoked in the memory needs that memory as much as the one who remembers.” This theme of the interdependency of God and the Jewish people is a common one in Jewish tradition generally and Holocaust writing especially, perhaps expressed most succinctly in the opening line of “Without Jews,” by Jacob Glatstein: “Without Jews there is no Jewish God.”
Elsewhere, Patterson treads less familiar religious ground, and while a critique of Patterson’s expressions of faith themselves strikes me as somewhat unseemly, it is also unavoidable, since they serve as the underpinnings for his critical apparatus. Indeed, for Patterson, theory informed by faith must be a prerequisite for any discussion of Holocaust literature, since his claim that God is to...