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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 169-189

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W. E. B. Du Bois in Warsaw: Holocaust Memory and the Color Line, 1949-1952

Michael Rothberg


I. 1949

In 1949, the African-American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois traveled to Poland, where he witnessed first hand the rubble left behind by the Nazi occupation and war. Observing the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, site of the heroic and desperate 1943 revolt of Jews condemned to die in the Treblinka death camp, Du Bois reflected on matters of race, identity, and resistance. He later wrote in "The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto," an essay published in 1952 in the magazine Jewish Life, that this visit led him to reassess and revisit his declaration of 1900 that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line." 1 In the Jewish Life article, Du Bois recounts earlier visits to Poland in the late nineteenth century and prewar twentieth century and discusses how they helped him to "become aware of the Jewish problem of the modern world" (14). Turning to his most recent visit to Warsaw, Du Bois then remarks on the novelty of the Nazi assault, the complete destruction it left in its wake, and the efforts of the Polish people to reconstruct their city. He focuses particularly on the fate of the Jews of the ghetto and mentions visiting the recently unveiled Warsaw Ghetto Monument. Although relatively unknown and quite brief, "The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto" deserves close attention, I argue, because it can provide a point of departure for rethinking the relationship of the Holocaust to contemporary critical discourse.

The years in which Du Bois visited and wrote about Warsaw remain underexamined in Holocaust studies, but they are crucial to understanding the relevance of early Holocaust memory for interdisciplinary cultural studies. In the same year that Du Bois visited Warsaw, for example, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno contributed one of the first reflections on the Holocaust and criticism. While Adorno's "Cultural Criticism and Society," written in 1949 and published in 1951, consists primarily of a Marxist critique of the concept of culture, that essay is probably as well known today for one particular phrase in its surprising final paragraph as it is for the concerns that occupy the vast majority of Adorno's text. In concluding his discussion [End Page 169] of cultural criticism, Adorno inaugurated what has become a long-standing discourse on the relationship between Nazi terror and aesthetic representation. Adorno's claim that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" continues to be quoted and misquoted long after his death in 1969. 2 Over the years, Adorno's reflections on Auschwitz have come to stand for much more than a judgment on poetry, and instead have been taken to suggest the impact of extreme, socially sanctioned violence on culture in its broad, anthropological sense. Both Adorno's 1949 dictum and Du Bois's equally famous assertion about the twentieth century testify to the effects of such quintessentially modern experiences as genocide, slavery, and colonialism on conceptions of history, culture, and community. Adorno and Du Bois each link a conceptual problem (how to think about aesthetics or history) with a material reality defined and divided by categories of "race" (Auschwitz, the color line). With their rhetoric of "after Auschwitz" and the twentieth-century color line, both writers further link the problem of racial division to spatial and temporal caesurae.

While I have considered the writings of Adorno on Auschwitz elsewhere, here I want to focus on how Du Bois's less well known visit to Warsaw reveals a dynamic intertwining of histories that has methodological implications for Holocaust studies, cultural studies, and African American studies. 3 Du Bois's encounter with the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1949 indicates the need for a comparative approach to the Nazi genocide that would consider questions of politics, aesthetics, and the public sphere in a non-reductive, transnational framework. While more and...


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