- Anglo-Jewish Women Writing The Holocaust:Displaced Witnesses
Phyllis Lassner opens her text with the provocative question: "Why is the Holocaust still being written?" (p. 1). Acknowledging the controversies in Holocaust Studies regarding who has the right to undertake representation, about grief pornography, and about the offensiveness of "upbeat moral pieties" (p. 2), Lassner moves to justify her focus on women writers as resulting from her discovery that their "fiction, poetry, memoirs, and plays . . . formed compellingly interrelated patterns of representation and interpretation" (p. 2). Confining herself to the geographical limitations indicated in her title, Lassner treats three distinct generations of women: the so-called 1.5 generation—those who came on the Kindertransports (the 10,000 children sent voluntarily by their parents from Germany and occupied countries to the U.K. in 1938-39 for their safety); the Second Generation (children of survivors); and writers with no direct connection to the Holocaust, whom Lassner terms "the first generation of imaginative witnesses" (p. 187). Yet, the word "imaginative" in connection with Holocaust literature is a loaded term. T. W. Adorno famously said, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."1 Though Adorno subsequently withdrew this caveat, it has remained influential in critical approaches to texts about the Shoah. Lassner reveals her awareness of this controversy in her subtle analysis of the texts she chooses.
Lassner also reveals a significant understanding of the history of antisemitism in Great Britain and the ways in which it affected the Kindertransport children, refugees, and Jewish citizens of the U.K. Antisemitism runs counter to the British self-image of tolerance and, as Lassner notes, was especially important as Britain sought to "reconstitute its national pride" in the aftermath of the Empire (p. 6). Nonetheless, those fleeing the Nazis found themselves to be "suspicious objects of British benevolence" (p. 11), and this is a significant theme in the texts Lassner treats. [End Page 396]
Those texts include, among others: Lore Segal's novel Other People's Houses, Karen Gershon's novel The Bread of Exile, Diane Samuel's play "Kindertransport," Anne Karpf's memoir The War After: Living with the Holocaust, Lisa Appignanesi's memoir Losing the Dead, as well as plays by Julia Pascal and Sue Frumin, and fiction and poetry by Elaine Feinstein. Lassner's reading of these books is thoughtful and rigorous, if belabored at times. She discusses such shared themes as traumatic memory, abandonment and loss, gender and sexuality, mother/daughter relationships, repression, and assimilation. Her detailed footnotes demonstrate her significant scholarly research and offer insightful paratextual commentary on the various chapters.
One of the most compelling and persuasive aspects of Lassner's work is her emphasis on the intertextuality in the books she discusses. She notes the frequent appropriation of fairy tales, legends, and myths such as that of the Wandering Jew, as well as Brontë's Jane Eyre, Gothic monsters, landscapes and architectural spaces, and even Walter Benjamin. Such appropriations serve, according to Lassner, as "mind maps that link us imaginatively to the characters' and narrators' attempts to piece their memories together" (p. 188). Further, Lassner claims, "such interpolations . . . address our desire for reconciliation, resolution and recovery by frustrating it" (p. 18). Though Lassner's analysis of these intertextual gestures is limited in scope to the subject matter she has chosen for her book, the conclusions she reaches can be applied in a far-reaching manner.
Lassner's previous work includes books on British women writers at the end of Empire, during World War II, and on Elizabeth Bowen. She opens and closes this text with references to the great writer, W. G. Sebald, born in Germany, son of a Nazi soldier, who emigrated to England as a student and made his life there, though he continued to write in his native language. Lassner does not discuss his fiction in any detail, falling as it does outside the purview of her study, but she gracefully includes mention of his fourth and last novel, Austerlitz, which is a multilayered and obsessive story of many things, including...