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68 SHOFAR Summer 1999 Vol. 17, No.4 On the Problems, Pitfalls, and Possibilities in the Teaching of Holocaust Literature Natania Rosenfeld Knox College As I sat down to write about teaching Holocaust literature, I found my questions multiplying. My intention was to present some observations and ideas gleaned from two first-year seminars I taught on Holocaust literature at Duke University, in 1996 and 1997, and then discuss the literature itself-which texts "worked," and which didn't. But in the course of writing, I realiz~d that my real focus needed to be the basics of my own approach to teaching the subject, and not the more intellectually seductive question of which texts posed what challenges, or the blinkered question of which books ought to compose a "canon" ofHolocaust literature. My teaching experiences-in particular, striking differences between the first and second seminars-had alerted me to the different levels of knowledge and naivete students bring to the subject; to the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish students in their approach and responses to the subject; to the emotional reactions that can lead either to refinement in the discussion of stories and gemes or to ever murkier formulations and the temptation to sentimentalize; and, to a lesser degree, to the difference made by even a relatively small age gap between teacher and students. These experiences also complicated-I should say honestly, confused-my thinking about how to distinguish Holocaust literature from other bodies ofwork, and about the degree to which generic distinctions and discussions of form are even essential to such a course. What are the aims of teaching Holocaust literature-particularly at the freshman level, where one can expect little sophistication in critical reading, but even at the higher levels, where some such sophistication may exist, alongside potentially greater knowledge of the historical events? This is the question I have had to ask myself again, and what follows is a rumination on theory and methodology. The success of my first class at Duke left me entirely unprepared for the limitations I encountered in the second. I used essentially the same syllabus both years; I embarked on the course both times with the intention of distinguishing Holocaust literature as anti-epiphanic. If there was one point I wanted to make, it was the fact that one cannot look for a redemptive kernel in the Holocaust experience or in the literature that chronicles it. This was a point grasped early and fairly easily by my first group, but never attained by the second. The reasons for this are Teaching Jewish Studies: On Problems in the Teaching ofHolocaust Literature 69 simple on one level, elusive on another; they compel me, however, to a reconsideration and refinement of my own pedagogical approach. I had no way of knowing in advance of the first class that the group of fifteen students would be composed of twelve Jews and three non-Jews and that of those twelve Jews, several had grandparents or very close friends whose grandparents had survived the concentration camps. I now see that this group was extraordinary. Most did not need to learn the basic facts, or to grasp for the first time the horror of what happened; moreover, their sobriety, their freedom from illusions either about the human capacity for evil or the resilience of survivors, affected the other students as well, and it was a group singularly indisposed to romanticize. This does not mean they had nothing to learn, but responses were shaped by what they had heard from the lips of survivors-or, in some cases, by telling silences-rather than by Hollywood platitudes about the triumph ofthe human spirit or literary tropes oflight in the midst of darkness. My experience with this group did not pave the road for the second class. Again, I couldn't anticipate its composition: in this case, three Jews and twelve non-Jews, some of them faithful Christians, and a small but vocal contingent of self-confident sorority sisters. Two ofthese young women in particular were smart and sensitive, and capable of acute emotion and profound empathy. And here was the problem, for in their eagerness to experience, to vocalize, to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 68-75
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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