Russian Literature on the Shoah: New Approaches and Contexts
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Russian Literature on the Shoah
New Approaches and Contexts
Translated by Alissa Valles
Marat Grinberg, Leona Toker, Anja Tippner, Ber Kotlerman and Olga Gershenson, Representation of the Holocaust in Soviet Literature and Film. 132 pp. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2013. ISBN-10 9653084569. $14.00.
Harriet Murav and Gennady Estraikh, eds., Soviet Jews in World War II: Fighting, Witnessing, Remembering. 268 pp. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-1618113139. $69.00.
Maxim D. Shrayer, I Saw It: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness to the Shoah. With Translation of Major Works. 328 pp. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2013. ISBN-13 978-1618113078. $29.00.

In the past few years, several books have appeared, almost simultaneously, about artistic representations of the Shoah in Soviet literature and culture. The works reviewed here, along with a few other recent books devoted to the same subject, constitute a true intellectual breakthrough.1 In many respects, they reexamine the view of Soviet literature on the Holocaust and allow it to be put in the general context of Holocaust studies. [End Page 165]

The history of the Holocaust, or Shoah, became a subject of study in First World countries in the 1960s—after the trials of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and of Nazi judges and other war criminals in Germany.2 In the 1970s, the Shoah and Jewish history in the period of World War II began to be studied in relation to the countries of Eastern Europe. But again, the studies were carried out in Western Europe, the United States, and Israel, although it sometimes happened that they were conducted by emigrants from the Eastern Bloc. At the same time, in the USSR itself, as in Eastern Europe, the subject of the Holocaust was in many respects taboo from the late 1940s onward because of state policies of covert antisemitism and the denial of specifically Jewish losses on Soviet territory.3 To this day there are cultural and political tensions under the surface of postcommunist Russia which stand in the way of recognition of the Shoah as an event specifically in Russian—not only Jewish—history. It is enough to cite the fact that the famous Black Book, prepared by the editors Vasilii Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg (Il´ia Erenburg) in 1945 and banned in 1947, did not appear in Russia until 2015—after it was published in Israel, Ukraine, Lithuania, the United States, and elsewhere.4

Like the history of the Holocaust, literary representations of the Shoah were first studied on the basis of Western and Central European texts, and only later did scholars turn to East European literatures. Representations of the Shoah in literature began to be examined as an independent research topic toward the end of the 1970s—even though poetry and prose about the Shoah began to appear in print during World War II. The theme of [End Page 166] literary representations of the Holocaust was developed more broadly in the period from 1990 into the 2000s, when a large number of publications on this subject appeared.5 They discussed the context and particularities of representations of the Shoah among writers of different generations, as well as general theoretical problems: how can we talk about something for which people did not have and often still find no words? Can we accept elements of the grotesque, of fantasy and satire, in works on the subject? Besides writing theoretical papers, scholars also edited encyclopedic and reference books.6

In these studies of Shoah literature, written mainly on the basis of “Western materials,” little attention was given to East European literatures. Scholars did recognize the exceptional role of several Yiddish authors, such as Abraham Sutzkever (1913–2010); Itzhak Katzenelson (1886–1944), the author of the long poem “Song of the Murdered Jewish People”; and the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz (1929–2016), the Nobel Prize winner who wound up in a Nazi concentration camp in his youth and survived by a miracle. But the Shoah as interpreted in East European literature was the subject of little systematic study. In reference works on the Shoah, Russian literature was hardly ever mentioned. In the two-volume reference work Holocaust Literature, edited by...


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