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  • 'I am in no hurry to close the canon'An Interview with Professor David G. Roskies
  • Paweł Wolski (bio)

I would like to centre this conversation on your book Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide.1 The book presents a very interesting vision of a Holocaust canon, mainly because of the 'Guide to the First Hundred Books' included at the end. But before we focus on the list, could you comment on one of the initial statements, in which you argue against a 'one model fits all' canon of Holocaust literature and postulate that it ought to be read 'in all languages. From the beginning: before time, in time and against time'?2 Does such an approach allow us to conceive of a Holocaust literary canon as a coherent entity? If so, what could its selection mechanism be based on? Doesn't such a concept dissolve any possibility of construing a canon?


I don't think the operative term is 'coherent'. I would rather use 'evolving'. That is where my concept of approaching Holocaust literature before time, in time, and after time comes from. In other words, my solution to the problem is to posit a periodization. The key issue for me is to look at Holocaust literature over the course of time.

The periodization I present in the book is different from the one in my earlier article.3 I keep fine-tuning the time-span and number of distinct phases. Even though I know that periodization is an artificial construct, I still believe in its explanatory power. Chronology, I believe, lies at the bedrock of literary research. When you are dealing with a literature that is event-based, it is all the more obvious that you have to start at the beginning. I could never understand [End Page 455] why most studies of Holocaust literature started somewhere in the middle, as if there were no beginning. So wartime writing for me is the beginning of the story: only here, in fact, can one speak of a closed canon. Why? Because you're looking at books written in a discrete period of time: between 1 September 1939 and whenever the war ended, wherever it ended—let's say: in 1945. It's closed—insofar as one knows when the works were written. That to me is the point of departure. But it is an evolving canon—we keep on discovering new things: manuscripts keep coming to light, such as Suite française, Némirowsky's novel.

What happens is that there are multiple beginnings. What's so interesting about our subject is that it is not a continuous, unfolding story. It's very jagged; every few years the clock stops and restarts. I would say that one of the unique features of Holocaust literature is that amnesia sets in: whatever was written during wartime is forgotten, neglected, rejected. On the day of liberation, there's a new outburst of writing. I call this second period 'communal memory', because it is very much rooted in a language, in a culture, and in a particular political environment. 'Communal' is another way of saying 'political', because Holocaust memory in the immediate post-war period is highly politicized. I don't mean only behind the Iron Curtain—the same is true for Italy, France, and certainly Israel, where all publications were in the hands of political parties. Maybe this was less true in the USA: in fact there are relatively few Holocaust texts written in this period in America. So the years 1945 and 1960 are tremendously important because Holocaust literature is reinvented in this period—mostly in total ignorance of what came before. In 1960/1 the Eichmann trial turns the Holocaust into a matter of global concern and gives it its name, 'the Holocaust'. I call this third phase—1960 to 1985—'provisional memory'. Here at last I turn my attention to the United States. The fact that the Library of Congress adopts the category of 'Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)' as a catalogue label in 1968 is highly significant. It's not merely a symbolic marker but is really a turning point. There has been such a vast accumulation...


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