Writing in the Face of Catastrophe: Holocaust Literature from the Ghettos
With a few notable exceptions, historians of the Holocaust tend either to ignore victims’ perspectives as marginal to their subject or, when they do consider them, focus mainly on works of testimony and other non-fiction texts, generally seen as the most crucial for understanding victims' experience.
For their part, literary scholars who work on the Holocaust tend overwhelmingly to focus on texts written after, not during, the war. As a result, the corpus of literary texts written by Jewish victims during the Holocaust remains grievously underexplored.
Imaginative literature can seem trivial or beside the point in the face of the genocide of European Jews. Yet, even as they starved and suffered in the direst of circumstances, many people used what precious resources they had to write fiction, poetry, and drama. Literature was urgently important to them for rendering, interpreting, lending meaning to, and managing the unmanageability of the terrifying circumstances they found themselves caught up in, circumstances marked by the utmost moral and epistemological complexity. In this lecture, I will explore one novel, one short story, and one poem, all written in Yiddish in the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos. I will address the question of how their authors, faced with catastrophe, wrote with, against, and at the limits of literary genre and mind
Sven-Erik Rose is associate professor of German and Comparative Literature, and an affiliate in Jewish Studies, at the University of California, Davis. His book Jewish Philosophical Politics in Germany, 1789–1848 (Brandeis University Press) was awarded the Association for Jewish Studies's Jordan Schnitzer Book Award in 2015 for the category of Philosophy & Jewish Thought.
The author of numerous articles on German, French, Swedish, and Yiddish literature and culture,Sven-Erik Rose was also the guest editor of a special issue of the journalNew German Critique titled Ambivalent Sites of Memory in Postwar Germany, 2011.
Prof. Rose’s current book project, Making and Unmaking Literature in Nazi Ghettos, explores how Jews confined to ghettos deployed the resources of literature to grapple with the extreme persecution, destitution and, ultimately, genocide they experienced as the chaotic events of what we now call the Holocaust were still unfolding.
This it the Jewish Studies Program's annual Nir Family Lecture.