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Recalling the Holocaust

by Professor Patrick Henry, French

* In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From The Women of Terezin, edited by Cara De Silva (Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996), contains, among other things, 70 pages of recipes written down by women in the Theresien-stadt concentration camp. This Holocaust document that recalls “Plum Strudel,” “Liver Dumplings,” “Potato Herring,” and “Jewish Coffee Cake” in the face of gnawing hunger, rampant malnutrition, and the attempt to exterminate a cultural heritage constitutes a communal life-affirming act of defiance and resistance against the Nazi onslaught. It also makes a significant contribution to the growing new sub-field, “Gender and the Holocaust.”

* While males and females were in the camps because they were Jewish, how and what they experienced there were often quite different. In this regard, no text to my knowledge can be compared more fruitfully to the major male-authored Holocaust testimonies than Charlotte Delbo’s stunning poetic trilogy, Auschwitz and After (Yale University Press, 1995).

* There are currently 18,269 “Righteous Gentiles” (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust). Varian Fry is the only American in the group. Finally some-one has written his biography. In A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry (Random House, 2001), Sheila Isenberg depicts Fry arriving in Marseilles on August 15, 1940, sent by the Emergency Reserve Committee with plans to stay for a month. He had $3,000 taped to his leg and a list of 200 Jews he hoped to save. He stayed until he was expelled from France 13 months later. Fighting the Vichy regime and the U.S. State Department, Fry carried a gun, lied about his activities, arranged smugglings into Spain, bought foreign passports, hired a forger, and saved over 2,000 refugees. Mainly interested in writers, artists, and intellectuals, this passionate anti-fascist rescued, among others, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ernst, Max Ophuls, Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton.

* W. G. Sebald’s extraordinary novel, Austerlitz (Random House, 2001), relates the futile attempts of Jacques Austerlitz, brought from Prague to Wales in a “Kindertrans-port” in 1939 at the age of five, first to avoid his past and then, after a mental breakdown, to confront it. The narration itself, which often militates against its own chronology and seems to aspire to a synchronic existence, is at least as compelling as what is narrated. Written in a post- “new novel” mode particularly reminiscent of the novels of Claude Simon (Grass, Wind, Flanders Way), the text is inundated with descriptions of architectural feats, the photographs of which also appear within the text. These elaborate descriptions often in turn refer self-reflexively to the composition of the novel we are reading. Austerlitz mixes history, memory, and experimental fictional techniques to produce a novel of transience, sadness, suffering, and loss in which the protagonist follows broken threads but ultimately seeks in vain the traces of his parents, both of whom were killed by the Nazis. He comes closest in his search for his mother, an opera singer, who went first to Terezin and then to the gas chamber. His intricate description of this concentration camp is especially haunting.

* Professor Henry is a speaker for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York (www.jfr.org).

 
Patrick Henry, Cushing Eells Professor of Philosophy and Literature and Foreign Languages and Literatures
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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