by Professor Patrick Henry, French
In Memorys 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
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
Delbos 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. Sebalds 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