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Holocaust Fiction

Entry updated 12 February 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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The term Holocaust is used in this encyclopedia to designate the fictionally popular variety of catastrophe which is directly caused by human or occasionally Alien action, intentional or otherwise. It is not normally here used to refer to the Holocaust, which is generally understood to refer to Germany's attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe (along with Slavs, gypsies, mental "defectives", etc) during World War Two, a sustained and maniacally well-organized programme of genocide that nearly succeeded in its primary aim, and simultaneously – almost by the way – nearly destroyed the multiracial, polyglot, jostling, energy-filled civilization that had so grandly transformed the great peninsula of Europe into theatre: a dramaturgy culminating in an atrocity that proved to be a form of cultural suicide. Before the fact, the Final Solution seemed essentially inconceivable – the closest to a fictional rendering of the feel of the terror to come, though it does not mention Jews, may be Walter Owen's The Cross of Carl: An Allegory (1931). But startlingly, in "The Little Candle", a Near Future tale from his A Book of Miracles (coll 1939), Ben Hecht describes "a great International Pogrom" during which Nazi Germany exterminates 500,000 Jews, with millions more facing death: "The extirpating of Jews had been carefully planned." Contemporary reviews of the story were dismissive. After the fact, so terrible was the genocide in all its implications that it became a truism difficult to fault that the Holocaust was impossible to grasp entire; a more problematical cognate diktat that went nearly unchallenged for several decades announced the moral deficiency of any attempt to reflect upon the Holocaust through art, whether or not those who wrote about these issues were in fact themselves survivors. "To write poetry after Auschwitz", Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) stated, "is barbaric"; a claim easy to vulgarize; Adorno may have been saying something to the effect that any attempt to write poetry without Auschwitz is barbaric. What Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) later claimed, that "the Holocaust as Literary Inspiration" is a contradiction in terms, may have taken Adorno in a direction he had not intended. As recent studies like Sue Vice's Holocaust Fiction (2000) have argued, an increasing number of artists, including writers of fiction (see below), have felt the need to test these extremities of human action in the crucible of the imagination.

It might be added that H G Adler (1910-1988) – a Jewish author of very considerable stature, whose experiences between 1941 and 1945 in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Buchenwald might have seemed beyond human telling – published, years after their composition and against considerable opposition from Adorno and others, two holocaust-fiction tales: Panorama: Roman in zehn Bildern (written circa 1948; 1968; trans Peter Filkins as Panorama 2011), and Eine Reise (written circa 1950; 1962; trans Peter Filkins as The Journey 2009); Die unsichthare Wand (written circa 1956-1961; 1989; trans Peter Filkins as The Wall 2014), the third of his novels to deal with the Holocaust, and perhaps the finest, never gained publication during his lifetime. The three are very nearly, but not quite, intolerable reading. The second, which adroitly flickers between realistic passages and vertiginous "escapes" into fantasy, clearly manifests the usefulness of the techniques of Equipoise in attempts to address the true nature of the world. The work of Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018), most famously Badenheim 1939 (1978; trans Danya Bilu 1980) but including several other tales of a similar surreal intensity, also stands against the Adorno diktat; unlike Adorno, who spent World War Two in New York and Pacific Palisades, California, Appelfeld is a survivor of the camps.

Given an understanding of Fantastika as an array of modes peculiarly sensitized to the exorbitance and trauma of historical change, it is not surprising to note that several horror tales (see Horror in SF) began to appear from the 1960s on. They include North to Freedom (1963) by Anne Holm (1922-1998), filmed as I Am David (2003), Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965; rev 1976), Irene Schram's Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (1972), We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (graph 1979) by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) (for Brundibar see below), D M Thomas's The White Hotel (1981), Barbara Hambly's Magicians of the Night (1992), Jane Yolen's Briar Rose (1992), Stephen Fry's Making History (1996), Melvin Jules Bukiet's After (1996) and Signs and Wonders (1999), J R Dunn's Days of Cain (1997), A Blessing on the Moon (1997) by Joseph Skibell (1959-    ), Father Panic's Opera Macabre (2001) by Thomas Tessier (1947-    ), "Dancing Men" (in The Two Sams, coll 2003) by Glen Hirshberg (1966-    ), and Michael Chabon's The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (2004). Howard Jacobson's J (2014), though it is set in Near Future Britain, assumes that a genocidal atrocity against some unnamed minority can only be understood as another enactment of the Final Solution directed against Jews. In The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse (2014) by Philip Schultz (1945-    ), a son transcribing his mother's experiences during the 1941 massacre of Jews at Jedwabne in Poland is himself haunted by Doppelgangers who guide him through the horror. Jack Dann's Concentration (coll 2016) assembles relevant stories from almost the whole of his career.

There are fewer sf approaches to the subject. David Britton's Lord Horror (1989) and its Graphic Novel spinoff Lord Horror (graph in 14 parts 1990-2000) come close, using black Satire and black farce to muffle the obscenity. Martin Amis's Time's Arrow; Or, the Nature of the Offense (1991) backs into the unspeakable via the sf device of Time in Reverse. Rather more typically, Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, filmed as Fatherland (1994), is distanced in time from the grisly secret of its Hitler Wins world, being set in 1964; almost all novels in which Hitler wins do in fact eschew any direct reference to the Holocaust. Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century (2013) is a rare Alternate History of the twentieth century which addresses the Holocaust directly, as does, even more radically, his A Man Lies Dreaming (2014).

Incidental, even marginal uses of concentration-camp horrors include Hector Hawton's Operation Superman (1951), where Nazi experimentation on a human guinea-pig boosts his Intelligence. Similar experiments in a British camp following the German model create an enigmatic Superman in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (March 1982-February 1985 Warrior; exp graph 1990), whose back-story also includes English death camps and racial holocaust. But these are occasional efforts: it may be that the underlying sf premise that the world is open to argument accords ill with any attempt to address the Final Solution.

Some music was written and/or performed by inmates of concentration camps, including the opera Brundibar (1938) by Hans Krása (1899-1944) (see Music), which was presented fifty times for children at Terezin; a English version of the opera was released as Brundibar (graph 2003) by Tony Kushner (1956-    ), illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The libretto by Peter Kien (1919-1944) for an opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung ["The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death"] (1944) by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), may have precipitated the murder of both by Nazis, under the apparent misunderstanding that its portrayal of the Emperor Satirized Adolf Hitler. [JC/DRL]

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