It once felt impious just to mention Auschwitz. Now, 75 years after its liberation, the death camp has spawned a literary subgenre and Hitler is in Oscar-nominated comedy Jojo Rabbit. Are we betraying the dead?
Silence is the angel with which literature wrestles. The silence of inadequacy to the task of expression TS Eliots struggle against last years words while next years words await another voice. The silence of moral hesitancy or humane consideration. The silence enjoined by laws of blasphemy, or fears of persecution. The silence of bad conscience or exhaustion. The silence of tact.
Over and above these, the Holocaust for many writers and thinkers made reticence not a matter of choice but a moral and psychological obligation. No poetry after Auschwitz the philosopher Theodor Adornos famous phrase, ringing through the deathly quiet like the plague bell, could be read both as an injunction and a lament.
Either way, it didnt simply mean no fancy language. It meant not rushing to possess by articulation, or even to explain what might have been beyond explanation, while the thing itself was still warm and its consequences still unfolding. The issue wasnt languages ineffectualness in the face of a terrible event. The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who as a boy was transported to a labour camp and later spent three years foraging and in hiding, wrote of learning silence as a mode of forgetting, burying the bitter memories deep in the bedrock of the soul, in a place where no strangers eye, not even our own, could get to them.
We think of understanding as our greatest gift, and language as our greatest means of expressing it, but it was Primo Levi author of If This Is a Man, the finest of all accounts of life in the camps who warned against understanding the Nazi project to eliminate the Jews, as though it were susceptible to rationality. It might be that the deep bedrock of the soul is a better place to house what defeats reason than the printed page or the cinema screen.
For many who survived incarceration and torture, Appelfelds silence became a way of being, without consolation or salve. The idea of cure, let alone transfiguration, belongs to a later generation of Holocaust excavators, those who had not experienced for themselves but wanted to speak as though they had, either to berate those they felt hadnt learned its lessons or simply to profit from it in some way peddling kitsch being the most profitable.
Once it felt impious just to say the word Auschwitz. The clutch of cruel consonants caught in ones throat. Now, as we reach the 75th anniversary of its liberation on 27 January, the horror associated with those consonants has dissolved into an almost jaunty familiarity. Auschwitz today is a tourist destination, whether you mean to go there by train and come back with a trinket or travel to it between the covers of a book. It has even spawned a popular subgenre the Auschwitz novel. Auschwitz Lullaby, The Child of Auschwitz, The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Druggist of Auschwitz, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Chiropodist of Auschwitz. Only one of those is made up by me, and whos to say it isnt being written this minute?