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Manfred Gerstenfeld on Die Shoah erzählt: Zeugnis und Experiment in der Literatur

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)


Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

“Death is a master from Germany.” This one sentence from Paul Celan’s famous poem “The Death Fugue” (“Todesfuge”) captures the essence of German culture since its beginning. In the twentieth century the thirst for blood of the legendary heroes from the Nibelungen saga returned in a technological and managerial version, showing how repetitive the country’s history was. Nothing Goethe or Schiller wrote can compete with the succinct description of their nation by Celan, a Jewish work-camp survivor, born in Czernowitz far from German soil, who took his own life in Paris in 1970.

Elrud Ibsch is a retired professor of literature at Amsterdam Free University. Her book analyzes Shoah fiction as a literary subject. Initially most literature on the Holocaust consisted of documentation and first-person accounts. Later this work was followed by a flow of fiction. Ibsch correctly points out that the fictional use of the Shoah as a theme meant the loss of moral superiority inherent in its documentation (45). The flight of imagination could never approach the credibility of the telling of the horrendous facts.

This is not the only element that is lost. Reading her analysis raises the question of whether all the written fantasies of the many authors discussed, Germans and non-Germans, Jews and non-Jews, creating characters who experience the Shoah, are anything more than structurally inadequate and failed attempts to address a theme that requires ongoing rational analysis far more than the novelist’s inventiveness. How relevant are the endless fantasies, sometimes mixed with documentary material, on the struggle for survival and the human relations, including love affairs, between perpetrators and victims compared to the overarching fact that large numbers of Germans, Austrians, and other Europeans directly and indirectly contributed, without qualms, to the murder of millions of people because of their origins?


The Shortcomings of Shoah Novels

Ibsch’s book also gives the impression that fiction dealing with post-Shoah realities suffers much less from the impossibility of measuring up to reality. This further underlines the radical shortcomings of novels that have the Shoah as a subject.

In recent years the inadequacy of novelists’ efforts to deal with the Holocaust has become even clearer. Sometimes this has been manifested by literary incidents, several of which occurred after Ibsch’s book was completed. The most recent involved Nobel Prize-winner Günter Grass who suddenly, at an advanced age, felt the need to confess in detail his youthful activities in the Waffen SS in a book titled Beim Haüten der Zwiebel (While Skinning the Onion). Is not the case of Grass himself, the moralizer who berated others while hiding his own past, more interesting than his fiction? One also may ask whether he would have received such recognition, not to mention the Nobel Prize, had his past been known.

Another case history-not mentioned in Ibsch’s book, apparently because it also took place after it was completed-that is more interesting than an author’s fantasy concerns the prominent German writer Martin Walser. In 2002 he published a defamatory novel, Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic), that many consider anti-Semitic. Its main character was based on the Jewish literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

Walser is a major proponent of the claim that Germany has become a normal country again. He advanced this thesis in 1998 in his controversial lecture when receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, a ceremony that took place in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt. This, too, is a case of an author’s behavior surpassing fiction writing in importance. All he actually proved was that claims about the normalcy of contemporary Germany, and about the Shoah belonging to history, lack merit.

Ibsch describes yet another, earlier case where the personal behavior of an author overshadowed his fiction. In 1967 Alfred Andersch wrote Efraim, a novel about a Jewish journalist who returns to Germany after the war and confronts his reminiscences of the Shoah, both his parents having been murdered. Decades later it would become known that Andersch had divorced his Jewish wife and thus also separated from his daughter in 1943 (121).


Toward More Troubled Times

The case stories of these German authors would have been less relevant and deserved less reflection if not for the country’s problematic present and the increasing signs that the world is moving toward more troubled times. The fantasies of the novelist may have a place, but remain secondary to the contributions the analyst can make to understanding what may happen and why. If one can explicitly describe trends that may develop by assessing the relevant indications, this is likely to be a better guide to the future than a writer’s imaginings.

This is even more true for contemporary Germany. Andrei Markovits is among those who have noted how, barely sixty years after the Shoah, there is a new uninhibitedness toward Jews among the elites of the liberal and radical Left. Taboos have increasingly been broken. The new anti-Semitism in these circles is not a phenomenon in its own right; it is likely an indicator of new tribulations to come.[1]

During last summer’s war in Lebanon, Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Zentralrat der Juden, the umbrella organization of German Jewry, denounced a negative mood toward Israel and the Jews that has permeated all spheres of German society.[2] Anti-Semitism, and not only in its anti-Israeli form, is again on the rise.

Attitudes toward Jews are usually indicators of wider problems. A poll published in September 2006 by the National Statistics Office of Germany showed that only 38 percent of people living in East Germany, and 71% of those in West Germany, consider democracy the best system of government.[3]

In such a context, a strong case must be made for the primacy of realistic assessment over fictionalized description. Although it may not have been her intention, Ibsch’s analysis of Shoah literature shows its poverty, and a worrisome contemporary reality further confirms this impression.


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[1] Andrei S. Markovits, “A New (or Perhaps Revived) ‘Uninhibitedness’ toward Jews in Germany,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 18, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2006): 57-70.

[2] Mariam Lau, “Enttäuschung nach 100 Tagen,” Die Welt, 31 August 2006. [German]

[3] “Deutsche zweifeln an der Demokratie,” Die Welt, 14 September 2006. [German]