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The Holocaust - a Literary Inspiration?

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2004 21 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur




Ways and development of Holocaust literature

The Diary of Anne Frank

Charlotte Delbo: ‘Auschwitz and After’

The second generation represented by Art Spiegelman’s “Maus I & II”




Half a century after the last liberation of the death camps in 1945, which were located in a vast part of Europe, it is not just scientists and historians who are still interested in the Holocaust, one of the most traumatic events of modern European history. For the rest of us, Holocaust literature is seemingly a helpful method to reveal testimonies and survivor experiences. Thus, this topic has reached a certain status in literature. Today, a huge variety of texts deal with the Holocaust in multi-faceted ways, which cover nearly all literary genres. This essay will primarily concentrate on the works of Anne Frank (‘A Diary of a Young Girl’), Charlotte Delbo (‘Auschwitz and After’) and Art Spiegelman (’The Complete Maus’). The second focus, then, will be on Primo Levi’s ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, who was also studied on the module. These texts are outstanding and inimitable in how they treat the Holocaust, how they have reached people’s hearts and minds, and how other people began to deal with the happenings of these dreadful times after their publication. All texts represent examples of different literary genres like Anne Frank’s diary, or Art Spiegelman’s comic book. Charlotte Delbo’s work combines three types of literature in one masterpiece, namely prose, poetry and drama; whereas Levi’s account is a more or less philosophical analysis of the question why all this could happen. However, reading such literature does not automatically imply that the Holocaust in itself can fully be understood. On the contrary, it can only provide a way of approaching the circumstances, which millions of prisoners endured. Hence, many Holocaust survivors tried to use the art of writing to overcome the terrifying things they had seen and - most of all - the things they had to endure physically and psychologically in the concentration and death camps, or in the Jewish ghettos, and from which they had and still continued to suffer. They had to struggle between the desire to forget, but yet face the memory every day, and the impulse to remember, uncover, and record every detail of its reality. To speak about the unspeakable seemed impossible. “Bearing witness, therefore, was not likely to be the first thing on the inmate’s mind”.[1]

How was it that not just those who suffered under Hitler’s regime, but the second generation, their children, were able to find the will to write down their testimonies? Considering the huge variety of Holocaust texts, available nowadays in nearly every common library, and the psychological obstacles of giving testimony, what was it that gave them their inspiration and from where did it come? Yet, when we talk about inspiration in literature, the contextual meaning of the term is “the process of having one’s mind or creative abilities stimulated, especially in […] literature”.[2] To think about the Holocaust with all its destruction and the mass murder of millions of Jews, war and political prisoners, as well as deemed social inferiors, and yet to think about creative stimuli seems to be contradictory and, moreover, to evoke protest. In fact, people nowadays who still try to understand the Holocaust by studying Holocaust literature together with the survivors may find the term ‘inspiration’ inappropriate or degrading for what had actually happened behind the curtains of injustice. As Elie Wiesel pointed out correctly, ‘Literary Inspiration’ in combination with Holocaust literature might thus arouse false inferences. According to the actual definition of the term ‘inspiration’, it seems ridiculous that a mind like that of Charlotte Delbo’s or Anne Frank’s should have been driven by experiences like thirst[3], fear and, on the whole, the struggle to survive, which influenced them presently or posthumously whilst writing. Accordingly, such traumatising effects may neither evoke fantastic pictures of the past, nor recall any beautiful events in or around the camps. Thus, authors of Holocaust literature have probably not been inspired in a positive or enhanced manner, but in a very destructive, negative sense. They obviously developed a certain need to inform mankind of the horrors and destruction of the Nazi regime. An experience like genocide, which is “etched on [a survivor’s memory so] that [he or she] cannot forget one moment of it”[4], only drives an author like Charlotte Delbo to make people aware that this monstrous event should never be repeated.

This term paper, consequently, argues that Holocaust literature is full of literary inspirations and a gift to everyone who wants to learn about this dreadful event. Consequently, since Holocaust literature has already become an independent genre, this type cannot be seen as a simple matter of literature. Moreover, the association with the idea that extermination camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Belzec ended up in fantasy or beauty, as Elie Wiesel questions in his statement, is wrong. On the contrary, Holocaust literature, and thus the art of writing in itself, requires fantasy and lives from inspirations, even though these effects stem from rather negative and destructive memories, as this term paper is going to show.

Ways and development of Holocaust literature

Nevertheless, we have to inquire into the detail, why it seems wrong to associate Holocaust literature with such terms like fantasy, beauty, or inspiration. As discussed before, there must be a certain purpose for the victims of the Nazi hell, which led them to writing. But how were they able to write at all? How were the survivors able to bear witness, after all that had happened to them in the camps? Moreover, all of them had to struggle with the overwhelming memory, a memory of dreadful experiences which they could never drive out of their minds, and thus the suffering went on even after Auschwitz or other camp experiences. This memory also affected their use of language, even the most ordinary of words. The omnipresent anxieties like “fate and suffering disappeared from the vocabulary of Auschwitz, as did death itself, to be replaced by the single fear, shared by all, of how one would die.”[5] Since this language barrier hindered the Holocaust survivors from telling, because nobody could understand them, bearing witness first of all became a desire of secondary importance. Yet, according to Primo Levi’s account in ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, the survivors cannot be the real witnesses. On the contrary, those who have suffered until their deaths, that is those who ‘drowned’, are the ones who are really able to bear witness.[6] In his vision, “[t]hey are the rule, [writers of Holocaust literature] are the exception.”[7] Yet, why should those, who are dead now, who are not able anymore to tell what happened to them, be the real witnesses? Their testimony cannot be heard anymore. Consequently, those who have survived are required to tell. However, people did not believe the stories these ghostly figures returning from the camps had to tell.[8] Very few survivors felt the desire to talk and even less to write about their experiences. A crucial turning point was made, when after the end of the war many Hitler supporters were still convinced that nothing would happen to them, and nobody would believe the stories of those skinny and grey looking survivors of the concentration camps.[9] Suddenly, many who remained mute decided to break their silence. To bear witness and to tell the truth, to make people believe those horrific events, which happened behind the walls and wires of Auschwitz and other extermination or concentration camps, should become a kind of rebellion against the Nazi atrocities after the event. In order that the annihilation of the Jews should not be considered as a victory for Hitler and his henchmen, many Holocaust survivors were convinced that being silent is the wrong way to overcome this tragedy.[10] Notwithstanding that this set the ball rolling, it was anything but easy to speak about the horrors the victims of genocide had to go through.[11] Thus, to testify on paper and to publish their stories was seen as a new method of defence. The art of writing, which was at first rejected by those who were able to escape the horror, was suddenly rediscovered. Many later authors of Holocaust literature, like Adorno, for instance, began to “recogniz[e] that the alternative to art is silence and silence would have given Hitler his ultimate triumph.”[12]

The Diary of Anne Frank

But there are also other motives, which might release the tension established by the things they experienced. Moreover, writing is a well-known therapy in helping people deal with psychological problems, from which all survivors suffered. The pain could never be eased. In fact, the “Auschwitz memory remained”[13] for Charlotte Delbo. As for many other survivors, the experiences could not be left behind, in Auschwitz or Ravensbrueck, Dachau, or Sobibor. On the contrary, they were always present and traumatising, and, thus, the witnesses had to find a way to live with the ever-present memory.

Taking ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ into consideration, we have to bear in mind Anne’s age at first. She was about 13 years old, when she started keeping her diary. In the days of Anne Frank, most Holocaust testimonies were written by men. Those written by women were ignored by scholars to a large extent. Many women wrote diaries and letters, though, which still exist today. Since Anne was a teenager at the time, she had to undergo the ups and downs of puberty. Moreover, as it was time to go into hiding, she had to deal with these things on her own. She found it difficult to confide in her friends from school, but friends are crucial at that age. So she writes: “Yes, paper does have more patience, and since I’m not planning to let anyone else read this stiff-backed notebook grandly referred to as a ‘diary’, unless I should ever find a real friend, it probably won’t make a bit of difference.”[14] Anne did not get along very well with her mother, but their relationship was not necessarily hostile. Interestingly, she distances herself from the traditional role of woman- and motherhood, while she is observing her mother in the Annexe. Nevertheless, Anne does not reject motherhood, but searches for a possibility to combine it with a career, for women should play a wider role in society. Her mother was just a mother and a housewife, but her father, on the other hand, managed to have a career as well as being a good father. Though, one of the most important things for Anne is to lead an independent life. In so far, Anne’s situation and attitude can be compared to those of Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Woolf demands more rights for women writers, so that they were able to develop themselves freely, and shake off the boundaries of archaic female duties.[15] It cannot be denied, though, that Anne seems to follow the demands of Virginia Woolf to a great extent, but because of Anne’s age, we cannot hope for any influence from Woolf. Interestingly, however, the time gap between both works is extremely small, for ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was first published in 1929. Thus, Anne shows how sociocritical she had already become at that time. Consequently, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ is not so much part of Holocaust literature, for it is a story of growing up dealing with common teenage problems. However, it covers the Holocaust inasmuch as this text in part describes the circumstances, in which Anne and her family had to live. It shows what it was like to be a fugitive and to live in hiding, which Anne’s mother calls “the art of living”.[16] She explains her innermost feelings to someone, who cannot help her out of this misery. She calls this ‘person’ in her diary ‘Kitty’, whom she considers as a new friend.[17] Kitty is a substitute friend as well as an ideal mother, and most of all Kitty never scorns her. Her diary is her confidant, in whom she can always trust. Those people who once kept a diary may know how helpful and trustworthy such a mute companion can be. Moreover, due to the cathartic style of her writing, the reader feels directly addressed and forced to help, because Anne’s innermost desires and fantasies are revealed. The diary is also a method for her to begin a dialogue. She is searching this dialogue throughout her time in the Annexe; it is, on the one hand, a way of satisfying her need to communicate, but, on the other hand, also a search for being understood and accepted. Apparently, it is a refuge for her to withdraw into herself from those inner doubts concerning her family and her problems with her own body because of the onset of puberty.[18] Anne uses her diary to relieve pressure and to prevent her from exploding, as young people are full of emotions, which surface in various ways. Hence, her inspirations for writing this diary derive from positive as well as negative experiences in the Annexe. The decision to publish her diary, however, was as a result of a Dutch radio broadcast announcement, in which people were asked to write down their war experiences in diaries and letters in order to collect and preserve them after the war for later generations.[19] Hence, it follows that Anne has written with a certain purpose, namely to inform the people of the outside world, outside the Annexe, how she and her family, as well as the van Daans and Alfred Dussel, tried to cope with the situation. These, however, were not the original names of the people sharing the secret hiding place with the Frank family. Since Anne “protected the[ir] identity […], she was able to write truthfully and without fear of reproach.”[20] She even revised her regular accounts in order to publish her diary after the war; she desired to become a writer, although she doubted her talent. Consequently, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ is far from being simply a matter of literature, as Elie Wiesel questions. On the contrary, Anne’s life and her emotional world are tied to her diary. If the diary were lost, she, too, would be lost.[21]


[1] Reference Guide, p. 339

[2] Oxford Dictionary, p. 591

[3] Delbo, p. 142

[4] ibid, p. xi

[5] Langer, p. 604

[6] Bartov, p. 229

[7] Levi, pp. 63/ 64

[8] Staging the Holocaust, p. 1

[9] ibid

[10] Levi, p. ix

[11] Delbo, p. 228

[12] Internet resource: Cohen

[13] Delbo, p. xi

[14] Frank, p. 6

[15] Woolf, ch. V, particularly p. 126

[16] Frank, p. 129

[17] ibid, p. 7

[18] ibid, p. 84/ 85

[19] ibid, p. 242

[20] Reference Guide, p. 90

[21] Frank, p. 255


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University of Newcastle upon Tyne – School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics
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Holocaust Literary Inspiration Seminar



Titel: The Holocaust - a Literary Inspiration?