Barnett Newman at the National Gallery

A series of black-and-white paintings

In the new building at the National Gallery in DC, I saw Barnett Newman's series of paintings--done between 1958 and 1966--called "The Stations of the Cross." The Stations of the Cross series of black and white paintings, begun shortly after Newman had recovered from a heart attack, is usually regarded as the peak of his achievement. The series is subtitled "Lema sabachthani" - "why have you forsaken me" - words said to have been spoken by Jesus on the cross. Newman saw these words as having universal significance in his own time. The series has also been seen as a memorial to the victims of the holocaust.

Cynthia Ozick

'Not all Holocaust art is authentic.'

Some weeks ago Cynthia Ozick published a short essay in Newsweek bearing the brash subtitle “Not all Holocaust art is authentic. In fact, much of it is fraudulent.” While I don’t agree with all her judgments here, I like the gist — the hardness, the high standard, the fussiness about the problem of representing the holocaust. Here is a link to the whole piece. And here is a telling excerpt:

Consider a handful of movies that profess to render the Holocaust. Life Is Beautiful, a naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie. Inglourious Basterds, a defamation, a canard — what Frederic Raphael, writing in Commentary, calls “doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters,” even as he compares it to Jew Süss, the notorious Goebbels film. The Reader, like the novel it derives from, no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy. As for Schindler’s List, its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen.

So where can the truth be found? In Anne Frank’s diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter — precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call “truth” we must go into the bottom-most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell’s lowest rung.

Along the way, Ozick reserves high praise for Paul Celan’s great poem “Todesfuge” (“Death is a master out of Germany”); Elie Wiesel’s outcry in Night; Dan Pagis’s stunted, smothered lyric; Primo Levi’s sober taxonomy of brutishness. I admire these judgments (excepting that for Night — a case where I out-Ozick Ozick in deeming it too novelistic, too narratively facile).

Rothenberg non-Adorno: writing after Auschwitz

Here is a short excerpt from a longer interview with Jerome Rothenberg. It has been transcribed by the wonderful Michael Nardone. The transcription is good but it's still a work in progress, and we hope to release this and other interview transcriptions through Jacket2 in the coming months. Meantime, here I am talking with Jerry about writing about the Holocaust.


bound for Treblinka

This is the Handscher family in Warsaw, Poland. My father's mother, Jenny, was born Jenny Handscher. These people are her brothers and sisters - and her parents, my great-grandparents. In the bottom row, from left to right, we have Schloime (who survived and later came to the U.S.); Eliezer (father of Menachem/Mike and Meyer who also survived); the parents, Menachem and Tova; the youngest of the children, Bezalel.

Judeo-Spanish in Greece

Emma Morgenstern gave a lunchtime talk recently at the Writers House to present her research into the survival of Judeo-Spanish language and culture in Greece. She travelled to Rhodes and Thessaloniki on a grant given her through our Heled Travel & Research Grant (made possible by my former student, Mali Heled Kinberg in memory of her mother). Audio and video recordings of the event are now available. Links to both are here.

Fitterman redux

The other day I mentioned Rob Fitterman's new conceptual poetics project, and got a lot of positive response to it. My favorite literary photographer (as regular readers of this blog already know), Lawrence Schwartzwald, found this wonderful photo of Rob standing in front of the Ear Inn. We think the date was January of 1992.

Conceptual writing project: holocaust

Robert Fitterman

I'm pleased to have had a chance to read the manuscript of Rob Fitterman's new massive conceptual writing project, called Holocaust Museum. It is now being sent around to publishers. The book will consist of a list of archival materials, organized under headings ("the science of race," "shoes," "mass graves," "uniforms"). The image above (sorry--it's taken from a Word document version of the typescript) shows a portion from the chapter of "family photographs." The effect of the project is realized most acutely only after one has read dozens or hundreds of items on the lists. One begins, blearily, weakly, to be half-conscious of the upsetting juxtapositions. Of course holocaust materials are loaded ipso fact with dramatic ironies, especially all the prewar stuff. The caption of the last-listed photo is of course a poem: "A group of young people pose outdoors in the snow." I could write three interpretive pages--traditional poetic close reading--of that line. That, too, would be ironic. 

Jan Karski

until it could not be denied

Jan Karski became somewhat well known after the release of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, where Karski is an anxious, halting, intense presence in the second halJan Karski became somewhat well known after the release of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, where Karski is an anxious, halting, intense presence in the second half of the film, with an unforgettably creased face and adz-shaped head. He was a member of the Polish underground government--one of its couriers from inside the Nazi-occupied nation after 1939. In 1942 he met with two Jewish leaders who told him what was happening to the European Jews. He listened, then visited the Warsaw ghetto twice, and then set off for London and Washington with the goal of persuading the allied governments to stop the genocide. He did not succeed, and knew from the start that "The truth might not be believed," as he put it in a document he wrote a little later.

Here is a passage from that document:

This was the solemn message I carried to the world. They impressed it upon me so that it could not be forgotten. They added to it, for they saw their position with the clarity of despair. At that time more than 1,800,000 Jews had been murdered. These two men refused to delude themselves and foresaw how the United Nations might react to this information. The truth might not be believed. It might be said that this figure was exaggerated, not authentic. I was to argue, convince, do anything I could, use every available proof and testimonial, shout the truth till it could not be denied.

They had prepared me an exact statistical account of the Jewish mortality in Poland. I needed some particulars.

"Could you give me," I asked, "the approximate figures of the murder of the ghetto population?"

"The exact figure can be very nearly computed from the German deportation orders," the Zionist leader informed me.

"You mean that every one of those who were presumably deported was actually killed?"

"Every single one," the Bund leader asserted.

A longer excerpt can be found here.

Holocaust survivor testimony: split in half in a recurring dream

I've long used the video archive of Holocaust testimony at Yale (housed in Sterling Library there in New Haven). For years a sampling of testimonies has been available for borrowing - first on VHS, then on DVD. Now the folks at Yale (Joanne Rudof and her staff) have made a selection of these testimonies available on YouTube. I urge readers of this commentary to watch Paul D. — to hear about his recurring dream; and Helen K. to hear about her brother dying “in mein arms” on the train to Treblinka; and the remarkable Menachem S., who passed as a non-Jewish street waif for years and literally didn’t recognize his parents when reunited with them in 1945.

Above at left: Paul D.

Holocaust survivor testimony

Edith P.: 'the sun was not the sun'

You should watch all thirty minutes of Edith’s testimony as a survivor of Auschwitz. But if you cannot watch the whole thing, at least for now, move the counter to 15:19 and listen/watch as Edith tries to “describe” Auschwitz in sum.

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