A Holocaust Novel without a Silver Lining

Feb. 22 2018

In The Tree of Life, a Yiddish-language trilogy of the Holocaust set in the Polish city of Lodz, Chava Rosenfarb explores the lives of ten richly drawn characters before the war, and the fate that befell them once it began. (The trilogy was published in English translation in 2004.) While Rosenfarb herself was a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, Dara Horn explains that the book is no memoir but an “immersive, engrossing, [and] exquisite” work of literary fiction, albeit one that confounds the expectations of American readers:

Even educated readers who appreciate tragedy still secretly expect a “redemptive” ending, an epiphany, a moment of grace. Yet notice how Christian these terms are, with their assumption that suffering—especially that of others—is ennobling or generates beauty and meaning. . . .

[This] idea of [the need for redemption] is truly obscene when applied to fiction about the Holocaust, yet it is the main type of Holocaust literature English readers encounter: stories about brave fighters, altruistic rescuers, and sweet girls who insist that people are good at heart—or worse, easy bromides about the absence of God instead of accusatory truths about the evils of man. . . . Does that mean imagination ought to have no place in writing about atrocity? Not at all. But a work about the Holocaust should necessarily be painful, not inspiring, and should honor the fullness of the loss, not only of individuals but of entire communities. [The Tree of Life] . . . accomplishes all of this. . . .

Prewar Lodz was one-third Jewish, and Rosenfarb brilliantly unfolds a panorama of the city in all its diversity by intertwining her complex characters’ lives. . . . Rosenfarb’s characters are not reducible to representatives of a type or class. They are each embedded, as real people are, in networks of families, lovers, friends, and enemies; . . . inspired by their own commitments and also plagued by private doubts. The integrity of these characters depends, as it does for all of us, on their inherent adulthood, their agency in their own choices.

In the ghetto, none of that disappears; each character remains exactly who he or she was before, just in inhuman circumstances. The Holocaust was not a morality play, except perhaps for its perpetrators. And that’s exactly what makes the ghetto’s horrors real.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Holocaust, Holocaust fiction, Yiddish literature

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror