Moral Tourism: Bad Poetry after Auschwitz

May 8, 2015 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Martin Amis, Elie Wiesel, Avraham Sutzkever, and others have managed to write literature about the Holocaust, arguably in a way that does justice to its horrors. But the Holocaust has also become the subject of much bad fiction. Adam Kirsch reviews a recent example, The Death’s Head Chess Club, which focuses on the relationship between a somewhat benign SS officer and a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz, and their reunion in Amsterdam two decades later:

Auschwitz remains central to our imagination of evil, but the experience of evil itself has grown remote, so that thinking about Auschwitz threatens to become a kind of moral tourism. We make mental excursions there, just as we make physical pilgrimages to the site, because we feel it’s good for us to spend some time in the company of the abyss. But just as tourists at Auschwitz inevitably means “selfies” at Auschwitz—because not everyone who visits has the patience, or courage, or knowledge, to understand what they are doing there—so writing about Auschwitz means that we will get mediocre, self-satisfied books on the subject. . . .

If the Auschwitz sections of [The Death’s Head Chess Club] err by trying to make misery “interesting,” the Amsterdam sections are actively offensive in the way they recycle the age-old equation of Judaism with stubborn vengefulness and Christianity with loving forgiveness. Emil, [the inmate], holds on to his grievances like Shylock, while we are meant to take [the SS-officer] Paul Meissner’s postwar embrace of a Catholic vocation as proof of his essential goodness. This is an especially unfortunate plot device for anyone who remembers the role that the Catholic Church actually played after the war, helping some of the most hardened Nazis to evade Allied justice. . . . And the novel’s concluding scene, when Emil scatters Paul’s ashes at Auschwitz while saying kaddish, is pure kitsch.

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