How a Literary Masterpiece Launched Five Decades of Bad Holocaust Fiction

November 12, 2015 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

Decrying the proliferation of novels that exploit “an utterly unredemptive historical catastrophe for the sake of yet another love story or coming-of-age tale or journey of self-discovery,” Dara Horn considers Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961). The novel tells the story of an embittered Holocaust survivor named Sol, who runs a pawnshop in Harlem, and it served as a prototype for others after it—which, she argues, it emphatically is not:

Sol’s assistant in the pawnshop, an ambitious young man named Jesus Ortiz, mistakes Sol’s catatonic approach to life for calculating business acumen, especially when he notices that the store seems to be a financial success. Hoping for a foothold in the middle class, and sensing something otherworldly about his employer, he tries mightily to break through Sol’s shell. This is the part where a post-Pawnbroker Holocaust novel would have the young man succeed in uncovering Sol’s hidden humanity, in a redemptive arc ending in mentorship and hard-earned wisdom.

That’s not what happens. Instead, the pawnshop is revealed to be a money-laundering operation for a gangland empire, and it’s a matter of time before co-conspirator Sol winds up with a gun in his mouth. Things get worse from there.

What’s more, Horn writes, rather than de-Judaizing the Shoah, “Wallant catapults this novel out of the world of today’s uplifting Holocaust fiction and into the canon of Jewish literature and its 25 centuries of artistic responses to catastrophe.”

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