Remembering the Holocaust
There are many different paths into the story of the Holocaust. A selection of new books shows just how varied accounts of the tragedy can be, and gives readers more opportunities to learn about what has been called the seminal event of the 20th century.
The most important is the two-volume diary of Victor Klemperer, the second volume of which appears this month: I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1941-1945 (Random House, $29.95, 0375502408). Klemperer's brilliant observations of living in Nazi Germany day by day have received enormous and deserved attention from critics around the world. There can be no more accurate re-creation of the atmosphere of that time than what we find in these haunting, suspenseful journal entries.
Video-taped testimonies from survivors may lack the immediacy of Klemperer's meticulous diaries, but they can be deeply moving. The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the first of its kind, has created a single narrative from the stories of 27 eyewitnesses. The book is complete unto itself, but it is also a companion volume to the upcoming PBS documentary by the same title: Witness: Voices from the Holocaust (The Free Press, $26, 0684865254).
An extended personal account of the "afterlife" of the Holocaust is Motherland: A Daughter's Journey to Reclaim the Past, by Fern Schumer Chapman (Viking, $23.95, 0670881058). Chapman's mother had been a child escapee sent from Germany to America. The past was a forbidden subject, until her mother suddenly announces her intent to visit her old hometown. It becomes a journey of personal transformation for mother and daughter, as they confront and examine the past and its legacies.
As a sidelight to this group of Holocaust books, Half-Jew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past, by Susan Jacoby (Scribner, $24, 068483250X) recounts the story of a father who conceals his Jewish identity from his own children. Although his family immigrated to America before the Holocaust, it is the specter of fear - including anti-semitism - that brings him to deny his heritage. The memoir restores an entire family history, and helps heal the relationship between father and daughter.
Diaries and personal testimonies give way to the sheer horror of factual documentation of the events themselves in The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures. The reader must be warned before opening this "portable archive": the litany of mass-murder and unfathomable cruelty is portrayed by extremely vivid images and accounts. It is a comprehensive, year-by-year account of an immense subject. It will no doubt become, like the Klemperer diaries, a standard reference.
There are ways to instruct even young children about the Holocaust. My Secret Camera: Life in the Lodz Ghetto, by Mendel Grossman and Frank Dabba Smith (Harcourt, $16, 0152023062), shows us the faces of the lost citizens of the Lodz Ghetto. So particular, so beautiful are these faces, they help make this event not so distant and strange, even as it remains inexplicable. All the images were taken with a camera hidden in the raincoat of Mendel Grossman, who took great risks to document daily life. The images capture many feelings - hope, despair, humor, devastation - and children may get a glimpse of how precious life is, and how deep its loss.
Adults will notice the absence of the words "German" or "Germany." The book wisely avoids the issue of national identity and guilt by using only the term "Nazi" to describe the perpetrators.
As we approach Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on May 2, we can respond by taking up the challenge of facing our own history. We may never know how to respond to this catastrophe, but we can try to do what so many millions have implored of us: remember. Books can help keep memories alive, letting the voices of the wronged live on, so that, as the poet R.S. Thomas put it: "their wrong is an echo defying acoustical law, increasing not fading."
Joanna Brichetto is a writer in Nashville.