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Unbearable Memories

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000
The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust. By Ernestine Schlant. Routledge. $80 cloth, $20.99 paperback

Praise from a host of academics embroiders the covers of this book. The most pithy of these, by Arthur Hertzberg, the Bronfmann Professor of the Humanities at New York University, concludes that the author “has proved that German literature since 1949 has essentially avoided the Holocaust.” After such reassuring recommendations the reader finds, however, that Professor Schlant’s indictment of her former compatriots is by no means the only arresting feature of The Language of Silence.

What first struck me was an unexpected parallel between this monograph and its author, now professor of German at Montclair State College, and a German film of a decade ago: The Terrible Girl. The motion picture describes the transformation of a school girl, the pride of her hometown after winning a national essay contest on the virtues of democracy. This triumph encouraged the heroine’s delight in self-expression, and she embarked on another project titled “my hometown in the III Reich” that she expected to turn into a chronicle of wide local resistance to Nazism. The remainder of the film describes the girl’s ensuing disillusionment. Some of the local “resisters” turned out to have been faithful acolytes of Hitler. Now they used bureaucratic chicanery and violent threats against the girl and her family to abort her inquiries. She persisted, however, and after her findings appeared in a prizewinning book her enemies joined the chorus of praise that greeted the work throughout Germany. Yet the heroine still considered herself an outcast, realizing their sudden conversion to be as dishonest as the resistance mythology that preceded it. The conflict between truth and fiction could not be healed.

Although the film claims that both locale—the town of “Pfilzing”—and the large cast of characters are entirely fictitious, the setting reminded this viewer of the Bavarian town of Passau on the Danube, where Ernestine Schlant was born in 1935. Thus one may be reviewing here a book by another “terrible girl” who settled in the United States in 1957, earned a Ph.D. at Emory University, and now has penned a more deliberate chronicle on the Nazi past and its submergence in a sea of silence.

Unlike the “terrible girl” in Pfilzing, Schlant could write her book without battling archivists and bureaucrats. Her novelists’ works have appeared in print, many have been translated into English, and they have provided the author and her English-speaking readers easy access to their “language of ambiguity, indeterminacy, instability and absence.”

Professor Schlant divides her findings into chapters partly chronological , partly topical: the first postwar decade; the emergence of the docu-novel, part fiction, part documentary excerpts; autobiographical novels whose authors try to settle accounts with their parents of the Nazi generation; followed by novels dealing with the war in Russia. Topicality veers from narrative to psychological analysis with the work of Gert Hofmann (1932—1993), whose Denunciation (1979) records both ugly past and the lasting “ruptures and displacements” that continue to affect lives even as the generation of original perpetrators passes from the scene. Here the characters reflect “the German past and its continuation into the present,” describing a “closed world” that entertains no “hope in a ‘righted’ future.”

Then come the anniversarial commemorations of the Normandy invasion and the end of World War II in Europe. Germans, as we should recall, were not invited to join the sentimental pilgrimage to the Atlantic beaches—some observers at the time considered this an unfriendly act—but the exclusion had the redeeming effect of prompting, not novelists, but some public figures to evoke memories other than battles. West German president Richard von Weizsacker took the lead when he addressed the Federal Parliament on May 8, 1985. He celebrated “liberation . . .from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National Socialist regime,” as the good citizens of Pfilzing had been fond of doing since 1945, but he did not stop there. He reminded his audience of the “genocide of the Jews . . .unparalleled in history” and added that “every German was able to experience what his Jewish compatriots (emphasis mine) had to suffer.”

Finally, the book deals with the decade since unification where Professor Schlant finds another hero. She extols Winfried Georg Sebald’s (1944-) collection of four novelas, The Emigrants (1992), which describe the continuing pain that Jewish and “non-Aryan” survivors endure through their lives of ostracism and exile. Sebald also laments the sesquicentennial between the French Revolution and the advent of Hitler during which every opportunity for Jewish-German assimilation was squandered.

In conclusion, Schlant offers some consoling visions of a better future. She impresses on us “the impact of Jewish thought on postwar Germany” by such luminaries as the philosopher Theodor Adorno, the novelist Jurek Becker, the diarist Victor Klemperer, and the poet Nelly Sachs. The author quotes the cultural historian Jack Zipes who anticipates “the resurgence of Jewish culture in Germany as a ‘minor’ culture.” However, she continues, that emergence occurs in an environment where an often labored concern for dead Jews takes precedence over empathic contact with living ones. Witness the protracted controversies accompanying the search for a proper memorial to the Holocaust. Where it will end no one can say “for rarely has a nation been confronted with the problem of building memorials to its own crimes.” Even that unresolved dilemma, however, fails to douse her optimism. She sees German writers turning “private silences” about the Holocaust into “public debates.” The author believes that their recent work has “begun to express sorrow and mourning” and, she predicts, will continue to find new ways of coming to terms with a shaming past.

The Language of Silence is a courageous book. Though many of her colleagues have praised it, the author must have known that it was also bound to elicit earnest disagreements. Does the evidence in these pages sustain Ernestine Schlant’s faith in future redemption? On the one hand, as a study of postwar German fiction, her book is a dazzling achievement. It guides us through half a century of literary portraiture by authors raised in Germany and almost all of whom still reside there. (Winfried Sebald, who teaches German at a British university, is a noteworthy exception.) The author deliberately excludes Jews and other victims (including exiles during the Nazi years), as well as writers from the former DDR. The cast is confined to men and women who, after 1945, were free to ask forgiveness and to mourn. The analyses of their work are thorough, often brilliant. Professor Schlant has mastered her craft and the result is a work of great value.

On the other hand, I am constrained to add that I could not find all of the author’s judgments convincing. These doubts were reinforced by comments made recently by John Dower, the author of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, in a TV interview. Prolonged residence in, and many subsequent visits to, Japan led this scholar to the conclusion that Japanese postwar rejection of war as an instrument of policy was shaped not by remorse for wrongs inflicted on other Asian peoples but by the preoccupation with their own suffering. This kind of moral indifference is, of course, at the heart of Professor Schlant’s indictment of most writers discussed in her book. As she comments while dissecting Günther Grass’ From the Diary of a Snail (1972) “there is [in Grass’ writing] an ingrained obtuseness and insensitivity to those who suffered and died.” For German writers, with the laudable exceptions of Gert Hofmann and Sebald, the only suffering that counts is one’s own.

This leads to two additional quandaries: the one is to what extent writers should be expected to portray experiences not their own. Schlant quotes the critic Klaus Briegleb who wondered to “what extent a German author [is] able to imagine Jewish sufferings.” She finds her answer in the work of another—Andreas Huyssens—who calls for an “emotional identification with the victims as Jews.” But that postulate does not answer the question: is such an “emotional identification” possible?

The second quandary is not addressed at all. How interested was the rest of the world in the Holocaust during those years of silence? I remember a day, some 42 years ago, when the University of Oklahoma Press asked me to review the manuscript of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. It was obvious from the condition of its pages that it had already passed through several hands. I was stunned and moved by this pioneering account of the Holocaust and urged that it be published. But the director of that press, who had by then brought out the memoirs of Herbert von Dirksen, Hitler’s last ambassador to London, and a German general’s treatise on armored warfare, was not interested in the Jewish fate under Nazism. My recommendation was rejected, and another three years elapsed before Hilberg’s work appeared in print. Ben Moore, a British historian, likewise points out, in his recent magisterial work about the fate of the Jews in the occupied Netherlands, that four decades passed before non-Jewish historians in that country began to investigate seriously how and why more than 100,000 of its Jewish population of 140,000 did not survive. Clearly, the language of silence was not only spoken in Germany.

What prompted such silence varied from country to country. That it exercised a particular attraction for Germans is obvious, not only because of what they had initiated but also because of what their role in the Holocaust signified. Proudly claiming to be a “nation of thinkers” in the mold of Ancient Greece, they had become a nation of exterminators. No subsequent rejection of the Nazi heritage can lift the burden left by that transformation, no matter how temporary it may have been.

Nor must one forget what this terrifying metamorphosis continues to mean to the less than 100,000 Jews that live in Germany today. I think that the predictions regarding the emergence of a new “minor” culture may be premature. These Jews come from many places, and they embrace a considerable diversity of religious and secular beliefs. Their current leader, Ignaz Bubis, surprisingly enough, still calls himself a German of Jewish faith, accepting President von Weizsacker’s designation as “Jewish compatriot” and echoing assimilationists before 1933. Statistics for 1995, for instance, record 169 Jewish men marrying in Germany. Only 66 of them wed Jewish women. Assimilation continues despite the disheartening experience of two preceding centuries.

Ernestine Schlant has exposed one facet of a profound tragedy whose wounds continue to fester among the descendants of perpetrators, bystanders and victims alike. She has shown through the mirror of the postwar novel how denial of ancestral crimes has been followed very slowly by the acceptance that “one’s own” could formulate and execute policies of extermination. As these crimes recede into the past, the urge to suppress their memory seems to be declining. But living with that memory becomes more, not less, difficult. Without prospect of a “righted future,” will mourning the victims ease that burden?


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