So you want to read Holocaust literature?

It’s finally happening: After two long years of waiting, I’ve finally defended my doctoral thesis! Since I just learned that one of EUROPE’S MOST PRESTIGIOUS PUBLISHING HOUSES in my field wants to publish it (just saying), I shall finally finish this post. It is a cleaned-up version of my introduction to Holocaust literature and book rec list that I wrote for my friend Susanna when she took a class on the Holocaust in college. As well as for some other friends who had asked me to recommend some reading material throughout the years I had bitched at them about the hardships of my academic life. I wrote my thesis on Holocaust literature, you see.

Holocaust literature – an introduction, as short as I can manage

Whether or not Holocaust literature should be considered a genre of its own is actually up to debate, but I’ll spare you. Still let me talk for a moment about what we have in front of us. First of all, we have a lot of autobiographic writing in this genre, the depiction of things that really happened and people who really existed, so that makes it pretty different from most fiction. Of course, just the fact that this genre focuses on the Holocaust – a historical event (of awfulness) commonly considered unparalleled – differentiates it pretty strongly from other kinds of autobiography, too. But I also want to point your attention at the fact that Holocaust memoirs are probably the biggest text corpus in Western literature of writers tackling the same short period of history, and more so, a shared trauma. The act of writing about this trauma isn’t just art, and a contribution to remembrance, but also an active act of psychological processing. To survivors, writing and remembering are tightly connected; as are reading and remembrance to the audience. Unlike authors in many other genres, survivors might write because they need to share what happened. They want / need outsiders to know what it was (really) like, or that it was different from how other people described it, or they feel they need to make a confession. Since most victims are Jewish, Holocaust literature is also an intrinsically Jewish genre, and Jewish authors in particular may attribute importance to the act of writing as an act of bearing witness, a duty of giving testimony that’s an important part of Jewish culture.

One things that makes literature eternally fascinating to me is the fact that it exists in a cultural and historical context, and that knowing that context can make you understand writing that otherwise would just be some words to you. So I want to do this for you here. In general, it’s a good idea to keep an I on the reason the author was deported, as well as the time the text was written, which isn’t always close to the date of publication. Each prisoner group, such as Jewish prisoners, POWs or gay men write quite distinctively due to having faced very different conditions. For example, political prisoners often profited from certain prisoner privileges that were very rarely granted to Jews, never mind they weren’t usually in equal danger of “selection” for the gas chambers. Additionally, you also need to be aware that Holocaust literature has grown as a genre, as writers read each others’ texts and reacted to each other, and in some cases, are just influenced by social progress and similar. So let me move you through some of those phases, and tackle the following recs in order of publication.

When The Nazis Were In Power

I’m not going to give you many specific recs for this area, mostly because I don’t know many translated into English, but I still want to share a couple of things about it in case you end up reading it. You’ll mostly find three kinds of writing relevant to the genre here: Writing by people who were currently being persecuted, writing by perpetrators, and writing by authors who lived outside of Germany, usually Germans in exile.

  • Writing by people who were currently being persecuted: It should go without saying that authors of that time, especially authors currently held in a concentration camp, faced a huge personal risk by writing diaries, which had to be kept well-hidden and often were somewhat coded. If you think of such books as the Anne Frank Diary, you’ll see that they also often focus on parts of the persecution other than the camps. Keep in mind that these authors didn’t have the full picture of what was happening. They weren’t putting the Holocaust in a special category in their head in the same way we do now, but perceived it as an escalation of on-going persecution. So often these people will characterize concentration and extinction camps as just a particularly nasty kind of prison, while later authors will go to great pains to prove that the Nazi camps were nothing like regular prisons at all. (I’m not linking to Anne’s diary because there are a ton of versions and its publication history would warrant a post of this own)
  • A lot of professional authors had been forced to emigrate and wrote about the events in Germany from a distance. These writings were heavily influenced by propaganda of both sides, often served as a propaganda tool themselves, and relied on the very limited, occasionally false information spread the media. You know all that bullshit stereotyping of Nazis as gay? All of it, and I mean really all of it, can be traced to fiction written by these people in the 1930’s. I won’t give a rec because I don’t know an easily accessible one that makes for a good example while also not being crap. But they are everywhere.
  • If you consider writings by Nazis Holocaust literature, too, then obviously Nazi writing was also full of propaganda. Like, if you want to read Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höß’ autobiography, written during his trial in 1946? That’s as demented as it gets. (I am not in favor of the title of the English translation: “Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz”. I mean, really?)

Directly After The Holocaust, Up Until the Sixties

After the end, the survivors got out, and those who wanted to give testimony or otherwise just to persecute the shit out of the Nazis were bursting with a need to share. Unfortunately, the general public wasn’t terribly interested. The Germans and citizens of many other European countries were standing amid the debris of bombed-out buildings, their drafted family members dead or missing, national pride terminally wounded. Losing the war hadn’t many them any less less anti-Semitic, and they were used to the privilege of mattering more. At best, they were irritated by this small number of accusatory people who claimed to have suffered more than them, and it was supposed to have been their fault too! Can’t have that. In the area that should become East Germany, communist survivors had been expected to be greeted back home as heroes; instead people shuffled their feet and cleared their voices and muttered that they had important things to do somewhere else. If there was an excuse to shut them up, it was gladly taken – and we all know that it’s much easier to shut up discriminated groups. So the most publications of this era are by male, heterosexual former political prisoners, and even those weren’t widely read. Among the general publication, there was no notion that anything unusual had happened during the war beyond your run-of-the-mill POW camps. That’s what they wanted to think, certainly.

So a lot of writing from the period tries very hard to convince people that this is not so. You’d encounter a lot of the following:

  • Very complete, sober, factual reports of what it was like. For example, survivors’ publications of the 40’s and 50’s regularly gave an overview of all the prisoner categories, discussed the existence of camp brothels, as well as reporting “homosexual activity” among prisoners (though always in the other prisoner categories, of course). Later on, taboo would be establish and any mentions of sex would die down. But right now the purpose was to share hard facts. Many writers probably figured that those facts spoke for themselves, so complex rhetoric was not required. You can also read the sober, rational diction of these accounts as a sign that the survivors had not had time to process the events yet.
  • For the same reason, these publications are usually memoirs (describing only the time in the camp), rarely full autobiography (starting at the author’s birth and describing all their life).
  • Full names of guards and perpetrators were usually shared, often with an expectation in mind that legal testimony needed to be recorded for the purpose of prosecution.

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (original language: Polish)

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (link Amazon)

They say, among Holocaust researchers, that everybody has one. This is mine: The account I just can’t read because it makes me queasy. In terms of language and narrative, Borowski’s short story anthology is an easy read, no heavier than a young adult novel. Me, I manage ten pages at a time before I get faintly nauseous. My tutor, in comparison, thinks the book is hilarious (in a terrifying sort of way), so go figure.


Imre Kertész: Fatelessness (link to Amazon)

Arrested as a resistance fighter, Tadeusz Borowski was young Polish writer who survived Auschwitz, switched from poetry to prose to work through his experiences in writing, then killed himself, all in the course of six years. He was only 23 at the time of the liberation. In Auschwitz, Borowski was party to the prisoner work force that greeted the new prisoners and calmed them down with lies before they were sent into the gas chambers (“Your uncle? Oh yeah, he’s over in Monowitz, he’s great, we just talked yesterday”). That messed him up, understandably. You’ll find that his writing is strangely cheerful and optimistically ignorant of other people’s problems (hence the title), which you could take as a depiction of the coping strategy that he adopted at the time. The stories also show how hard a time he had readjusting to life outside of the camps afterwards, letting go of that mind frame. Borowski was a tremendously gifted writer, who wrote very consciously, directing the readers’ attention with great care and precision. His writing was remarkable, and any reading list would be incomplete without him. If you want more writings of this kind, check out Imre Kertész next. 

Primo Levi: If This Is A Man (original language: Italian)

Primo Levi: If This Is A Man (link to Amazon)

Primo Levi was a chemist and an Italian resistance fighter who was also imprisoned in Auschwitz, and he too wrote a memoir after he was released. You can see from his writing that his coping mechanisms are much less psychologically challenging than Borowski’s, which might be why he lived another forty years before likely also committing suicide. (though if you compare him to, say, Ruth Klüger, who’s still very much alive, you’ll see a striking difference between this and that.) His book illustrates the dehumanization process of the camps, and it does so very well. This one is the kind they make you read in high school, and it’s definitely the first one you’re supposed to know in and out in college, due to its universal nature. The events depicted by Borowski are very particular, and particularly convoluted to parse. Levi wrote about an experience faced by – more or less – all prisoners.

Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem (Link to Amazon)

If you want to read just one non-fiction book on the Holocaust, read this one. A lot of you will know parts of this story: Adolf Eichmann had been the guy who orchestrated the Holocaust. He got the orders, figured out how to make it work, and gave the according orders that made it happen. After the end of WWII, he fled to Argentina but in 1960, he was apprehended by the Mossad and about a year late, put on trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann was not what you pictured when you pictured a Nazi, not who you’d draw being punched by Captain America – tiny, mousy guy with big glasses. He was very much what you’d picture a pathetic, powerless aide who “just followed orders.” Long story short, the judge didn’t buy his shit and he was ultimately executed. Hannah Arendt, a political expert, documented and discussed the trial in her book, creating what is considered one of the most fundamental contributions to the Holocaust discourse to this day. She coined the aphorisms of the “banality of evil” and the “bureaucracy of murder.” She was critiqued pretty heavily – I never quite understood why, probably just by virtue of being female and Jewish from how this usually goes. Though you should take with a grain of salt her depiction of Eichmann as a picture of subservient innocence – back then, everybody bought into it, but in recent years, a good argument has been made that it that self-presentation have been a conscious move on Eichmann’s part related to his legal strategy.

Jean Améry: At the Mind’s Limit (link to Amazon)

If you want to read another non-fiction piece after, I recommend survivor Jean Améry’s philosophical essays, though I have to give you a warning; Améry, an Austrian who wrote in French, was very “pro choice” when it came to suicide, and his work reads as a lead-up to his death by his own hand in the late seventies. He also discussed torture at great length, so he is not for the faint of heart. A good one to start: “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities.”

The Seventies and Eighties

Meanwhile, people were in the process of realizing that maybe, possibly, the Holocaust was a special enough event to warrant attention, and also its own name. There was a heated debate on what that name should be. “Holocaust” won out, coined by the super-kitschy American TV show “Holocaust” that first aired in 1979 and was just as problematic as its name. (a “holocaust” is a sacrifice to god. In the bible. Not ideal.) Knowledge about the events had started spreading, mainly due to media coverage about the Eichmann trial and the second Auschwitz trial (that’s the big one every one thinks of when they hear “Auschwitz trial”) in the sixties. That meant that authors could start assuming that their audience already had a certain amount of knowledge. They started anticipating that readers would have specific questions that needed answers, while avoiding repeating information that previous authors had already shared very often, referencing other works. Thanks to precedence set by writers such as Arendt and Levi, and the fact that they had other stories to tell than the political prisoners, Jewish writers stood a bit of a better chance to get published now. However, other groups had been completely silenced up until now. In the wake of the new women and gay rights movements, they started claiming a voice. Most female writers had not gotten a chance to publish anything up until now. It was a rather common belief that (Jewish) women had not suffered as much as (Jewish) men (bullshit, obviously) and so they would not be traumatized; their job was being supportive while the men worked through their manly trauma. Or something.

Heinz Heger: The Men With the Pink Triangle (original language: German)

Just three years after the Germans softened the law for the persecution of gay men – in 1972 – the first comprehensive testimony by a gay survivor was published on the German market. (or, to be precise, by the first writer who admitted to being gay and to having been deported for it) Still, gay men had a lot to fear, which you can see from the fact that Heinz Heger wasn’t a person, precisely. Rather, “he” was a pseudonym shared by two men, one of which was an actual gay survivor from Austria, the other a journalist who agreed to write his memories down for him. (and cheerfully changed details around to make them more gripping, working the memories into a somewhat political manifesto in the spirit of the gay rights cause, much to the chagrin of historians everywhere) Nevertheless, being the first national publication to address the persecution of gays, it impacted massively; there’s no telling how many gay survivors profited from reading it, seeing their suffering acknowledged and represented. It’s said to have inspired Martin Sherman’s pay Bent (1979, UK/USA) – though possibly they only had the same sources – as well as Pierre Seel’s “I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual” (1994, France), which would be the first book published by a gay survivor who didn’t use a pseudonym.

Heinz Heger on Amazon (sadly hard to find)
Martin Sherman: Bent
on Amazon
Pierre Seel: I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual (aka Liberation Was For Others)


Irena Klepfisz: A Few Words in the Mother Tongue

Irena Klepfisz: A Few Words In The Mother Tongue (link to Amazon)

There isn’t a lot of poetry I can recommend in this post, since most of it hasn’t been translated. The US American poet Irena Klepfisz is a wonderful exception. (if you’re German, though, and willing to try your hand at something with very challenging language, give Paul Celan a shot) Klepfisz belongs into the realm of the American women rights movement. Her family was persecuted in the Holocaust, for being Jewish; she herself was saved by a children’s transport as a small child. She writers about the experience of losing her roots in the Holocaust, of being gay among Jews and Jewish among lesbians, and she writes bilingually in English and Yiddish as an act of reviving the language of her people. One of her biggest fans was feminist poet Adrienne Rich.

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz: My Jewish Face, and Other Stories

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz: My ewish Face and Other Stories (link to Amazon)

I love Kaye/Kantrowitz something fierce and I have often recommended her to people who were interested in learning more about the early days of US American feminist writing. She shares a background with Klepfisz (and, I believe, is a friend of hers). Being a child of Holocaust survivors, she also is part of a second wave of Holocaust literature written by survivors’ children who write about what you could call the inherited Holocaust trauma. I love her essays, which discuss being a survivor’s daughter and a Jewish lesbian but also being a political feminist and about issues with weight and eating, so proceed with care if that unsettles you. She is wonderfully contrary and outspoken. If you’d rather check out a guy author, try out Lev Raphael, who also writes gay YA and crime.

From The Nineties To The Present

As the genre evolved, Holocaust literature became more self-referential and reflective. Authors could now assume that their readers would have a working knowledge of the Holocaust, and might even have read other books. The authors themselves had read a lot of the other books. So they started referencing each other; their works started focusing more and more on things they felt still needed to be said, or needed to be added or corrected. Plus, people were getting older, feeling they were running out of time to speak up. Researchers started noticing that the female experience was different from the men’s and maybe worth exploring. Authors wrote autobiographies more often than memoirs, meaning they didn’t just tell what happened in the concentration camps but also how their lives were affected before and afterwards.

Roman Frister. The Cap or The Price Of A Life (originally in Hebrew)

Roman Frister: The Cap or The Price Of A Life (link to Amazon)

Roman Frister is a magnificent writer, who poured all of his heart and journalistic experience into this book. Frister’s premise is simple. He postulates that the concentration camps transformed good, average people into monsters – specifically, they made him into a bad man, corrupting his character and soul. The whole autobiography can be read as an attempt to proof the point. (my tutor disagrees – he says the book begs the readers to redeem him) However, never forget that it’s the author who decided to present himself negatively. If you read carefully, you will notice how he never says one bad thing about his ex wives, takes multiple opportunities to mention charities, and carefully places the blame for everything ever on his own shoulders. This period of the genre was when male authors started addressing experiences of sexual assault, and so does Frister. (I say male because I have never seen a female author do so) Indeed, the title itself refers to this assault, and I dare say that a lot of his terrible self-image seems to be rooted in shame. That said, Frister is the only rape victim I’ve seen who makes a special point of not condemning homosexuals as such while he’s at it. He is a big damn teddy bear.

On a more technical note: If you read these recs in order, you will see that his writing is considerably more complex than what was written by the other authors mentioned before, in terms of structure and narrative. That is also quite typical for writing of this time. He shares that with the next rec.

Ruth Klüger: Landscapes of Memory

Ruth Klüger: Landscapes of Memory (link to Amazon)

After years of female survivors struggling to be taken seriously and heard, Ruth Klüger took the stage and delivered the literature version of a mic drop. She writes about being a female survivor in a Jewish community, about having been a child victim, and she is a marvelous contrary being. Famously, she once said, “I’m not from Auschwitz. I’m from Vienna” as a way of refusing to treat the Holocaust like the heart of who she is. This is an excellent book, but also a great book to read last, because it takes all you’ve just learned about Holocaust literature and then it say, “Hahahah… no.” Another thing special about this book is the fact that Klüger, who emigrated to America, first wrote the book in German, then rather than merely translating it, wrote an English version. So both language version can be considered original works. It’s fitting that she also addresses the way Holocaust victims are treated in Germany vs. in the US. She wrote a sequel, so to say, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be available in English.

Other Stuff!

If you still want to learn more, here’s some other stuff that you might not find if you start looking for additional information yourself.

Arthur Miller: Playing For Time

Playing for Time (link to Amazon)

This is an 1980 American TV movie staring Vanessa Redgrave. I was pleased to find it is now available on DVD. While the movie is based on a memoir (by Fania Fénelon) whose truthfulness has been challenged in the past, the movie itself avoids the majority of the problematic parts, as far as I can judge and remember. It is grounded in a somber realism that avoids the kind of Holocaust kitsch we got in Schindler’s List or the Anne Frank play. It’s remarkable that a movie about the women’s orchestra in Birkenau was made at this early point in time, featuring believable female characters, even showing kissing women in the background of some shots.

Emily Prager: Eve’s Tattoo

This is a short fiction novella by an American author that probably won’t be considered Holocaust literature by most people. But it’s an interesting novel, because it’s about the way American society perceives the Holocaust, what it means to them. (usually not a lot) So it’s fascinating, but also infuriating, and I’m not sure whether all survivors would approve of this one. I’m not even sure I would.

(I’m afraid I cannot find this one on Amazon for you right now – but it should be available in a number of libraries)

Susan J. Brison: Aftermath. Violence And The Remaking Of A Self

Giving it up for Susan J. Brison in one last Amazon link

This is a collection of essays on what the author herself characterizes as trauma philosophy, mixing personal experience and acumen, written by a professor of philosophy who also is a victim of rape. It deals with sexual assault trauma and with American rape culture. So why is it here? I found this one during one of my swipe book searches for my dissertation and got curious because it references an awful lot of my own sources. Brison draws from them a lot, which makes a lot of sense if you consider that you can rightfully call a lot of Holocaust literature works on trauma philosophy in their own right. It’s just a fascinating look at rape culture, framed by a sound background in Holocaust studies. It’s just a shame that Brison seems to have been unaware of the intrinsic misogyny of many Holocaust studies, since otherwise she could have added a whole additional dimension to her work.

So what do you think?

Would you like to add something? Do you have any questions? Leave me a comment – I love meeting new people!

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