On Writing: Language and Survival


Holocaust Memorial North end Boston Ma

I have to preface this post by saying that it was compelled by an email I received. This was not a pleasant email. In fact, it was a blatantly anti-Semitic one, written by someone in response to one of my Holocaust posts. The person who wrote this email basically wanted to deny the Holocaust even occurred. I get that putting my opinions out there so strongly leaves me open to such emails, and while it was hard to read, I wasn't personally offended. I was offended on behalf of those millions of people whose existence and murder this email sought to deny. Every time someone denies the Holocaust occurred, it's like killing its victims all over again, doing them a further injustice. After thinking about this email for a week or so, I also realise that the intention of such an email is to scare me into silence about the topic. Well, I don't believe in such silence.

The problem with talking about the Holocaust is that it is shrouded in silence. Claude Lanzmann once referred to the Holocaust as having a ring of fire around it, making it impossible to represent accurately. I suspect this is why silence is the easier option. How do you begin to represent something so completely incomprehensible? And yet, the Holocaust was the ultimate act of rationality: it was a highly-organised and efficient mode of killing. That's what scares me the most about it. Looking at all the immaculate details the Nazi maintained in their systematic murder and torture of people makes me feel as if language failed humanity. Those endless, rational lists of numbers and names are fascist.

It's because the Holocaust was so brutally rational that many poets have approached its representation through lack of coherent language. Through a dismembering of language, I suppose. To me, their poems read as a defiance of the Nazi's well-organised records, in which language was wielded with an inhuman clarity. But also, their poems are an expression of the limitations of language in expressing the inexpressible. One of the most personally moving poems I've encountered on the Holocaust is this one by Irving Feldman:

-this page
I write and
the silent
who couldn't cannot
whom silence
and I
cannot what nevertheless
I nevertheless
how can I

Feldman enacts the breakdown of language in the face of the Holocaust in such a poem. And yet, he also displays the need to express the Holocaust, to seek to work through its silence, even if it is through a garbled language and poetic structure that does not make sense. If his poem shows us the inability of language to convey what occurred, it also stands as a testimony of what occurred, and the need to couch it in language and representation. To me, this is a form of survival for those who died.

One of my most treasured novels is Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, which also weaves the Holocaust into its narrative in inventive ways that signal the power of language as a form of survival, yet its ultimate frailty. My favourite line in the novel is actually Krauss's dedication. Before four images of her grandparents, Krauss writes: "For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing". I'd like to think that even a tentative, incoherent, and incomplete probing around the silences surrounding the Holocaust is the opposite of disappearing. I'd also like to think that it's a form of reclaiming the art of language in a manner that stands for life, rather than death.

Image credits: Holocaust-Mahnmal (top image) and Holocaust (bottom image).