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The Moral Corruption of Holocaust Fiction

In his 1998 essay “Who Owns Auschwitz?” the survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész grappled with the problem of how to represent the Holocaust in literature and film. The paradox he expressed was that “for the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid”. That price was the Shoah’s “stylisation”: its transformation into either “cheap consumer goods” or “a moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language”. In both cases, he argued, the Holocaust gradually becomes the realm not of reality, not of history, not of jaw-dropping, thought-defying tragedy, but of kitsch.

Kitsch has indeed come to dominate the field – from the Broadway adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank to Schindler’s List. At the other end of the spectrum, masterpieces, often by survivors – Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Améry – tend towards aesthetic and intellectual rigour, resisting closure and withholding comfort. Much of so-called “Holocaust fiction” is aimed at children and included in the “Holocaust curricula” that are mandatory in many jurisdictions, though fatally handicapped by a refusal to show children violence or even darkness. In the years since Kertész’s essay, however, a micro-genre of Holocaust fiction for adults has proliferated: The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Violinist of Auschwitz. Unlike the children’s fare, these have no excuse for their optimism. 

That John Boyne was not included in Kertész’s list of offenders is surely a matter only of timing: just a few years later, in 2006, Boyne’s children’s book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would exemplify the terrifying commercial drive to expunge the Holocaust of its horror, and its Jewishness. Its plot revolves around the nine-year-old narrator, Henry, who is confused and sad after his Nazi commandant father relocates the family to Auschwitz (which he pronounces as “Out-With”, a pun that does not make sense in German; he also calls Hitler “the Fury”, though he’s nine and perfectly capable of pronouncing the word Führer). He has no idea what’s going on, even though it was no secret that Jews were being deported to occupied Poland. Our innocent little Henry befriends a boy his age, Shmuel, who’s always hanging out by the perimeter fence – weird, given that he would more likely have been performing slave labour and would have been immediately shot if found attempting escape. They share snacks that Henry takes from his kitchen (Shmuel, despite being from Krakow, a highly developed city, and fluent in Polish and German – Yiddish is never mentioned – has only eaten chocolate once). Inexplicably, Henry doesn’t much question why Shmuel is bald, emaciated and imprisoned along with his entire family, which, by the way, is “disappearing” one by one (somehow Shmuel is also unaware that people are being executed). Henry crawls under the fence to help Shmuel look for his dad, and the two boys are immediately swept up in a death march and led into a gas chamber. Henry squeezes Shmuel’s hand and tells him he’s his best friend “for life”, and they are promptly murdered. When Henry’s family realises he is dead, they are sad.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas may read like a paint-by-numbers parody of Holocaust fiction, yet it has sold more than 11 million copies, been adapted into a major motion picture and become the most assigned Holocaust novel in English schools, with the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London finding that 35 per cent of teachers used it in lessons about the Holocaust. And this in spite of the fact that, according to the centre’s study, it has “contributed significantly to one of the most powerful and problematic misconceptions of this history, that ‘ordinary Germans’ held little responsibility and were by and large ‘brainwashed’ or otherwise entirely ignorant of the unfolding atrocities”. Boyne has, of course, defended his work, telling the Guardian that by relating to his central characters “the young reader can learn empathy and kindness”. OK.

Read entire article at New Statesman