Holocaust on Stage


“'How can one write music after Auschwitz?' inquired Adorno; and one familiar with Russian history can repeat the same question by merely changing the name of the camp – and repeat it perhaps with even greater justification, since the number of people who perished in Stalin's camps far surpasses the number of German prisoncamp victims. 'And how can you eat lunch?' the American poet Mark Strand once retorted. In any case, the generation to which I belong has proven capable of writing that music.–Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Lecture

Ian Buruma in the NYRB blog:

Much has been written and said about Adorno’s famous declaration that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I don’t think he meant that no poems should ever be written after the killing. A more likely interpretation of his dictum is that barbarism, of which Auschwitz was the purest example, cannot be the stuff of poetry. There is no poetic meaning to be culled from exterminating millions of people. In fact, there is no meaning in it at all. To call the victims of Nazi mass murder “martyrs,” as is common in the language of Holocaust remembrance in Israel and elsewhere, is to give their deaths a higher meaning. They did not die for their beliefs, after all, or for a cause. (Being born Jewish is neither a belief nor a cause.) Part of the horror of what happened is that innocent people were killed for no reason at all. Auschwitz was a murder factory. Killing was a routine.

Martyrdom also implies that people have a choice in the matter. Christian martyrs, or indeed Muslim suicide bombers, are called martyrs by their communities because they were willing to die for their beliefs. But the fact that victims in the Holocaust had no choice does not mean that they were no longer human. The best accounts of the death camps, in fiction and non-fiction, by authors such as Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz, show that even under the most extreme circumstances human agency is never entirely extinguished. Primo Levi hinted at that, albeit darkly, when he insisted that the best people rarely survived. Survival was a matter of luck, but also of knowing how and when to take care of yourself—and only yourself. When Kertesz, author of Fateless, returned to his native Budapest from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, well-meaning people commiserated by saying he must have gone through hell. It was not hell, he would reply, but a camp made and inhabited by people. And he was not just a passive victim, or some abstract denizen of an imaginary place, but an adolescent, who happened to grow up in Buchenwald. He did not mean to diminish the dreadfulness of that experience, but he wanted people to see that it was still an experience that he lived through. Kertesz insisted on his autonomy, such as it was, precisely because his tormentors had tried everything to take it away from him.

This is why the most successful accounts of the Holocaust have been witness accounts. They restore individuality, they give the victims faces and voices. The alternative is to use suggestion. Poetry—pace Adorno—is ideally suited to this.