Definitions can be tricky. Just try to find agreement on what qualifies (or not) as “Jewish literature.”
Perhaps equally arguable: any effort to define “Holocaust literature.” In their new book, “Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide” (Brandeis University Press), David Roskies and Naomi Diamant propose some striking new terms: “Holocaust literature comprises all forms of writing, both documentary and discursive, and in any language, that have shaped the public memory of the Holocaust and been shaped by it.”
This definition, along with other notable features, was highlighted in a January 31 panel discussion titled “Reading Holocaust Literature” at the Center for Jewish History. At the event, Roskies, who holds joint appointments at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew University, and Diamant of NYU Stern School of Business, were joined by critic Ruth Franklin and professor Samuel Kassow.
Franklin described the authors’ definition of Holocaust literature as “extraordinarily capacious…the most generous definition possible,” one that allowed them to include a remarkable range of works. But the book’s innovations don’t stop there. For instance, as both Franklin and Kassow made clear, “Holocaust Literature” provides a much deeper understanding of the under-appreciated corpus of writing produced during the Holocaust and in its immediate aftermath, such as the underground archive of the Warsaw ghetto, which represented the efforts of historian Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-44) and his staff.
For his part, Roskies stated that he wanted the book “to be four books in one,” starting with status as a Jewish book (which, read right-to-left, would privilege the index and some surprising finds within). Next, it would be “a book like any other,” beginning with instructive epigraphs and a preface and highly accessible to readers. Third, the book might be approached as a “reader’s digest” that one might sift through in segments, particularly within the section titled “Guide to the First Hundred Books,” with brief discussions, creating a canon that, as Diamant later noted, invites challenge and revision. (One challenge emerged during the discussion itself, when Franklin questioned—and Roskies defended—the inclusion of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s notorious “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.”) Finally, “Holocaust Literature” exists online with a downloadable curriculum.
But what Roskies wanted most of all, he told the audience, was for “Holocaust Literature” “to be not a book but a sefer,” something that “you aren’t allowed to read in the bathroom,” something sacred and treasured. Last week’s panel discussion suggests that he succeeded.
New Yorker Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories” (Last Light Studio), an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title (for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature).