It was the provocative title of the article in an American magazine that caught my attention. Is there anything left to say about the Holocaust? On reflection, it was a reasonable question. After all, it's nearly 80 years since the outbreak of World War II, and, with all the histories, biographies, novels, memoirs, and movies that have already appeared, can anything more be said before Holocaust ennui sets in?
Checking the documentaries on the History Channel – 23 Holocaust-related programs last week alone – and reading the book reviews in the weekend papers, however, it's clear that our fascination with the Holocaust is, if anything, keener than ever.
As a child, Olga Horak survived five concentration camps and a death march.Credit:Louie Douvis
Over the past year, new Australian books based on the Holocaust have included Fiona Harari's interviews with Australia's oldest Holocaust survivors We Are Here; Heather Morris' bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a partly fictionalised biography; the award-winning The Book of Dirt, in which Bram Presser has woven together the threads of family legend and memory in exploring his grandfather's Holocaust experiences; and James Moloney's The Love that I Have, a novel of love and courage during the Holocaust.
Considering this proliferation of Holocaust literature, I ask Henry Rosenbloom, the Melbourne-based publisher of Scribe Publications who recently published Harari's book in Februrary, if we are approaching Holocaust overload.
Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt tells his grandparents’ stories.Credit:Louie Douvis
"I'm astonished at the new angles on Holocaust stories that keep appearing," he says. "Right now I have six submissions dealing with Holocaust: a Catholic Pole who rescued Jews and fell in love with a Jewish woman, insurgency in Nazi Germany, the medical victims of Nazis, a World War II spy novel, the role of women in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the buried archives of the Warsaw Ghetto."
Last year Rosenbloom published Miracles Do Happen, the moving story of his parents Fela and Felix, young Holocaust survivors who were separated for six years, and then reunited against all odds when the war ended.
"The generation that experienced the war directly is dying out, and it's a precious endeavour to get hold of their tales while they are still alive," he says.
While Miracles Do Happen, is the memoir of survivors, The Book of Dirt which has won three major literary prizes, is written by a survivor's grandson. "What's interesting about Bram Presser's book, is that now we have grandchildren telling their grandparents' stories and grappling with the issue of memory," comments Text's Publishing's Michael Heyward, who published that book. "The same thing is happening in Germany, where the grandchildren of perpetrators are now coming to terms with what their grandparents did."
Henry Rosenbloom, publisher of Scribe Publications, released the story of his parents Fela and Felix.Credit:Eddie Jim
So, like ever-widening ripples in a deep, dark pond, new angles on the Holocaust keep surfacing. According to German-born historian Konrad Kwiet, Emeritus Professor of German and European Studies at Sydney's Macquarie University, more than 100,000 testimonies of survivors have been recorded worldwide. "No other historical event has ever left behind such a magnitude of eyewitness accounts," he says.
Professor Kwiet, who was the chief historical consultant to the Special Unit investigating Nazi war criminals in Australia from 1987 to 1994, believes that our hunger for Holocaust literature stems from the fact that time is running out.
Olga Horak, left, and Dasia Black, photographed at the Jewish Museum in Sydney, which has published their books.Credit:Louie Douvis
"Before long, there will be no survivors left to tell their stories, and answer the questions that haunt us," he says. "People are still searching for answers to the most horrific crime of the 20th century. So am I."
So what answers are we searching for? It seems that the more time elapses, and the more we know, the more incomprehensible the Holocaust appears. We are still stunned, still endeavouring to comprehend how this genocide on an unprecedented scale could have happened less than 80 years ago.
I correct historical facts. I never intervene where memories are concerned.
But perhaps what we are really searching for among these unfathomable statistics and chilling atrocities, is some fundamental truth about human nature, and the limit of human endurance in extremity.
How did people keep faith with themselves and keep their moral sense intact? What resources did they draw on, to transcend their terrifying circumstances, and keep their soul alive?
What fuels our curiosity, is the urge to understand what remains at the core of human beings when everything is stripped away, because by discovering that, we may begin to understand what we ourselves are capable of.
We can only discover this from the accounts of survivors, because the dead have no voice. The 6 million who were murdered cast what Michael Heyward calls "the shadow of absence" over Holocaust literature.
"There are 6 million stories that can never be told," he says. "The enormity of that number is like trying to count the stars in the Milky Way – too many to contemplate."
So we read survivors' memoirs and listen to their stories, spellbound, holding our breath, heart-broken, shocked, and inspired, and we vicariously place ourselves in their situations, and wonder how we would behave, and what we would do. Each memoir adds another fragment to the apparently infinite Holocaust mosaic, and shines a beam of light on our understanding of them, on ourselves, and our shared humanity.
Survivors are keepers of the past who provide a moral context for the future. Their experiences are proof that the moral self can resurrect itself from the inhuman depths through which it has passed. And when the last Holocaust survivor has vanished from the earth, their memoirs will live on to describe an Apocalyptic world that future generations might otherwise be unable to believe.
It's this conviction that we must collect and preserve survivor memoirs that motivated the Sydney Jewish Museum to help survivors publish their stories.
"Our team of 18, many of whom are volunteers, has published 57 Holocaust memoirs, and we are currently working on another eight," says Jacqui Wasilewsky, manager of the museum's community stories program.
Wasilewsky, who has degrees in law, history, and psychology, says that this is her dream job. "I'm the luckiest person in the world to have a job that's intellectually and emotionally satisfying and inspiring. Working with survivors on their memoirs is an emotional journey for them and for me," she says. The oldest survivor she has worked with was 94.
"The crucial, overriding thing when we ghost-write or edit the manuscripts, far more important than creating a literary masterpiece, is to retain the survivor's own voice so that when the family reads their memoir, they can hear their grandmother's voice."
Susie Wise, who survived the Holocaust in Hungary with her mother, had her memoir published by the museum in 2013.
"Working on it encouraged me to think more deeply about my past and to re-evaluate the impact of the Holocaust on my life," she says. "Some years ago, I recorded my story for the Spielberg Shoah Foundation, but the advantage of a book is that you can have it and hold it, it's always accessible. It meant so much to my mother that she was still re-reading it just days before she died at 102, and I hope that one day my great-grandchildren will read it."
Before being published, each memoir is checked for historical facts by the museum's resident historian, German-born Kwiet who is a child Holocaust survivor himself. "I'm what the Nazis called a bastard of first degree – my mother was Jewish but my father wasn't," he says.
"Writers are far more influential than historians. Historians basically talk to themselves,'' he says. "Memory is a complex psychological process, and it's fascinating to read a memoir written by a 90-year-old describing their childhood experiences. People sometimes get dates wrong, and I correct historical facts. I never intervene where memories are concerned."
In Melbourne, the Lamm Jewish Library has published 138 titles in the past 20 years. At least 75 per cent of them are Holocaust memoirs, according to Adele Hulse who is the co-ordinator of the library's Write Your Own Story program.
"I say we're the biggest publisher of Holocaust memoirs in English. I keep waiting for someone to say no you're not, but so far no one has," she laughs.
Hulse does the editing and there are two proof-readers, one of whom is a volunteer. "I have a nervous breakdown with every book in case something is wrong or there's a family fight over it," she says.
Getting survivors to recall as much as possible is her biggest challenge. "Everyone has their purple passage, the story they've told all their life, but I want them to go back further. I ask what month, what day, what were they wearing? I want to see the scene. I make them relive it. It's distressing and retraumatises them, but it prods their memories."
One of most difficult memoirs Hulse has worked on was by a Yiddish speaker with dementia who was desperate to tell the story of a girl who drowned in a well. "I used two Yiddish translators, and when he got the story out, it relieved some of his pain," she recalls.
Hulse, who is a Tibetan Buddhist, believes in the value of Holocaust memoirs. "The videos that Spielberg recorded rarely get beyond being part of a collection, but written records preserve information and spread it. So as long as the witnesses are still here they have to be recorded for the sake of family and history, to show what humans can do, in the hope they don't do it again."
When I ask Michael Heyward whether there is anything left to say about the Holocaust, he replies: "In the course of human history, this is one of the most scarifying things our species has ever done. The reverberations will continue for a very long time."
Diane Armstrong is the author of Mosaic:A Chronicle of Five Generations, the story of her family.
Words to Remember, a session during this year's Sydney Writers' Festival featured five Holocaust survivors whose memoirs illustrate the enormous diversity of survivor experiences, and the resilience and optimism with which they rebuilt their lives in Australia.
Looking at Olga Horak, an elegant white-haired woman of 92, it's hard to believe what she has gone through. In her memoir Auschwitz to Australia, she describes the agony of five concentration camps and a death march in winter, together with her mother. One day after they were liberated from Bergen-Belsen, her mother died. Olga, who had typhus and weighed 29 kilograms, was given a blanket by a German nurse, which she has kept to this day. It was made of human hair.
Paul Drexler was one of about 100 children who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. When he was six, he saw his parents tortured by the Gestapo. He and his mother were on a cattle train that arrived in Auschwitz but by a miracle, the train was ordered to move on. He also has a blanket from which he will never part: it was given to him by his father whom he last saw when he was six years old.
His memoir, In Search of My Father, describes his long search to find out what happened to his father.
Dasia Black was four years old the last time she saw her parents. Interned in a ghetto in a Nazi-occupied township in Poland, they entrusted her to a Polish woman to save her. They didn't survive. Dasia's most precious possession is the letter her father wrote to a relative, begging him to look after his little daughter if he didn't survive. Her recent memoir, Zbaraz: A Community Extinguished, tells of her anguished search to discover where and when her parents were murdered.
No two survivors' stories are the same. In his meticulously documented memoir Escape from Berlin, Peter Nash gives a little-known chapter of Holocaust history. He and his parents escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 and fled to Shanghai, one of the few safe havens available for Jews at the time.
George Sternfeld's survival story is different again. From Chocolate to Anzac Biscuits is his account of survival in Siberia. It's a story of struggle, determination, and strength, told with warmth, humour and sadness, and interspersed with family recipes handed down for generations. His conclusion is that we are all connected in our shared humanity.
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