Preempting the Holocaust

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9780300073577: Preempting the Holocaust

Lawrence L. Langer, perhaps the most important literary critic of the Holocaust, here explores the use of Holocaust themes in literature, memoirs, film, and painting. Langer focuses his attention on a variety of controversial issues: the attempt of a number of commentators to appropriate the subject of the Holocaust for private moral agendas; the ordeal of women in the concentration camps; the conflicting claims of individual and community survival in the Kovno ghetto; the current tendency to conflate the Holocaust with other modern atrocities, thereby blurring the distinctive features of each; and the sporadic impulse to shift the emphasis from the crime, the criminals, and the victimized to the question of forgiveness and the need for healing. He concludes with some reflections on the challenge of teaching the Holocaust to generations of students who know less and less of its history but continue to manifest an eager curiosity about its human impact and psychological roots.

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Review:

Lawrence Langer is the world's preeminent critic of holocaust literature. His Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, which won the National Books Critics Circle Award in Criticism, is considered by many to be the best, most unflinching account of Jewish oral histories of the holocaust.

Preempting the Holocaust is a collection of Langer's essays about literary and artistic treatments of holocaust experience, such as Art Spiegelman's Maus books and Cynthia Ozick's Rosa stories. Major themes in this collection include comparisons of women's and men's experiences of the Holocaust, and warnings against interpreting Nazi atrocities as the work of an coldly efficient bureaucracy (because, Langer argues, using metaphors of "killing machines" mitigates one's awareness of the killers' evil). As a whole, "The purpose of these essays is to contribute to the incessant anxious dialogue about how our civilization may absorb into its reasonable hopes for the future the disabling outburst of unreason we name the Holocaust, as it continues to assault memory and imagination with immeasurable sorrow and undiminished force." Langer's writing is spare, his thinking is forceful, and his refusal to draw simple lessons from his literary analyses is appropriately and productively disorienting. --Michael Joseph Gross

From Kirkus Reviews:

Langer, one of our most eloquent Holocaust scholars (Admitting the Holocaust, 1994, etc.), offers 11 essays that look mainly at the inadequacies of art in addressing this cataclysm. The lectures and occasional pieces collected in this new volume, written in the last three years, deal predominantly with cultural issues, ranging from the paintings of Samuel Bak (a survivor of the Vilna ghetto) to the Yiddish-Polish film Undzere Kinder (Our Children), from the moral question posed by Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower to the problem of teaching the Holocaust. Langer, like Bak, ``insists on a tension between . . . two narratives [of Jewish history]: a positive chronicle moving from Creation to Exodus . . . and a negative one, beginning with round-ups and finishing with train voyages to a perplexing abandonment and final doom.'' In his previous work, Langer has offered a convincing analysis of the events of the Holocaust as being beyond our previous categories of moral behavior and of the recollections of the survivors as existing in their own doubled narrative, ``chronological'' and ``durational'' time, as he puts it. The new book restates and refines the ideas of its predecessors, most notably Holocaust Testimonies (which won a National Book Critics Circle award), applying that work's insights to specific texts with incisiveness and intelligence. At a time when the daily newspapers are filled with renewed versions of genocide and atrocity, but also a time in which the last of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and their victims are dying of old age, this volume is a useful corrective to the foolish sentimentalizing of these events or their application as a hideously inappropriate lesson on the ``triumph of the human spirit.'' As Langer himself points out dryly, ``the Holocaust is a narrative without closure and with few cheerful endings.'' An essential work on one of the central historical moments of this century. (First serial to Atlantic Monthly) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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