Analysis | After October 7, Holocaust Literature Will Never Be the Same

By | Mar 19, 2024

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up an old paperback copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated from the sale shelf at DC’s Cleveland Park library. I try to resist library book sales, but the Uber was late, the book was only a dollar and it represented a gap in my education. It was pure happenstance, then, that I ended up reading it a mere 24 hours after experiencing something that made the book’s central struggle—the quest to grasp a past atrocity that remains just out of reach—seem to echo from a distant emotional planet. 

This is no reflection on Foer’s influential novel, which won a National Jewish Book Award; the story remains powerful. But recent events have made its particular experience of Jewish memory feel suddenly, weirdly remote. The same, it turns out, is true of many other “third generation” (3G) Holocaust novels written along similar lines and expressing similar themes.

Everything Is Illuminated crystallized a whole subgenre of post-Holocaust fiction, part of a wider literature mapping what became known as the 3G experience of the Shoah. It might be more accurate to call it a meta- or even a non-experience, since for those writing in the early 21st century the horrific memories are neither their own nor even their parents’—they are, instead, elusive family stories or fading family secrets, questions never asked, files opened too late. Many 3G stories begin with clues that are misinterpreted (there’s a recurrent image of a child who thinks, or is told, that an elderly person’s tattoo is a phone number) and end in painful acknowledgment that the truth of their elders’ experiences can never be fully communicated to them. So many 3G novels and memoirs have been written in this mode in the last 20 years—a mini-list would include short-story writers Molly Antopol and Erika Dreifus and novelist Julie Orringer, along with many more—that one panel of scholars judging a competition tagged the form “the new Jewish literature.” 

These 3G testimonies are conscious of being a step further attenuated from the reality of the Holocaust than the not-here-ness that echoes through the works of a slightly older cohort, the 2Gs, or children of survivors. Their parents’ memories of horror, even or perhaps especially when unspoken, are very much present to 2Gs, invisibly tormenting the people they love most and shaping their own emotional landscape as a result, as with Art Spiegelman and his survivor father in the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus (1991). Sometimes, as in the over-assigned young-adult novel The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), the gulf is bridged by a magical-realist cheat: The sulky teen at the Seder, in order to understand what her people endured, has to be magically transported to the past when she opens the door for Elijah. After time-traveling to a death camp, the young narrator returns to the family Seder where one of the guests is a relative with a previously unnoticed tattoo on her arm.

Today, that relative would be in her 90s, or, more likely, no longer present. Accordingly, for 3Gs, grasping the past is even more difficult than it is for their parents. The memories are mostly held by grandparents, and the defining experience is the not knowing, the inability to unearth the secrets, or—if the grandparents are willing to speak—to grasp the reality of what they went through. That the task of memory keeps getting harder, more elusive, with the passage of time is a given; hence, the urgency that accompanies the need to try. 

In Foer’s novel, the not-knowing is evoked through a dual-narrator story of surpassing audacity and intricacy. At one pole of the story is the callow college student (in what later became a familiar “autofictional” move, the narrator is also named Jonathan Foer) who has traveled to Ukraine to search for his grandfather’s shtetl, carrying little other than a snapshot of the person who may have saved him from the Nazis. At the other pole, and alternating chapters with Jonathan, is the travel party’s hired Ukrainian translator, who narrates his incomprehension and then his growing insight in a goofily incompetent English that underlines the difficulty of making contact. Bit by bit, both stories come into focus; then, at the moment where the truth might emerge, they fail to meet. There is a shattering revelation, but not the one the narrator came seeking. The complex cocoon is spun around an absence: the absence of evidence that would capture the lost reality and enshrine, if never restore, the murdered civilization. “Novels don’t strive to get to the bottom of things, but to express what it’s like never to be able to,” Foer told an interviewer in 2010.

That distance and inability to connect with history have haunted the 3Gs. Even historians aren’t immune: Just last year, in a sort of ironic echo of Foer, the eminent Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov published a novel, The Butterfly and the Axe, in which he imagined his character finding the archives that would tell him exactly how his family had perished—a goal that had frustrated him in his professional life. 

I’m not a 2G or a 3G, just a reader, but that feeling—longing and absence, inability to witness fully, perhaps especially sharp when felt by those who were spared suffering by the sheer dumb luck of having been born late—has marked accounts of Jewish memory throughout my adult reading life. Yet when I finished Everything Is Illuminated and set it down, I turned back to the front cover to check the publication date—2002 seemed so long ago.

Then I realized why. The evening before, I’d responded to a discreet invitation and turned up at an elegant living room and basement space where some 75 women gathered to hear a speaker describe what she had experienced in the course of 50 days held hostage in Gaza. A woman a lot like us, sixtyish, with tight short salt-and-pepper curls and a face lined with weariness and worry, she described the days of captivity, of crouching silently to avoid being seen through the window, the mental disciplines she used to keep a small family group sane in captivity, the lasting signs of trauma in the children since their release. At the kibbutz, on October 7, her husband and son-in-law had obeyed the terrorists’ order to come out of the safe room where the family was hiding; “That was my last visual of them,” she said in a steady tone. The rest of the family was taken to Gaza. Many weeks later, after emerging from captivity in one of the release deals, she learned that her husband had been shot immediately on that day; her son-in-law remains unaccounted for.

Such presentations have been growing in frequency as desperate hostage families and, more recently, hostages themselves go on the circuit in search of levers to exert political pressure, on someone, somehow, anywhere. This speaker had asked for anonymity to protect her family members still held captive; she wanted only to connect with us, to share the reality of her experience. She did. The women in attendance sat in blank, horrified silence. Nobody could think of a question.

As we filed upstairs, still speechless, to mingle over tables of snacks, it occurred to me that maybe the numbness I felt had something to do with the fact that, after a lifetime of reading accounts of Jews undergoing torment, I was in the presence of someone to whom it had just happened. No struggle to imagine it was necessary. Rather, the quotidian details narrated in the speaker’s quiet voice had an awful familiarity from a very different wave of Holocaust books that had been burned vividly into my imagination when I was 11—Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, of course, but also Marietta Moskin’s I Am Rosemarie, Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room, Sonia Levitin’s Journey to America, Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Those young-adult novels from the 1960s and 1970s weren’t 3G or even 2G. Though written for children, they were very much 1G, close cousins in form to the ur-texts of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. In each of the novels, the narrator, an ordinary child, was wrenched out of a familiar-sounding life like mine to suffer through the camps, emigrate or pass the war in hiding, but ultimately survived to write the story I was reading. Nothing could be more direct or accessible; an impressionable reader had nightmares, or waited for the fateful knock on the door. 

Suddenly, those books were in my mind again. In Reiss’s The Upstairs Room, young Johanna, or “Annie,” is hidden with her sister in the attic of a Dutch farmhouse. For two years, the sisters can’t go near the window, for fear of detection; forbidden to make any noise, they stay in bed for months. When they’re liberated, Annie can barely walk. Downstairs, I’d just heard our speaker describe how, though among the luckier ones held hostage in a family home rather than in the tunnels, she and her family had been repeatedly admonished by their captors to stay away from the window, lest crowds outside learn of their presence and commit some further violence—who knew what? The four-year-old, told repeatedly that she must speak only in a whisper, was still not speaking aloud weeks after the family’s release.

There was nothing distant or ungraspable about it, except the basic difficulty of grasping how such things can happen at all. In that sense, of course, the horrors of the Holocaust 75 years ago remain undiminished. It’s not as if the events on and since October 7, however terrible, can be thought of as in any way comparable to the Holocaust itself; indeed, first-person accounts of the Holocaust’s horrors continue to emerge regularly, and grappling with them (and with the original generation of stories) is as important, and difficult, as ever. 

But one element of that difficulty, the sense of the horror’s distance, is gone now, and I suspect it will be for a long time. For the foreseeable future we will be surrounded by straightforward first-person accounts of things that haunt our dreams. It’s not as if those earlier books aren’t still around; nor, for that matter, has there ever been any shortage of accounts to read of horrors happening to other people besides Jews—including Gaza residents today. But all those accounts are transformed when you stand in the teller’s presence, hearing the words in the sufferer’s own voice. 

Retelling the Holocaust, we’re accustomed to finding the reality of it a struggle to grasp, and all the more so as we gradually lose access to living survivors who can provide this sense of immediate personal witness. Like any artistic constraint, the void of direct experience has called forth dazzling ingenuity and experimentation from artists like Foer and his ilk, who feel compelled to reach out to the past despite their own distance from its horrors. Summoning all their love and courage, they’ve leaped out into the thin air of imagined spaces to wrestle the phantoms that haunted their grandparents—phantoms they, and we, believed we would never in fact encounter face to face in real life. Somewhere along the line, the difficulty of summoning up the memory of atrocity became intrinsic to our sense of the task’s importance. If only it were still so difficult.

This story is part of a package on the evolution of Holocaust literature and the emergence of similar themes by hostages following October 7. Other stories in the package are:

From 1975 | “Remembering,” by Elie Wiesel

In Israel and Beyond, Hostages Freed by Hamas Share Their Stories 

Remembering: Holocaust Literature From Survivors’ Accounts to 3G

Top image: A collection of hostage posters. (Photo credit: Yossipik (CC BY-SA 4.0).

2 thoughts on “Analysis | After October 7, Holocaust Literature Will Never Be the Same

  1. gloria levitas says:

    I have been meaning to write and tell you how impressed I have been by your editorials . And this one is truly remarkable . Your knowledge of holocaust literature is impressive but what makes this essay so special is the emotional impact of your description of the hostage experience . It is an unforgettable
    piece of writing .

  2. I am psychologist and playwright who has been teaching and writing about the Holocaust since the 1970s, now over fifty years. I have often been asked, “What do you think will happen to Holocaust memory in 25 years, or 50 years, or 100 years?” I have always answered, “It will depend, in significant part, on what else happens.”

    Horrific as it was, I believe that 10.7 is only part of that something else. We live in an age of endings, actual and anticipated. For Jews, the return of hard-core, unbashful antisemitism–only partly related to the war–marks the end of whatever sense of relative safety we might have had, whether because of Israel or not. The actual and anticipated end of democracy across the globe is also part o it. So, too, the climate catastrophe already underway and now certain to escalate. And there is more.

    So the “what else” is happening. Along with the changes in memory and immediacy that history always brings, we anticipate what–in significant ways–threatens the end of history itself, at least in a way familiar to most of read Moment. The test will be the extent to which we recognize we are “in it together” rather than yet another game of survivor island.

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