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A Poetics of Genocide: The Jewish Dead Confront the Germans in Katzenelson’s Warsaw Ghetto Poem “Vey dir”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2021

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Summary

THE PRONOUNCED TENDENCY among the most widely read Holocaust historians, with Saul Friedländer's 1997 Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination marking a significant departure, has been to ignore victims’ perspectives almost completely as extraneous to an account of how the Nazi genocide of European Jews transpired. The texts written by victims that have received the most attention have, moreover, tended to be testimonial works, generally regarded as more crucial than fiction or poetry for understanding victims’ experience. Scholars of Holocaust literature, for their part, have focused overwhelmingly on texts written after, not during, the Shoah. This constellation has left the corpus of literary texts written by Jewish victims during the Holocaust underexplored. Although many scholars, including Samuel Kassow, Alan Mintz, and David Roskies, have forcefully underscored the crucial importance of distinguishing between texts that grapple with the catastrophic events as they were unfolding, on the one hand, and writing on what we now call the Holocaust that is organized from a retrospective vantage point, on the other, this fundamental distinction is seldom insisted on as forcefully and cogently as it deserves to be. And while some literary scholars—most abidingly Roskies—and cultural historians have explored crucial aspects of how inmates of ghettos adopted, reworked, stretched, and rejected literary genres and archetypes as they grappled with their extreme situations, continued work on these questions remains a desideratum.

In particular, the theorization of the relationship between poetry and the Holocaust has been elaborated in near-hermetic disregard for the poetry that victims wrote during the time of the genocide. In part, this was an unintended consequence of the debate that Theodor W. Adorno initiated with his intentionally provocative and lapidary dictum from “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft” (“Cultural Criticism and Society,” written 1949 and published 1951) that “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch” (Writing a poem, after Auschwitz, is barbaric). While frequently misquoted, taken out of its intricate context, and reduced to an empty soundbite, Adorno's pronouncement provided the terms for the most prominent critical conversation about poetry and the Holocaust, the effects of which are still evident seventy years after he made it.

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Nexus: Essays in German Jewish Studies, Volume 5
Moments of Enlightenment: In Memory of Jonathan M. Hess
, pp. 135 - 164
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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