In the preface to “Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide” (Brandeis University Press), which he co-wrote with Naomi Diamant, David Roskies recalls a variety of Holocaust commemorations from his Montreal adolescence. At one Bundist gathering in April 1963 — where “Yiddish was the language spoken because the story happened to people who spoke Yiddish: the grandparents, parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and comrades of the people sitting in the auditorium” — the 15-year-old Roskies was overwhelmed by the recitation of “an epic poem by Simkhe Bunem Shayevitsh, a martyred poet from the Łódz ghetto.”
At another event that same season, held in the city’s Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, “[n]o work of Holocaust literature was read aloud, and nothing memorable was spoken.” Two years later, when Roskies entered Brandeis University — “the only Canadian and the only Yiddish speaker in the freshman class” — he approached the Jewish chaplain to inquire about plans for Yom HaShoah. “What’s Yom HaShoah?” the Reform-trained rabbi replied.
Roskies notes that this trajectory took him “from intense to attenuated group memory, from group memory divided along regional, ethnic, religious, and ideological lines to a zero-sum memory pool. I had moved from public remembering to public forgetting. At one end of the spectrum a culture of mourning was being incubated…. At the other end, an invitation was extended to join the majority culture…. From age fifteen to seventeen, in short, I had personally relived the jagged history of Holocaust literature.”
This autobiographical account also presages key points in the new book. “It did not take a generation for a literary response to the Holocaust to be born,” the authors insist. “But it took at least two generations for its history to take shape.”
According to “Holocaust Literature,” that shape comprises four phases. First, “Wartime Writing,” which is divided between writing in the “Free Zone” and in the so-called “Jew-Zone.” Yes, the phrase “Jew-Zone,” which is used to refer to areas controlled by Nazis, is unsettling. But the authors contend that “without such a Holocaust-specific map, it is impossible to imagine what it was like to live in that real time and space.” Many readers may be stunned to discover the extent of the writing: bereavement songs, diaries, ghetto reportage and poetry within the “Jew-Zone”; protests, elegies and parables — including work written in 1943 by Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.Y. Agnon and Jorge Luis Borges .
Immediately after the war came a phase of “communal memory” (1945–60). It was with “astonishing speed” that “documentary and literary production resumed in the free memory zones carved out of Germany by the U.S. and British armies and in parts of Poland…. When the survivors, veterans, and former POWs trickled back, a small but significant window opened onto what was then called the last catastrophe — on both sides of the Iron Curtain, in Jewish Palestine and in North America. In Yiddishland, the window that opened in 1945 was never shut.”