When Holocaust Art Is Amoral

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of man
tell him that i
—Dan Pagis (from the Hebrew)

In "Commitment," his 1963 essay, the philosopher Theodor Adorno remarked that writing poetry in the deadly wake of Auschwitz would be "barbaric." Since then, "after the Holocaust, no poetry" has become a kind of overriding moral mantra, with "poetry" encompassing not writing alone but standing for art in general. Yet the making of art cannot be stopped by a powerful phrase, however renowned or revered: plays, novels, poems, songs, symphonies, films, paintings, sculptures, all stream from a source that will not be stilled. Imagination demands its rights: to impress, to move, to feel, to heighten, to interpret, to transmute.

And to lie.

Consider a handful of movies that profess to render the Holocaust. Life Is Beautiful, a naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie. Inglourious Basterds, a defamation, a canard—what Frederic Raphael, writing in Commentary, calls "doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters," even as he compares it to Jew Süss, the notorious Goebbels film. The Reader, like the novel it derives from, no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy. As for Schindler's List, its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen.

So where can the truth be found? In Anne Frank's diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter—precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call "truth" we must go into the bottom-most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell's lowest rung. In Theresienstadt, the Potemkin village designed as a way station to the chimneys—which the International Red Cross allowed itself to be bamboozled by—doomed children painted brightly remembered scenes and wrote yearning poems ("I Never Saw Another Butterfly"), but they were not yet in darkest extremis. Out of the Vilna Ghetto came the Yiddish "Partisaner Lied" ("Partisan's Song"), a bugle call of (futile) desperation and defiance. Fleeing to Villefranche, France, in 1940, Berlin-born Charlotte Salomon, already an advanced painter, in two years created an expressionist series called Life, or Theater? Her extraordinary work, again the product of ephemerally protected space, survives; she did not. Bruno Schulz, a writer and artist in Drohobycz, Poland, was ordered by a German officer to paint fairy-tale murals in his children's bedrooms. Schulz was shot dead in the streets during a Jew-purging "action." The sadist death doctor Josef Mengele, who experimented on human flesh, compelled Dina Gottliebova to paint Gypsies in Auschwitz, and kept her alive to work. We can never know the potential art of the murdered children of Theresienstadt, but Salomon, Schulz, and Gottliebova were already achieved as artists.

Others who outlived the Nazi boot could tell the tale only afterward; they fiercely defy Adorno's dictum. Samuel Bak, a prodigy from childhood on, continues to be almost mystically possessed by the frightened Warsaw Ghetto boy with his cap askew and his pitiable knees and his hands held up—that iconic photo of mass abduction taken by his German tormentors. In Bak's astounding visionary surrealism, the boy is immured in stone, in wood, in brick; again and again, he is bound and fixed in the paralysis/paroxysm of ultimate terror. Paul Celan's great poem "Todesfuge" ("Death is a master out of Germany"); Elie Wiesel's outcry in Night; Dan Pagis's stunted, smothered lyric; Primo Levi's sober taxonomy of brutishness—all these are aftermath and testimony. And though they fly up out of the unknowable well of art, in their authenticity they are equal to the most rigorously vetted documents.

What makes Holocaust art authoritative? When we believe in its truthfulness. What makes Holocaust art honest? When the moral and the aesthetic are inexorably fused; sealed seamlessly, so that you can't tell one from the other. And does the painter or writer have to have "been there" to be honest? For the most part, I think yes. But also it may be possible—rarely, rarely!—to be so haunted by history that a writer, say, can be electrified into history's doppelgänger: a kind of phantom double who lives imaginatively backward by dint of fury and rage and passion. But that is hypothesis: I can think of no one who has done it without fraudulence. Holocaust history can be executed honestly by a later generation. But a novel, a poem, a song, a painting? In the end, it may be only the artist who "was there" who can write stark, starved lines like Pagis's, a poem that chokes itself in the middle of its utterance. As if swallowing the gas.