Art Spiegelman’s Maus — one of the greatest books ever written on the Holocaust — tells of the sibling rivalry he always felt with his older brother Richieu, a boy he never met because Richieu, born to his parents in Poland in the 1930s, did not survive the war. For Spiegelman, son of two Holocaust survivors, Richieu becomes the sibling he can never best, the brother whose behaviour is always perfect, who is never there, alive, to challenge their parents or make his own way. Richieu’s picture is on his parents’ bedroom wall. The parents discuss what Richieu might have made of his life, imagining wonderful outcomes. By comparison, Spiegelman, a living child with traumatised parents to contend with, can only ever come off worst. Sometimes he feels that he should be gone, that Richieu should take his place. The dead will always be better than us.
Two recent books by two astonishingly talented Jewish writers — Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander — caused me to think about Richieu again. Both books raise the ghost of Anne Frank. In the title story of Englander’s collection, she’s the emblem of all we fear about those we love — that perhaps they would not shelter us if it came to it. In Auslander’s novel, his embattled hero Kugel finds the living, breathing Anne Frank hiding in his attic. It must be so, that we return to her. If you are a Jewish writer, Anne Frank is your Richieu.
She, with the translucent ghosts of her unwritten books on the shelf, will always be a better writer than us, with our tawdry, mundane, completed works, each one a small failure. She, with all the suffering, will always deserve success six million times more than us — we have survivor guilt for managing to do what she could not. She, with her purity, her innocence, will always be there to say, in the back of our minds: “how can you write that? I would have written it different, better. My books should take the place of yours.” Yes, if we’re going to be Jewish writers, we’re going to have to talk about Anne Frank.
Auslander’s book squares up to this challenge most directly. Kugel finds Anne Frank in his attic. Not an allegory, not an artefact of a nervous breakdown — the real Anne Frank, who’s been in hiding since the war. When she tried to reveal that she’d survived, her publishers told her to stay dead — sales would be better that way. Auslander’s Frank is angry, bitter — as you would be — she swears, she shouts, she demands to be taken care of. Her arrival causes Kugel’s life, already teetering on the edge, to spiral entirely out of control.
Auslander’s portrayal of Frank, for example, swearing, has apparently caused some controversy, although I suspect that anyone who claims to be offended will, on closer inspection, find that they are actually offended by the Holocaust. Either that or that they prefer their victims dead and perfect to living and complex — which is precisely Auslander’s point.
Hope: A Tragedy attacks the problem of the Holocaust for modern Jews, and modern human beings, from myriad angles. His work is characterised by intense bravery. Like anyone who’s rid themselves of the burns and slime of fundamentalism knows, there’s no room to keep anything sacred if you want to stay sane: sorry, but that’s how it goes. Anne Frank: just a person. The idea of “never forget”? What a terrible notion. Kugel considers how to educate his son Jonah about the Holocaust and muses:
“Kugel decided… that he would consider his meager life a success if, in years to come, somewhere, someday, someone kicked in Jonah’s door and Jonah was surprised. Shocked. Amazed. Let him be utterly bewildered, Dear God. Let him wonder, raised-eyebrowed and slack-jawed, They kick in doors now? Since when? Hang on, hang on — they’re putting people in ovens? You can’t be serious. Since when do people put other people in ovens?”
Auslander is a very funny writer, full of fierce, angry energy. His Anne Frank is a blocker, who’ll have to be removed one way or the other for normal life to resume. And who is, of course, impossible to remove. We can’t live like this, Auslander is saying, with the threat or even the thought of the Shoah always at the top of our minds (or houses). We’re going to have to root it out if we want to make progress as writers, as human beings. But of course we can’t do it. He’s incredibly, grimly funny on what it might take to get rid of this tenacious survivor in his attic:
“He’d play Wagner. He’d get a German shepherd. When the UPS man had gone he’d tell her it had been a man from the Gestapo, asking a lot of questions. A lot of “Did you shower yet, honey? He would call downstairs to Bree. Because if you showered already I’m going to shower now.”
If you don’t find this appallingly hilarious, you won’t enjoy the book. But then, you might like to think about what effect it has on you to take the most serious thing that has ever happened so incredibly seriously.
Englander’s approach to Anne Frank is less comic, more elliptical, but no less challenging for that. In the title story of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, two couples — one ultra-Orthodox settlers now living in Israel, the other liberal secular Jews living in the US — play that game which so many of us have played, wondering who would shelter us if we needed, like Anne Frank, to be hidden. As the Raymond Carver- inspired title implies, for Englander, what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank is love. Who actually loves us? Who would we actually trust to take us in and risk their lives for us? This Anne Frank is an emblem of trust as well as of death. After all, though she died in Belsen, she was sheltered for years.
There’s a corollary to that question, of course. We ask ourselves: who would be prepared to risk themselves for me? But we must also ask: and what would we risk? How much would we give up in pursuit of justice for a group that is not our own, to help people who are not our kin? For me, at least, the important question of the Holocaust is not: how do you stop yourself being a Jewish victim? It’s: how do you stop yourself becoming a Nazi?
We all like to think that we’d be the people who would rescue others, keep them safe, risk everything for what we believed in. But Germany in 1932 wasn’t composed of people any different to us. The truth is, most of us would do what they did: give in, obey, turn a blind eye. We’d find perfectly sensible reasons not to risk it, to stick with our own kind, to prefer our family’s safety over that of strangers.
Which is where Englander’s juxtaposition of tales in this book is devastating. Questions around Israel permeate the book. Not those horrifying pieces of anti-semitism that start with “Israel today is no better than Nazi Germany” and go from there. But the subtle, troubling, important questions that are drowned out by that shrill anti-semitic rhetoric. What are we supporting when we support Israel?
Two key stories in the collection address this question, albeit by analogy and inference. In “Sister Hills”, which follows the development of a settlement in the disputed territories from two houses on twin hills to a thriving, wealthy town, the allegory is multiply-folded. One woman’s baby is dying: to try to fox the evil eye, this Yehudit superstitiously ‘sells’ her baby to her friend Rena — we’re reminded of course of Esau selling Jacob his birthright, of what a ‘birthright’ is or could be. The deal is purely symbolic, but in a religious landscape symbolic deals have value. If we deny that a contract selling a baby is real, what else might we have to deny?
“The contract on this land is very old,” Rena says to the Palestinian boy who tells her to stop chopping down the tree on what he considers his family’s property.
“A mythical claim”, replies the boy, “as meaningless as the one you make today.”
No one comes out of this story looking good — not the woman who sold the baby nor the woman who took the bargain, nor the baby herself, in the end. The story’s not pure allegory and is all the better for that: it’s about a group of human beings determined to keep hurting each other rather than let go. There are no easy answers: the only way out of the conundrum would be somehow to undo history — another impossibility.
The last story in the collection, the harrowingly good “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is about the same question as the title story really, but far more pointed and devastating. A young Israeli boy asks his greengrocer father to explain why they always give free fruit to a particular man, Professor Tendler. The father tells the story of what happened to that man after he was freed from the camps, when he tried to come home. By the end of the tale we understand why the father says of Tendler: “He made it through the camps… But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.” This story asks whether we can survive brutality without becoming brutalised — the answer it gives is ambiguous at best.
What do we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank? Is it fear, pure and simple? Fear and the terrifying knowledge that love will never quite be stronger than hatred? Is it something like the contract in “Sister Hills”: about something we feel we’re owed in lieu of all that suffering? Is it a terror that, like Anne Frank in her attic, we are somehow still stuck in that small room of history, pacing it out like a caged prisoner, unable to free ourselves?
At a literary dinner a few months ago, I mentioned to a writer who will remain nameless something about my psychotherapy.
“God why are all Jewish writers in therapy?” this writer demanded.
“The Holocaust,” I said, “we have to deal with it somehow.”
Which shut them up.
To this end, and as a public service, I’ll share something I’ve pondered in my own therapy. As a child I was educated to try to imagine myself in a camp, in a sealed ghetto, trapped like Anne Frank in an attic. When I kept a diary, for a time, as a 12 year old, I started it, like she did, “Dear Kitty”. As an adult, I fret over the BNP, over threats to shechita, over what the worsening economy might mean for the Jews. I rehearse the things one must do: keep a full larder, plan many escape routes, sew diamonds into the hems of clothing. Just as a good Jew should look upon herself as if she, too, was part of the Exodus from Egypt, we seem to have been taught, so a good Jew should think of herself as if she, too, is in a camp. Because the Holocaust is right here, it could happen again any moment.
Except it’s not here. It might happen again, but it’s not happening right now. Right now, right here, life is about as good for us as life has ever been for anyone ever in the history of the world. Probably better. But if we keep on feeling that we must live as if the Holocaust is happening, then, in some sense, the Holocaust is continuing to happen. Except that this time we’re doing it to ourselves.
Six million Jews died. There are twelve million of us today. If we, like the children born to parents who have already lost a child, are expected to somehow live for them too, each of us are living for half another person. One wonders what kind of life they would have wanted to live: surely not one entirely dedicated to memory and the past. Auslander is right when he says that not forgetting the Holocaust isn’t the same as never shutting up about it. Englander is right when he draws us back again and again to look at ourselves now and not in the mesmerising mirror of victimhood. We have an impossible task: to hold onto something at the same time as letting it go. The fact that it’s impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Remember. And at the same time, remember that it’s over.