Book Reviews
The Language of Silence - West German Literature and the Holocaust

By: Ernestine Schlant

Review: By Ursula Duba

At a book party for Ernestine Schlant (a.k.a. Mrs. Bill Bradley), author of THE LANGUAGE OF SILENCE - WEST GERMAN LITERATURE AND THE HOLOCAUST, I was particularly struck with Ms. Schlant’s statement that “literature is the seismograph of a people’s unconscious”.

Ms. Schlant, professor of German and Comparative Literature,  and I both grew up in Germany.  She was nine years old at the end of WWII, I was six.  We both live in the US now and have a foot in both worlds.  I attended schools where “former” Nazi teachers made sure that I didn’t know about the atrocities committed by my people, was surrounded by a thick wall of impenetrable silence and like many young Germans of my generation, including Schlant, didn’t find out about the Holocaust until I ventured abroad as a young adult and was confronted with its horror. 

It can safely be said that the official silence of the first twenty postwar years has long since given way to debates, discussions, the publication of many non-fiction books, documentaries, and so forth.  While German authors like Heinrich Boell (who received the Nobel prize in 1972), Guenter Grass (one of last year’s nobelists), Wolfgang Borchert, Siegfried  Lenz, and others have written eloquently about the horrors and the madness of war and our misery because of it, literature by non-Jewish Germans depicting and addressing the suffering of  fellow German-Jewish citizens continues to be virtually nonexistent.  We German non-Jews saw our world as shattered by WWII and its aftermath, Jews disappeared while the language with which we describe our own suffering is rich in nuance and texture, the language we use to describe the fate of Jews is abstract and devoid of emotional resonance.

In my own research, I have found that many of my countrymen believe that there is in fact an abundance of literature written by German gentiles which deals with the plight of European Jews in general and German Jews in particular.  In reality, there is a distinct absence of Holocaust victims as protagonists in literature written by German gentiles.  Many if not most Germans seem to consider literature about their own suffering during WWII and the chaos of the postwar years, and condemnation of the Hitler regime as synonymous with writing about Holocaust victims.  It doesn’t strike them as extraordinary that there are almost no books written by them about our former Jewish fellow citizens, who had lived in Germany for hundreds of years, had contributed richly to our culture and society,  had been our neighbors, our class-mates, our colleagues, our acquaintances, our friends and our relatives.  

As Ms. Schlant brilliantly demonstrates in her book, even after WWII , when it was perfectly safe to do so, almost no books were written by Germans, which explored their feelings about the forced emigration or deportation to a sure death of their Jewish fellow citizens.  Not even by the roughly half a million German gentiles who had acquired Jewish relatives through marriage.  One could expect that at least a handful of those might have felt compelled to write about the emotional fallout of the tragedies of their Jewish in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, or cousins.  

Besides being immensely readable, Schlant’s book is a thorough work of solid research and insightful interpretation and analysis of West German postwar literature.   Her perceptive psychological analysis of West German postwar literature takes us all the way from the first postwar decade through every subsequent decade. She also provides judicious information about the political events as they have unfolded in Germany during the past fifty years.  

Her careful readings of texts reveal that even the most capable writers (Guenter Grass, Alfred Andersch and Peter Haertling) did not attempt to create Jewish characters and she raises the question: Why do German non-Jewish writers adroitly shun writing about the victims of the Holocaust, or even about Jews presently living in Germany?   

Schlant  starts off with the first postwar decade and offers an in-depth analysis of the writing of Heinrich Boell and Wolfgang Koeppen.  Heinrich Boell published his first prose pieces in 1947 and established himself, in the course of a prolific and morally committed career, as one of West Germany’s most widely read and internationally acknowledged authors.  As a matter of fact, he was one of my favorite writers in the late fifties and early sixties.  Throughout his work, there is a sympathetic description of the common solder and the ‘average man’ contrasted with unflattering descriptions of officers and people in higher positions - which leaves the reader with the comfortable perception that ‘ordinary Germans’ had been victims of the Nazi regime and had been powerless to assert themselves to Nazi-authorities.  (Goldhagen has debunked this theory roundly in his book hitler’s willing executioners.)   Boell’s oeuvre is bereft of Jews except for two female characters who are converts to Catholicism, even though Boell grew up in Cologne which had one of the oldest Jewish communities in Germany. Nowhere does Boell, a devout Catholic, express outrage about the extermination of an entire people.  As Schlant says “The fact that genocide is criminal madness and therefore on quite another plane from the death of a soldier in battle is ignored”. (p. 33)

While Boell’s books enjoyed enormous popularity and were commercially successful, Wolfgang Koeppen who published Death in Rome in 1954, a book which targets the Nazi past and the survival of some of its basic tenets  in postwar Germany, only sold 6000 copies.  Wolfgang Koeppen, a virtuoso writer who is utterly unsparing in his descriptions of postwar Germans  did not achieve commercial success with his triology  Pigeons in the Grass, The Hothouse and Death in Rome.  There is nothing comforting in his descriptions of ‘average Germans’ and he makes it very clear that the suffering of Germans was self-inflicted.  Koeppen’s writing career was all but over and he resorted to writing travel books!  

 In 1959 Guenter Grass (born in 1927 in Gdanks, now Polen) burst onto the literary scene with his novel The Tin Drum.  This novel is uniformly understood as a serious attempt to reckon with the German past, and yet the only Jewish character in this novel, Sigismund Markus, is an unsympathetic caricature of the Nazi press.  Schlant quotes literary scholar Ruth Angress:   “Markus, like the typical Jew of the Nazi press, is unattractive as a man, though he lusts after an Aryan woman, and ludicrous as an individual, for he acts and looks like a dog. He is a harmless parasite, a Jew without a Jewish community or a family, without a background, or religious affiliation, but with business acumen of sorts.” (p. 70)

Considering that Guenter Grass has visited Israel and most probably has met Jews living in Germany and quite conceivably has encountered survivors of the Shoah, his inability or unwillingness to explore their particular life experiences, is truly baffling. 

The Eichmann trial of 1961 in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz trials from 1963 to 1965 in Frankfurt/Main made the atrocities of the Holocaust known to the younger generation of Germans - those who came of age in the late fifties and early sixties. (Their parents had been informed  about the horrors of the Holocaust during the Nuremberg trials, but they never talked about this with their children). 

1968 presented a watershed in German society:  For the first time since the end of WWII, young Germans confronted their parents and accused them of wholesale complicity in the Nazi atrocities.  But the writers from that era, primarily expressed  their own victimization by the continued presence of old Nazis in postwar Germany and consequently regarded themselves as fellow victims.  This was a convenient way of avoiding responsibility for the atrocities committed by their parents’ generation and in addition led them to deny the uniqueness of the suffering of European Jews.

Schlant writes: “Furious attacks on the parent generation were meant to demonstrate that one was not like the parent and was therefore released from a heinous past.  This shortcut avoided any confronting of the past and its legacy and any concern for the victims; it was motivated not by sorrow and shame but by rage and despair.”  (p.82)   Once again, what got lost in this intergenerational scuffle was  the fate of the victims of the Holocaust. 

One of the most recent books published which Schlant analyzes is The Reader by Bernard Schlinck (1995). This book was on the best seller list in the U.S. and became even more prominent by being featured on Oprah’s Book Club.  The Reader is the story of a love affair between a young boy of fifteen from an middle-class, academic family, and a thirthy-six year old illiterate woman. The affair takes place in 1958 and  lasts from early winter to late summer.  Ten years later, Michael is a law student and attends a war crimes trial in a nearby town. The defendants are five SS women, one of which is Hanna.  The women are accused of locking a group of Auschwitz inmates in a church during the trek back to the West. The church is hit by a fire bomb and the SS guards refuse to open the door so that the inmates’ lives can be saved.  Except for two women who escape death by a hair, all the inmates are burned to death.    Hanna is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  Michael resumes the habit of reading to her as he had done during their love affair.  He reads to her and sends her the tapes, but he does not visit her in prison.  After eighteen years, Hanna is paroled and Michael is asked by the warden to help Hanna to re-enter life.  But Hanna commits suicide on the morning of her release.  In a note addressed to him, she asks him to give her savings to a Jewish woman - the witness in the trial and a survivor.  The woman rejects the money and any gesture of atonement. 

As Schlant aptly demonstrates in her analysis of this book, “the exchange between the judge and Hanna moves toward the most pointed question of the book - and then collapses into moral obtuseness and platitudes.” (p. 211)  What is missing in this book, is Michael’s lack of abhorrence at Hanna’s acts and his acceptance of her explanation of duty-driven obedience – a much used excuse of yesteryear.  “Schlinck seems to suggest that Hanna’s criminality and general brutality went hand in hand with her illiteracy, but that once she could read, she became morally alert and wanted to know more  about the Holocaust...  Illiteracy cannot serve as an explanation for cooperating in and committing criminal acts.  If hiding her illiteracy is more important to Hanna then saving lives, and she can enjoy being read to by victims who are marked for death, what kind of a person is she?  But if illiteracy is not the explanation - and excuse - for Hanna’s acts, then what function does it serve in the novel?” (p. 213)  

Schlinck simply does not make a strong case with respect to the Nazi crimes and those who perpetrated them.  I would like to add that the whole idea of an illiterate SS guard is preposterous in itself, and illiteracy as an excuse for perpetrators even more so - after all, Nazi-Germany was a country of almost universal literacy. 

In describing the numbness which seems to take hold of all those involved in the daily proceedings of that trial, Schlinck does not distinguish between the numbness of the prisoners of the death camp, that of the perpetrators and the courtroom participants. He also reveals a prevalent mindset among contemporary Germans.  “What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of Jews?” Schlinck asks the reader (p. 215).  What indeed?  What about an expression of sorrow for the victims of Nazi Germany?

To this day, German Jews are referred to as Jews, hardly ever as German citizens, thereby continuing their marginalization in German consciousness.  Not surprisingly, young Germans are generally unaware that German Jews had been fully integrated and assimilated into German society prior to the Holocaust. 

In my first collection of narrative poetry TALES FROM A CHILD OF THE ENEMY (so far only published in the US) the stories of holocaust victims and survivors whom I met in Brooklyn during the sixties, figure prominently.  I have returned to Germany regularly to share my work with students and others.  Several Germans involved in creating Holocaust teaching curricula, have criticized my inclusion of Holocaust victims in my writing and have told me that I should write about my experience, and Holocaust survivors should write about theirs.

Yes, German gentiles visit Israel; some young Germans pick weeds on kibbutzim during their holidays; others join Action Reconciliation and perform lowly tasks in Jewish nursing homes. But to this day we Germans have failed by and large to incorporate the fates, the sorrow and the suffering of our fellow German-Jewish citizens into our literature.

What then does the seismograph of the unconscious as reflected in German literature of the past 50 years say about The New Germany?

Copyright © 2000, Ursula Duba., All rights reserved.  Reprinted here with the permission of Ursula Duba.

Ursula Duba is the author of TALES FROM A CHILD OF THE ENEMY (penguin 1997) and has lectured widely about the legacy of the Third Reich and the Holocaust at universities and cultural and religious institutions in the U.S., Canada, Germany and Israel.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.