Course: Representing the Holocaust

HC 424H/421H

Professor: Monique R. Balbuena

The magnitude and unique character of the Holocaust raised questions about the human condition and the human nature, about the divine and its relationship to mankind. The Holocaust defies human comprehension and logic, and challenges language’s expressive powers. Indeed, the extension of its horror cannot be fully expressed or transmitted, and yet, it must be.

But how to represent it? How to say the unspeakable? How can art mediate this reality? How can art help in remembering this reality? Can literature, or, more so, poetry, make the past present, rescue it from oblivion? How can we remember what we have not lived? How can we remember other people’s memories through art?

 These are some of the questions that we will ask in this Honors College colloquium on representations of the Holocaust. This course will center on literary responses to the Holocaust, embracing a transnational perspective, and including writers from first, second and third generation. We will cover different genres, but our main focus will be poetry, a genre that has been overlooked in Holocaust literature courses, and yet is referred to time and again in Adorno’s oft repeated claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz is obscene. We will then interrogate the limits of representation, the perils of aestheticization of tragedy and genocide, the powers of mixing craft and emotion, the force of poetic mediation, and the role of poetry in Holocaust remembrance. Among the corpus we will include Primo Levi, Dan Pagis, Paul Celan, Abraham Sutzkever, Nelly Sachs, Irving Feldman, Miklós Radnóti, and Charles Reznikoff. We will bring more latitude to our approach, as we will also include works from Latin America, specifically, Brazil: short-stories by Samuel Rawet and Moacyr Scliar, and poems by Nelson Ascher (the latter, from 2nd generation).

Another aim of this course is to read some Sephardic literary responses to the Holocaust, an overlooked topic in Holocaust courses. Most Holocaust studies focus solely on Jews from Eastern Europe, and the Sephardim (Jews whose origins are in the Iberian Peninsula) are excluded from the major Holocaust narrative, as it is usually perceived that Sephardim were not affected by it. In this course we will review the place the Sephardic experience has in the narrative of the Holocaust and, ultimately, of Jewish history. Some of the texts we will read speak against the marginalization of the Sephardic experience from literary anthologies, and from the public consciousness of Jews and non-Jews alike. We will read texts originally written in Hebrew, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), French, and Greek, from authors spanning from Salonika, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Israel, Bosnia, France, and the US. Those include Bouena Sarfatty-Garfinkle, Moshe HaElion, Henriette Asseo, Clarisse Nicoïdski, Margalit Matitiahu, Avner Perez and Linda Ashear. It will be clear from the corpus chosen that both, as single author’s poetry or as oral poetry created in the camps, poetry has been the genre favored by Sephardic authors to express their experience with the Holocaust. Time permitting, we will cover Israeli popular singer Yehuda Poliker’s album, Dust and Ashes, the first music album devoted to the Holocaust in Israel.

Readings will be in English but students who have the option of reading works in the original language will be encouraged to do so.