Yael Shahar

Holocaust and literature: A writer’s dilemma

While literature may not have a one-to-one correspondence with facts, it can have a one-to-one correspondence with truth
Original artwork by Yael Shahar

What is the role of fiction in Holocaust education? Or should it have a role at all?

Film critic John Podhoretz has written that he refuses to watch Holocaust films at all, because films necessarily soften and trivialize — where they don’t outright obfuscate — the reality:

You are watching a story. And the act of converting the Shoah into a story is itself a violation of its meaning, its force, and its evil. The imposition of a plot makes the inexplicably and unimaginably awful falsely explicable and, since it is at the same time literally being made imaginable, not quite so awful.

However, Podhoretz continues, the situation is slightly different with regard to novels and paintings depicting the Holocaust:

The same difficulties afflict novels and poetry and painting about the Holocaust, but the difficulties are mitigated by the fact that such works spring from a single person’s perspective and seek to engage the reader or the viewer in an act of imaginative recreation in which he must participate—for no matter how much description there is, or no matter how vivid the imagery on the page, it is not much different from the necessary experience of reading a work of non-fiction or a memoir about the subject.

It’s true that writing about the Holocaust is likely to engender much stronger feelings, simply because the imagery comes from the inner world of the reader, reacting to the words on the page. And yet, the possibility of introducing meaning where no meaning actually exists — of making the Holocaust “falsely explicable” is no less present in novelizations. So great is this danger that Elie Wiesel once wrote: “A novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka. A novel about Majdanek is about blasphemy. Is blasphemy.”[1]

On the other side of the issue, author Daphne Kalotay in a thoughtful New York Times opinion piece notes the role of second- and third-generation storytellers in helping to preserve what must be remembered after all those who experienced the reality are gone.

When schools and libraries ban works such as ‘Maus,’ the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by the second-generation author Art Spiegelman, they acknowledge literature’s powerful role in the creation of social memory, whether offered by witnesses or provided secondhand by those who received that testimony.

Aharon Appelfeld, himself a survivor, held a similar view of the role of art in conveying lived experience:

The historical, by its nature, tends to accent the unfolding of events while indicating social and political trends. Art, on the other hand, has always sought out the individual, his inner [world], and from that, it tries to understand the [outside] world. Art, perhaps only art, is the last defense against the banal, the commonplace and the irrelevant, and, to take it even further, the last defense against simplicity.”[2]

It is important to note that both sides of the debate are coming from essentially the same place: the understanding that to be true to the events, art about the Holocaust must come from a place of  personal memory and personal connection. Kalotay notes the role of this personalization in her own writings:

The paradox of Holocaust storytelling is that as powerful as the familiar images may be — the heaped shoes, the indistinguishable starved bodies — these collective symbols dehumanize. And as we move farther and farther from the event, these images are ever more divorced from the people who wore those shoes and lived in those bodies. A single person’s or family’s story rehumanizes and reinvigorates generalized history. That is why our collective recollection and understanding of historical events relies on storytelling, past, present and future, and why the next generations of writers haunted by the Holocaust now shoulder this responsibility.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the events of the Shoah have been imprinted in our souls — kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh in a very literal and visceral sense. This inheritance hits each of us in different ways, just as it hits different survivors in different ways. Some are compelled to bear witness. Others feel that no words can convey it, and that silence is the only truthful answer.

To write or not to write

This tension is not theoretical to me. My book, Returning, grew out of a lifetime of living with such “second-hand” Shoah memory. The problem, in my case, was how to make sense of a personal connection that should not, in the natural course of things, have been there at all. That oddity added yet another layer of subjectivity. And in my case, a layer of surrealism as well.

And, as is the case with many other Holocaust-centered works, it also gave rise to the question of whether the book should be classified as memoir or fiction. It’s as factual as one person’s fragmented and haunted memory can be. And yet that’s exactly the problem — the memory was fragmented and haunted. In telling the story, I used written journal bits and samplings of correspondence, but the process of choosing which bits to use and which to leave out necessarily introduced an element of “fictionalization.”

I vacillated between the desire to pour it all out in words and have done with it, and despair at being able to convey anything at all.

What is truth?

When it comes to the inner landscape, the usual measures of falsity or truth break down. Is a dream “true”? Is an emotion “true”? How much of our memories — even of our mundane lives — can we say are true? Sure, we can verify that others experienced the same thing we did. But each person will remember it differently. And the effect on each person will be different.

So it is with writing about any events of the past, even our own (perhaps especially our own). We must always be aware of the subjectivity of our memory. Our past is not built of our experiences; it is built of our memories of our experiences.

In the end, art begins with an acknowledgement that truth can be found in many places — and not all of those places are real places. And this is true of memoir no less than of fiction. Bettine Siertsema, a professor of Holocaust literature, notes that despite Elie Weisel’s noted antipathy toward Holocaust fiction, he was not averse to using literary and stylistic methodology in his own works. Even his acclaimed book Night is not easily categorized as wholly autobiographical. Siertsema writes: “Great literature resembles life itself: there are times when we can believe and fail to believe at the same time. It does not really matter if we read Night as a memoir or as fiction, but we should always read it as literature.[3]

And this is perhaps the best way out of the dilemma: the realization that what is needed is a distinction not between Holocaust fiction and Holocaust memoir, but rather, between Holocaust fiction and Holocaust literature. Of course, figuring out where to draw the line will be a subject of some debate. Perhaps a start at such a distinction might be this: fiction creates a story that never was; literature retells a story in such a way as to enhance its reality. While literature may not have a one-to-one correspondence with facts, it can have a one-to-one correspondence with truth — with the subjective truth as it was lived.

Storytelling as teaching

Nor should we forget that great storytelling is not only about preserving memory but also about altering the future. It is not only a means of telling what has been, but also an attempt to build what should be. And so even the most minutely exacting account of events is the outcome of a choice of what to tell and how to tell it. And that choice is driven by the question: why tell at all?

Film, literature, and art all allow us to learn crucial lessons in ways that we cannot learn by merely digesting facts.

One could make a case that The Diary of Anne Frank has done more to cement the lessons of the Holocaust in the minds of real people than any number of documentaries and studies. Art, literature, and film play the same role for civilizations as dreams do for individuals; they allow us to integrate our experiences and learn from them. They allow us not just to remember what happened, but to be changed by it.

One of the crucial lessons of the Holocaust is that both victims and perpetrators were ordinary people — people like ourselves. Film and literature help to bring this lesson home by engaging our empathy.

In Returning, former Sonderkommado Ovadya ben Malka, haunted by what he was forced to do to survive, turns to a rabbi for judgment. One piece of advice the rabbi gives Ovadya is germane to the role of art in conveying memory: “One cannot keep alive the memory of thousands,” the rabbi says. “It just is not possible. Instead, call to mind individuals. Not their deaths, but their lives.” In learning to see the victims as individuals — people like himself — Ovadya was led to acknowledge his own humanity as well.

Fictionalized accounts arise out of our generation’s need to see the experiences that formed us in a way that holds a mirror up before us. Our challenge is to decide what to do with the reality that is reflected back to us.


[1] Elie Wiesel, The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration, p. 7.

[1] Aharon Appelfeld, Speech on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, 1997, Yad Vashem

[1] Bettine Siertsema “The Tension between Fact and Fiction in Holocaust Literature”, In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society. . Online Publication Date: 07 Jul 2022

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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