Lawrence Langer (1929–2024) was the foremost scholar of the Holocaust in the field of literature and testimony. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (1975), his first work on the Holocaust, was followed by The Age of Atrocity: Death in Modern Literature (1978); Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (1982); Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (1991); Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (1995); and Preempting the Holocaust. He is also editor of Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (1995). Langer’s contributions to the field are many, dare one say unequalled.
In Versions of Survival, he coined the term “choiceless choices” to describe the unprecedented situations of conflict that Jews found themselves in during the Holocaust. Understanding that term is essential to understanding not only the Holocaust but our own capacity to approach the situation of its victims with the conceptual tools that we have.
“After we peel the veneer of respectable behavior, cooperation, hope, mutual support, and inner determination from the surface of the survivor ordeal, we find beneath a raw and quivering anatomy of human existence resembling no society ever encountered before.” The situation of the victim can best be described as one of “choiceless choices where crucial decisions did not reflect the options between life and death but between one form of abnormal response and another, both imposed by a situation that was in no way of the victims’ own choosing.”
Holocaust Testimonies, based on his study of survivors’ oral histories in the Fortunoff Video Archives, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the “Ten Best Books of 1991” by the New York Times Book Review. It was one of the first scholarly works to examine survivors’ testimonies as a basis for understanding the Holocaust.
I knew Langer for almost half a century and enjoyed his friendship and the truths that he taught me, even the painful truths that he told me. He was an early critic of the work of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Archive and a demanding critic even when I assumed its presidency. Our work was much improved because of that criticism. He was equally critical – constructively so – of elements of museums and deeply involved in education, working for decades with Facing History and Ourselves
His understanding of Holocaust testimonies was another exploration of the narrative of survival. Unlike literary memoirs or diaries, the testimonies are the products of ordinary people, often without great literary or intellectual sophistication, who have lived through extraordinary events. Video testimonies are spontaneous and unrehearsed, they do not have the worked-through quality of literary creations. Often, the witnesses surprise themselves by what is recalled. Langer may have heard more of these oral histories than anyone alive, and he brought to this study decades of sensitivity toward the event and the literature. Yet, throughout the work, he retains a keen ability to hear and resists the temptation to organize and categorize the material. Instead, the reader is treated to an extended essay on memory, deep memory, anguished memory, humiliated memory, tainted memory, unheroic memory (as the titles of his chapters go). Like a great psychoanalyst, Langer strips away layer after layer of falsehood until the reader is forced to face the core experience – directly, faithfully, faithlessly.
He initially, especially in his widely respected work The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, was preoccupied with literature, but gradually and perceptively his focus shifted. He became consumed by the task of understanding the Holocaust. Literature became his tool; in the hands of a master, the tool soon became a club for undermining some of the simple conventions of Western society. More and more, Langer’s work concentrated on memoirs and memory, telling of the assault against the individual that was at the core of the Shoah. More than any other student of literature, Langer insisted that the Holocaust was about atrocity. No simple meanings could be found, no reassuring sense of triumphant values, no invocation of Viktor Frankl’s “will to meaning” or Terrence Des Pres’ “life spirit.” For Langer, there was no escape from darkness, no way to sidestep the radical challenge posed by the Holocaust.
Many historians were reluctant to consider Holocaust literature as a source of knowledge about the Holocaust, even more reluctant to acknowledge the contributions of testimony. He would complain: “I read history to understand the Holocaust, why can’t they read literature.” It is clear that after Langer’s work, historians more easily turn to literature and more readily use testimony.
Langer, who did not publish his first book until he was 46 years old and who retired from teaching when he reached 63, greatest productivity was after he “retired to” think and write. His multi-book, illustrated commentary on Holocaust child survivor Samuel Bak’s art are not only compelling lessons in art history but an extended essay on the philosophical understanding of the Holocaust. A recent film by Joshua M. Greene, Lawrence L. Langer, A Life in Testimony – Langer on Langer – shows the depth of his evolving, ongoing, consistent and persistent understanding of the Holocaust.
He continued to be prolific well into his late 80s and even into his 90s. When a scholar in his 11th decade writes a book of significance, attention must be paid.
His last published book: The Afterdeath of the Holocaust is an intense, no holds barred collection of essays on how he has understood the Holocaust throughout his lifetime, well worth reading on its own, even more worthwhile when understood in the context of his entire oeuvre.
Langer was unrelenting in forcing himself and his readers to face the most profound implications of the Holocaust. One only need read the preface, searingly painful as it is, to realize what Langer has said and will say.
When a human being is starving to death, the strength of the spirit as a source of consolation dwindles into insignificance…The notion that spiritual dignity can survive even the most appalling physical assaults on the body restores a vestige of meaning and agency to the horror we call the Holocaust. It builds a protective wall against the opposite option: the German cruelty destroyed both body and spirit of their victims leaving behind a bleak intellectual terrain devoid of any meaning at all.
That for Langer, the Holocaust is meaningless does not diminish its importance but intensifies it. In tragedy there is a balance, however uneven, between what is learned and the price that is paid for such knowledge. In atrocity, there can be no balance, the price is too great. And the Holocaust was an atrocity not a tragedy. Langer insists: “We need to learn how to think about atrocity before we learn how to feel about it.”
Langer was not only willing to face the abyss but insisted that only by facing the abyss can one be truthful to the experience. He was helped to face the abyss intellectually, by what he described as a happy life, a long and loving marriage to Sandy who cared for him and for whom he cared so deeply, a supportive and giving family, children, grandchildren and most recently even a great grandchild.
He was honest about the deepest anguish of the Holocaust. He was honest about this own pending death as we discussed each time we met in his final months.
A towering scholar, he was an equally wonderful man. The field of Holocaust studies in diminished by his loss. So too, this author, for whom he was a friend, considerate but also demanding, above all a conscience.
A version of this article has also appeared in The Forward.