Memory, as we should all know but may have forgotten, plays tricks. It is at once fickle and partisan. Whatever brain matter contributes to the remarkable phenomenon referred to as memory does not always perform well or deteriorates over time or is vulnerable to limitations that make our recollections incomplete or unreliable. Added to the physiological defects are distortions arising from a personal stake or circumstances, including emotions, that color what we claim to have witnessed or heard. Although people do fabricate, the main problem with memory is unreliability, not untruthfulness. Witnesses to the same event who swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth often disagree in the accounts they give. Psychological testing demonstrates how immediately after an occurrence there is considerable variance and distortion in what is reported. The point was brilliantly made in “Rashomon,” a 1950 masterpiece of the Japanese cinema.
When events occur in a setting of great physical or emotional stress, the likelihood is for diminished reliability when those who were under stress report what they believe happened. We should not expect persons who are being tortured or suffering a severe personal loss or are engaged in an angry argument to remember with precision all that transpired. Under such conditions, there is scant opportunity to commit the experience immediately to writing.
Awesome in scope and awesome in evil, the Holocaust raises difficult questions when survivors engage in autobiography. There is at once the obligation to bear witness and to remember and the obligation to be truthful. Is it possible to be faithful to each of these responsibilities? In the early years after the Holocaust, we were in the main Jews of silence and this was true, as well, of survivors. We were too close to the pain and the loss and also busy with other matters. We weren’t building Holocaust memorials and the Holocaust literature was sparse.
As time passed, we awoke to what had befallen our people and what followed this awakening is a continuing escalation in Holocaust books, movies, exhibits, memorials and much more, so that nearly two-thirds of a century after Auschwitz claimed its final victims and the ranks of survivors have greatly thinned, Holocaust memory and commemoration are more alive than ever before. If only because of the passage of so much time, this adds to the question of reliability.
This issue arose, in fact, with the publication of perhaps the greatest of all Holocaust remembrances, Eli Weisel’s “Night.” There is controversy over different editions and whether the book should be considered an eye-witness report or “an autobiographical novel” or some variation on this theme. The ground was covered several years ago in a notable New Republic essay by Ruth Franklin.
Eli Weisel knows that some of his stories did not happen, yet they remain truthful because they are surrogates for horrific events that did happen. This literary device is appropriate and probably inevitable because in Auschwitz all was night, all was pain and loss. There are antecedents in our liturgy for this approach to tragedy, as for example in the Lamentations read on Tisha b’Av. One of these is “Eleh Ezkerah,” which is also recited on Yom Kippur in a different version. It tells of the barbaric murder by the Romans of ten transcendent talmudic sages. The language is gripping as we read of their being cruelly killed one after another, something that could not have happened as they lived generations apart. The intent is to create a mood, to describe in language that we can understand tragic events that were beyond comprehension. So, too, the Holocaust.
This necessity to employ in Holocaust memoirs events that did not happen as surrogates for those that did does not justify total fabrications. For sure, there have been some. One example is Herman Rosenblat’s Buchenwald invention of the love story about a young girl, later his wife, who passed apples to him across the concentration camp’s fence. The tale has achieved much attention and the Oprah treatment, with a memoir slated to be published when it was revealed to be a fiction and Rosenblat owned up to the truth.
This was bad enough. As we know from our ethical teachings, a sin begets other sins and so worse than Rosenblat’s original sin are the cascades of anger directed at him. One writer in this newspaper said that Rosenblat is worse than a Holocaust denier. Other critics have not been much kinder. It does not require either the acceptance of falsehoods or a bleeding heart to plead for understanding. The man was in Buchenwald, he suffered and he is a survivor. I believe that Holocaust survivors who were in the death camps deserve some slack, not to fabricate but to be immune from piling on when they do.
Again, memory is fickle and plays games and there is a tendency toward embellishment and distortion, especially when what is being recollected attracts an audience. Rosenblat is an extreme example of a tendency inherent in human experiences. The more Holocaust survivors have an audience, the more likely it is that they will add to and change what they experienced and along the way some will come to believe that the stories they now tell in fact happened. I know well a man with the Auschwitz numbers engraved on his arm who over the years has substantially altered and embellished what he experienced in Hell.
The worst fallout from the Rosenblat affair is the license it gives to those who mock Holocaust remembrance. A sickening example is in The New Yorker (January 19), in the “Shouts & Murmurs” space that once was reserved for first-rate humorists and increasingly has been occupied by mediocrities. One of these is Ben Greenman, a sub-sophmoric writer who attempts to parody Rosenblat’s tale. There isn’t a funny line in the piece. It is, rather, an example of moral pornography. Where are the protests?