Soc (2017) 54:470–476 DOI 10.1007/s12115-017-0175-0
Alfred Kazin and the Holocaust Stephen J. Whitfield 1
Published online: 28 August 2017 # Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017
Abstract The reputation of Alfred Kazin is based primarily on his criticism of American literature. But his intense Jewish consciousness was self-evident, and that identity was haunted by the horror and memory of the Holocaust. It challenged his faith in the power of language to grasp the texture of experience. The Holocaust also shattered his friendship with Elie Wiesel, whose memoir of Auschwitz and Buchenwald led Kazin the question the veracity of the Nobel laureate. Keywords Arendt, Hannah . Bergen-Belsen . Citizens (Simon Schama) . Contemporaries (Alfred Kazin) . BLondon^ (William Blake) . Walker in the City (Alfred Kazin) . Wiesel, Elie . Zygielboim, Shmuel Writing is everything, the eminent and impassioned critic Alfred Kazin believed; and his love of great literature can justly be described as rapturous and exhilarating, as well as exact and penetrating. In exalting the sovereignty and the enchantment of art, this great critic, who was born a little more than a century ago, discerned no substitute for the power of the literary imagination to grasp (and even to define) reality. According to Malcolm Cowley (who can be trusted here, because he was testifying under oath), Kazin’s Bdistinguished^ contributions to the national letters earned him for several decades a Bstanding in the literary community^ that was Bhigh.^ His reputation had long been consolidated by the time that deconstruction proclaimed that nothing exists outside of the text, nor did he live long enough to notice how Btext^
became an active verb. But he knew that writing was everything. Early in 1941, soon after James Joyce died in neutral Switzerland, Kazin wrote a touching eulogy that specified the self-abnegating vocation of the expatriate Irish novelist who personified the hermetic commitment to the craft of writing: BHe never explained his work, he never gave interviews; he never made a public speech in his life. He had no politics, save to remain an Irishman; he won no prizes, belonged to no institute.^ After recounting Joyce’s historic achievement in transforming the art of fiction, Kazin noted that, Bhad the Vichy government not forced him back to Zurich . . . one could very easily picture him writing away with his legendary crayons and brushes to the tread of Nazi boots outside his door in Paris.^1 The critic did not mention that the novelist would thus have been spared the terrifying and indeed lethal vulnerability of others who were subjected to German occupation, especially the Jews. Their fate was not explicitly considered in Kazin’s lapidary tribute. The Holocaust was nevertheless an important ingredient of his sensibility,2 and would shadow him for much of his adult life. Among those whom Irving Howe was the first to dub the New York Intellectuals, Kazin was unusual in expressing his anguish about the destruction of European Jews even as they were being murdered. Such writers and critics were of course powerless. But Howe’s own memoir records the mystifying failure during the Second World War to acknowledge–much less protest–the extermination. Howe was not alone in 1
American Studies Program, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454-9110, USA
Quoted in Charles Rembar, The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill (New York: Random House, 1968), 84, 85; Alfred Kazin, BThe Death of James Joyce^ (1941), in The Inmost Leaf: A Selection of Essays (New York: Noonday Press, 1959), 4, 6. 2 Alfred Kazin, BNew York Jew,^ in Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York, eds. Bernard Rosenberg and Ernest Goldstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 196.
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realizing, retrospectively, that he Bshould have struggled more intensely, more obsessively than I did with the ‘meaning’ of the Holocaust, if only to conclude there was no ‘meaning’ to be found.^ The massive starvation and killing of Jews were assumed to be among several war crimes and atrocities that were associated with the Third Reich; only afterwards was the distinctiveness of the war against the Jews comprehended. Indeed not until 1944 did Raphael Lemkin invent the term Bgenocide.^ In that same year the Contemporary Jewish Record, which American Jewish Committee sponsored (and which was a predecessor to Commentary), asked young New York Intellectuals to specify their connection to their origins and to their culture. Part of Kazin’s reply referred obliquely to Bthese terrible years^ and to the menace that Bfascist cutthroats^ posed.3 But by then those cutthroats had largely achieved their Final Solution. But virtually no other symposiast, in responding to the questions that managing editor Philip Rahv posed, alluded to the Holocaust even as forcefully as Kazin did. Such silence remains puzzling. The first of the New York Intellectuals to have grasped the moral catastrophe that was occurring was not even Jewish: Dwight Macdonald, the editor of the radical antiwar journal Politics. I once asked him how he had come to discern the downside of what would become to be called the Good War, while virtually everyone else in his cohort supported the War without reflecting much on its unprecedented collapse of civilized values. Macdonald accounted for his acuity with a monosyllabic answer: BPoe.^ It was his writings that had guided Macdonald into the cold, telltale heart of modern death. (He later edited a collection of Poe’s work.) And though Henry James famously coined the phrase, Bthe imagination of disaster,^ it is hard to think of any American writer who could have helped Kazin grasp the implications of the Holocaust. He did draw some inspiration from William Blake, however. In London in 1943, Shmuel Zygielboim, the representative of the Jewish Workers Bund in the Polish government in exile, wrote an open letter–a suicide note–before he and his wife killed themselves. The letter had been published in the New York Times, which recorded Zygielboim’s hope that Bby my death I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of my people. I know how little human life is worth today; but as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall contribute to breaking down the indifference of those who may now–at the last moment– rescue the few Polish Jews still alive from certain annihilation.^ That hope was, of course, in vain. Nine out of ten Polish Jews would perish. As literary editor of the New 3
Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 248; Alfred Kazin in BUnder Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews,^ Contemporary Jewish Record, 7 (February 1944), 10.
Republic, Kazin reprinted the final, despairing words of the doomed Shmuel Zygielboim, and also quoted Blake’s poetic defiance of Bthe mind-forg’d manacles,^ those most formidable of limitations.4 Haunted by the 1943 double-suicide, Kazin mentioned it early in the third volume of his memoirs, which records Bthe nightmare that would bring everything else into question, [and] that will haunt me to my last breath. The Nazis had organized the killing of every Jew within their grasp.^ Breaking the silence in the editorial office of the liberal weekly did nothing to spare the life of a single victim. Even before the end of 1942, the New Republic had published–to no avail whatsoever–Varian Fry’s BThe Massacre of the Jews.^ The author, who had gallantly worked for the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseilles, exposed with remarkable accuracy and feeling Bthe most appalling picture of mass murder in all human history.^ It was already too late. The Nazi commitment to genocide easily outmatched any efforts in stopping it. But Kazin could take glum satisfaction in recalling the New Republic article that cited BLondon,^ and he mentioned the praise he got for his B‘courage’ in writing so directly about the ‘Jewish tragedy.’^5 In 2014 the magazine’s editor included BIn Every Voice, in Every Ban^ in an anthology of the most important articles to appear in the New Republic since its founding a century earlier.6 After the death camps, and after the labor camps of the Gulag Archipelago as well, it is nevertheless dubious whether Blake’s manacles matter more than the cruelty of the totalitarian state itself, magnified through the deadly advances of technology (Zyklon-B, machine guns, railroad networks) and the systemic will to torture and to kill. Even if those manacles are held to be paranoiac fanaticism and ideological fictions, they could not impose suffering and death without political tyranny and technical sophistication. Atrocities on an immense scale have admittedly been inflicted with weapons no more advanced than machetes. But the Third Reich brought modern technology to facilitate the task of genocide, yet Kazin failed to reflect on that phenomenon. And however pervasive the destitution of London’s desperate souls in Blake’s era, then Bon the threshold of the industrial revolution,^ theirs was not the state of enslavement and remorseless suffering and capricious slaughter that marked Kazin’s own lifetime. To be sure the lines in Blake’s BLondon^ were not interpreted as specifically connected to the mass murders that the Nazis were then 4
Quoted in Alfred Kazin, New York Jew (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 28–29; Julian Levinson, Exiles on Main Street: Jewish American Writers and American Literary Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 154; Kazin, BAn Introduction to William Blake,^ in Inmost Leaf, 47–51. 5 Alfred Kazin, BIn Every Voice, in Every Ban,^ New Republic, 110 (January 10, 1944), 44–46, New York Jew, 26, 30, and Writing Was Everything (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 103–4; Varian Fry, BThe Massacre of the Jews,^ New Republic, 107 (December 21, 1942), 818. 6 Franklin Foer, ed., Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 139–46.
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perpetrating. But Bmind-forg’d manacles^ could refer, in that context, to the ideology of race-hatred that drove the destruction of European Jewry, the Nazi fury that was ideologically focused on the extermination of the Untermenschen. Or Blake’s lines might also refer to the indifference of the bystanders to the systematic killing. Whether in London itself (where Zygielboim and his wife had committed suicide) or in lands not under German occupation, insensitivity to the fate of the Jews was commonplace. In April 1945, when Kazin happened to be in London, a British military detachment stumbled onto Bergen-Belsen. The army’s newsreels then exposed to humanity the magnitude of torment in a camp that one historian puts Bin a class by itself.^7 Sitting in a London movie theater, the future playwright Alan Bennett has remembered Bthe cries of horror . . . Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.^ Kazin was in that cinema too. He saw not only the rows of corpses but also the newly liberated prisoners, who resembled sticks, Bhanging on a wire, looking at us,^ amid Ban enormous pile of bodies.^ It is chilling to consider that among those cadavers might well have been the remains of Margot Frank, who died at the end of February or the beginning of March, and her younger sister Anne, who perished of typhus soon thereafter. In 1959 Kazin and his wife, Ann Birstein, would co-author a heartbreaking introduction to The Works of Anne Frank. Thanks to the diary of a girl who had never reached her sixteenth birthday, she is remembered among Bthe millions who were gassed, burned, shot, hanged, starved, tortured, [and] buried alive.^ The Works of Anne Frank appeared in the same year as the film adapted from the diary that had been rescued from the BSecret Annexe^ in Amsterdam. Kazin recalled of the newsreel screening, which showed the countless anonymous dead: BIt was unbearable. People coughed in embarrassment, and in embarrassment many laughed.^ Kazin’s memoir of the 1930s includes another recollection of the episode, seeing in the British newsreel in Piccadilly Bthe scarecrow skeletons who had just been liberated at Belsen, I heard the embarrassed audience break up into hysterical laughter.^8 This reaction was not unique, as I can testify. My uncle was still trapped in his native city of Vienna when the Anschluss ended Austrian sovereignty, and one of his friends was immediately sent to a concentration camp. When he returned and shortly thereafter described his experience to my uncle, who was waiting for his exit visa, he recalled (to his own astonishment) that his immediate reaction was to laugh. He attributed it to sheer
disbelief, more like a guffaw, because the friend’s account was so outside even the imaginable range of abnormality. But seven years after the Anschluss, the shock was not easily separable from utter horror. But when Kazin listened to a radio playing in a London street, Ba broadcast of the first Sabbath service from Belsen,^ he experienced the poignancy of intimacy. When the liberated prisoners recited the Sh’ma (BHear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One^), Kazin Bfelt myself carried back to the Friday evenings at home, when with the Sabbath at sundown a healing quietness would come over Brownsville,^ his neighborhood in Brooklyn.9 As an American, he had been spared. But appreciation of his citizenship would not exempt him from a compelling appreciation of the claims of Jewish destiny, so irrevocably wounded in the Final Solution. As a guest professor of American Studies in Cologne in 1952, which was exactly a decade after the Wannsee conference that had sealed the fate of European Jewry, Kazin felt frustrated that no one whom he met seemed to own up to the atrocities of the recent war. He was struck by the assertion of a professor of literature that to discuss the camps was somehow Bvulgar^–when, amid so much destruction and so many violations of civilized values, the aim of the academy was to be disengaged, to be Btending the pure, pure flame of scholarship.^ Such a stance made little sense to Kazin, for whom the life of the mind needed to be invested with passion. He would come to realize as well that Bnothing has as much emotional and spiritual value for me as the Jewish experience,^10 the meaning of which could not be separated from what the Third Reich had so recently perpetrated. Yet as late as 1960, when he toured Israel, Kazin made no mention of visiting Yad Vashem; and the thirteen-page account that is reprinted in Contemporaries refers to the Holocaust only very briefly: BIsrael was re-established, but not until the cruelest and most apocalyptic pagan dreams of revenge had been realized in the gas chambers.^11 But he did not attempt to trace the link between the paranoiac fury of Nazism and the new nation he had visited. He returned the following year, and noted that Bthe official title of Yad Vashem Institute is now Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, the better (by adding ‘Heroes’^) for Israelis and others to appreciate how the Holocaust needed to be connected to the origins of the Jewish State and not merely to repudiate the weakness of the Diaspora.12 A familial connection may well have deepened his own personal feelings. During that visit to Israel, Kazin learned
Robert H. Abzug, Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 80– 86. 8 Quoted in Werner Sollors, The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2014), 329n; Alfred Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965), 11, 166, and New York Jew, 140–41, 258; Ann Birstein and Alfred Kazin, Introduction to The Works of Anne Frank (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1959), 16, 17–18.
Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), 51– 52; Levinson, Exiles on Main Street, 157. 10 Kazin, BGastprofessor für Amerikanistik^ (1952), in Contemporaries (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 312, 314, and BNew York Jew,^ in Creators and Disturbers, 204. 11 Kazin, BAt Ease in Zion^ (1960), in Contemporaries, 348. 12 Kazin, BEichmann and the New Israelis^ (1961), in Contemporaries, 445–46.
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Bof how a deeply religious aunt of mine, my mother’s younger sister, met her death in Poland in 1943. Her sons begged her for days to join them in going toward the Russian lines (where they were saved and joined the partisans; eventually they went to Israel). But my aunt refused to accept the transportation that was available, or even to leave her house. ‘It may not be God’s will,’ she said. ‘I cannot go against God’s will.’ She was shot on her doorstep.^ (It might be deemed a lucky death.) That sort of faith, about which the nephew did not comment in his essay, leads to a consideration of how Kazin related the Jewish fate to religion; and this question is not elided when he reflected on the Holocaust. BEvil unredeemed, unexplained, unpunished, even unbelieved by most of mankind,^ he wrote, became Bthe only Jewish version of Original Sin.^ What happened in the camps was something that Bliberal politics [was unable] to explain^ and that Bthe liberal imagination [failed] to represent.^13 Kazin’s conjecture that religion permits a fuller reckoning than would otherwise be available to moderns may also explain why he used the word Bpagan^ to describe the animus behind mass murder, in writing his report on that first visit to Israel. In giving religion something of a pass, Kazin thus ignored entirely the legacy of Christian antisemitism (and the extent to which clergy and their flock, with heroic and martyred exceptions, were complicit in the Final Solution). And yet a paradox must be noted. The Holocaust did not directly or even implicitly shape Kazin’s literary or critical judgments. His vast oeuvre is not significantly inflected with what he claimed proved to the preoccupation of a lifetime. To be sure, in the Massey Lectures that he delivered at Harvard in 1994, he did acknowledge the capacity of Kafka to foresee, in The Trial, the irrational and nihilistic terror that totalitarianism would inflict. Moreover Kazin testified to his profound admiration for his friend Hannah Arendt (whom Varian Fry had gotten out of Vichy France and into New York). Kazin asserted that his Bdebt^ to Arendt, Bbeyond anything else [,] was that she had named the radical evil behind Nazism.^ Indeed he called the final chapters of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which evokes the camps, Ba stupendous literary idea, like the structure of Dante’s Hell.^ Yet the Holocaust rarely surfaces in the books and essays and reviews that constitute the body of Kazin’s literary criticism. For example, his introduction to The Commentary Reader makes only very brief references to Bexperiences so extreme that, after living them, one can do nothing with them but put them into words. There are experiences so terrible that one can finally do nothing with them but not forget them.^14 But this allusion is not 13
Kazin, BEichmann and the New Israelis,^ in Contemporaries, 444, New York Jew, 34, and Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (New York: Delta, 1973), 85. 14 Kazin, Writing Was Everything, 80–83, 128–29, BHannah Arendt: The Burden of Our Time^ (1982), in Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings, ed. Ted Solotaroff (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 469, and BThe Jew as Modern American Writer,^ in The Commentary Reader, ed. Norman Podhoretz (New York: Atheneum, 1966), xix, xxii, xxiii.
developed, and he turned immediately to a consideration of American Jewish writers who started out in the Thirties. For example, no equivalent can be found in his work to Simon Schama’s history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989). That volume highlights so compellingly the sheer bloodthirsty vengefulness and slaughter-driven resentment of the mob (and the blowback from the right in the Vendée) that it is hard not to see how the author’s awareness of the Holocaust has intervened to neutralize sympathy for the sans-culottes. Left and right, progressive and reactionary all seem swept up in mad orgies of unrestrained destructiveness. Knowledge of the Holocaust must have shaped the emphasis in Schama’s account of the French Revolution, but does not have the same impact anywhere in the literary criticism that Kazin published. In his overview of postwar American fiction, Bright Book of Life (1973), a chapter is devoted to Jewish prose, as exemplified in the work of five key figures: Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Mailer and Singer. Though the protagonists of two novels are Holocaust survivors (Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Enemies: A Love Story), Kazin offered no larger generalization about the literary emergence of such figures, though he did also mention Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker. Admittedly Roth’s The Ghost Writer had not yet appeared, and it was indeed much too early for Stanley Kubrick to invite Singer to write a screenplay addressing the Holocaust. (The Nobel laureate modestly declined the director’s overture. Singer disclaimed sufficient knowledge of what he had not personally experienced.)15 A scholarly analysis like Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999) correctly makes only passing reference to Kazin. His reticence in print, when contrasted with what he claimed was his private absorption in the Holocaust, cannot be attributed to any anxieties about his own Jewish identity, which was forthrightly secular and even a bit feisty. He bristled at what he perceived to be devaluations of the Jewish experience, and resented even indifference to it. Starting Out in the Thirties records his disappointment that a colleague at the New Republic, Otis Ferguson, a onetime Friday dinner guest in the apartment of Kazin’s parents in 1935, could not bring himself to be fascinated with the Bexotic^ folkways of the Old World, transplanted to Brooklyn. Somehow not even the Bvaguely Levantine^ cuisine helped stimulate Ferguson’s ethnographic imagination.16 Much later, on the beach at Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Allen Tate acknowledged his lack of curiosity about, for instance, The Assistant (which may well rank as Malamud’s best novel). BBooks about Jews,^ Tate announced, did not especially interest him. Kazin then asked Tate whether such a policy prevented him from reading the New Testament.17 Touché. 15
A. J. Goldman, BKubrick’s Unrealized Vision,^ Forward, August 5, 2005. Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties, 32–34, 45–47. 17 Quoted in David Remnick, BIn the Capital of Words,^ New Yorker, 74 (July 22 & 29, 1998), 141. 16
Kazin was nevertheless ambivalent about American Jewish culture. Of its shallowness, he had little doubt. Showing up at mid-century at a Broadway musical that was set during the Second World War, Kazin could not help remarking on the apolitical feat that South Pacific managed, as Mary Martin sings: BI’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love.^ In 1949 the victory at sea was barely over, and the gas chambers had only recently been shut down. Yet the Broadway Baudience knows that with no other people could war be such an occasion for the discovery of human sweetness, of love, of the most radiant happiness,^ he complained.18 In disparaging the dynamism of American Jewish culture, which he associated Bnot only with writers but with Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and the Hollywood musical,^ Kazin can now be faulted for ignoring what came to be recognized as the great American songbook, as well as what became the first American opera to make it all the way to La Scala, Porgy and Bess. He took no measure of Awake and Sing!, or Miss Lonelyhearts, or Casablanca, nor the Yiddish poetry of Jacob Glatstein. By 1966, however, Kazin had formed a more favorable attitude toward popular culture, and he praised the comedians and singers who had carved a path for the acceptance of writers.19 Admittedly the Marx Brothers and Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson were therefore not quite valued for their own achievements, but primarily as precursors of representatives of the high culture, in which Kazin felt at home. (The implication is irresistible: Before there could be a Richard Tucker, there had to be a Sophie Tucker. Before there could be a pianist like Leon Fleischer, there had to be cartoonists like Max and Dave Fleischer.) Nor did the intensity of Kazin’s consciousness of Jewishness necessarily spill over into the promotion of Jewish-American literature, which he treated with the same critical acumen that he lavished on, say, Southern writers. No one in 1942 would have suspected, for instance, that the two greatest novelists of Jewish origin of the previous decade would prove to be Henry Roth and Nathanael West. Neither is mentioned, however, in Kazin’s chapter on the Thirties in On Native Grounds. It is as though the fierceness of his Jewish sensibility could be–or had to be–separated from his abiding love of American literature. The last book he published, God and the American Writer (1997), includes no Jewish authors.20 Kazin’s career was not marked by much overt advocacy of the salience of Jewishness. He did not, like Rahv (né Ivan Greenberg, who chose as a surname the Hebrew word for Bteacher^), bequeath a portion of his estate to the state of Israel. Nor did Kazin ever write a volume like Irving 18 Alfred Kazin, BWe Who Sit in Darkness: The Broadway Audience at the Play,^ in Inmost Leaf, 135. 19 Quoted in Levinson, Exiles on Main Street, 153; Kazin in BUnder Forty,^ Contemporary Jewish Record, 10, and BJew as Modern American Writer,^ in The Commentary Reader, xvi-xvii. 20 Alan M. Wald, BIn Retrospect: On Native Grounds,^ Reviews in American History, 20 (June 1992), 282; Levinson, Exiles on Main Street, 152, 164, 167.
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Howe’s World of Our Fathers (1976), a pinnacle of American Jewish historiography (though its author lacked any formal training as a historian). Howe also helped rescue and translate works of Yiddish literature into English. Kazin did not do so, though he did provide the introduction to the 1956 Modern Library edition of the tales of Sholom Aleichem. Kazin did intend to write a book about Jewish culture, left unfinished at his death. But his critical essays and reviews on Jewish subjects, though considerable, were never numerous enough to be collected into a separate volume. By contrast Leslie Fiedler produced enough material for two collections (To the Gentiles, Fiedler on the Raft). Unlike Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer (both in Commentary), and unlike even Lionel Trilling (Menorah Journal), Kazin never helped edit a Jewish magazine. Although literary scholars like Eugene Goodheart and Julian Levinson have argued to the contrary,21 Kazin cannot be obviously categorized as a devotee of American Jewish writing, though he certainly wrote favorably of its major figures. The career of one writer is, however, crucial to any estimate of the effect of the Holocaust on Alfred Kazin. Reviewing Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960), Kazin observed that, Bof all the crimes by the Nazis, surely the most unforgivable is the interment and murder of so many children^–estimated at about a million. Writing in the Reporter, a liberal biweekly, Kazin expressed the deepest respect for Night and acknowledged its historical value, its moral weight and its literary power. BThere are details in his book which can be read only with fresh astonishment at the unflagging cruelty of the Nazis and the peculiar sadistic frivolity of those who directed this vast system of human extermination,^ Kazin wrote. He cited Bone particular scene which has already made this book famous in Europe. A young boy, after days of being tortured in an attempt to make him reveal where a Dutch prisoner had hidden arms, was put on the gallows to be hanged. His body was too light and so he kept strangling in front of the thousands of prisoners who had been summoned to watch the execution and who were marched past the gallows. As they went by, Wiesel heard a man asking, ‘Where is God now?’ And he heard himself thinking: BHere He is–He is hanging here on this gallows . . .^22 The rest of Kazin’s three-page review in the Reporter is devoted to a consideration of the absence of any signs of divine benevolence or mercy, and the question of how belief is possible after Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Most of that 21 Alan Lelchuk, BPhilip Rahv: The Last Years,^ in Images and Ideas in American Culture: Essays in Memory of Philip Rahv, ed. Arthur Edelstein (Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England, 1979), 218–19; Eugene Goodheart, BThe Jewish Writer in America,^ Sewanee Review, 116 (January– March, 2008), 103; Levinson, Exiles on Main Street, 147, 149, 166. 22 Alfred Kazin, BThe Least of These^ (1960), in Contemporaries, 296, 297, and BMy Debt to Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi,^ in Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal, ed. David Rosenberg (New York: Times Books, 1989), 115, 117, 119–20; Elie Wiesel, Night, tr. Stella Rodway (New York: Hill & Wang, 1960), 70–71.
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section of the review addresses what readers of Night may well have forgotten–François Mauriac’s foreword. The French novelist inferred from such experiences as Wiesel’s that the Enlightenment dream of reason and progress had been invalidated. The whole secular path that had begun with the promise of positivism to stigmatize superstition had proven to be chimerical. Yet Kazin declared that Mauriac downplayed the significance of Wiesel’s loss of faith in God. What is striking is the attention that Kazin’s review gives to the religious question, to the dilemma that the episode seems to pose to any faith in a benevolent deity, or even in a deity that might exist. The point of piety is of course an incontrovertible feature of Night. And the account of the scaffold is unforgettable. But other episodes are piercing too. From the dying in Buchenwald of a father who could not protect the author, to the forced march from Auschwitz punctuated with the playing of the violin–these scenes also remain indelible. The secular reviewer ignored them in favor of the religious challenge that the book confronts, and that he refused with a certain toughmindedness to dodge. Wiesel, then 32 years old, much appreciated the review. Its admiration for Night Bhelped me get noticed,^23 he later wrote, and may have contributed to the launching of a career that included the honor of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. They became friends, partly due to the support Kazin gave to the group of survivors of Bergen-Belsen that Yossel Rosensaft founded. At one such gathering, Wiesel spoke in a manner that Kazin later portrayed as histrionic: BEverything Wiesel said was pitched high, stabbed you and was meant to stab you with the impossibility of finding words for Jewish martyrdom.^ Kazin called it Ba survivor’s soliloquy, a litany, a hymn, a Kaddish. . . . as he teetered on the edge of incommunicable profundities.^ Yet Kazin was hardly dismissive of Wiesel’s performative effect, and acknowledged that Bthe Jews could not state their case without seeming to overstate it.^ No wonder the, he added, that Bthe world was getting tired of our complaint.^24 Such a grievance Kazin himself had registered in recalling that conversation in Cologne. But somehow the friendship was shattered, and Kazin came to resent what he considered Wiesel’s Bshameless personal aggrandizement in the name of dead Jews.^ He Bhas incorporated the Holocaust into himself.^ Wiesel Bdramatizes in public to the point where whatever was private and somehow terrifying for all sorts of reasons (the death of his father) has become just . . . public words.^25 Wiesel responded in kind, however, calling Kazin Bamong the few people whose 23 Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs, I: 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1997 ), 335. 24 Kazin, New York Jew, 284–85, and BMy Debt,^ in Testimony, 121; Richard M. Cook, Alfred Kazin: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 230–31. 25 Richard M. Cook, ed., Alfred Kazin’s Journals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 519–21.
paths I regret ever having crossed.^ Inclusion on that short list is startling; Wiesel had after all managed to circumvent the lethal aspirations of the S. S. (He also made that statement of regret before becoming a victim of the Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff.) If, from Kazin’s perspective, the cause of the rupture was his objection to the transformation of the survivor into something of a Bprofessional survivor,^ a too-conspicuous personification of the suffering of the Shoah, the literary critic did not suggest what the alternative should have been. Was Wiesel supposed to mourn only in private? Was he expected to shirk any responsibility to combat the dangers of amnesia and indifference? Should he have ignored acts of desecration? In print Kazin did not propose or even consider such options, nor is it obvious that someone who did not experience the camps is eligible to advise a victim to move on. But Kazin also expressed skepticism about the hanging to which he had called attention in the Reporter. He wrote, according to Wiesel, that Bhe would not be surprised to find that the episode in Night describing three inmates who were hanged together had been invented.^ Kazin actually wrote–without a shred of evidence–that the more he discovered about Wiesel and about Auschwitz, Bthe less surprised I would have been to learn that the episode of the boy struggling on the rope had never happened.^ Such doubt made the survivor understandably indignant. BHow dare he?,^ Wiesel asked. BThere were thousands of witnesses, some of them still alive, among them Yaakov Hendeli, who now lives in Jerusalem, and Freddy Diamond of Los Angeles, whose brother Leo Yehuda was the youngest of the three victims. (The two others were Nathan Weisman and Yanek Grossfeld.) Of all the vile things this bitter man who has aged so badly has written in his life, this is the most intolerable.^ Wiesel concluded: BThe witness has nothing but his memory. If that is impugned, what does he have left?^26 How this broken friendship might be understood, and how the question of the facticity of the episode might be adjudicated, are problems that probably cannot be resolved with any finality. They are nevertheless subtly and perceptively addressed in Gary Weissman’s Fantasies of Witnessing (2004). Of course memory is tricky. Here is another instance, which is much too recent for Weissman to have cited. Wiesel covered the Eichmann trial for the Jewish Daily Forward, and contributed reportage to Commentary as well. A political theorist doubling as the correspondent for the New Yorker was famously there too, observing the man in the glass booth. In one account Wiesel claimed that he did not meet Hannah Arendt until Blater, at her home [in New York], where we discussed her theories of ‘the banality of evil.’^ He posed a simple question to her: BI was there, and I don’t know. How can you possibly know when you were elsewhere?^ She is supposed to have replied: BYou’re a novelist; you can cling to questions. I deal with human and political sciences. I 26 Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, 335, 336; Kazin, BMy Debt,^ in Testimony, 121, 123.
have no right not to find answers.^ In a recent interview in a French magazine, however, Wiesel recalled the exchange as having occurred in Jerusalem, during the course of the trial in 1961, and that he learned then of Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil. (Such a claim is implausible.) The interview has her calling him Ba poet,^ which Wiesel was not, and has Arendt identifying herself as a Bsociologist,^ which she was not.27 (Trained in philosophy, she usually managed to restrain her enthusiasm for the methods and findings of the social sciences.) Inexactness and inconsistency certainly belong to efforts at remembrance, and may justify the questions that can be raised about the details in Night. That book of course became canonical, and inaugurated the friendship that made the Holocaust immediate and ineluctable–and certainly for readers besides Kazin. Questions can even be raised about what kind of book Night is. When its author was 39 years old and not quite yet a figure of international renown, the literary scholar Lothar Kahn observed that BWiesel has been considered the chief novelist of the holocaust. But it was only in Night that he disclosed the horrors of Auschwitz as he had personally experienced them. In other [sic] novels, the hero, a former inmate, is mercilessly pursued by past memories. . . . Wiesel’s novels of horror are more searching and penetrating than other writings on the subject.^ Other scholars have also classified Night as a work of fiction, or at least partly a work of fiction.28 Whatever the fabricated ingredients in that book, it is virtually certain that the slow strangulation on the scaffold is not one of them. Nor was Kazin himself invulnerable to accusations of inaccuracy in his own autobiographical work. A Walker in the City misleads readers by omitting the existence of the author’s sister Pearl, who shared their home in Brownsville. Moreover, when several of Trilling’s friends publicly criticized the rather acidulous depiction in New York Jew of the Columbia University mandarin, Kazin offered an odd defense of the portrayal. He called it a literary construction, presenting Trilling as Ba character in my imagination.^29 If there is an explanation for a certain disconnect between the impact of the Holocaust upon his sensibility and the rather
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infrequent confrontation that he reflected upon in print, a clue may be found in the 1979 foreword that he provided for Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s By Words Alone. That volume constitutes an ambitious and thoughtful study, across three continents, of polyglot Jewish writing, and stirred Kazin’s insistence that his consciousness, since 1933, Bhas been dominated, in more ways than I can count or measure, by the horrors that did not come to an end in 1945.^ He wrote that a third of a century later, and may have had in mind the mass murders and other atrocities inflicted upon other peoples. Perhaps he referred to the lethal expressions of anti-Zionism. He did not elaborate. What Kazin concluded is that the Holocaust could not be captured in words. It was ineffable. The event constituted singular evidence that Bto be a Jew is to know that words strive after the reality but can never adequately capture the human situation.^ He added that Bthe letter strives after the spirit, but will never be equal to it. Life is always more than the sum of our words.^ So was mass death. Writers may well have come closer than anyone else to an understanding of the abyss beneath them. But even they were denied the time and the power to express the inexpressible, to extract meaning from catastrophe. To approach it in retrospect is to risk an Ball-consuming^ encounter, and Kazin (here perhaps unconsciously echoing Wiesel) conceded that the imagination could not be commensurate with what had happened. The fanatical antisemitism of Nazism was inexplicable, and hence beyond the reach of the literature that Alfred Kazin loved to read and to explicate.30 He had sensed, without pursuing the full implications, that writing was not everything.
Stephen J. Whitfield is Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. Many thanks to William Flesch, Richard H. King, Laura Quinney and Joel Rosenberg for their incisive comments on an early draft of this essay.
Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, 347–48, and BElie Wiesel: Les nouvelles menaces,^ L’Arche, n. 646 (January 2014), 36–37. 28 Lothar Kahn, Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968), 176; Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 71–87. 29 Gary Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004), 64–69; Kazin, New York Jew, 42–47; Cook, Alfred Kazin, 319; Neil Jumonville, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 119–20.
Alfred Kazin, Foreword to Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), x-xii, and BNew York Jew,^ in Creators and Disturbers, 208.