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"'Jewish people don't own the Holocaust."
June 23, 2010 7:05 AM   Subscribe

"'Jewish people don't own the Holocaust."...at least according to Yann Martel. via the Guardian. "The inescapable fact about the book, Martel's long-awaited follow-up to Life of Pi, is that it has not been very well received. In the US the reviews were what one politely calls "mixed"; in the UK they have been uniformly hostile. The general view is that pretty well all fictional treatments of the Holocaust are doomed, and that this one – about a blocked writer who meets a taxidermist writing a play about "the horrors" who is probably a former Nazi seeking some sort of catharsis – is more doomed than most."
posted by Fizz (138 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I hope this post doesn't go the way of the shitstorm. It's an interesting perspective he is exploring, and I also find that the Holocaust is simply a shared human tragedy and not explicitly one group's own narrative. However, it will probably take another generation or two before this can be discussed in mainstream discourse without it turning into insults and accusations. It's difficult to talk sensibly about such senseless cruelty.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:11 AM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh weird Yann Martel wrote a shitty book
posted by Greg Nog at 7:11 AM on June 23, 2010 [30 favorites]


Speaking as a Jew (however irreligious I may be) I have never thought that Jews in some sense own the Holocaust. But it is a difficult topic. The Holocaust teaches us a terrible lesson, that there is no limit to the evil of which human beings are capable. That is not something that we would like to think about our species. But the conclusion is inescapable. If anyone of whatever ethnicity can write insightfully on this topic, they are welcome to do so as far as I am concerned. Mazel tov.
posted by grizzled at 7:16 AM on June 23, 2010 [18 favorites]


Oy vey! You can't own everything.
posted by gman at 7:18 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I could swear that Martel's comment about there being four kinds of reviews originally comes from someone else (Donald Barthelme?). But my Google-fu is weak here.
posted by Prospero at 7:20 AM on June 23, 2010


grizzled, you said it very well:
If anyone of whatever ethnicity can write insightfully on this topic, they are welcome to do so as far as I am concerned. Mazel tov.
I think it is safe to say that every culture in the world has experienced some form of abuse and injustice. And for another ethnicity or culture to tap into something as large scale as the holocaust (if written well and with respect) can only help bring attention to these types of issues.
posted by Fizz at 7:20 AM on June 23, 2010


Interesting article. The idea about Jewish people owning the Holocaust is interesting - six million Jews died, but seven million non-Jews died as well. I'm ostensibly Jewish myself, and I do not regard the Holocaust as being a strictly Jewish event. In addition, I'm mostly sick and tired of the state of the genre of Holocaust fiction, with some great exceptions here and there - I associate the more stereotypical Holocaust films/books/etc. with a certain reverent, almost religious tone that you don't necessarily see associated with other monumental historical tragedies. It was probably a necessary phase for us to go through to make sure that the Holocaust would of course be treated seriously and never forgotten, but we must be careful to not let history turn to crystal.

I have no opinion as to whether Martel's book is any good, but I can't think of any reason why a non-Jew shouldn't be able to see this historical event through his or her own lens. I'm not sure what I would or would not want from future Holocaust fiction (maybe a take more in the Bruno Schulz vein?), but I'd be more than happy to find out.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:26 AM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


I was unable to really even start reading that review, seeing as in the first paragraph the author admitted that he was too stupid to figure out how to work his own phone. That spoiled me for being able to bother trying to take anything else he said seriously in the slightest.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:27 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"?

I can't think of any, but this isn't really something I'm well versed in. Was there much difference in experience among Jews/Roma/homosexuals/others? (Yes, sounds like the start of a particularly macabre joke; please don't bother, if you're tempted.)
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:30 AM on June 23, 2010


It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"?

The play "Bent" was about gays in the Holocaust.

This is a sad state of affairs where this is the first fictional representation to leap to mind, but wasn't Magneto once depicted as a Roma Holocaust survivor?
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"?

Sophie's Choice is one of the best books about the Holocaust that I've read. And she's a Polish lady that ends up in the camps. (And there is so much more to say, but the book is awesome and you should read it.) Though, I guess the Holocaust scenes only play out in flashbacks.
posted by chunking express at 7:38 AM on June 23, 2010


Check out this movie, Admiral. Or the play it's based on.

Honestly as much as I respect the Jewish "ownership" of the Holocaust, as a gay person I've always felt a profound interest. (It's where we got our pink triangle!)

Black people, intellectuals, political dissidents -- any minority or anyone who falls even vaguely into an "other" category has personal lessons to absorb from that period of history.
posted by hermitosis at 7:38 AM on June 23, 2010


The general view is that pretty well all fictional treatments of the Holocaust are doomed, and that this one....

Whaaaa? Unfortunately, I can remember the title, but as a kid I read an excellent book/series based on the Dutch Resistance. Not to mention any number of other treatments.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on June 23, 2010


From the article:
I try to move away from the specifics of this review to the general problem Martel faced with this book – that many critics recoil from the very idea of a Holocaust novel written by an author who is neither Jewish nor basing his work, as with Schindler's Ark, on some sanctified piece of history.
Which critics? What outcry? Who's recoiling and savaging him?

I keep reading this same statement again and again in (mostly) positive reviews of his work, but no one seems to quote a single critic who has "savaged" him. Which critics have been saying or implying that Martel is in some way not qualified to quantify the experience of Holocaust victims because he's not Jewish? The closest I've seen is Briggs, who basically lamented that the Holocaust has become a sort of schtick for authors.

If Martel's trying to quantify the Jewish experience as a non-Jew, that's fine. If he does it intelligently and thoughtfully, all the better. His statements on the subject have seemed reasonable to me.

But his publisher seems to be playing up the "SHOCKING HOLOCAUST BOOK!" angle, and I'm beginning to suspect that this article bought into that crap hook, line and sinker.
posted by zarq at 7:39 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


His publisher's perspective.
posted by zarq at 7:41 AM on June 23, 2010


Yann Martel is a great inspiration to me. A lot of writing can be intimidatingly good. Prior to reading Life of Pi the worst book that I read other than young adult and genre fiction was Mao II. That isn't even a bad book! Just not up there with Delillo's other work. I liked the idea of being a writer but I knew that I would ultimately be inadequate. Nothing I wrote measured up to anything that I read. Life of Pi changed all that. I've since gone on to read Chuck Palahniuk and learned that the key to literary success is not good writing. It is having a suffieciently interesting conceit.

So anyways yeah: the ghosts of people who are yet to die.
posted by I Foody at 7:42 AM on June 23, 2010 [13 favorites]


I found Life of Pi unreadable, so I'm not surprised that his take on the holocaust isn't all that wonderful, either.
posted by Forktine at 7:42 AM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


For the last three years Martel has been sending fortnightly letters and books to the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper – an attempt to educate him in the ways of great literature. Martel was prompted to act as a literary godfather when Harper cited The Guinness Book of Records as his favourite book, and by his failure to recognise the importance of the arts generally.

Good luck with all that.
posted by blucevalo at 7:43 AM on June 23, 2010


Sophie's Choice is one of the best books about the Holocaust that I've read. And she's a Polish lady that ends up in the camps. (And there is so much more to say, but the book is awesome and you should read it.) Though, I guess the Holocaust scenes only play out in flashbacks.
William Styron also wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner a slave-narrative of a rebellion on the south. There is a large body of criticism that circulates on whether or not he should be allowed to write on this culture/demographic as well.
posted by Fizz at 7:45 AM on June 23, 2010


Martel is already deep into his next novel, which is set in Portugal and features three chimpanzees. He is reading dozens of books about chimps and currently trying to find what kind of car would have been driven in Portugal in the 1930s. "Those kinds of questions, that kind of approach to the world, is what I find satisfying," he says. "After that, fame, money, 'Why don't you live in Bel Air?' It's like, 'Why would I want to do that?' I'm quite happy living the natural life of the writer. It is a thrilling place to be."

He's so special. He's so brilliant. He's so extraordinary. He's so different.

I wonder if the chimps will be driving that car. I wonder if he wears wire rimmed glasses and won't say where he bought them (like Elaine's ex-boyfriend from Seinfeld).
posted by anniecat at 7:46 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was so disappointed by The Life of Pi. I was expecting it to be a history of the famous transcendental number.

(Not joking.)
posted by Eideteker at 7:47 AM on June 23, 2010 [12 favorites]


DUDES HIM SMART WRITER YOU SHUT UP NOW
posted by Mister_A at 7:49 AM on June 23, 2010


The idea about Jewish people owning the Holocaust is interesting - six million Jews died, but seven million non-Jews died as well. I'm ostensibly Jewish myself, and I do not regard the Holocaust as being a strictly Jewish event.

The word used by Jews is "Shoah," and part of the problem is that at least in much of English-language discourse, the word is not used. Instead, we only use "Holocaust," and it's tough to suss out whether we mean the Nazi concentration camp programs as a whole, or the explicit goal of exterminating the Jewish "race."

Without any dismissal of the horror of the treatment of anyone caught up in that system, it's important to note that no group was so targeted or so mistreated as the Jews. Gays, Poles, Russians, and others were "undesirables," but you can't make the case that the Nazis were trying to eliminate the whole of the Russian ethnicity, for instance. The Roma were the next-most persecuted after the Jews, but they were also largely driven out of Germany rather than captured, and plenty of exceptions were made for those who had distinguished military service or otherwise "acted German."

To many Jews, because "Holocaust" is used as a translation of the term "Shoah," which is used to mean the intended extermination of the Jews, an expansion of its use is offensive. Kind of like pointing out in a conversation about lynchings of black men that "white guys sometimes get hanged, too."
posted by explosion at 7:49 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


This is a sad state of affairs where this is the first fictional representation to leap to mind, but wasn't Magneto once depicted as a Roma Holocaust survivor?

Not Roma, but Jewish. It's specifically mentioned that he survived Auschwitz. One of the X-Men movies showed him in front of that camp's gates as a child.
posted by zarq at 7:50 AM on June 23, 2010


Instead, we only use "Holocaust," and it's tough to suss out whether we mean the Nazi concentration camp programs as a whole, or the explicit goal of exterminating the Jewish "race."

Fair enough. I certainly understand that Jews were singled out in a way that others were not. So, I ask in all sincerity: what term should we use for the deaths of people in the camps in general?
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:53 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Looking at the title, I'm pretty certain there are plenty of non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies and Homosexuals who can write insightfully on this topic. Unfortunately, you've got the hero take (Schindler's list, et al) or you have victims and their attempts to build a life after the fact. Or you can look at the other side.

If you go the "let's look at the bad guys" route and you pretty much have a character that the majority of people will be unable to bring themselves to sympathize with no matter how terrible their situation. It's like trying to write a story where the main character is that floating black torture droid that Darth Vader used on Princes Leia in Star Wars. Gustav the concentration camp guard may have been mentally (and/or physically) flailing himself for decades, but most of us are never going to give him more sympathy than we would an old toaster because to do so would require us to believe that, under the right circumstance, we could wind up just like him.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:54 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read the Life of Pi not that long ago, though aside from the ending I can't seem to remember much of anything about the book.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 7:56 AM on June 23, 2010


> It's like trying to write a story where the main character is that floating black torture droid that Darth Vader used on Princes Leia in Star Wars.

Now that's a Star Wars novel I might actually read.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:56 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not Roma, but Jewish. It's specifically mentioned that he survived Auschwitz. One of the X-Men movies showed him in front of that camp's gates as a child.

Magneto is indeed Jewish, but there once was an attempt to retcon him into being Roma.

Also, and I'm not saying this to a dick, but just because it's illustrative: it's interesting that you cite his being at Auschwitz as evidence that he was Jewish and not Roma. Tens of thousands of Roma were killed at Auschwitz as well.

Either way, it's funny to me that they tried to take away Magneto's Jewishness.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:58 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


To many Jews, because "Holocaust" is used as a translation of the term "Shoah," which is used to mean the intended extermination of the Jews, an expansion of its use is offensive. Kind of like pointing out in a conversation about lynchings of black men that "white guys sometimes get hanged, too."

I understand this mindset. But it's still important for us as Jews to acknowledge that even though we were the largest individual group targeted and slaughtered, the Nazis killed even more millions of non-Jews. Recognizing them does not diminish from our own deaths at the hands of the Nazis, nor is it in any way offensive to the memory of our dead. We were targeted. So were others. We were killed by the millions. So were others.

At the risk of stating the obvious, your analogy only works is if white guys getting hanged were not also being targeted for being white. I don't think it applies here. The Roma Gypsies, Catholics and gays were targeted for who they were. They weren't incidental deaths.
posted by zarq at 7:58 AM on June 23, 2010 [8 favorites]


That book about chimps driving a car in Portugal sounds pretty good, but only if they are wearing top hats and monocles and their car has "APPLESAUCE, BABY" and "HOOTY-TOOT-TOOT!" written on the side. (Because that kind of approach to the world is what I find satisfying.)
posted by No-sword at 8:00 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, and I'm not saying this to a dick, but just because it's illustrative: it's interesting that you cite his being at Auschwitz as evidence that he was Jewish and not Roma. Tens of thousands of Roma were killed at Auschwitz as well.

I am aware of this. I have family who died there.

I did not speak clearly and should have. I intended to make two separate statements. He is Jewish. He is a Holocaust survivor. Not that he's Jewish, so he was at Auschwitz.
posted by zarq at 8:01 AM on June 23, 2010


(Not saying it wasn't a good book, but I was finishing Kon Tiki while starting The Life of Pi and, as such, had probably already filled my quota for drifting on the ocean.)
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 8:01 AM on June 23, 2010


I've always used the term "Holocaust" for what went on in the camps, and "Final Solution" to specifically describe the Nazi's pogrom targeting the Jews.

There was a guy, back in the day, who argued that only about six million were killed by the Nazi's instead of the more widely accepted 12 million. He was hastily labeled as some kind of apologist or Holocaust denier (and may very well have been one). If we say the Nazi's killed six million Jews and just sort of blow off their other six million other victims, then we're doing his work for him.

Crimes against humanity are exactly that. If we can't come together there, we might as well hang it up as a species.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:05 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yann Martel's trying to educate Stephen Harper? I don't know whether to laugh hysterically or get straight to work on the screenplay for "Educating Stephen".

I associate the more stereotypical Holocaust films/books/etc. with a certain reverent, almost religious tone that you don't necessarily see associated with other monumental historical tragedies.

Yes. I recently read Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning". Frankl was a concentration camp survivor who lost his parents and his pregnant wife in the camps and he wrote the book in 1946. His account has a nuanced authenticity that rendered me unable to read pretty much any fiction about the Holocaust because it just doesn't compare with the reality.

Frankl, for instance, wrote that life in the camps was a constant struggle for survival. There were constant selections. If the camp authorities were rounding up 100 people to be transported to another camp, and you were to be included and you heard rumours that the other camp was worse than the current one, you would try to get out of it. But if you did get out of it, someone else would have to go in your stead because the commandant had to take 100 prisoners regardless of who they were. Frankl wrote the reason survivors don't want to talk about their experiences was not so much what had been done to them but what they had done. He wrote, "We know the best of us did not come back." He also wrote about how there were decent people among the prison guards who did their utmost to help and care for the prisoners even if it meant risking their own lives, while some of the prisoners who were made into trustys became sadistic animals.

The fictionalized accounts have become so sentimental and stereotyped. See, oh, say, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and "Life is Beautiful" and "Jakob the Liar". And I'd even include Sophie's Choice. In the first a child in a concentration camp is able to form a friendship with a child living nearby through the barbed wire. Whatever — the reality was that if anyone went anywhere near the barbed he was gunned down. Not saying that there can't be good fiction on the topic, but there's just so much crap written about the Holocaust.
posted by orange swan at 8:08 AM on June 23, 2010 [21 favorites]


Either way, it's funny to me that they tried to take away Magneto's Jewishness.

I can't imagine anyone who might be offended by them making the chief bad guy Jewish. Why not make Galactus Jewish too?

Is it less funny now?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:09 AM on June 23, 2010


I can't find it now, but I'm nearly positive I read an interview with Martel a number of years ago where he said that this book (which at the time was still in the planning stages) was ultimately intended to be a "portable" allegory about the Holocaust which could be transferred to other genocides as well, like Rwanda. I really like this idea of a "meta" allegory about genocide, which seems to be what Martel is trying to convey.

This is the closest I can find:
Martel thinks it’s time to move past the strict rule that the Holocaust must be approached from a historical realist perspective because of the scope of the horror that occurred. By representing tragedy in a “non-literal, compact way,” he argues, the artist is able to create “art as suitcase: light, portable, [and] essential,” and speak to the emotional side of a tragedy where the voices of billions have been blurred into silence. Hence the donkey and monkey. He compares the need for these fictional characters to Orwell’s Animal Farm, Camus’ The Plague, and Picasso’s Guernica. One things for sure, Martel is a well read guy.

posted by zarq at 8:13 AM on June 23, 2010


Galactus is pretty clearly from Norway.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:13 AM on June 23, 2010 [7 favorites]


Either way, it's funny to me that they tried to take away Magneto's Jewishness.

I can't imagine anyone who might be offended by them making the chief bad guy Jewish. Why not make Galactus Jewish too?

Is it less funny now?


I'm Jewish and I think it's great that Magneto is a Jewish Holocaust survivor. When done well, he's a fantastic character. I'd find it insanely condescending to remove his Jewishness just because he's a villain. (I would also find it bizarre and racist if, to condescendingly only have nicey-nice Jewish characters, they made their villain Roma instead.)

I would also find it hilarious if Galactus was Jewish. (The leavened planets are safe during Passover!)
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:13 AM on June 23, 2010 [14 favorites]


I actually came to the defense of Jakob the Liar when it first came out; I think it was a better film than it was credited with being, in part because it seemed to borrow from Jewish narrative traditions in telling an explicitly Jewish story of the Holocaust.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:17 AM on June 23, 2010


Before the Jews, gays, etc.. it was the Communists who were persecuted. The Sonnenburg Torture Camp is a pamphlet published in 1934(!) about the atrocities being committed by Nazi's against German-national Communists at a re-purposed prison on the Polish frontier. Of course, most people in the West could care less about a few Communists, but it shows that human rights abuses are a warning even if you don't care about the victims. This is when the Nazi's were really honing their techniques, when they were institutionalizing brutality. It didn't just happen suddenly during WWII, it was a natural industrialized growth of a system long in place on a smaller scale.

I read Beatrice and Virgil in an early review copy, before any professional reviewers could taint my thinking. At the time I thought it was clever and kept thinking about it trying to decode it. It's a very short book and has a decent storyline. It's a bit of a subjective work in that different readers will see different things and there is no right solution, like a painting. I think all this handwringing over holocaust fiction is silly.
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would also find it hilarious if Galactus was Jewish. (The leavened planets are safe during Passover!)

WHY IS THIS PLANET DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PLANETS?
posted by zarq at 8:19 AM on June 23, 2010 [22 favorites]


If we are to accept the argument that only Jews can truly understand the Holocaust and are the only ones who should be allowed to tap into this history and suffering, then the majority of the fiction that we as a society have would have to be erased. As I'm sure any time anyone writes about an experience outside of their own would also have to be criticized in the same way.
posted by Fizz at 8:19 AM on June 23, 2010


The end of the article, I'll agree, was particularly provocative:

Martel is already deep into his next novel, which is set in Portugal and features three chimpanzees. He is reading dozens of books about chimps and currently trying to find what kind of car would have been driven in Portugal in the 1930s. "Those kinds of questions, that kind of approach to the world, is what I find satisfying," he says. "After that, fame, money, 'Why don't you live in Bel Air?' I whistled for a cab and when it came near, the license plate said 'Fresh', and it had dice in the mirror. If anything I could say that this cab was rare, but I thought 'Nah, forget it - Yo, homes, to Bel-Air!' I pulled up to the house about seven or eight, and I yelled to the cabbie, 'Yo homes, smell ya later!' I looked at my kingdom; I was finally there. To sit on my throne, as the prince of Bel-Air.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:20 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


NEXT YEAR EAT JERUSALEM.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:22 AM on June 23, 2010 [8 favorites]


I actually came to the defense of Jakob the Liar when it first came out

It is based on a 1969 novel of the same name. There are two translations, the first 1975 is un-official without the authors consent. I read it and like it, but can understand why some people wouldn't. The second translation is more recent, 1999, and the author was involved. It's one of my favorite books. I don't get this idea that Holocaust literature is no good or off limits.
posted by stbalbach at 8:22 AM on June 23, 2010


And now we also have a fiction about Anne Frank, just published, in which she has erotic connection to the boy next door!

The issue is NOT do Jews own or not own the Holocaust but rather does fiction
distort the event, or present if in a reasonably fair manner?
Critics doing work in holocaust art have sometimes argued that only non-fiction, documentary work can truly attempt to capture what took place; others argue that art can present the surreal quality of the Holocaust and thus make it more accessible for us.
posted by Postroad at 8:25 AM on June 23, 2010


but most of us are never going to give him more sympathy than we would an old toaster because to do so would require us to believe that, under the right circumstance, we could wind up just like him.

Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night did this, excellently. The trick is to first show that he is one of us, and then gradually reveal that he was also the black torture droid.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:34 AM on June 23, 2010 [12 favorites]


I once was in a bookstore looking at books (it was a particularly dark period in my life) and I heard a lilting affected voice cooing from the back of the store, amplified and droning a limply precious and derivative passage devoid of authentic charm or human feeling. "It must be open mic night!" I surmised. Coming around the corner I discovered this dude and a packed house listening rapt to him read from Life of Pi.

Officially I am against book-->cover decisions and putting down anyone without a full analysis of their actual work, but his whole everything annoyed me so instantly that I've never been able to take him seriously ever since. His overblown and pretentious statements in this article seem though to have proven me right. Score another one for shallow judgments yay!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:35 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


The issue is NOT do Jews own or not own the Holocaust but rather does fiction
distort the event, or present if in a reasonably fair manner?


I don't think it's fair to say that all fiction does or does not do so. Some fictional representations are obviously better than others. Schindler's List > Life is Beautiful, in my book.

Critics doing work in holocaust art have sometimes argued that only non-fiction, documentary work can truly attempt to capture what took place; others argue that art can present the surreal quality of the Holocaust and thus make it more accessible for us.

I think this is an unnecessarily uncompromising perspective.
posted by zarq at 8:37 AM on June 23, 2010


NEXT YEAR EAT JERUSALEM.

In my head, I hear this in Cookie Monster's voice.
posted by zarq at 8:38 AM on June 23, 2010


There is no business like Shoah business.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:39 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


In case any of you are wondering whether you should read Life Of Pi, you can go to any freshman dorm on a college campus around late September at about 3 o'clock AM. There, wander around until you find two people engaged in conversation, one of whom pensively tucks a lock of hair behind their ear, then earnestly explains to the other that "I'm like, not really religious? But like, I would definitely consider myself spiritual?"

There you go, I just saved you the trouble of reading Life Of Pi.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:39 AM on June 23, 2010 [34 favorites]


It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"?

If you possibly can, see Paragraph 175, which is a documentary about the treatment of homosexuals in Nazi Germany that follows the current lives of several people who were put in concentration camps as homosexuals. The interviews are fascinating and, in at least one case, hilarious.

Documentary Spoiler: At one point the filmmaker is interviewing a man who was arrested, put in a camp, and tortured for (if I recall correctly) several months, before being mysteriously taken out into the woods and left there. He returns to his home where he finds the village population consists entirely of women and old men, all of the young men having gone off to war. "I wasn't interested in old men and women", he says, "so I joined the army". At this point there is an explosion of laughter off screen and the boom actually drops into frame for a second as everyone loses it. The filmmaker asks, incredulous, "You joined the NAZI army?". "Yes", says the man, "that's where the young men were." We then cut to his artistic photographs of handsome Aryan youths bathing naked in streams and such -- happily indulging they photographic hobby of their new compatriot.

Also interesting: Nazi's largely refused to accept the idea that lesbians existed, and I believe the penal code (the "Paragraph 175" of the title) didn't cover them. If I recall correctly there are fewer than 10 recorded cases of lesbians being imprisoned based on their sexuality, though I'm not sure of the numbers.
posted by The Bellman at 8:42 AM on June 23, 2010 [18 favorites]


that many critics recoil from the very idea of a Holocaust novel written by an author who is neither Jewish nor basing his work, as with Schindler's Ark, on some sanctified piece of history.
Which critics? What outcry? Who's recoiling and savaging him?


Heh. I do this all the time. I think it makes my personal feelings and reactions sound more compelling if ascribed to a large non-existent consensus: "What? Nobody likes this type of music... (and, by 'nobody', I mean 'me')."
posted by ServSci at 8:45 AM on June 23, 2010


Augh. I read this book in review-copy form too, and I found it shockingly bad: insensitive, condescending, clumsily written, and horribly horribly selfish. His protagonist is the most egregious Mary Sue I've ever seen, and the Shymalanesque third-act twist was so daft I actually shouted at the book on the bus.

Also he's got a weak handshake.

Okay, I'm done.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 8:47 AM on June 23, 2010


explosion: Without any dismissal of the horror of the treatment of anyone caught up in that system, it's important to note that no group was so targeted or so mistreated as the Jews

Not that they qualify under "holocaust", but my understanding from visiting Belsen was that Russian prisoners of war were treated worse than Jews there, at least.

Certainly I remember being staggered at the sheer numbers of Russian deaths there. I guess this was because the Jews there were supposedly supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners elsewhere.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:48 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The end of the article, I'll agree, was particularly provocative:

I am now going to try to convince myself that that is how The Life of Pi ends. (It does make a better story, after all.)
posted by eykal at 8:49 AM on June 23, 2010


Admiral Haddock: "It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"? "

Possibly The Painted Bird? It's been a while since I read it and I remember the main character being Roma, but according to Wikipedia it's never made completely clear.
posted by brundlefly at 8:51 AM on June 23, 2010


There, wander around until you find two people engaged in conversation, one of whom pensively tucks a lock of hair behind their ear, then earnestly explains to the other that "I'm like, not really religious? But like, I would definitely consider myself spiritual?"

Oh god. The shame of self-recognition. (Though I never lived in a dorm.)
posted by kmz at 8:58 AM on June 23, 2010


The general view is that pretty well all fictional treatments of the Holocaust are doomed

Man that is so not my read on it. I thought that Everything is Illuminated [not a Holocaust book, but definitely one in which it figured prominently] was quirky, subtle and interesting. Similarly The Reader and a bunch of other books. I'm sort of with zarq here, this seems to be an angle to publishers are pushing more than anything real that is happening. I'm okay with Jews not owning the Holocaust, but maybe it's just a terrible book?
posted by jessamyn at 9:03 AM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


In case any of you are wondering whether you should read Life Of Pi, you can go to any freshman dorm on a college campus around late September at about 3 o'clock AM. There, wander around until you find two people engaged in conversation, one of whom pensively tucks a lock of hair behind their ear, then earnestly explains to the other that "I'm like, not really religious? But like, I would definitely consider myself spiritual?"

Curiously enough, I hear Martel's at work on a novella written entirely in uptalk. I understand it's an allegory for the Cuban Revolution. Castro is represented by the teddy bear pattern on one of the girl's pajamas. Che is the precise point of inflection in the other girl's speech pattern where she goes from flat to high rising terminal tone. Batista is the LOLCAT screensaver on the desk next to them.

The book climaxes in a yawning moment where the overearnest philosophy major from the dorm room next door ducks his head in to ask them to keep it down because he's working on his novella, which is an allegory about the Cuban Revolution featuring those two girls talking to each other in uptalk. The novella (Martel's, I mean) collapses in on itself at that moment, tearing a tiny little rip in the space-time continuum that selectively draws in Booker jurors and ponderous book reviewer types.
posted by gompa at 9:05 AM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


Not that they qualify under "holocaust", but my understanding from visiting Belsen was that Russian prisoners of war were treated worse than Jews there, at least.

The Nazi theories of eugenics had a hierarchy that was more complex than "the Germans as a master race, everyone else, and then the Jewish vermin" version that one sees and hears everywhere. The Slavic people were considered next to animals. Hitler actually thought quite highly of the English, regarding them as almost a brother race to the Teutonic people, and was very upset when England declared war on Germany, because he honestly thought they would have too much respect for Germany to do so. In the movie "Defiance", which was based on real events, the Ukrainian Jews weren't rounded up and taken to concentration camps, but simply shot on the spot.
posted by orange swan at 9:05 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Nazi theories of eugenics had a hierarchy that was more complex than "the Germans as a master race, everyone else, and then the Jewish vermin" version that one sees and hears everywhere.

I would be really interested in reading more about this, actually -- do you have a link to more information about it? (Preferably one that doesn't go to Stormfront or something?)
posted by Greg Nog at 9:22 AM on June 23, 2010


In case any of you are wondering whether you should read Life Of Pi, you can go to any freshman dorm on a college campus around late September at about 3 o'clock AM. There, wander around until you find two people engaged in conversation, one of whom pensively tucks a lock of hair behind their ear, then earnestly explains to the other that "I'm like, not really religious? But like, I would definitely consider myself spiritual?"

There you go, I just saved you the trouble of reading Life Of Pi.


It's a pity you didn't get the point of Life of Pi.
posted by rocket88 at 9:26 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


I found Life of Pi unreadable

I tried to read it. Everybody said I absolutely had to. As I recall, the first chapter or so concerned some old man (a grandfather perhaps) who had built a mini-railway, perhaps through his own personal zoo ...? Anyway, I couldn't shake the fact that some writer was laying metaphor and analogy on me, and laying it THICK. Illusion broken, magic lost. I never even got to the Tiger. But maybe I'll try again sometime when I'm feeling a little more generous.

From the interview:

"It's the specialism of the artist to go where other people don't go," he says.

This is true, but the flipside is that the artist should expect no soft landing if he mucks up. Not unlike a scuba diver. Just because you're down there on purpose doesn't mean you won't drown.
posted by philip-random at 9:29 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Greg Nog: "I would be really interested in reading more about this, actually -- do you have a link to more information about it? (Preferably one that doesn't go to Stormfront or something?)"

Seconded.
posted by brundlefly at 9:30 AM on June 23, 2010


The Nazi theories of eugenics had a hierarchy that was more complex than "the Germans as a master race, everyone else, and then the Jewish vermin" version that one sees and hears everywhere.

I would be really interested in reading more about this, actually -- do you have a link to more information about it?


Not reading but ... The Occult History of the Third Reich should fill in a few blanks.
posted by philip-random at 9:32 AM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


Time's Arrow is another book, like Mother Night, written from the perspective of a different sort of Holocaust participant. Can't go much into that without spoiling the book, though.

Self was a great novel. It contained a really interesting depiction of rape, so it's shown that Martel can do at least some sensitive topics well. It's the only book of his that I liked though. Life of Pi was awful; Martel needs to tear himself away from these damn animals. I took a Canadian fiction course in undergrad before Life of Pi was written and Martel came in to speak. After he left, the professor, someone who knows and writes about the ins and outs of the Canadian publishing biz, turned to us and said, "he's slated to win a Governer-General's. Just watch." And then Life of Pi came out, and Martel won a GG. It was a pretty good lesson in how literary awards are distributed.
posted by painquale at 9:37 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Eugenics very very big in the US before nazi germany took to it.
posted by Postroad at 9:37 AM on June 23, 2010


"I would be really interested in reading more about this, actually -- do you have a link to more information about it?

Found some good info here: Wikipedia: Racial Policy of Nazi Germany. But there's also the caveat "racial theory was often manipulated to suite the political aims of Germany".
posted by crapmatic at 9:44 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Eugenics very very big in the US before nazi germany took to it.

I'm trying to figure out how that's relevant.
posted by amro at 9:44 AM on June 23, 2010


To many Jews, because "Holocaust" is used as a translation of the term "Shoah," which is used to mean the intended extermination of the Jews, an expansion of its use is offensive. Kind of like pointing out in a conversation about lynchings of black men that "white guys sometimes get hanged, too." - explosion

Okay, let's see if I can express this without sounding like an asshole... and explosion, I'm not picking on you, and don't know your own attitudes, just trying to sound out something that irritates me about these kinds of conversations...

This comment goes to the heart of something that frustrates me when talking to people who think seriously about language and believe that words should not be used lightly.

Because I get that, and I believe that as well. I want to get annoyed when people use the term "holocaust" or any of a number of other terms lightly, and I see the danger in it.

However, my annoyance is tempered by two things:

- I realize that not everyone is as educated or thoughtful about language, and to be unthoughtful about your word choice /= being unthoughtful about the matters in question. Trying to be hypothetical here to lessen the chance of a shitstorm: if someone were to say that what such and such group suffered at such and such time was as bad as what the Jews suffered, we might debate whether such is really the case, and we might differ in our estimate of the situation, but we need not get offended by their position. They aren't necessarily minimizing or denying what the Jews suffered. Now if they are, that's another matter (even so, whether we are offended might depend on whether someone is honestly ignorant or really trying to be a revisionist/deny what happened. Call me a pollyanna, but I really believe that latter category is a rare bird. We need to be vigilant, but honestly - how many people do you really suspect of denying the Holocaust?).

- I was taking my liberal arts classes in college in the late '80s. Then (and perhaps even now?), it was fashionable for professors to intone about the Holocaust in a condescending way. My final exam in an English class was to write an essay, and the beginning of the topic sentence was dictated to us: "Elie Wiesel's book Night is the definitive book on the Holocaust because..." I think that question, and the way it was framed, is the epitome of the attitude that some (like my professor) took/take toward the matter. There is this aura of preciousness surrounding it, and some lie in wait to pounce on anyone who can be lured into their rhetorical traps. I well remember that professor asking questions in class and his tone of offense toward us mostly-non-Jewish-southerners, especially those of us who dared say anything (even to answer his questions). There was no way to speak on anything that was right. Even if we substantially agreed with something, the message was that we didn't quite grasp it, weren't shattered enough by it, and if, God forbid, we questioned any of his views, even just on the literary aspects of it, we clearly were on that dangerous slope toward being a revisionist.

I pushed back on the BS-ey parts of his spiel and still managed a "B" in the class, I guess because he couldn't deny (no pun intended) that I knew how to write, but I wonder how many of my fellow students got trounced, grade-wise, for his assumptions that we were a bunch of crackers. Which is itself a prejudice, isn't it?

Yes, it's dumb and perhaps evil to dismissively say in a conversation "Well, millions of people died in WWII all the way around; the Jews weren't a special case." For several reasons, they were, and to deny that is stupid and dangerous on several levels. And to say things like "AT&T just screwed their subscribers on the data plan; worst thing since the Holocaust..." is arguably as bad (lame example of that sort of humor; you know the type I mean)

OTOH, it may be that we intelligently compare the lynchings of black men to white men getting hanged, under some circumstances. What about gay white men who got murdered? Or white civil rights workers in the '60s? Was what happened to them less bad?

The question (now that I've said all that) is not whether we win at the word games, or for that matter whether we win the "my disaster was worse than your disaster" game, but rather - can we speak about these things in a way that helps ensure that they don't happen again - not to Jews, Kurds, or any other ethnic group...
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:46 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Occult History of the Third Reich should fill in a few blanks.

This reminds me of the very interesting book Unholy Alliance, which is also about the occult as it pertained to the Third Reich. I'd consider it mostly "fiction written as a history book," but it's highly readable and contains, even hidden in a purple fog of hyperbole and conspiracy, some genuinely interesting facts and arguments - namely, that the Nazi party was more like a giant cult than it was a political party as we normally think of one.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:47 AM on June 23, 2010


But it's still important for us as Jews to acknowledge that even though we were the largest individual group targeted and slaughtered, the Nazis killed even more millions of non-Jews.

I actually don't think this is something new that suddenly "needs to be acknowledged" by the Jews. This is a known fact, and the fact that Jewish people regularly discuss it from the viewpoint of their particularly community, it doesn't negate these well-known facts or diminish their reality. Also, most of the times when I have been in a context with Jewish people discussing the holocaust, non-Jewish victims are generally mentioned, and the concept of them "owning the holocaust" sounds like a made-up problem for people to "address."
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:49 AM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


I would be really interested in reading more about this, actually -- do you have a link to more information about it?

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Nazism and race, which explains Nazi race theory in more detail and supplies a bibliography at the bottom of the entry.

Eugenics very very big in the US before nazi germany took to it.

I'm trying to figure out how that's relevant.


It's relevant because it puts the Nazis in a historical context. There were certainly many proponents of eugenics in Canada as well as in the States, and its popularity as a "science" led to numerous forcible sterilizations of the instutionalized mentally ill or mentally handicapped — and often of those who weren't actually mentally handicapped but had been labelled as such due to the force of circumstances such as lack of educational opportunities or poor home environment.
posted by orange swan at 9:51 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, still not getting what that has to do with Martel's book and whether Jews "own the holocaust."
posted by amro at 9:54 AM on June 23, 2010


I actually don't think this is something new that suddenly "needs to be acknowledged" by the Jews.

Honestly, neither do I. But if you read the comment I was replying to, explosion was asserting that "many Jews" think expanding the discussed scope of the Holocaust to include non-Jewish deaths is offensive.

That's not been my experience, but it wouldn't surprise me much if that were so.
posted by zarq at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2010


This jogged my memory - here's some fiction that might apply (or start another shitstorm)

Philip Roth - The Plot Against America.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2010


Peter Weiss' The Investigation, a dramatisation of testimony presented at the 1963-5 Frankfurt trials of Auschwitz functionaries, attracted criticism for explicitly naming only one (minority) group of prisoners, namely Soviet prisoners-of-war. Weiss (a German Communist, whose father was Jewish) was perhaps trying to remind his readers about the shared 'ownership' of Auschwitz, but it comes across as a weirdly clumsy stroke in what is otherwise a sharp and effective work.
posted by misteraitch at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2010


> It's relevant because it puts the Nazis in a historical context. There were certainly many proponents of eugenics in Canada as well as in the States

Yes, but eugenics as it was practiced in many Western nations then was entirely different than the idea of ethnic eradication.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:57 AM on June 23, 2010


Actually, I cannot tell a lie. I own the Holocaust. I got it for real cheap back in the early 1970s when everybody thought it was just way too depressing. But I sure showed them.
posted by philip-random at 9:59 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can strongly recommend the catty review in last week's Private Eye for some perspective on this. It's not online, alas.
posted by cromagnon at 10:04 AM on June 23, 2010


Eugenics very very big in the US before nazi germany took to it.

And before Eugenics it was just Darwin's Theory of Evolution that made it all possible (ie: if it's all about natural selection, how about if we improve the human species by scientific means, deliberately enhance this natural selection?)

So the question for me is not, who else was into Eugenics but why did the Germans of the early-mid 20th Century in general, the Nazis in particular, find it necessary to chase it to such diabolical lengths. There's the sickness that needs to be understood.
posted by philip-random at 10:04 AM on June 23, 2010


Yeah, still not getting what that has to do with Martel's book and whether Jews "own the holocaust."

It's a bit of a tangent from a derail from a sidetrack.
posted by orange swan at 10:08 AM on June 23, 2010


The question (now that I've said all that) is not whether we win at the word games, or for that matter whether we win the "my disaster was worse than your disaster" game, but rather - can we speak about these things in a way that helps ensure that they don't happen again - not to Jews, Kurds, or any other ethnic group...

Perhaps the word games are not a derail, per se, but a peculiar symptom of a larger sociological problem.

Although the term "genocide" was coined in response to the Holocaust and the mass murder of Armenians by Turks, neither event was the first time one ethnic group had tried to exterminate another. One of the reason's Martel's concept of a "portable allegory" appeals to me is that an effective, practical explanation, unrestricted to a single event or ethnic group, might make attempted genocides easier to understand. Making those experiences relatable could go a long way towards preventing them happening again in the future: 'It could happen to you, too.'
posted by zarq at 10:08 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Making those experiences relatable could go a long way towards preventing them happening again in the future: 'It could happen to you, too.'

Or, even more eerily: "you could be Albert Speer, too."
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:10 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


My book club chose this last week. I'm about halfway through, and while I enjoy Martel's use of animals, I find his tone & style a tedious mixture of self-conscious, self-referential, and self-satisfied. I'm not yet in a place to opine on the Holocaust/allegory facets of the book, but I hear the ending is a doosey.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 10:14 AM on June 23, 2010


Kid Charlemagne: "... Unfortunately, you've got the hero take (Schindler's list, et al) or you have victims and their attempts to build a life after the fact. Or you can look at the other side.

If you go the "let's look at the bad guys" route and you pretty much have a character that the majority of people will be unable to bring themselves to sympathize with no matter how terrible their situation...
"

----

I'm just now trying to picture the inverse of this. What if you had a story about a real miserable prick, those insufferable jerks who just won't shut up... A guy who, for all intents and purposes, you wish would just STFU and in your most uncharitable moments feel the world would be a bit less shitty without him hanging about... I mean, you gotta admit there's gotta be assholes like that in these sorts of camps. What would the result be at the end when he finally does get killed off. Would the reader feel guilty?
posted by symbioid at 10:15 AM on June 23, 2010


I would recommend the book "The Holocaust in American Life" by Peter Novick for anyone who wants to read more on the ownership of the Holocaust. A lot of the questions in this thread (Were the non-Jews killed in camps victims of the Holocaust or not?) are addressed in this book.

Also, FWIW, I liked the Life of Pi.
posted by mmmbacon at 10:18 AM on June 23, 2010


...and in your most uncharitable moments feel the world would be a bit less shitty without him hanging about...

Assume this is a simplified justification for the Nazi Final Solution....

What would the result be at the end when he finally does get killed off. Would the reader feel guilty?

...and we can conclude that the Germans certainly didn't.
posted by zarq at 10:19 AM on June 23, 2010


The BBC's (world service) discussion programme The Forum recently featured an interview with Yann Martel about this book, in which he talks about his reasons for and method of writing about the holocaust. He explains his reasoning pretty clearly and the ensuing discussion is pretty interesting. The Forum strikes me as being a little self-satisfied at times, but it's worth listening to.
posted by metaBugs at 10:22 AM on June 23, 2010


...and we can conclude that the Germans certainly didn't.

Also, even as I wrote this and clicked the button, a little voice in the back of my head was saying "but, some of them really did."

It's not as clear-cut as I made it sound, in other words.
posted by zarq at 10:23 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"?

I don't know if it counts but I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and we were pretty much introduced to the holocaust via Purple triangle stories.

A lot of the religious songs were written by Purple triangle concentration camp victims and it was a fairly big part of the culture.

I say I dunno whether you'd count it because they mostly had a choice to denounce their faith and survive or not, which isn't something many oppressed groups had.

There's a film about the Bibelforscher that came out but I can't remember what it was called.
posted by shinybaum at 10:25 AM on June 23, 2010


Caveat: I haven't read this book, nor anything of Martel's, so I'm explicitly leaving the issue of aesthetic quality (whatever that may be) out of it.

It seems to me from descriptions that this book is not about the Holocaust/Shoah per se as much as it is about how people deal with such events. While someone may say only a Jew and/or a survivor should write about the event (although I disagree), I'm not sure how writing about the effect of such events on the world -- which is a communal experience -- can be considered out of bounds for anyone.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:33 AM on June 23, 2010


And before Eugenics it was just Darwin's Theory of Evolution that made it all possible (ie: if it's all about natural selection, how about if we improve the human species by scientific means, deliberately enhance this natural selection?)

Really? No one is going to tackle that?

Certainly, there were no genocides before Darwin.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:36 AM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


and the concept of them "owning the holocaust" sounds like a made-up problem for people to "address."

Yeah never really heard of that being an issue, and there are certainly shelfs of holocaust books written by "gasp" goyim.

Without ever having read Life of Pi, methinks Martel is a bit too interested in appearing "edgy" and provocative as a pre-emptive strike against reviewers who might think his book, well, sucks. I suppose it is a workable strategy so that people don't focus on the purported suckiness of his book.

At least Norman Mailer, similarly overrated could throw a good punch for a real pre-emptive strike.
posted by xetere at 10:38 AM on June 23, 2010


Surprising number of personal attacks on the author here, having nothing whatsoever to do with the book itself. Did he once write a short story about peeing in your cornflakes this morning?
posted by davejay at 10:46 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


disclaimer: I enjoyed Life Of Pi
posted by davejay at 10:47 AM on June 23, 2010


Saxon Kane: "Really? No one is going to tackle that?"

I've done it in other places, and I'm really tired of it.
posted by brundlefly at 10:55 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


William Styron also wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner a slave-narrative of a rebellion on the south. There is a large body of criticism that circulates on whether or not he should be allowed to write on this culture/demographic as well.

Without getting into a debate here about whether Styron was allowed to write about any ethic group other than upper/upper-middle class Southern WASP (because I'm somewhat conflicted on that personally), let me just say that I don't think Yann Martel is half the writer than Styron was. And say what you like about the plight of its titular character, the first thirty pages of so of Sophie's Choice (in which its young, southern narrator sets out to have a glamorous literary career in Manhattan and is completely disillusioned) are pretty damn funny.
posted by thivaia at 11:01 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Really? No one is going to tackle that?

Simplistic answer: Dalton drew the basics of eugenics in part from Darwin's theories. The Nazis drew and expanded upon their eugenics programs in part from Dalton's theories. Their extermination programs were based in part on laws first enacted in California.

That doesn't make Darwin, California or Dalton responsible for the Holocaust. As you point out, mass murder and its various justifications existed before the Nazis.
posted by zarq at 11:08 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting point--does anyone know of any historical accounts (fictional or otherwise) about perspectives on the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a non-Jewish "Undesirable"?

There were about 26 million russians that were killed by germans. And a lot of them were not in the military. There is a whole bunch of literature about it that can be googled.
For those of you that are looking for a specific recommendation, I would like to suggest "The Third Reich at War", by Richard J. Evans. Lots of numbers and statistics, on Jew's and otherwise. This book covers the WWII period. He's got two other books: "The Third Reich in Power" and "The Coming of the Third Reich". All of these have huge reference sections...
posted by c13 at 11:14 AM on June 23, 2010


And say what you like about the plight of its titular character, the first thirty pages of so of Sophie's Choice (in which its young, southern narrator sets out to have a glamorous literary career in Manhattan and is completely disillusioned) are pretty damn funny.

I remember reading Sophie's Choice, and for many many pages (hundreds? how long is it? Maybe the first third), just feeling kind of like, Ho hum, so what? And then the pennies started to drop and I saw how that long first chunk was so perfectly setting up everything that came later. Just from reading it, I learned a lot about novels.

One of my favorite parts of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband's death, which I ultimately found kind of tedious and didn't finish, is when her husband, a novelist, is getting ready to start a new book, and he's reading Sophie's Choice over and over again (at one point, in the pool, IIRC), "to figure out how it works." I loved that little insight into a writer studying other writing to learn from it, and also the affirmation of my much more amateurish sense that Sophie's Choice was really some kind of structural novelistic model.
posted by not that girl at 11:15 AM on June 23, 2010


"I'm like, not really religious? But like, I would definitely consider myself spiritual?"

So "Life of Pi" is like "Atlas Shrugged" from the universe where Mr. Spock has a goatee?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:22 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Atlas Shrugged" is already from the universe where Mr. Spock has a goatee.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:26 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


So "Life of Pi" is like "Atlas Shrugged" from the universe where Mr. Spock has a goatee?

No, that's actually Ishmael.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:32 AM on June 23, 2010


"Atlas Shrugged" is already from the universe where Mr. Spock has a goatee.

"When a Vulcan learns to understand and control his own behavior as well as he is learning to understand and control the behavior of crop plants and domestic animals, he may be justified in believing that he has become civilized."

OK, that's freaky.
posted by zarq at 11:36 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Certainly, there were no genocides before Darwin.

As zarq points out above, my intention was not in any way to blame the Holocaust (The Final Solution?) on Darwin but to suggest that blaming the Holocaust on inspiration from the Eugenics crowd's bad science is equivalent to blaming it on Darwin's good science, because he inspired the Eugenics crowd.

Whereas, the real question worth investigating (and many are investigating it) is what was it about the psychopathology of the Nazis in particular (and the vast majority of Germans in general) that allowed them to so enthusiastically buy into some bad science and use it as justification for the murder of six (or seventeen) million innocents?
posted by philip-random at 11:48 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because there will always be bad science.
posted by philip-random at 11:48 AM on June 23, 2010


Sort-of fiction (based on his own experiences): Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He was a Polish Catholic who survived Auschwitz and Dachau. It's one of the most harrowing things I've ever read.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:56 AM on June 23, 2010


that allowed them to so enthusiastically buy into some bad science

In fact, Vermont had a seriously burgeoning eugenics movement and it's thanks to the Nazis and the suddenly-horrific revelations about their bad science when taken to crazed extremes that saved us from more blundering bad science in the name of "breeding better Vermonters" [excellent book on the subject by that name, by the way] until people with better science could get into positions of power and talk some sanity into people. Instead people looked at Nazi Germany and immediately shut down these programs almost overnight which was a blessing for the many people [mainly Abenaki Indians and people with low IQs or developmental disabilities] who were the local target.
posted by jessamyn at 11:56 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


For folks who are looking for a different perspective on World War II (though not the Holocaust specifically): A Woman in Berlin is an excellent memoir, originally published anonymously, about a German woman in Berlin after the fall of Berlin.

It humanized German war-era people for me in a way that I had never considered before--usually we see caricatures of Nazis and even German citizens.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:59 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


While I know people want to have a good, old fashioned freak-out over this, please read the Walrus review of the novel.

This is not a new subject, and there is something to be said for the fact that grotesque parts of our history are sometimes seen through the lens of art, and with good reason.

No one truly "owns" something as terrible and grotesque as this particular holocaust. Most of us have learned about this time in history from others, and the usual way was through some representational art form.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:01 PM on June 23, 2010


And now we also have a fiction about Anne Frank, just published, in which she has erotic connection to the boy next door!

I find this totally revolting.
posted by pinky at 12:04 PM on June 23, 2010


I find this totally revolting.

Open thread
posted by zarq at 12:14 PM on June 23, 2010


philip-random: Yeah, I thought you probably meant that, but your wording was poor. I just wanted to point out that humans always have (and unfortunately, probably will continue for quite a while) to come up with "reasons" for killing Others.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:17 PM on June 23, 2010


Martel's books are works of his imagination, hence of fiction. His "Jewish" world isn't a Jew's world - it's simply his creation, take it or leave it.

As a remote 1/8th Jew, I might leave it in the end because I'd wonder how authentic his "voice" could be. I trust, however, that I'd still give the reading a shot and go on to the end or stop after the first few lines.
posted by drogien at 12:17 PM on June 23, 2010


I thought there was something sort of vulgar and distasteful in Martel's saying that Jews don't "own the Holocaust". It just strikes me as a combative and insensitive way to frame his thinking. Don't people have a unique claim to their own history? It's not like a lawsuit was filed to block publication. I suspect that poor reactions to his work are not the result of territorialism so much as a desire not to see a complex and emotionally charged event cynically used by someone who has no personal connection to it in order to prop up a weak idea and sell books.
posted by clockzero at 12:18 PM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is important to remember that regardless of official Nazi race theories and classifications, the treatment of the victims was quite subject to political factors.

And so, even though Slavs were slightly higher than Jews in that classification (Jews were to be exterminated, Slavs to be slaves and eventually eliminated too), and Russians were Slavs, it did not mean that Russians would necessarily fare much better than Jews.

In the camps, the Russians were treated differently depending on whether they found themselves there as civilians or as prisoners of war. Because captured Russian soldiers, it could be argued had the worst treatment of all, even worse in some ways than the Jews, grim though those distinctions may be. Jews were slated for extermination - either immediate or through being worked/starved to death. The captured Russian soldiers though, were subject to something quite special in its monstrosity - they were to be in effect tortured to death, and basically alive only as long as they could withstand the torture. This of course was driven by political factors, but it was real enough. The Russian soldiers were at the lowest rung of that hell. If the Jews were worked to death, the Russian soldiers had higher quotas of work, on even less food. These distinctions are of course hard to generalize (some camps were worse than others), and hard to compare - how do you judge which is worse... being worked and starved to death at a camp, or driven into gas chambers straight from the train.

But the suffering of the Russian soldiers did not stop after camps were liberated. While the Jews and other prisoners were freed, the Russian soldiers were repatriated back to the Soviet Union... where Stalin put them into the gulag - the theory being that they should have died on the battle front and not surrendered or allowed themselves to be captured - besides, what if they learned something politically subversive as a result of exposure to other prisoners in Nazi camps. Truly monstrous. Then again, some Jews returning to their post-war areas in Eastern Europe faced murder and robbery.

There are many accounts of life in the camps, but unquestionably there are fewer accounts of the treatment of Roma or Russian soldiers etc., and that part of history remains obscure to most people who are otherwise reasonably familiar with the Holocaust.
posted by VikingSword at 12:22 PM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


I find this interesting, but only really through my own lens. In school we read Anne Frank's diary, and discussed a fair bit about the Holocaust, but it was always framed as a Nazis-hate-the-Jews scenario, maybe with a side comment or two about the "Gypsies". It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned about other groups involved, and even then I only knew about blacks, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses (the last thanks to a nice JH who dropped by for a chat one day...who was very accepting of my Buddhist beliefs)...until learning more today.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 12:57 PM on June 23, 2010


But the suffering of the Russian soldiers did not stop after camps were liberated.

Nor did it begin when they were captured. Russian officers sent their troops, armed with rifles (and sometimes not even with those, instructing the ones without to pick up rifles from those who were killed), out of foot against Panzers, and gunned down their own men when they retreated, wasting their lives with less concern than if they had been as many kopeks. See the first twenty minutes of Enemy at the Gates for a graphic portrayal of this. It rivals the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan in its power, though as with Saving Private Ryan the rest of the movie becomes a feel good heroic tale.
posted by orange swan at 1:00 PM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the movie 'Defiance', which was based on real events, the Ukrainian Jews weren't rounded up and taken to concentration camps, but simply shot on the spot.

The Einsatzgruppen (warning: disturbing photos) shot approximately 1,500,000 people throughout Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1943. At the January 1942 Wannsee Conference that planned the Final Solution, one of the discussion items was how difficult it was on the Einsatzgruppen to shoot all those people.

Nazi Germany had had concentration camps starting with Dachau in the early 1930s, which initially conformed to the pre-war meaning of internment camps. Auschwitz is the most famous (and, not coincidentally, westernmost) of the extermination camps that the Nazis founded in occupied Poland. The extermination camps is what people usually think of when they say "concentration camp," although as the Holocaust went on the difference became one mainly of degree.

There were about 26 million russians that were killed by germans. And a lot of them were not in the military

The vast majority of civilian and military deaths in the European theater were in Eastern Europe. No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 focuses on the Eastern Front. (It's a bit hit-and-miss, but an interesting perspective.) From a Foreign Affairs review:
The German-Soviet war accounted for 406 million "man-months," compared with 16.5 million for the Western Front and 5 million for the North Africa campaign. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 11 million soldiers in the European theater, while the United States and the United Kingdom combined lost fewer than 300,000 there. Battle deaths in Operation Barbarossa (Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941) were over 1.5 million, compared with 132,000 for Operation Overlord (the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944).
posted by kirkaracha at 1:02 PM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Gustav the concentration camp guard may have been mentally (and/or physically) flailing himself for decades, but most of us are never going to give him more sympathy than we would an old toaster because to do so would require us to believe that, under the right circumstance, we could wind up just like him.

Great literature is capable of this, of the leap of imagination required to put oneself into the skin of that guard, or a woman who turned in her neighbours for hiding Jews, or the Hitler Youth member who used his newfound social power to intimidate his younger siblings, or the Party member who held onto his ideology and belief that the war would eventually be won against all the claims of reality. I just made all of those up, but I guarantee you that they all happened and were ordinary experiences lived by ordinary people. The woman who turned in her neighbours never liked them anyway, and she got to claim their empty apartment afterwards which her own family needed, and besides they were breaking the law, what did they expect? Etcetera etcetera. I have become, as I've grown older, grateful that I've never been so tested in my own life. You just don't know. Would I have hidden the Jews-- I'd like to think so-- or, given the right circumstances, would I have been the one who betrayed them? We're all capable of both, you know. Shakespeare would have had no trouble bringing to life Gustav the concentration camp guard, for example, and letting us understand every nuance of his sadism and why propelled it. And that knowledge and even that sympathy for Gustav makes us better human beings, I think.

I haven't read this book or the Life of Pi, so I can't comment on either, but I liked the article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by jokeefe at 1:59 PM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


^^^ "why" should be "what"
posted by jokeefe at 2:00 PM on June 23, 2010


Frankl wrote the reason survivors don't want to talk about their experiences was not so much what had been done to them but what they had done.

Absolutely. The shame of the survivor.
posted by jokeefe at 2:01 PM on June 23, 2010


Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He was a Polish Catholic who survived Auschwitz and Dachau. It's one of the most harrowing things I've ever read.

The Polish really didn't do well with the Nazis, with 2m non-jewish ethnic poles killed (cf 3 million Polish Jews, who really had the odds against them and .5m non-jewish, non-ethnic poles). Himmler was on record as saying "All skilled workers of Polish background are to be used in our war industry. Afterwards, Poles will disappear from the world. . . . Every German’s time is coming. That is why it is necessary for the great German people to see their main task in the destruction of all Poles."

It's true that this was more likely because of Polish geographical incovenience than race-hate, but still, that's another stated intent toward nazi-led genocide, in terms of Holocaust "ownership".
posted by Sparx at 3:27 PM on June 23, 2010


Coming in late to this thread, but...

It seems to me that Martel's desire to create an allegory like Animal Farm is a bit ruined by his specific use of the Holocaust. We just had Saramago's obit thread, and imho Blindness is a pretty incredible depiction of the madness of genocide, and the capacity of humanity for both good and evil. He doesn't ever have to refer to the holocaust. The horror of Bosnia or Rwanda, or Cambodia seem equally well represented there.

Similarly, symbioid, I believe there is a character who is easy to hate, but is one of the first to turn blind, and as a reader I felt ambivalent toward that particular characters fate. It does seem that Martell (or his publishers) are being intentionally inflammatory in order to stir up press. I don't really want to have an opinion on him one way or the other, but in my judgy moments I have no interest in reading him based on me judging the people I know who describe it as their favorite book.

I've also read great fiction about the holocaust, and great non-fiction by people who weren't victims of persecution during a genocide (Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde and Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families). I guess I'm sensetive...I do want extra respect and class when an artist chooses to represent a subject that has been incomprehensibly demoralized, in order to prevent the art from feeling voyeuristic. And a comment like "Jews don't own the holocaust" feels like fighting words.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 4:21 PM on June 23, 2010


I liked The Life of Pie. I also enjoy Chuck Palahniuk. HATE ME

(except Snuff, that last one was just terrible).


posted by tehloki at 4:30 PM on June 23, 2010


God damnit. People replacing pi with pie ironically has finally gotten the fucking best of me. Fuck.
posted by tehloki at 4:31 PM on June 23, 2010


I thought there was something sort of vulgar and distasteful in Martel's saying that Jews don't "own the Holocaust". It just strikes me as a combative and insensitive way to frame his thinking. Don't people have a unique claim to their own history?

The original article and many of the comments above point out that the Holocaust is history for many people that are not, in fact, Jewish.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:51 PM on June 23, 2010


The original article and many of the comments above point out that the Holocaust is history for many people that are not, in fact, Jewish.
Yeah, thanks. I think we all know that.

So here's the thing: the entire article is based on a premise that isn't ever proven. We're told that Martel's book got bad reviews because he's a non-Jew writing about the Holocaust and Jews think we own the Holocaust. (Or maybe other people think that Jews own the Holocaust. I don't know. I know we run the media, but I suspect that there are at least a few non-Jewish book critics in Britain.) But there's no evidence at all to suggest that it's true. It seems perfectly likely to me that it got bad reviews because critics thought it was a bad book. And if we're going to treat the Holocaust like any other event in human history, that means that critics have to be able to write bad reviews of books about it.

I'm not terribly surprised that the Guardian would spin it that way, though. It seems to me that "Jews think they own the Holocaust and attempt to silence non-Jewish authors who write about it" is a close cousin of "Jews cry antisemitism to stifle criticism of Israel," and that's why it seems like a credible claim that can be made absent of any evidence.
posted by craichead at 7:51 PM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


I know we run the media, but

the Jews run the media, and they have all the money, and they pretty much dominate the world

posted by Greg Nog at 8:20 PM on June 23, 2010


The pissing in the cornflakes is bugging me, too.

Yann is a gentle, kind and thoughtful man, of the 'quiet guy in the corner of the party' variety. He doesn't pontificate: he's never struck me as pretentious. Some small corner of his psyche is in permanent orbit around Jupiter, granted, but that's pretty much the case for most writers.

I'm not going to attack or defend "Beatrice and Virgil", because I haven't read it. But please, lay off the kicking of the guy just because you don't like his speaking voice or his handshake.
posted by jrochest at 11:16 PM on June 23, 2010


Without any dismissal of the horror of the treatment of anyone caught up in that system, it's important to note that no group was so targeted or so mistreated as the Jews. Gays, Poles, Russians, and others were "undesirables," but you can't make the case that the Nazis were trying to eliminate the whole of the Russian ethnicity, for instance. The Roma were the next-most persecuted after the Jews, but they were also largely driven out of Germany rather than captured, and plenty of exceptions were made for those who had distinguished military service or otherwise "acted German."

The Aktion T4 program to eliminate people with disabilities (those with "life unworth living") predated the concentration camps. It never rose to the prominence of the persecution of the Jews, but it was absolutely intended to be a genocide, an erasure.

You know how when people want to talk about religious diversity, the non-Abrahamic religions that usually pop up are Hinduism and Buddhism, and so it's not really "all religions" they're talking about, they're just expanding the pool slightly? I feel like that when people note that "gays, poles, Russians, Roma, etc" were part of the Holocaust. Disabled people - of a much wider range of disability than is usually reported - were also marked for extermination.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:51 PM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Life of Pi was horrible for the first third, slightly below decent for the middle third, and pretty great in the last third. No idea how I made it to the last third.
posted by TomMelee at 7:56 AM on June 24, 2010


The original article and many of the comments above point out that the Holocaust is history for many people that are not, in fact, Jewish.

We Jewish people aren't stopping anyone from experiencing their own history or history in general, and I think it's clear that we invite others to experience our own. You, like this Martel person, seem to think that Jews are just big Holocaust hogs and that our relationship with our own history somehow precludes everyone else's relationship with contemporaneous events, which seems very peculiar, to put it politely.

If, on the other hand, you're suggesting that the Holocaust wasn't all about Jews, I think you're just misunderstanding a very common term.
posted by clockzero at 9:55 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was in my final semester of high school, I spent like a month just reading all the Holocaust literature I could get my hands on. There was one book that stood out to me as by far the darkest. It was This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski.

Here's a passage I have never forgotten. Our protagonist is working with the crew that helps to unload the trains. Baggage in one pile, and then the people go to the right or to the left.
It is impossible to control oneself any longer. Brutally we tear suitcases from their hands, impatiently pull off their coats. Go on, go on, vanish! They go, they vanish. Men, women, children. Some of them know.

Here is a woman--she walks quickly, but tries to appear calm. A small child with a pink cherub's face runs after her and, unable to keep up, stretches out his little arms and cries: "Mama! Mama!"

"Pick up your child, woman!"

"It's not mine, sir, not mine!" she cries hysterically and runs on, covering her face with her hands. She wants to hide, she wants to reach those who will not ride the trucks, those who will go on foot, those who will stay alive. She is young, healthy, good looking, she wants to live.

But the child runs after her, wailing loudly: "Mama, mama, don't leave me!"

"It's not mine, not mine, no!"

Andrei, a sailor from Sevastopol, grabs hold of her. His eyes are glassy from the vodka and the heat. With one powerful blow he knocks her off her feet, then, as she falls, takes her by the hair and pulls her up again. His face twitches with rage.

"Ah, you bloody Jewess! So you're running from your own child! I'll show you, you whore!" His huge hand chokes her, he lifts her in the air and heaves her on to the truck like a heavy sack of grain.

"Here! And take this with you, bitch!" and he throws the child at her feet.

"Gut gemacht, good work. That's the way to deal with degenerate mothers," says the S.S. man standing at the foot of the truck. "Gut, gut, Russki."

"Shut your mouth," growls Andrei through clenched teeth, and walks away. From under a pile of rags he pulls out a canteen, unscrews the cork, takes a few deep swallows, passes it to me. The strong vodka burns the throat. My head swims, my legs are shaky, again I feel like throwing up.

page 43.
posted by prefpara at 7:02 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


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