Opinion

Writing About the Holocaust Has Rarely Been More Resonant

Judging books for this year's JQ/Wingate Prize on 1930s European fascism, the fate of refugees refused asylum and mass warfare and its aftermath, it was clear how history refuses to stay neatly in the past.

In this June 17, 1939 file photo, German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba and the United States.
In this June 17, 1939 file photo, German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba and the United States. AP

What a difference six months makes. 

When I joined my fellow judges last August for our first meeting to discuss the nominees for the 2016 JQ/Wingate Prize, all we had to worry about was that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union, in what looked likely to be a “soft” Brexit at the time; Trump was still a joke candidate for the U.S. presidency and the French elections barely loomed on the horizon.

By the time we met two weeks ago, for the fourth and last time, to decide on the winning book, the world had changed. U.S. President Trump and the so-called alt-right, with its figurehead Steve Bannon, are installed in the White House. The U.K. is heading for a hard Brexit and international isolation. The prospect of a National Front president in France and the consequential disaster in the Eurozone and the unraveling of the EU is no longer unimaginable. 

As I and my fellow judges read the many submitted books dealing in an impressive variety of ways with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, the fate of refugees refused asylum and mass warfare and its aftermath, we reflected time and again on how history refuses to stay neatly in the past. 
The marvelously wide rubric of the 40-year-old prize is “to recognize writing by Jewish and non-Jewish writers that explores themes of Jewish concern in any of its myriad possible forms either explicitly or implicitly.” As literary editor of the Jewish Quarterly the question of what makes a book “Jewish” is one I confront regularly and respond to, I hope, as broadly as possible. The prize has certainly had its moments of controversy, most notably in 1997 when the non-fiction prize was awarded to Benjamin Wilkomirski’s Holocaust “memoir” Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, which turned out to be a work of fiction, in the most fraudulent sense of the term. 

The unique challenge facing today’s judges is not how to define what a “Jewish” book is, but the consequence of the decision in 2006 to stop awarding two prizes, one for non-fiction and one for fiction, and instead to offer a single prize: how to measure a novel against a work of history distilling a decade of research? 

With seventy books covering every imaginable subject and genre submitted by publishers large and small, I and my judging colleagues – chair of the judges Bryan Cheyette, novelist Joanna Kavenna and playwright Amy Rosenthal – found that whittling the list down to a more manageable long list of 14 was less difficult than we had feared. Several books were brilliantly written, but simply did not fulfill the requirement of exploring themes of Jewish concern; the fact that the authors were Jewish didn’t change that. Others ticked all the boxes but in the end we felt that they would not stand the test of time. 

The jury is encouraged every year to consider for the award a book that is not about the Holocaust. But by the time we came to agreeing on the shortlist it was clear that if we were selecting the best books, in terms of both quality of writing and urgency of theme, the Holocaust would, once again, dominate. 

Our shortlist of five included two books by writers who died within the last ten years: All for Nothing, Walter Kempowski’s flawless, haunting novel set in east Prussia during the last days of the Third Reich, beautifully translated by the peerless Anthea Bell, and David Cesarani’s magisterial history, The Final Solution. Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence, translated from Polish by Alissa Valles, is an extraordinary investigation of the 1940 Jedwabne massacre and its ever-current reverberations in present-day Poland, whilst Philippe Sands’ dazzling memoir East West Street explores the lives of two lawyers whose ideas first made waves during the Nuremberg Trials and still dominate human rights law today. Only Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel Waking Lions, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, which boldly and brilliantly explores the refugee crisis in Israel, is not about World War Two. 

As Bryan Cheyette wrote about the judging process, the shortlisted books all deal one way or another with resolutely contemporary themes: “The mass migration of refugees, the horror of war, and the denial of the humanity of others in the face of global indifference. This is our twenty-first-century world.” 

If we cannot avoid seeing parallels between the horrors of the past and the present this is surely an indictment of our supposedly more civilized times. What was so striking, as we read and debated these shortlisted books was that 70 years after the end of the war there is still so much to be said. 

Cesarani’s book in particular is a remarkable reconsideration of major themes in Holocaust historiography (not least in his rejection of the very term Holocaust, which he considers to have become too loose to be useful any more). Bikont’s highly disturbing exploration of the violent and murderous way that the prewar multicultural Poland was transformed into an ethnically and religiously homogeneous population is terrifyingly current, given the ongoing discourse of competitive victimhood and the politically-charged discussion around Polish national identity in contemporary Poland  

It is indeed hardly surprising that the Holocaust remains a monumental subject for both fiction and non-fiction written by both Jews and non-Jews, for along with what one learns from these books about the past, no less importantly they are necessary, as George Santayana knew all too well, for us to be able to understand the present. After all, we live in a post-truth world, where anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are once more rearing their ugly heads, and where refugees and the question of our duty to offer asylum to those escaping the horrors of war, as explored in such different ways in the two shortlisted works of fiction, All for Nothing and Waking Lions, are subjects that animate the front pages of our newspapers almost every day. 

In the end we found we could not choose between history and fiction, both exemplary, if very different, modes for exploring and explaining human experience. We chose to split the prize between Sands’ memoir, in which he interleaves the story of his own mother’s family with those of the lawyers Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, and Gundar-Goshen’s uncompromising and challenging novel about African refugees in Israel and the lethal danger of social indifference. Though in every sense they could hardly be more different from each other, both books have important, and complementary, lessons to teach us about the world we live in today. They are, too, a tribute to the breadth and pluralism of 'Jewish' writing, and to the continuing relevance of the prize itself. Long may it, and the conversation it informs about identity, history and the ethical power of writing, prosper.

Natasha Lehrer is literary editor of the Jewish Quarterly. She writes for, among others, The Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, The Nation and The Jewish Chronicle. She won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff prize for literary translation, for Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. Follow her on Twitter: @natashalehrer