Text size

Even as a child, Geoffrey Hartman had a huge thirst for knowledge - about everything and as much as possible. He admits he did not have a happy childhood in England: Far from the city of his birth, Frankfurt, without his mother (who was the only one in the family to receive an entry visa to the United States, at the end of 1938), without his father (who immigrated alone to South America), without the grandmother who had been - so he imagined to himself, according to the postcard with an interesting stamp on it that he received from her, at some vacation site or treatment center for old people - at Thereisenstadt. The misery did not interfere with his knowing everything and wanting to pass on the knowledge. On the contrary, the desire for knowledge may have saved him. Presumably at the age of 9 (when he was rescued in the Kindertransport from Germany to England) or at the age of 16 (when he finally went to join his mother in the United States), he did not think of "knowledge" in terms of paradise as he would define it today: the knowledge of good and evil.

But now, at the age of 74, a renowned professor of English and comparative literature and the theory and practice of interpretation at Yale University, he is tortured by what is inherent in knowledge. It tortures him that the vast knowledge about this "genocidal era" leaves us with "the terrible sense of the human image; when the good drops out, what we will learn about is only the evil, and therefore, we will be left only with comparing one genocide to another. But there is nothing redemptive about it."

He voiced this distress in an "autobiographical sketch" called "The Longest Shadow, in the Aftermath of the Holocaust," during a breakfast table conversation at a Hanover, New Hampshire hotel and in a recent dramatic lecture he delivered at a conference at Dartmouth College on the topic of "Contested memories of the Holocaust."

"Let me begin with a particularly troubling characteristic of this genocidal age," he says. "I refer to a doubt about our ability to make genocide intelligible to ourselves: that is, consonant with our species image, our concept of the human... The vast amount of information accumulated... suggests the improbability of finding any explanation that could save our species image; the image of a humanity distinguished by actions that tend toward the good."

We are all bystanders

There is something unique about "our" Holocaust, about the annihilation of the Jewish people, he said at the conference, and which he clarified in the conversation. "There seems to be something absolute with the Holocaust, and it has something to do with empirical facts. Has any event like that been more researched? An incredible amount of attention and research has been invested here, concrete knowledge how such a massive murder could have been achieved. Raul Hilberg distilled a pattern over the overwhelming amount of facts, and remarkably early, in the early 1960s, he showed a very clear pattern from expulsion to concentration, while they invaded Eastern Europe when more Jews came under their domination, to finally extermination, at that time the intention was clear and he showed how it proceeded.

"What he hasn't been able to show, and perhaps cannot definitely be shown, is why there is a certain fringe of obscurity, which might be relevant to all genocides - how such a plan can be tolerated by those who initiated and enacted it."

Any claim of the Holocaust's uniqueness at this stage leaves us with "the bitter recognition that it is repetitive, the recognition that there were further genocides." Less researched, less mentioned genocides, the extent and duration of which are different, but nonetheless genocides that reveal that the "extreme brutality and suffering, are overwhelmingly the same." Therefore, any attempt at "a monopoly on suffering" is repugnant to him.

Genocides also reveal the collaboration and the standing off to one side; another aspect that tortures Hartman, who lived under the Nazi regime for six years: He remembers how German children picked on him and the other Jewish children on their way to the Jewish school; of Kristallnacht, he remembers his uncles who disappeared for a while - he was not told that they had been arrested - and he definitely remembers the Nazi parades, which fascinated him. "What had haunted me all along, in addition to the genocide itself, was that it was not significantly opposed by local populations, who often even exploited it," he says. "I still felt German enough not to condemn the German character as such; other nationals had shown themselves indifferent or had actively promoted the crime. There was, then, the mystery of the bystanders as well as of the perpetrators, and among the bystanders were many well-educated persons."

Now, in the world of global communications, there is an expansion of these repugnant concepts, which include widening categories of people: We all "have become involuntary bystanders, and therefore, we suddenly realize that what happened in Germany - which I could never understand how anyone could tolerate. I am in the same situation, and I feel totally powerless to do anything in this direction except talk about it and clear my conscience. I am very uneasy about identifying myself suddenly with people whom I considered guilty."

During the time of the Eichmann trial, he relates in his autobiographical sketch, he wrote "`Ahasuerus,' a poem that assimilated the witness account of a Sonderkommando member to the archetype of this legendary Wanderer, doomed to survive and conscious of everything. He would have preferred to die; but (in my version) his fear that he might be the last and only witness precluded death as a way out."

To experience the memories

Perhaps it was this approach that led him, without planning to do so, to participate in, and head, a project of video recordings of Holocaust survivors. The Hollywood film "Shoah," the revisionist school of Holocaust denial that lifted its head, the reestablishment of lives after the Holocaust - all spurred survivors to speak. A group of survivors in New Haven, Connecticut, Hartman's city, initiated a project of videotaping testimonies. His wife Renee was among the first to give a filmed testimony: As a girl of 9, she was sent with her sister from Slovakia to Bergen-Belsen, although the two had asked to be sent to Auschwitz, where their parents had been sent earlier.

Once, when she was ill, Renee was unable to participate in a meeting of the project's initiators. She suggested to him that he go in her stead, and since that day 25 years ago, he has devoted a significant portion of his time and energy to the project. In fact, it was Hartman who turned it into a Yale library project and aroused interest in it in France, England, Germany and Israel (at the Diaspora Museum). "We were the John the Baptist of Spielberg's testimony project," he says. "We are a small corner shop as compared to his supermarket," The project at Yale has succeeded in interviewing about 10,000 survivors; Spielberg's - 100,000.

At the base of the video documentation project was the realization that the general picture given by historians is insufficient. "What I wanted was a restitution: the survivors not only recalling what happened then, but their thoughts, now as well as then," he says. "The whole person, or as much as could be recorded in the space of two hours... The interviewers were instructed to ask a minimum of questions, in the hope that memories will emerge from a deeper, more spontaneous level. It was also a way of compensating for the fact that most visual documentation of that period comes from Nazi sources. Our Holocaust museums are full of photos drawn from the picture book of the murderers. The mind is exposed to images magnifying the Nazis and degrading their victims. The witness accounts are a view from the other side: they restore the sympathy and humanity systematically denied by Nazi footage."

Hartman relates that initially, historians rejected his suggestion that they participate as interviewers in the project. Historians, he complains, cast doubt on the reliability of oral testimonies. Over the years, their attitude changes. "The video project does not impinge on the province of historians, who sift and compare sources, but seeks to open the hearts and minds of both high school students and adult audiences. They see the testimony of a thinking and feeling person, rather that of a victim," he says.

Hartman hopes that people who did not experience the Holocaust as well as people who are not Jewish will experience the memories of the Holocaust. Here, almost against his will, he returns to talking about orientation toward the future. That is, about some sort of expectation for "the good." He hopes that "memory envy," as he puts it, will not increase the alienation among the different ethnic groups in the United States (especially Afro-Americans and Jews); he hopes that the memory of every particular genocide will become universal due to the necessity of trying to prevent genocides despite the bitter experience of the inability to prevent them.

But the conflict between the truth of the Jewish Holocaust and the other genocides, on the one hand, and the instinct to hope, on the other, always exists; sometimes, in the middle of someone's bar mitzvah celebration, he argues with himself: "How can you be so sad, so vengefully angry, just at this happy moment? I think of the sudden pitiless removal of a family, or a community like the one in which I am praying, from their rooted and peaceful existence, to suffer a nakedness more terrible than Job's, and which resembles - if it can resemble anything - landscapes of hell in Christian painting... This Holocaust suddenness is worse than death, a denial of life so stark that it is hard to summon an affirmation to counter it, to decide that life, when such a shame and desecration come to mind, remains worthwhile."