Genocide and a Failure of Imagination

Our guest blogger is Markrid, a librarian at the Central Library downtown. She has worked in school, university, and public libraries since the late 1980s. She agrees with Orhan Pamuk, who said he distrusts incident, because it interferes with real life.


"As we were huddled, naked and freezing, in the huge courtyard, we could hear the roar of the ovens. Ash was falling on us. And I thought, Oh, good - they're baking bread for us."

The voice is gentle, the manner matter-of-fact. The elderly Hungarian woman speaking at the Museum of Tolerance is wearing  a short-sleeved dress on this summer afternoon, so the audience notices the line of numbers tattooed on her forearm.

As she spoke, the impulse to deny the Holocaust began to make some kind of emotional sense. Hungary's Jews were somewhat spared until near the end of the war, so they'd heard rumors of the camps for years. Finally, they too had been rounded up, shipped off, stripped of their belongings, shorn of their hair, and torn from their relatives; the worst had come; but even in the moment itself, for this woman the enormity of the Final Solution was too great to grasp.

Maybe they're baking bread for us! This survivor's story shows that a profound difficulty in confronting genocide is simply being able fully to imagine it; but history demands that we make the effort because we cannot forget - neither we nor those who come after us.

Sometimes fiction seems to move one closer to the truth than fact. The claustrophobic fear of occupied Amsterdam is invoked with dark subtlety in Harry Mulisch's novel The Assault, which creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable moral tension: which neighbor is secretly collaborating with the Nazis, and who is risking everything to resist them?  W.G. Sebald, brilliant and completely original, manages, in his strange, hypnotic masterpiece Austerlitz to convey both the loneliness of the Kindertransport and the grotesque horror of Theresienstadt, contrived as the Third Reich's "model" concentration camp. This book is in a class by itself.

Other times, only fact will do, and if one had to choose just a single book about the Holocaust to help make that imaginative leap, that book could well be Primo Levi's classic Survival in Auschwitz. Levi, a 25-year-old Italian chemist, set himself the task of documenting with scrupulous accuracy his experiences in the notorious camp. This short book vibrates: a very young man's wholehearted moral outrage suffuses the scientist's commitment to exact observation.

An unforgettable scene in Levi's book has a fellow prisoner begging him to recite poetry, the Dante he'd memorized as a schoolboy. The original Italian title of Survival in Auschwitz is perhaps better, Se questo e un uomo, or If this be a man: if the atrocities of the camps are uniquely human, so too is the transcendence of art and language. The poet Peter Balakian writes movingly of this passage in his article Poetry in Hell: Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz . Armenian-American Balakian's own coming-of-age meant gaining a gradual awareness of the horrors of the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century and its profound effects on his family, from which his well-meaning parents tried to shelter him. His memoir Black Dog of Fate begins as the story of a suburban boyhood and works to a crescendo of righteous anger.

To most of us, the Armenian world in the time of the massacres of 1915-1923 is a very foreign one. It comes a little closer in the moving memoir Efronia: an Armenian Love Story, which vividly fills in an old and complicated corner of the map. A classic of accurate historical fiction, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, brought international attention to the destruction of Armenia with its story of heroic resistance fighters.

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is April 21 this year, and Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day comes on April 24 - good occasions to re-examine our historical imaginations, or to prod them into absorbing something new, since, unfortunately, there is enough human tragedy to keep us all learning. This is the year this blogger will finally tackle The Master and Margarita, among whose many complex strands is the Holodomor, the terrible genocidal famine Ukraine suffered in 1932-33.