(Posted to this site on 09/23/2001 )
A TEACHING UNIT ON HOLOCAUST LITERATURE
One of the ways that Holocaust literature treats the unthinkable reality it represents is by avoiding a precise description of horror, and assuming instead different strategies of displacement. Strategies of displacement are stylistic devices which shift the fictional action away from the center of historical reality, toward marginal areas. This displacement occurs at different levels-in time and space, in the description of seemingly minor human states, by concentrating on the interior world of the protagonists, and so on.
The focus of this unit is the theme of liberation, a historical event which marks both the liberation of the victims of the Nazis, and the Allied victory, and which is also a broader concept laden with existential, emotional, symbolic and other meanings. Liberation is a focal point of displacement in Holocaust survivor literature. Many literary works by members of this generation examine events belonging to the periods directly before and after the war, among them liberation, instead of the actual war years.
Liberation is first of all a part of history, and is usually presented as such in Holocaust research and teaching. Literature that grapples with the subject of liberation illuminates the human condition, deepens the significance of the topic, and broadens its boundaries beyond a particular point in time.
The literary works under discussion in this unit deal with the historical liberation of the Nazis’ victims. But because of their nature as works of literature they express primarily personal aspects of the historical events. For most survivors, psychological liberation did not occur simultaneously with the historical liberation, and the horror persisted long beyond an objective moment in time. These stories describe the attempt to escape something from which there is no escape.
STRUCTURE OF THE UNIT
The unit is composed of short prose works by writers who survived the Holocaust. It is divided into three sections, organized chronologically: Part One—Leaving the Concentration Camp Gates, Part Two—The Aftermath of the War, or the “The Model of the Closed Camp,” and Part Three—The Latter Days of Job.
In its entirety the unit makes possible a profound meeting between pupils and Holocaust literature through the prism of theme. The thematic connection focuses the learning process on a concept familiar to pupils-liberation. Our assumption is that this concept will take on further meaning in the consciousness and experience of the pupils during the course of study. It is possible to treat each unit separately, and each literary work may stand on its own.
The unit contains a selection of stories, critical articles on each story, questions for discussion and further study, and introductions to provide the groundwork of each part of the unit.
The critical articles are aids for the teacher and/or the pupils. They show the different ways in which the stories are constructed and the significance of these structures. They are suggestions only, and readers are invited to come to their own conclusions.
Discussion and study questions are designed for the teacher and the pupils, and focus attention on different matters raised in the stories. Some of the questions are textual, inviting close reading, and others relate to the general significance of the stories. There are also questions which direct pupils to creative activities connected with the stories, to encourage identification with the situations, the characters and the themes.
At the beginning of the unit:
1. Exercise: Write down your associations with the concept of “liberation.”
2. Describe an incident in which you experienced liberation.
At the end of the unit:
1. Exercise: Write down your associations with the concept of “liberation” and compare them with the associations that arose before studying this unit.
2. Choose a character from one of the stories, and write an episode in which you join him or her in a particular scene. What do you have to say to this character? Would you have chosen to change his or her decisions?