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Nicole Einbinder
Vera Sokolova
HIST 490
5 November 2014

We Are Human Beings: Literature as Empowerment for Holocaust Survivors

Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night
when you cant remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories
are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the
story- Tim OBrien, The Things They Carried
Words. The letters on a page that can turn a blank canvas from white to a range of colorful hues;
the letters that can dissect meaningless; the letters that can make sense of a senseless situation.
Life is a confusing place, a really confusing place. For all of the good in the world, all of the
happiness and love and small moments of triumph, there are equally moments of pain, of
brutality, of ignorance. The Holocaust. One of those singular events viewed as an example of the
worst of mankind, the systematic extermination of six million Jews, hundreds of thousands of
Roma and Sinti, political prisoners, homosexuals, and disabled persons. The Holocaust was an
example of the pain, the power, and the evil of man; Nazis objectified humans from you to it, and
in the process ideologically conditioned themselves to facilitate mass genocide. Thus, while
Europe remained silent, Hitler unleashed his wrath on millions. And today, when these statistics
are analyzed, that is what they are viewed as: numbers. Millions. Blank faces squashed by
Nazism, blank faces who had a story that will never be told; their words will never be heard.
In 1945, the German forces finally surrendered unconditionally to the Western allies who
liberated the concentration camps. However, two out of every three European Jew was killed; 1.5
million children were murdered, families were torn apart, and life was forever changed for those
who survived (The Holocaust: An Introductory History). And, as decades passed, these survivors
faced the task of rebuilding their lives while coming to terms with what they lived through. After
the war, many survivors were thus thrust into a new world order, either immigrating to the West


or adjusting to the Communist regimes of the Soviet Bloc. However, survivors were continually
confronted with an audience unwilling to listen to the past atrocity, forcing them to silence this
chapter of their lives as they tried to make sense of the genocide they endured. Many potential
storytellers were thus unable to speak out about their Holocaust experiences to fully regain
control over their individual narratives. However, when survivors did expose their subjective
experiences, they could better cope with suffering and regain agency over their histories. As seen
through the memoirs of Heda Margolius Kovaly, a Holocaust survivor who used literature to tell
her story and legitimize her narrative, Art Spiegelman, the son of a survivor who uses graphic
novels, with animals as different races, to try and understand what his father endured, and
Tadeusz Borowski, a political prisoner complicit in the gassing of victims, writing acted as a
means of retroactive empowerment for survivors, with storytelling employed as a way to
legitimize their narratives as they tried to regain power over the past and move on. This is
demonstrated by the themes of memory and survival incorporated in all three narratives.
Legitimization of Stories as a Healing Process
Every survivor of the Holocaust has a story to share; every survivor, every victim, every
human being saw atrocity. Every survivor saw their country turn its back on them, every survivor
was branded with a symbol that delegitimized their existence and validated the extermination of
an entire race. People were shot at point-blank while children were thrown into the crematorium
and turned to ash. In its aftermath, legitimizing the narratives of survivors and their offspring was
therefore essential for the healing process.
The Holocaust has so many stories. There is Steffi Messerschmidt, a fledgling musician
who at the age of seventeen was forced to flee to Belgium with her family, only to be arrested
during German occupation and taken to the Gurs interment camp in France (Jewish Museum


Berlin). There is Gusta Dranger, a teacher and fighter of the ZOB in Poland who could never
remove his Jewishness, for
Even if you had dropped your armband a hundred times, you would still be yourself. You
would still be a Jew- yet without an armband. Your Jewishness came out with every anxious
move, with every hesitant step, whenever you hunched your back, as if burdened with the yoke
of bondange (Schindlers Factory).
There was Solomon and David and Laura and an infinite number of names who all had stories,
who all deserved life, but it was taken from them. The survivors who told their stories not only
exposed their subjective truths, they exposed a larger narrative for the people unable to do so
themselves. Despite the difficulty of coming to terms with the Holocaust, survivors stories must
be heard, because when everything is destroyed, words are often all that remain. They validated
that Steffi did exist, she had a future blackened by Nazism. She was more than a name or
statistic; she was a human being. Her voice was never heard, but literature proves others could.
Following the Holocaust, a wave of survivors emigrated abroad as they rebuilt their lives
with the task of presenting themselves in a society that could not even begin to comprehend the
brutality they endured. Specifically in the United States, the common ground among survivors
was that nobody talked about it (Stein 45). Silence often became the norm as a way to protect
the psyche from re-experiencing past events, and thus they unconsciously repressed these
experiences, hiding them from themselves- and from others- in order to move on (Stein 45). Not
only was the genocide unspeakable for those who had endured it, Holocaust narratives in the
immediate decades following the war became un-discussable, especially as the general
population, including mental health professionals, was unwilling to listen to the stories that
validated the true barbarism capable of man. As a result, survivors individually dealt with the
shame of their past as they attempted to adequately integrate into the general population, despite
often enduring intense loneliness as no one truly understood their struggles (Stein 56)


Memory as Empowerment and Burden

Despite a status as survivor, perpetrator, or second-generation survivor, the memory (or
second-hand memory) of the Holocaust created lasting imprints on people who struggled to cope
in its aftermath. Yet, while many survivors attempted to erase these hardships, Holocaust
narratives have provided insight into the power of words as a tool to gain empowerment over the
memories. This is especially noticeable in Kovalys Under A Cruel Star, with literature used not
only to validate her experiences, but also for future generations to better understand what she
endured. Thus, her novel is an alternative narrative to a black-and-white history, in the process
not only empowering herself but also rehabilitating her husband Rudolf killed during the
Communist show trials. She employs literature not as a necessary truth of the past, but instead
uses selective memory to discuss experiences that reaffirm her humanity, even though under
Nazism Jews became nothing more than pieces of junk to be burned (65). Literature was used
as a tool to regain subjectivity in the face of oppression, as she regained the power and agency to
prove that Stalin is gone, Hitler is gone, and I am still here (Kovaly video).
Interestingly, while Kovaly used memory to regain power over the past, both Spiegelman
and Borowski are burdened by the memory, most likely due to their status as a second-generation
survivor and political prisoner. The use of memory as both empowerment and burden is critical
in Holocaust narratives; on one hand, memory provides control over a senseless situation and
enables survivors to prove they made it through. Yet, conversely, the memories are forever; the
pain, the devastation, the atrocity will forever be engrained in their minds. Spiegelmans graphic
novels Maus I and Maus II, postmodern novels presented as Art writing about himself
interviewing his father Vladek about his Holocaust experiences, especially illustrate the burden
attached to memory. Unlike the other writers, Spiegelman was never there, and as a result it is


impossible for him to regain full control over his fathers narrative, especially as Auschwitz just
seems too scary to think about (44). Thus, he employs comics as a way to process Vladeks
experiences, based on his selective memory about the past, which focuses on his desire to reunite
with his wife Anja. But, he also acknowledges that he can never fully understand or legitimize
this memory. While Kovaly uses literature to take control, Spiegelman, not Vladek, is the one
who struggles to find meaning with his familys wartime experiences. Like many survivors,
Vladek instead tries to diminish his narrative, only beginning to tell his story at his sons urging.
As Spiegelman struggles to describe these stories, the truths of his father, he too wears
the mouse mask, the mask of the Jews, because he was not there and will never be there. He is
further distanced from the past after Vladek destroys the diaries of his late wife Anja as these
papers had too many memories. So I burned them (159). Vladeks decision to burn Anjas
diaries after she committed suicide becomes a major point of contention between father and son,
even referring to his father as a murderer (159) of memory since he will never learn of the
hardships faced by his mother under Nazism. While the diary burning is a coping mechanism for
Vladek to try and unleash the burden of the past and move on, they paradoxically cause further
contention between father and son due to Spiegelmans gnawing desire to understand this buried
past. As a result, the history and facts lose importance in the context of the novels. Maus is thus
not the story of the Holocaust but the story of memory, of Vladeks memory, for even if the dates
and facts are not completely accurate, it is what he remembers and what he views as truth. The
specifics do not matter, as Vladek acknowledges that he does not remember exact details like
how long he was in the camps or details such as was he really a German? Who knows. It was
German prisoners also but for the Germans this guy was Jewish (50). Who knows. Prisoners
could be mice or cats. Yet, one fact was clear: in the eyes of the Gestapo, they were not human.


Spiegelman will always be burdened by the memories. He will always be burdened by his
mothers suicide shortly after he was released from a mental hospital when she murdered me,
Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap! (103). He will always be burdened by his
inability to fully encompass their suffering and feeling of powerlessness presented throughout
the novel as he tries to reconstruct his fathers history so he too can move forward with his life.
But, unlike Kovalys narrative that allows her to gain a sense of empowerment, he will never
completely grasp this full truth, thereby turning to literature as a futile attempt to understand a
war that had major influence on his fathers life. While the words allow Vladek to expose the
truths of his past to gain a sense of agency, Spiegelman is distanced because for him they are
only stories. Thus, he struggles to write his comics and adequately expose a horror he is alienated
from. This is obvious during a session with his therapist, when he employed Samuel Becketts
quote, Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness. For Spiegelman,
words, while able to dissect meaningless, are increasingly difficult to expose; they stain the
silence that many survivors were drawn to. But, then again, he also noted he said it (45).
Like Spiegelman, Borowski too struggles with memory in his narrative, This Way for the
Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. In his account, storytelling is employed as a means to directly make
sense of the atrocity he lived through, evident by his decision to write the piece right after he was
released from the camps, unlike other survivor narratives written later on. His writing is also
distant from the chaos around him, as him and other men in the Canada unit act immune to what
they are doing. He knows, people going to their death must be deceived to the very end (7), he
climbs inside transports of squashed, trampled infants, and openly admits that he feel(s) no
pity. I am not sorry theyre going to the gas chamber (9). Human nature is a major theme
throughout the article, as one victim of the camp can assist such barbarianism while lacking any


remorse for forcing innocent people, innocent children, to die within the depths of the gas
chambers as they claw on the doors, as they beg and scream. But, the door will never open. They
will never get out, their stories will never be told. And Borowski was forced to assist the Nazis to
make this happen, for if not it would be him on the way to the gas.
Borowski does not use literature to be a hero or victimize himself for being forced into
the camps. Instead, like Spiegelman, he writes as an attempt to understand humanity, as seen
through his descriptions of other men in his unit, who lack any sense of remorse, the
mechanization and simplicity of the prose, and the sharp distinction between the SS guards and
prisoners to enhance the savagery of the situation. Yet, while Borowski takes complete
responsibility for his complicity, he too uses writing to take back some control over the actions
forced upon him by the Nazis. He proves that they did not fully win by exposing his experiences
immediately after being freed, despite it being shocking for the time. But, ultimately, the memory
became too overpowering for him, leading to his suicide years after his release.
Survival, Lack of Survival, and Dehumanization in the Wake of Nazism
Storytelling verified memory. It verified a haunting past, a past of pain and senseless and
death, but at the same time proved a commonality: all three writers lived through the war to tell
their story. Even for Borowski, while he did eventually commit suicide due to the burden of what
he lived through, he still was able to use literature to reveal what happened under Nazism,
demonstrating at least some control over the past. Thus, it enables victims to become
survivors instead of individually coping with what they went through. In the process of
survival, they further regained a sense of the humanity so brutally taken from them in the camps.
Indifference towards the other fueled the Holocaust- people were so willing to turn a
blind eye on the devastation imposed by Hitler because the people subjected were different from


themselves. Such categorization of people- Jews, Germans, Homosexual, Roma- allowed Nazism
to flourish as ignorance took a front seat and hate manifested itself throughout Europe. Kovaly
and Vladek were categorized as this other, despite growing up fully integrated in their
societies. But, once Hitler came to power, former friends refused to help the Jew. The situation
was so senseless, so brutal, so abstract, and yet, according to Kovaly, in the long run, life went
on (45). Such sentiments were similarly expressed by Vladek, and after relaying an incident of
brutality to his son, said, so life goes (120). Life does not make sense, and it never will. But,
the clock still ticks as people can either move forward or remain fixated on the past.
Kovalys Holocaust narrative is short, in comparison to her communist narrative, because
despite the dehumanization, the destruction of Europe, the killing of her entire family, she still
was alive to start anew. It was a pause in her life and many survivors tried to bury it quickly, the
earth settled over it, and we turned our backs on it impatiently (45). Instead of using the postwar decades to grapple with their subjugation, it was often easier to ignore these histories so the
experience could vanish and survivors would once again be human. But, as many realized in
subsequent generations, silence made it impossible to fully regain control with feelings of
increased stigma over their survivor status (Stein 58). Kovalys ability to retell her narrative
allowed her to relay a core message, in that I was no longer a camp inmate, a victim destined
for destruction, but a human being (25). Through literature, she focused on the incidents that
reaffirmed her survival and humanity as she rebuilt her life with firm control over her past.
Despite her dehumanization for being a Jew, Kovaly is able to move on to assert her
survival. Interestingly, for Borowski, he was not a Jew. Yet, nonetheless, he was shipped to
Auschwitz, dehumanized as all of us walked around naked (1), observant of the Nazis with


corn-coloured hair and dreamy blue eyes (4), complicit as transports of victims unloaded at the
station of Birkenau to meet a death worse than they could possibly imagine.
Borowski acts brutal, he acts cruel, he does what is expected of him, and yet he is also
destroyed. He is destroyed because he watches a girl with enchanting blonde hair, with beautiful
breasts, wearing a little cotton blouse, a girl with a wise, mature look in her eyes amidst a sea of
death and inhumanity and gas chambers and knows that she will die. He is destroyed because he
sees people, human beings, and knows they want to live (10) and cannot do anything but
continue to unload the transports, taking out jewelry and gold and other precious items, taking
out trampled babies, watching small children who will burn. Yet, despite what he knows, he also
knows that at the end of the day, he will return to the luxury to the camp, a haven of peace (14)
and eat the food from the transport while others starve. He knows that he will live to see another
day, while the Sosnowiec-Bedzin transport is already burning (15). The girl with the blonde
hair died that day, a small girl with tangled black curls (7) died that day, and while Borowskis
body lived, his soul did not survive the burden of what he lived through. He is distant in the
article, which lacks an obvious moral compass, yet also cannot fully comprehend such terror.
And in the end, he, like Anja, struggles to survive after Nazism, ultimately taking his own life.
Both Borowski and Kovaly act very different in the face of their dehumanization; Kovaly
uses her subjugation as an instigator to prove her post-war survival in literature. Yet, Borowski
never fully overcomes the acts he was forced to commit. But, even though the beautiful blonde
was burned that day, her essence is forever instilled in the writing. He could not move on from
the past, but at least, even though he is gone, the story survives. Her strength survived. In
contrast, Spiegelman, as the second-generation, was not a survivor. However, Vladeks survivor
experiences have immense consequences on his upbringing, as he struggles to live up to the high


expectations of being born in an era void of the worlds senselessness. He thus faces immense
guilt that no matter what I accomplish, it doesnt seem like much compared to surviving (44).
Due to this, he depicts his father as more than solely a survivor, with his writing revealing his
many frustrations towards Vladek. For instance, one scene describes Vladeks racist attitudes
towards an African American hitchhiker, as he exclaims, I just cant believe it! Theres a
shvartser sitting in here! (99). Ironically, while he was dehumanized during the Holocaust for
being a Jew, he still can exude ignorant sentiments towards African Americans, thereby
demonstrating the often hazy line between victims and perpetrators of racial subjugation. And
while he begins to display more compassion towards Vladek as his life in Auschwitz is revealed,
his survival contrasts from the other authors in that he is not surviving the war itself, but instead
trying to survive the burdens inflicted by Vladek due to the war. As a result, the personal traumas
and pressures placed on him by his father remain core themes throughout the novels.
While the literature created by Kovaly, Spiegelman, and Borowski contrast due to their
individual experiences and ways of making sense of the situation, one commonality is evident:
writing served as a means to not only cope with past trauma, evident by the themes of memory
and survival, but also as retroactive empowerment by regaining the power they were deprived of
when stripped of their humanity. Yet, so many survivors were compelled to stay silent after the
war, viewed as a shamed group rather than one deserving sympathy (Stein 59). As seen
through the narratives, it is impossible to fully shed the Holocaust; it will always be one layer of
many. And society must listen, they must understand because the one who does not remember
history is bound to live through it again (Santayana). The survivors willing to retell their
narratives made clear Hitler did not win; Hitler tried to destroy them but their stories will always
remain. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when nothing is left except the story.


Work Cited
"The Holocaust: An Introductory History." Jewish Virtual Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 November
Stein, Arlene. " "As Far As They Knew I Came from France": Stigma, Passing, and Not
Speaking About the Holocaust." Symbolic Interaction. 32.1 (2009): 44-60. Print.

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