Holocaust, Archives, Postmemory and Truth in Rachel Seiffert’s Literature
Actualizado: ene 2
Vanesa COTRONEO (UBA-UNLP-FAU).
Rachel Seiffert was born in Oxford (1971), to German and Australian parents. She belongs to a writers’ generation which interrogates the past. In this article, I will focus on the representation of how several means and media create realities that are deconstructed by the fictional characters, in order to speak their own truth. Before the inter- and transmedial analysis, it is important to mention some notes on the texts. The Dark Room (2001) presents three stories connected to the Second World War and post-war memory. The first and the second stories happened in Germany, before and exactly, at the end of the war when “Nazi children” were suffering the consequences of losing their parents to bomb attacks or imprisonment. The third story, set in 1997, features a young man protagonist whose grandpa was a Nazi member of the Waffen SS; this story links to the postmemory and personal archive as a way to understand, organize and tell the truth.
Research and archiving also appear in Seiffert’s book Field Study (2004), a collection of stories constituted by tales as “Field Study,” which contains the story of a broken family with mother, Ewa and her son, who were abandoned by the father due to his other academic projects. Another story, “Dimitroff”, connects with intergenerational family relations. Hannah is the daughter of a persecuted communist who fought against the Nazi enemy and won. According to Hannah, the communist party and the right oriented ones, applied similar methods in the political speech or ideological discourse of the truth. These stories connect the research and archive procedure with the logic of retrieving data; they present trips, research, and ways to knock on doors to ask and receive information about people.
The second novel, Afterwards (2007), introduces a female character called Alice, who is living a love story with Joseph, a man who was in the army in Northern Ireland. Simultaneously, she tries to understand her own grandparents’ love story: one between a nurse in Nairobi and a former member of the British Forces in the postcolonial 1950s. The analysis will present how photographs, letters and other media organize the story of Alice’s grandpa.
Considering those comments about the texts, it urges examining why media, inter- and transmedial processes are so important in narration. One notable aspect of Holocaust fiction is the idea of different perspectives and ways of witnessing. Current analyses are shifting from the macro or totalitarian truth to the idea of personal memory and individual, particular experiences that determine the witness’ perspective and the linguistic enunciation.
Just remember Sethe’s intergenerational slave memories in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where some ‘points of memory’ are signs of pain and torture in the body, marks passed down through generations and still affect family identity. Or Primo Levi’s traumatic encounter with a Nazi officer during his transportation as a prisoner to Auschwitz. In terms of linguistic violence and intercultural incomprehension, the author points out his difficulties speaking the perpetrator’s language and the feeling of dispossession resulting from being misunderstood because of his accent. Since that, the body-mind idea of desreferencialization: the idea of opaqueness.
Even when the affective connections with family genealogies and structures relate to identity, the trauma can be felt and transferred through bodily empathy or rejection. This happens in the third story of The Dark Room when Micha comes to awareness about his grandpa’s participation in the murders of Jewish people in Belarus during the war. Micha, a third-generation relation, struggles with his connection to the perpetrator. Moreover, as a teacher, Micha is in a position where the transmission process enhances his own body as a narrative. In a personal and pedagogical discussion with his wife Mina, Micha says about his students:
"They are being taught that there are not perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught that it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same job and had children and grandchildren after the war.
[Mina replies] I don’t think it is true.
It is, Mina. I never made the connection before, and it was there in my home. He drew me pictures, I sat on his knee."
This scene, sitting on grandpa’s knee, is brought up in describing a family picture. Indeed, one of Micha’s main media is building up his personal archive of analogic photographs. He is not the only one. There are also photographs in Afterwards:
"A few cards on the shelf above […] Above them, at eye level, were the photos of her grandparents’ life together, their small family. Alice’s primary school photo, gappy teeth and bunches, her eighteen birthday and her mum’s graduation […] Gran in a silk blouse and Grandad in uniform, both taken in a studio, somewhere in Nairobi."
Barthes would say that pictures have evidential force. Hirsch argues that more than oral or written narratives, photographic images that survive massive devastations function as “ghostly revenants from an irretrievably lost past world.” Thus, other verbal elements are as important in the personal archive. At this point, the storytelling is not vacuous, it has a special role due to the witnesses and the narrative’s emplotment. Later on, I will say that this narrative is not only witnessed first-hand; it also demonstrates emplotment, consistent with Hayden White’s fiction and narrative theories.
Going back to storytelling, an interesting passage of its function is found in Afterwards:
"Alice has always found her grandparents’ story romantic. When she was a child, she’d often asked her gran to tell it to her, because it was so different to their suburban reality, and she was fascinated by the idea of their other life elsewhere. It was only later, when she got into her teens, that she began to put their story into context, prompted largely by the realization that her grandparents’ time in Africa made her mother so uncomfortable. It was her mum who told her that Gran had worked in the European hospital in Nairobi."
For Alice, the words and the storytelling create a stage where she can feel like she is living another reality, in a way, transported in time and space. A similar strategy will appear at the beginning of “Francis John Jones, 1924”, from Field Study. It starts with the first narrator giving the voice to a second narrator, saying: “the story he is going to tell happened in 1944.” The story is about a soldier who was in Cairo but who should have been fighting in an Italian battalion. The work of storytelling is entirely the task of this second narrator, who also includes meta-thoughtful comments such as the following: “that is what memory does; it organizes.” In this line of organizing the data, Hayden White’s notion of emplotment is evident. According to the author, even for the historian, the decision of where to start, where to put the emphasis and where to end, is an exclusive construction because there is no scientific text for historical significance. In this way, the writing of history is similar to the writing of fiction. Characters deal with a past that they do not have direct access to but have the data for. Then, these subjects can collect it or, as editors, can connect it to form a narrative, a plot; the way that connecting the points leads us to different discourses or genres. In these variations of storytelling and emplotment, is where it is possible to recognize how Holocaust studies and literature move from the era of witness to the era of documents. Therefore, the interrogation about representation takes place one more time: how to speak the unspeakable. Literature—especially poetry—is a privileged way to represent this trauma and create meaning. According to Bayer and Freiburg, “Die einzige legitime Reaktion auf den Sprachmissbrauch des Nazismus müsse demnach die Flucht vor der konkreten Sprache in das Musische und Lyrische sein.” When all the linearity and reference fail, the visual memory through photography has a function again, like tactile, musical or other senses.
In this direction, two moments in the literature can be considered as a hinge, a crossed fence and the break of innocence. In the case of The Dark Room, the images that Lore sees on the street, the pushes that she suffered in multitudes later and her incomplete understanding, demonstrated by guessing, put the narration into bodily reaction. She touches the fresh glue with her fingers, she closes her eyes and still sees the images of the corpses. Similarly, is the case of “Tentsmuir Sands”, the third story in Field Study, where the boy and his mum find a dead seal on the coast, and it raises questions about life and death in the safety of the beach and his mum. However, the text also describes the presence of sand in his shoes (tactile) and the sound he was still able to hear (music). Nevertheless, the bad memories continue: “he sees the dead seal when he closes his eyes: at night now, but the sand is still pale and the wind still blowing. The eyes blinking at him over the water are large and black and wet, and the noise from the sandbank sounds like crying.” Evidently, studies related to Holocaust are deeply concerned with language because of the ways to name the evil or terror and the Nazis’ strategies to stop community, identity and solidarity by imposing signs, images and speeches. The Regime’s violence was so extreme, thoughtless, and significant that, as Eagleston says, it is “the banal evil of making the humans superfluous, the core of totalitarian domination… is not limited to totalitarian states and might easily surface at any time. Its symptom is the vilification of others: its result is mass murder.” This is a characteristic of totalitarian regimes not only during the Holocaust, but in genocides around the world.
History, legacy, culture and memories of the genocides are elements of transmission; it is not easy to talk about the Holocaust/Shoah/ Catastrophe. On the one hand, there is the question about who can talk about it, or what Irene Kacandes calls pedigree: should it be a person directly affiliated with the Holocaust or genocides? Or are they human crimes that affect us all? On the other hand, there is the interrogative debate over how to teach about it to younger generations.
According to Hirsch and Kacandes, “in courses on literature and representation, the Holocaust can provide some of the most sophisticated interrogations of representability, the limits of art, speech in the face of unspeakability, and the intersection of ethic and aesthetic.” They continue discussing what witnesses can bring to the audience as “co-witness,” defined as the empathy and effect on second or third generation survivors listening to what happened before. This transference leads to Hirsch’s idea of postmemory as an “intersubjective transgenerational space of remembrance, linked to a cultural or collective trauma that is not strictly based on identity or familial connection.” This is why it is so important for Micha in The Dark Room, that his students (he teaches history, not literature) not only identify with the victims but know that the perpetrators and bystanders could have been in their neighbourhoods or even families. One could say that his own process of discovering his truth, his teaching and interest in educational transference, is sincere. This moves him to tell and speak.
However, there are other points about speech that still have to be considered. In the first and second The Dark Room stories, we see Helmut and Lore after the war, completely shocked by their experiences. As readers, we follow their movements, bodies and incapacity to speak, as children and directly traumatized persons. Helmut sees his house destroyed by the attacks, his Mutti and Vatti do not come back, and he goes to the photography shop where the owner is also absent and unreachable. The impossibility of talking, being listened to and communicating, is also reflected by Lore, who was moved by the victims’ pictures but trying to understand if what she saw in the photographs were corpses or living humans with open eyes. This broken voice is present in these characters as it was in another Holocaust novel, Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, where Szmul, a Sonderkommando agent in a concentration camp, deals with the linguistic effects of trauma and violence by finding a translation to Yiddish, and in his death, his own redemption and explicability. To Levi’s point about the Sonderkommando’s intent “to impose in others the most atrocious tasks,” Eaglestone comments the more subtle point: “an attempt to shift the burden of guilt on to others—specifically the victims—so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence.” The Nazi children and the Sonderkommando, guilty and ashamed for being relatives of Nazis, in the first case, and for doing the dirty work with no other options, in the second, face the aphasia from their guilt, without the possibility to explain their terror and unintelligibility. Therefore, artistic objects such as Helmut’s photographs can concentrate feelings, words and expressions. Similar to Lore’s last scene, where, after suffering all the traumatic events including her younger brother’s death, she faces the cold wind while crying, stretching her mouth and letting the cold air go into her body in a kind of performance. This is a way for her to feel and be present:
"[Lore] stands on her own and the wind claws her skin, tears through her clothes. Lore doesn’t look down at the water, faces the far shore ahead. She unbuttons her coat and lets the wind rip it open, pounding in her ears. She stretches her mouth wide, lets the winter rush down past her lungs and fill her with its bitter chill."
As already mentioned, where the children in this novel cannot articulate their thoughts, Micha will reinforce the idea of a teacher, educator and third-generation member who wishes to transmit his personal archive and truth. That is, to teach that there were victims, bystanders and Nazi perpetrators who were or are, part of his students’ families.
In conclusion, I will also add that elements such as letters can fulfil the expectations of a third-generation researcher by touching the materiality and following the intangibility of a love story. In the case of Afterwards, Alice reads her grandpa’s romance letters and feels the episodes as alive as reality, witnessing the story across decades and until its end. The British postmarks on their Kenyan correspondences marked the end of the romance and English history. Nevertheless, where there is the letter, there is also the idea of an identity that cannot change anymore, and the presence of the past as an elegy, a kind of spot in time. Alice’s reception is, therefore, mediated by her knowledge of how their lives continued afterwards.
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