Karin Doerr. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 18, Issue 3. Spring 2000.
Only later in life have some women voiced their Holocaust experiences. One example is Ruth Kluger’s acclaimed German autobiography, welter leben-eine Jugend (1992). The Holocaust has also influenced female fiction writers. American-born Sherri Szeman wrote the Auschwitz novel The Kommandant’s Mistress (1993). Both engaging texts consist of non-chronological memory fragments.
Szeman’s two narrators, a female Jewish concentration camp inmate and a Nazi camp commander, strive for hegemony as they reveal their common sexual encounters in the concentrationary world. For Szeman, the Holocaust, despite its magnitude and impersonality, provides a symbolic language and a framework in which to express individual victimization of women, and crucially, the possibility of survival.
A juxtaposition of autobiographical and fictional memoirs reveals a contrasting depiction of remembered history, especially with regard to women. Good intentions and literary talent aside, the dilemma of fictional representation of the Holocaust arises, and questions of verisimilitude and author’s responsibility demand response. Critics continue to grapple with these issues.
In the last decade, women’s voices have become more numerous and noticeable on every level of Holocaust discourse. Some concentrate on critical writing from an inclusive, feminist perspective. Two recent books attest to this fact. Women in the Holocaust and Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, both published in 1998, are not only written by women about women, but also try to come to grips with the usually neglected issue of gender differentiation in the Shoah. Sara E. Horowitz’s statement explains the basis of this new approach that takes into account gender-specific targeting: “Just as Nazi atrocity attacked Jewish women both as Jews and as women, it also attacked Jewish men both as Jews and as men.” She is an example of those female scholars who refrain from being ideologically confrontational. Marion Kaplan holds the same viewpoint, and explains that “[t]o raise the issue of gender…does not place it above racism.” She also reiterates the fact that “[m]any women, particularly young women, remained silent” after the Holocaust (p. 8). The reason was that they did not deem their story relevant to the larger picture of the Holocaust, especially when it contained elements of sexual violation or gender-related matters. Thus, they judged their experiences as women to be trivial in comparison.
With the awareness that their accounts matter too, many female survivors are now recording their individual experiences. They are contributing valuable details to the history of the Jewish genocide. As well, fiction writers evoke the Shoah, sometimes for personal reasons. Fiction tends to concentrate on specific and often unusual occurrences in order to articulate and highlight universal experiences, whereas memoirs deal principally with different aspects of life and, in the case of Holocaust survivors, predominantly with survival during and after the Shoah.
Ruth Kluger’s account weiter leben—eine Jugend (To Continue Living—Youth) and Sherri Szeman’s novel The Kommandant’s Mistress (1993) are two female contributions which reflect their respective categories as narratives by a Holocaust survivor and by a non-witness. The fact that Kluger, a former Austrian-Jewish camp inmate, has first-hand knowledge of the concentrationary world, and the non-Jewish American Szeman does not, results in significant contextual differences that separate these works from each other. There are also factors that connect them, as for instance, the narrational structure, the focus on language, and their female lives within the context of the Shoah. Both authors link a part of their memories of suffering and victimization to being female during the Nazi period and beyond. While examining these unifying aspects of women’s testimonial and fictional Holocaust writing, the intention of this analysis is to also show the difference of these texts as manifested in narrational viewpoint, representation of the perpetrator, and the depiction of sexual violation of women.
In “‘Memory’s Time,’ Chronology and Duration in Holocaust Testimonies,” Lawrence Langer makes the point that for Shoah survivors, “durational time relentlessly stalks the memory of the witness, imprinting there moments immune to the ebb and flow of chronological time. No public ritual can ease the sting of such private recall, which persists outside the frame of consolation or closure.” Langer implies that, due to the impact of the past experience, the force of its memory continuously overrides other events. This fact is expressed in one short sentence in Charlotte Delbo’s autobiographical book, Auschwitz and After: “I’m imprisoned in memories and repetitions.” By its lack of closure, that past continues to occupy the present. Up till now, a large number of survivors has borne these recurring memories with muted pain. Their long, silent suffering punctures the illusion of many that survival alone had sufficed to bring about an end to the individual’s Holocaust ordeal.
An increasing number of female survivors of the Shoah are now abandoning this shield of silence to record their experiences either for their families or for posterity. Ruth Kluger is one example. In her 1992 German autobiographical account, welter leben—eine Jugend, she gave voice to decades of lingering memories and thoughts. She recalls the difficult and diffuse new beginning after liberation by the Americans as the “foggy, impenetrable twilight in which dejection has its wellsprings and ghosts prosper.” “Ghosts” is what she calls these memories. Like many other Holocaust survivors, Kluger remembers that, after the war, she had to develop yet again survival strategies, this time “in order to survive…new life.” Indeed, the title of her book, weiter leben—eine Jugend, with its stress on leben (to live), alludes to the struggle of living a post-Shoah life as a young person. It was not only the awareness at Auschwitz of the attempted annihilation of all Jews that had haunted her, but also the prolonged Nazi message of unwanted Jewish life that was conveyed to her early in childhood. It continued to play a role in her world view after the Shoah.
The act of remembering reshapes or enlarges particular events of a person’s life in defiance of chronological constructs or linear narrative expectations. Hamida Bosmajian, in Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, states that memory “selects, condenses, and interprets experience.” This phenomenon is well reflected in the structure of Kluger’s book, where memory fragments are retrieved, highlighted, and contextualized. This way, the author moves restlessly between present and past, discourse and event, and changes from reportage to reflection. Thus weiter leben is more than an account of the past, it is also an intricate weaving of memory, analysis, and criticism regarding the complexity of contemporary German-Jewish issues.
Although Ruth Kluger continues to relate back to her shattered childhood, denied education at a crucial age, her uprootedness, culture shock, and the difficult beginning after the Shoah, her story also demonstrates how she succeeded as an academic in the U.S. despite all these odds. She wants to make it clear that Auschwitz, this “horrible accident” (grasslicher Zufall), has remained “a foreign body in her soul” (ein Fremdkorper in der Seele, wl, 138) and has not become part of her, despite her having been there. This emphasis does not diminish the fact that her decisions, be they personal or professional, have been influenced by her Holocaust experiences. Therefore, this period of her life plays a major but not the only role in her memoirs, for her book deals also with Holocaust-related concerns and scholarship, from the perspective of a literary critic and often from that of a modern Jewish woman. In fact, embedded in her text is a feminist viewpoint of her as a contemporary academic. Then there is the retrospective analysis of how she, as a young female, experienced concentration camps and their survival.
Meanwhile, the Holocaust has also been incorporated into literature and speech in Western culture as a symbol for extreme violence, total control, abuse of power, and the subsequent experience of trauma. Contemporary groups draw parallels, e.g., with the “Holocaust of the Afro-Americans” as a reference to the past slavery, and the genocidal mass killings in today’s Africa as the “Rwandan Holocaust.” There are other analogies of this kind, as Steven E. Aschheim demonstrates in Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises:
On the one hand, given its symbolic and emotional force as a guiding moral metaphor, the ‘Holocaust’ and the language of genocide was used to characterise any number of historical and contemporary, persecutions and atrocities (ranging from the mediaeval witch-craze through black slavery to Vietnam).
The term Holocaust is also transferred to non-humans in that animal rights activists will refer to the decimation of certain species as a “Holocaust.” Others regard the destruction and exploitation of the vegetation during the Kmer Rouge as a “Holocaust of nature.” Individuals too have incorporated this term into their own private lives by using Holocaust images to express personal pain.
For example, Sylvia Plath used Nazi symbolism in her writing. Kluger, unlike many other critics of this genre, remarks vis-a-vis Sylvia Plath’s personalized Holocaust references,
When we find that others are in a measure haunted by what has happened to Jews and claim it as their own out of human kinship, as part of their private terrors and visions of death, we should not be so quick to condemn them.
Ronnith Neumann’s science fiction novel, Nirs Stadt (1991), uses a Shoah-like universe as a metaphor to express the plight of women in a vicious totalitarian male world. As Dagmar Lorenz states, “Neumann … links the exploitation of women through pornography to criminal and fascist practices.” By contrast, Sherri Szeman, in her novel The Kommandant’s Mistress, singles out the maltreatment of one woman and places her concretely into the death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau. In so doing, the writer presents a personal microcosm of suffering and powerlessness within an historical macrocosm of terror and mass murder.
As the different cases show, the Jewish genocide provides a metaphorical language and a framework to express absolute domination, victimization, and unbearable suffering. This is particularly true for female writers, and for many, the possibility of survival is a crucial element. In North America, for instance, the term survivor has been used to refer to survivors of sexual abuse and, in particular, to children who suffered such ordeals. In the novel The Kommandant’s Mistress, the author has conflated and fused the notion of individual survival of physical abuse and sexual violence with Shoah survival.
Szeman’s work is also about remembering the past and about memories that prevent the characters involved from resuming normal life after their shared experiences. Within the reality of fiction, Szeman provides an illustration of the psychological ramifications for both the victim and the abuser and their strangely entangled lives against the backdrop of a Nazi concentration camp. Like Sylvia Plath, Szeman did not experience the Nazi period and its aftermath, but the Holocaust event troubled her in a personal manner. Having grown up in a post-war “abusive and violent family,” she identified with the fate of the Jewish Holocaust victims and considered the brutal Nazi camps the epitome of power abuse and violation of people, specifically women. As she states, “All my life I had nightmares about being in the concentration camps.” Therefore, her female character finds herself trapped, not only as a Jew in Auschwitz, but also as a woman in sexual captivity in a Kommandant’s office.
Sherri Szeman, who spoke no German, read about the Shoah topic for seven years before including it into a story of individual violation, powerlessness and—in her particular case—revenge and retribution against the perpetrator. We may say that she incorporated her own painful memories of fear and rage into the story of the fictional Rachel Levi. The novel demonstrates that a writer’s biographically and historically generated pain may not be entirely separable when writing fiction.
Although Szeman’s and Kluger’s works are of different genres—autobiography and novel—they show similarities. The two texts operate with retrospection and present voice as well as employ a similar, non-chronological narrative structure. Their female authors converge as the Holocaust becomes the nexus for additional discrimination and victimization of women, although each account manifests a different focus. Both women examine the actions of men in order to gain understanding of their own situation or to deal with circumstances that were beyond their control and perhaps beyond their comprehension. This finds expression in the poems of each text. Weiter leben—eine Jugend and The Kommandant’s Mistress are interspersed with poetry by their respective writers who try to grapple in lyrical language with questions about or recollections of experiences during and after the Shoah. In Kluger’s case, several poems capture and crystallize her pain and sorrow over her father, who was murdered in Auschwitz.
Together with her own “daughter-father myth” as ritual with Jahrzeitlichter she created her personal, female forms of Kaddish for him who had no grave. For her, the father did not die, but remained a haunting and haunted ghost (“Mein Vater is zum Gespenst geworden. Unerlost geistert er…”; wl, 28). Szeman, in some of her poems, is also concerned with a male figure. She tries to penetrate the mind of the perpetrator and writes verses from his perspective.
Fiction borrows from reality the elasticity of memory which, in Szeman’s novel, serves as a basis for the narrative technique. Slippage from one time frame to another characterizes the text. Often key words that signal time changes have multiple meanings. For example, from the Nazi era and into and out of the post-war period, and from a scene between the commandant and his wife in the concentration camp, the dialogue moves without a link to a post-war scene between Rachel and her husband, David:
“Don’t you tell me to be quiet,” said his wife. … “I’ll leave you if you don’t end it with her. I swear I’ll leave you.”
“You’re not leaving,” said David as he came into our bedroom. (KM, 167)
The scene segues directly into a scene from Rachel’s girlhood before deportation when her parents are contemplating leaving their home:
“How much worse could it be,” said my mother, “than losing everything?”
“If we lose one more day building this road,” said the Kapo as we trudged by, “I’ll send all of you to the gas.” (KM, 172)
These rapid shifts of time, voice, and thought happen in seamless switches that connect pieces of interrupted dialogue and segments of internal monologue. In an interview, the novelist explains her artistic use of linking these fragments as “an imitation of the way memory works.”
In addition to narrative structure, language is another connector between Kluger and Szeman. Viennese German is Kluger’s mother tongue, and standard German the language of her academic field, Germanistik. German was also the language of the Nazi perpetrators. This reality has troubled many survivors to the point that they still associate it with their unforgettable memories of fear. Kluger uses this language now in a new and creative way that counteracts the Nazis’ German of the Hitler period. Her language is imaginative and contains unique wordplays. She hits hard at the realities she remembers. Hence, she refers to Vienna, the city of her childhood, as heimatlich unheimlich (creepily homey, wl, 67), and forges sarcastic images like “National Socialism prospered and brought forth blossoms” (wl, 209). Her linguistic creations counter the Nazis’ inventions of new antisemitic terminology, and her directness contrasts their misuses of German, of which the many infamous euphemisms provide well-known examples.
Szeman is also extremely sensitive to language. She incorporated a number of German words and phrases—although many of them have turned into cliches—into her English text to give it authenticity. But where she really excels is in her juxtaposition of speech and silence to underline that which is hidden and that which is being revealed. In her novel, it is a woman’s silence against a man’s incessant talking—the concentration camp inmate versus the Kommandant. He writes, “I talked to her all the time, even though she couldn’t understand me”—or so he thought (KM, 93). After the war, when it is safe to speak up, she does. The commandant’s angry reaction to her poetic voice is sexist: “Women spit words at you, words that cut to the bone. Women take any words you’ve given them and give those words to others” (KM, 113).
One part of Klilger’s autobiographical retrospective is that of her as a female Jewish survivor of Auschwitz/Birkenau. Born in Vienna in 1931, she and her mother were transported there in 1944. Szeman’s novel also presents the voice of a young Jewish girl in that camp, the fictional Rachel Levi, who is the “mistress” alluded to in the work’s title. But her account is preceded by that of a fictitious Nazi commandant, Maximilian yon Walther, who keeps her in his office at the killing site as his personal sex slave. Thus, Szeman’s text consists of two parallel memoirs with contrasting recollections of a shared past. With her inclusion of the Nazi perpetrator’s viewpoint and other contextual matters, the narrative deviates sharply from the semblance of Holocaust autobiography.
Her novelistic memoirs consider female and male memories. The focus is narrower in that both her characters remember, above anything else, their prolonged relationship of violent sex at the death camp. Von Walther recollects the overwhelming emotional effect it had on him and his deadly work: “All around me was the paper and leather and metal of my life, but when I closed my eyes and she touched me, it all drifted away” (KM, 53). He also remembers having saved Rachel’s life: “I was no murderer. I didn’t kill the girl. I protected her. She was a Jew” (KM, 90), and “all I had done for her: fed her, clothed her, kept her safe, warm” (KM, 154, 224). While he seeks recognition of his humanity and absolution for his misdeeds as a man and a Nazi, her written record functions as a testimony to his cruel acts and as a confession in which she reveals having used (survival) strategies often associated with women. They are silence and seduction.
Thus, Szeman’s text manifests a discrepancy of male and female memory: the male either hides facts or provides excuses for his cruelties, whereas the female confesses her apparent guilt. For instance, she exposes her deliberate decision to remain mute during her incarceration at the camp despite her ability to speak German. With this act of defiance and resistance she had closed the domain of discourse in order not to communicate verbally with her abuser. Denying him the word was her only way to exercise limited control in an otherwise hopeless situation. Her memoir reveals also that she played an active role in their abusive sexual relationship by manipulating their sometimes sadistic encounters and by initiating sex. She further reveals her secret political acts of forging the Kommandant’s signature.
Throughout Szeman’s text, the recollections of the two characters clash. Each set of memories claims hegemony over the couple’s common experiences. Only the recollection of their mutual instantaneous affinity during their first encounter, and that in the confusion of the arrival ramp at Auschwitz, is congruent. This is reflected in the first and last sentences of both memoirs. The commandant begins with “Then I saw her” (KM, 3), and Rachel with “Then I saw him” (KM, 127). These two phrases are examples of the preoccupation in fiction with the unusual story of individuals rather than with the group.
Szeman’s simulated accounts deal mainly with the two main characters. Therefore, the focus is always on the singular form ‘T’ as a point of reference. By contrast, survivors usually employ the collective “we” in their recollections, which shifts the focus to the historical scope of the situation. Szeman’s highlighted representation of a fictional sexual relationship between an SS officer and a Jewish inmate also forces comparison with accounts by women concentration camp survivors with regard to the depiction of sexuality. Studies show that such memories do haunt female survivors, but they rarely disclose them. If female sexual exploitation is reported at all, it is usually with reluctance and without emphasis on detail. Some critics argue that, due to Nazi Germany’s race laws, Jewish women inmates were seldom either the victims of rape or initiators of sexual relationships with German officials. Testimonies by female Holocaust survivors have shown infractions of these laws as an exception, not a rule.
Kluger, rather than remembering innumerable details pertaining to her person, in her book looks at the larger issues behind the concentration camps and the decades after their existence. Her viewpoint is often philosophical. For instance, she recalls Auschwitz vividly as something so extreme that it cannot be integrated into the “normal” past or history. In retrospect, she tries to set it apart by calling it a specific “timescape” (Zeitschaft), “a place in a time that is no more” (wl, 78-79). It was horribly real somewhere, sometime; it resides in her memory, burned into her mind, and surfaces like a nightmare. This notion of Auschwitz as both real and unreal echoes Elie Wiesel’s perception:
Auschwitz is something else, always something else. It is a universe outside the universe, a creation that exists parallel to creation. Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently.
One aspect of that different existence was caring for absolute strangers or sometimes performing an act of kindness for the sole reason of being human. Some of these small deeds brought short-lived feelings of comfort, others saved lives. In Kluger’s case, an unexpected and unsolicited “act of mercy,” as she calls it, by an unknown woman, initially saved her life (wl, 131). She, like many other survivors, speaks of women’s sense of caring and creating family units that aided in survival. Especially her mother’s presence in the camps, together with friendships with other girls, was an essential factor in surviving daily camp life.
Such positive interaction is often absent in fiction because its authors choose to concentrate exclusively on the ugliness of human nature and the nadir point of people’s behavior. Sherri Szeman is no exception. The characters in her novel do not perform deeds of mercy—everyone and everything is base, ironically perhaps with the exception of the Kommandant himself. She illustrates cruelty and sadism among fellow prisoners, underscoring the known facts of their power hierarchies. For example, the female friends of Rachel always call her”Jewish whore” and they humiliate and punish her for her “privileged” position as the commandant’s personal mistress. In Szeman’s concentrationary world there is no goodness, especially among the female inmates, and no exception to the misuse of power and sadistic cruelty. It is a true nightmare of evil. Thus, the fictional memoirs leave out any possible positive recollections of the people forced into the concentrationary world.
When remembering the camps, Holocaust survivors are plagued by the force and repetition of that which was threatening and frightening. Such memories hold a powerful grip on present life and consciousness. For Kluger it is the unforgettable awareness of the Nazis’ defining as unwanted Jewish life, also her life (wl, 112). She recollects having practiced her early reading skills on antisemitic signs and subsequently coined the word “judenkinderfeindlich” (against Jewish children) in her description of Vienna (p. 67). This rejection of her existence resulted in a concrete feeling of worthlessness, which bore consequences beyond the Shoah. In this context, Kluger remembers her guilt as a surviving, living Jew and, in addition, feeling superfluous as a girl (wl, p. 237). She shares with her readers the struggle to make a new beginning after 1947 in her new American cultural and linguistic environment.
Her post-war years also give insight into the particular predicament of a child survivor for whom being female was an additional obstacle. She mentions that, in her family, the emphasis was on the loss and commemoration of the males—her father and brother—and not on the needs of her as a young female survivor. She was advised to forget her Holocaust memories, and, like others, she repressed them in order to attempt normal life. Studying became her therapy and reading her saving grace (wl, 245). Female literature teachers functioned as role models for her later career choices.
For many female Holocaust survivors, societal sexism made a new beginning more difficult. The ponderous burden of Kluger’s having witnessed genocide was made heavier because men dismissed her experience as inappropriate to her sex. They gave her to understand that “little girls” like her were not supposed to have knowledge superior to that of adult men in whole areas of experience, such as suffering constant and prolonged threat of death, brutality, and mass murder (wl, 215). Although this was not war as it had hitherto been known and that is usually associated with men and remembered as men fighting or dying in action, Kluger’s experiences were considered war experiences. Traditionally, men have claimed war memories as their possessions, she writes. The author also starts with sarcasm that women are actually not supposed to have a past (wl, 10). Women’s war memories have been neglected and have played no role or at best a secondary role in war-related matters. Until recently, this also applied to the Holocaust. With such critical insertions in weiter leben, Kluger repeatedly points to the exclusion of women from the public discourse in a male-dominated society.
Such critical considerations are usually absent from Holocaust fiction. As The Kommandant’s Mistress illustrates, the attention rests on the individual characters and their personal involvement within the concentrationary world. In front of this historical backdrop, Szeman depicts how a man and a woman are connected inextricably by psychological and physical violation and sexual obsession. Neither overcomes this perverse dependency with the passage of time or by separation after the war. Mentally, they remain connected, although the memories of the shared episodes differ.
When a writer incorporates an event in history, in general, one pays attention to the probability of plot and detail. Thus, Szeman’s Holocaust memoirs as a literary form invite comparison with actual accounts. The Kommandant’s Mistress contains materials common to Holocaust fiction, like the “Aryan”-looking Jewish female, the predatory SS officer, and rape in a concentration camp. It is often the strange attraction of evil and deviant sexual practices that preoccupy the mind of writers and readers of such literature. Although “the absolute power of the Nazis over their [female] victims was often expressed through sadism and sexual violence” in concentration camps, many critics have raised as an issue the problem of possible titillation in reference to such descriptions in Holocaust writing. For instance, Alvin Rosenfeld states:
The fictive elaboration of the horrors of the Holocaust is… one more glaring instance of the literary imagination’s perverse attraction to the Nazi atrocities, and one more unfortunate exploitation of the female victims of mass crime.
Kluger echoes this view when she refers to the emphasis of sadistic sexual situations in the concentration camps as “brothel fantasies” (Bordellphantasien, wl, p. 236).
Further, fiction may provide the perspective of the perpetrator. Szeman, by allotting equal narrational time and space in her memoir novel to both the victimized female and the male culprit in a concentration camp scenario, has given a Nazi murderer a voice as well as a human face. In Holocaust testimonies, a sadistic Nazi is not remembered as a person with human attributes, nor were concentration camp prisoners given the opportunity to learn about nuances of his personality. Rather, the enemy represented an anonymous threat, someone who instilled deadly fear and meted out death. Ruth Kluger recalls no distinguishing details of her adversaries. For her “all SS men are one blurred uniform puppet in boots” (wl, 132). She also corrects the erroneous term SS women by pointing to the fact that the SS was “strictly a men’s club” (Mannerverein, wl, 145). The staunch Nazis left no awe-inspiring impression on her, only the recollection of a hostile “uniformed Aryan male world” (wl, 101). Further, by “climbing into the skin” of a Nazi, as Szeman does with her first-person narration by the Kommandant, one skirts the danger of not only understanding his actions logically, but also comprehending them morally, seeing him as a victim of Nazi ideology, and even perhaps accepting his defensive rationalizations.
We find such narrative tactics mainly in Holocaust fiction where the usually attractive male Nazi type often exudes pride, power, and sexual prowess. At the end of Szeman’s story, after the war, the former commandant stands in front of Rachel as a lugubrious figure, stripped of his Aryan power and Nazi paraphernalia. But she remembers him as the death camp Kommandant, in uniform or naked, because her memory of the past is stronger than the present. She tried to liberate herself from him as a Nazi and a man by recording her Auschwitz memories, using words now as she used silence before, namely as a personal and political act against him. In so doing, he becomes the victim of her public voice.
This turning of the tables reflects survival techniques suggested to women who suffered sexual abuse rather than Holocaust survivors. It is imagining a refusal of the role of victim and releasing rage by envisioning punishing the abuser. The former Kommandant in Szeman’s novel in turn shows thought and behavior patterns of a sex offender and not a perpetrator who murdered thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Szeman depicts him as being obsessed with his memories of his sexual assault victim to the point that she is present in his conscious mind and his dreams long after Auschwitz: “Every time I awoke, I was alone” (KM, 75). For him too, as a form of nemesis, the past relentlessly and disturbingly interferes with the present.
The novel’s denouement is an example of poetic justice in fiction. It suggests a form of closure to a chapter of personal history. For the abused girl, to publicly accuse her victimizer means verbalizing the past and taking control of the present. This ending clearly demonstrates the conflation of two different experiences, that of survival of Auschwitz and survival of sexual abuse. It underlines again that the novel’s concentration lies primarily on the story of sexual violation rather than the Holocaust.
Closure for Holocaust survivors is a different matter. The painful process of recording their memories does not necessarily function as catharsis, as some critics have suggested, nor can it be revenge. Rather it means reliving mentally the events of the past once more. Survivors do not have the chance of a post-Shoah encounter with their perpetrator where the power imbalance has been annulled and where they could avenge their enemy, nor do they wish such confrontation. The only victory which they may claim is pyrrhic and ironic in that their survival is evidence of the “occasional lapses in the Final Solution.” Giving testimony does not liberate them from their prison of memories, nor has it any personal effect on their former enemies. Nevertheless, Shoah survivors’ memoirs represent
an attempt to re-enter the non-Holocaust world, to re-establish a connection with a world that seemed to have abandoned him [or her], and…of restoring human communication between the survivor and the world on this side of the wall.
Kluger recorded her Auschwitz memories, her reflections, fears, and also her rage, in German and for Germans as she explicitly states in the dedication and conclusion of her book. With regard to historical facts and personal attitudes, Kluger has tried to point to and correct general misconceptions that have developed during the fifty years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Her account is a major contribution to Jewish post-war writing in German and has had a great impact in Germany. If translated into English, welter leben most likely will become a female version of internationally known testimonies, such as those by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. She has entered and continues a dialogue with the people whom many other survivors have vowed never to face again. In her memoirs, Kluger, as a Jewish woman and an intellectual, reminds Germans of the Shoah and forces them to recall the Nazi period. She wants them to remember it from their perspective as Germans as well as to adequately commemorate the Jewish victims. Doubtless, her perspective will broaden the range of Holocaust experiences and of women in our time. As well, the inclusion of this strong female voice will enrich the ongoing Shoah discourse.
The sharing of her memories with Germans means entering the discourse of a common history with them to ensure future remembering. While she knows that their memories of the Nazi period are different and that many Germans would much rather like to forget the Shoah, she as a survivor has no choice in that matter, for she, like other survivors, can never free herself of her Auschwitz memory.
It is understandable that the magnitude of the Shoah, as an event of extreme disregard for life that turned into the greatest crimes against humanity, touches others to the point of their wanting to incorporate it into something they find horrendous in their own lives. This might be outrage over a past injustice of a group or person, or something people are witnessing in the present. While experiencing the feeling of helplessness when watching situations of monstrosity that are out of control, it is convenient and, in the minds of those individuals, justifiable to apply the familiar concentrationary imagery of past horrors, although the circumstances may be quite different.
Freedom of speech is fundamental to us in the Western World, and we certainly cannot prevent people from using vocabulary of an historic event like the Shoah that many find so unique that it does not allow parallels or comparisons. Perhaps only deeper knowledge of history and its particulars could act as a self-censoring mechanism to prevent the misuse of language and subsequently a kind of trivialization of the Event that implies a lack of respect for those who suffered or were its victims. As for paralleling personal history with a catastrophic historic genocide, perhaps this shows the outrage of individuals over different forms of extreme violation and victimization. In our time it is acceptable to articulate rage and powerlessness to magnify extreme (sexual) violation and lack of agency. But when Holocaust imagery becomes the public vehicle to convey, in a literary form, an isolated case of personal suffering, we need to differentiate between individual or personal and collective or world history.
The Kommandant’s Mistress might provoke some readers with its conflation of one young woman’s individual violation and survival of the Holocaust. At the same time, these fictional memoirs encourage discussion about female concentration camp experiences, the portrayal of victim and perpetrator, and the representation of the Holocaust in fiction in general. As this novel and various other works of Holocaust fiction demonstrate, over the decades the history of the Third Reich and its horrors have filtered through to literary imagination. Writers’ interest in the subject often spurs them to research and to use it subsequently as a framework for their creativity. For now, we still have Holocaust survivors who can tell us first-hand about their experiences of survival. A later generation will have to deal more with a “reality” once or twice removed. These and the preserved survivors’ memoirs will formulate facts, thoughts, and feelings about the “great Jewish catastrophe of the twentieth century” (wl, 75) and provide a continuation of discourse and engagement. This by itself is another form of Shoah remembrance.