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Hero, Conspiracy, and Death: The Jewish Lectures

Translated by Alex Shannon

Series:

Maria Janion

With Hero, Conspiracy and Death: The Jewish Lectures, the author has written a book of sweeping significance for readers interested in Polish history, Jewish history, and the Holocaust in which she asks troubling questions: Can a Jew be both a Jew and a Pole? Are we right to talk of «worthy» and «unworthy» death in the Holocaust? What are the implications of Adam Mickiewicz’s philo-Semitism? In Zygmunt Krasiński’s anti-Semitism, do we see the «specter of elimination»? Are humanist and enlightenment values useful in analyzing the Holocaust, or did the experience of Nazi genocide render them obsolete? Tracing the history of anti-Jewish stereotypes in early nineteenth-century Poland (and beyond), the author offers answers to these questions that are bold, clear and compassionate.
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1. Collisions

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Postwar art – broadly defined – remains in the dark shadow of the Holocaust; it is testimony to the struggle between speaking and silence, between an excess of language and its radical reduction. Historical facts collide with fiction, ethics with aesthetics, the expressible with the inexpressible.603 Dramatic conflicts over the meaning of history and the significance of humanistic values have emerged in post-Enlightenment modernity, and in this context one cannot help but mention the works of Lawrence L. Langer, who – having thoroughly analyzed the wide range of texts – argues that “the Holocaust experience challenged the redemptive value of all moral, community, and religious systems of belief.” Langer’s notion of “preempting the Holocaust” is a reference to efforts to inscribe the Holocaust with universalizing systems, which are used in turn to make sense of the crimes that were committed and to connect the Holocaust with some sort of portrait of the world in which moral virtue, the human community, and mercy come out – in the end – victorious. But the fact is, as Langer concludes, that the Holocaust is a “phenomenon alien to our usual patterns of speech or belief,”604 and it is in this sense that the Holocaust must be viewed as something exceptional.

In light of all the rigmarole of universalistic moralizing, a brief examination of the so-called redemptive narrative is called for.605 Henryk Grynberg, acting as a spokesman for the local – but also spiritual – Jewish community, states: “We, the Jews of Dobre, do not like the...

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