The Holocaust According to the Literary Critics

Roskies, David G.

"Ask now and see, was there ever such a holocaust as this since the days of Adam?" The question posed by Eliezer bar Nathan in the breathing space between the First and Second Crusades has resurfaced with especial force in our own generation. For unlike our ancestors who expected so little from their neighbors, we had all our hopes invested in the promise of secular society, even turning in our God for other gods. Then, as now, the catastrophe has brought about an upsurge of mysticism, a turning to the demonic for explanation. Our thinkers reared on science and positivism convert to a kind of religious syncretism that brings together Kabbalah and Christianity, Midrash and Manicheism. No words seem to do justice to what our eyes have seen. We dare not even utter the designated word for the murder of our people and speak instead of the Event, something so ineffable that, like the name of God, it can be invoked only by a double euphemism. If our ancestors found the Akedah, multiplied a thousand fold, to signify their mass martyrdom, we grope with borrowed terms to express the sense of unprecedented horror: the Mysterium Tremendum, the mass crucifixion, the Gotterdammerung. Then, as now, new words were coined, only ours derive from concentration camp Esperanto and from Nazi-Deutsch, not from the Holy Tongue. Then, as now, the beloved cities of Europe became cities of slaughter, and a few place names were selected to represent the many. The landscape of our death is dotted with so many ghettos, camps and extermination sites that Warsaw, Auschwitz and Babi Yar have come to be used as mnemonics. Then, as now, history was transformed into liturgy and the victims assumed religious significance.


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Jewish Theological Seminary
Published Here
November 15, 2012