“If I could shape the way people think,” Melvin Bukiet hypothesizes to me over a hot mug of tea on a raw March day in New York City, “I would prefer that people approach the topic of the Holocaust through history rather than fiction. But the truth is that more people know about history because of novels they've read than because of history books.” It’s an interesting observation that he backs up with examples. “More people know about Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow because of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace than through reading history books. And when Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he is said to have remarked, ‘So this is the little lady who created the big war.’" Bukiet maintains that our visceral reaction to fiction and the power that stories have over us make it certain that stories are what will maintain history over time, whether the historians like it or not. It’s a point well-taken. (I will add my own example: how many people were interested in Alexander Hamilton before the Broadway musical became a box office smash?) As he says, human beings probably told stories before we wrote history; we are storytellers by nature. To the extent stories overlap with history, the stories are the things that we will remember, and that will help us remember history over time.
Melvin Jules Bukiet is an award-winning author and literary critic, as well as being a professor at Sarah Lawrence College. His nonfiction has appeared in many esteemed publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. He has won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, presented annually to a writer whose fiction is considered to have significance for American Jews. So when he speaks about the interplay between fiction and nonfiction, it is fascinating to hear what he has to say.
The fact that he is a child of survivors is an essential component of his identity. It gives Bukiet an interesting perspective on how we remember the Holocaust, as well as on testimony and Holocaust fiction. Bukiet has indeed been involved with Holocaust study and Holocaust education for many years; he sits on the executive committee of the American Society for Yad Vashem. One of the most compelling books with which he has been involved is Nothing Makes You Free, an anthology of fiction and nonfiction edited by Bukiet and written by descendants of survivors. He speaks of the paradox for the so-called Second Generation (children of survivors) who can only preserve their parents’ Holocaust history in their own imaginations since they never actually experienced it, and the responsibility this gives them.
The Second Generation will never know what the First Generation does in its bones, but what the Second Generation knows better than anyone else is the First Generation.
Other kids' parents didn't have numbers on their arms. Other kids' parents didn't talk about massacres as easily as baseball. Other kids’ parents had parents.
Other kids' parents loved them, but never gazed at their offspring as miracles in the flesh. [...] Other kids weren’t considered a retroactive victory over tyranny and genocide.
So what do you do with this cosmic responsibility? [...] if you were a writer, you wrote.
I sat down with him to hear about his own personal story and his father’s, what he writes, and his views on weighty subjects such as the Holocaust and fiction.
As a teenager, Bukiet's father, Yossel, was trapped in the Krakow ghetto in Poland. He, his brother (Bukiet’s uncle Al) and his father (Bukiet’s grandfather) managed to smuggle themselves out of the ghetto and hide in the house of a sympathetic Pole, until one day the Pole told them that the Germans were approaching and that he had a sharpened axe if they wanted him to use it. They left that very night. Since there was nowhere else to go, they smuggled themselves back into the ghetto. From the ghetto, Al was sent to Plaszow and from there to Mauthausen. Yossel and his father were sent to Auschwitz, from there to Buchenwald, and then to Theresienstadt. Bukiet’s grandfather died on the verge of liberation, presumably from typhus. His uncle Al searched for his brother after liberation, traversing hundreds of miles and crossing borders in the chaos of postwar Europe. Al found Yossel at Theresienstadt, where he was sitting on the ground cooking potatoes. As Bukiet relates it, their conversation – which is simultaneously tragic and comic – went something like this:
Al: “Yossel, let’s get out of here!”
Yossel: “But what about the potatoes?”
Once reunited, the brothers couldn’t bear to be apart. When they got to the US they ultimately bought houses across the street from each other. They spoke multiple times a day. Despite all his travails, Bukiet says his father was not depressed, but exuberant: „He didn’t affirm life but exemplified it, embodied it.”
Bukiet was very much affected by his father’s experience, and almost paradoxically, this is why he refuses to write Holocaust fiction. He has written about the period before the Holocaust: Stories of an Imaginary Childhood, for instance, is set in the tiny Polish shtetl of Proszowice, the real place of his family’s origin, before the obliteration of its Jewish community. This allows him to create stories in which he imagines a world that might have been his own, had the Nazis not come and destroyed it. He has also written about the period after the Holocaust; in the novel After, the action begins upon liberation. But, he says, he is not presumptuous enough to say that he can replicate the Holocaust, and for him, it’s not enough to be almost like the Holocaust. In Bukiet’s view, the closer something imaginary gets to reality without accomplishing it, the more potentially insidious it is because the fantasy overshadows the reality in some way. When he hears survivors describe movies like Schindler’s List and say, “It was almost exactly like that,” his feeling is that history is being violated; that fiction is trespassing on the horrendous reality of the Holocaust which can never be accurately rendered.
As Bukiet says, by definition the survivors’ stories are atypical. They seem to emphasize disproportionately that someone could make it through the horror of the Holocaust, when the real story of the Holocaust is one of universal murder. Bukiet is aware of the value of visual history testimony, though. He took his father as well as his uncle to be videotaped for posterity. Yet, with six million Jews murdered throughout Europe during the Holocaust, testimonies present the exception - the rare human being who somehow survived. One of the most interesting and profound opinions Bukiet expressed was that it would truly be appropriate if after every video clip the viewer had to sit in silence for two months, paying his or her respects to those who never had the opportunity to be recorded because they were murdered. Even though this was only half-serious and is admittedly implausible, it certainly would add a new dimension to the testimony we hear.
I was especially curious about "The Library of Moloch", a short story written by Bukiet in which a fictional protagonist is obsessed with collecting the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, but never actually listens to them. Yad Vashem’s testimony collection includes thousands of testimonies of Holocaust survivors collected since 1945. Echoes and Reflections, a multidisciplinary program developed by Yad Vashem, together with the Anti-Defamation League and the USC Shoah Foundation, to provide American middle and high school educators with professional development and resources to teach the Holocaust in today's classrooms, also makes great use of Visual History Testimony, including multiple testimonies in each unit of the program. (See the article in this month’s newsletter called “Hearing the Voices of the Victims”). In Bukiet’s short story, the testimonies collected are stored away in a huge vault. In the climax of the story, the entire archive catches fire and burns up around the curator in a blaze. I wondered whether this was a cynical statement: do we possess an obsessive need to collect these testimonies even though they remain unseen and unheard? Bukiet says he did not write the story with a moral in mind. According to him, “The Library of Moloch” is about the impossibility of knowledge; Bukiet maintains that it's good that that we take and store video testimonies, even if they remain for the most part unseen.
I came away from my interview with Melvin Bukiet convinced that much of what he feels supports the strategies used by Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, which parallels the pedagogical approach used by Echoes and Reflections. Our goal is always to tell the human story behind the Holocaust. This enables a better understanding of history since it brings a huge catastrophic event down to an individual scale. If we can use our storytelling abilities, we can create greater empathy for the victims, greater awareness of the choices made by the perpetrators and the bystanders, and a greater understanding of human behavior during the incomprehensible reality of the time – even if we can never fully understand these things. Our use of video history testimony supports this strategy. As Bukiet says, in creating a great work of fiction an author must tell the truth: it must be a “deep human truth that gets at the essential nature of human experience.” That is the aim of Yad Vashem and of Echoes and Reflections – to tell the human story, a story that will always be relevant to our students because it gets to the roots of who we are as people and what makes us tick.