Holocaust and Fiction

Holocaust-inspired fictions are criticized. They are deemed insensible, disrespectful, or inaccurate. But what if they were necessary to spark an interest in the event and keep it in the collective memory?

76 years have passed since the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The tragedy was apprehended in different ways since, from denial to memorials. Research, memoirs, documentaries and museums have tried to unveil the horrors that happened, to present the reality to the public and, to a certain extent, to fulfill the “Never again” promise. More recently, memories of the Holocaust seem to have found their way in the popular culture through literature or cinema. And the appeal is here: on Amazon, almost all of the best-seller books in the Jewish literature section are Holocaust fictions. These include titles such as We Were the Lucky Ones and The Things We Cannot Say.

This sudden influx could be explained first on the part of the writers, that are now distanced from the events. Authors are often from the third or fourth generation after the Holocaust and are looking to tell family stories. The detachment allows for a more in-depth approach that would not have been possible with survivors of concentration camps, for example, who would not want to revive bad memories by recounting them. The result is novels or TV series and movies that narrate fictional stories based on true events.

The debate around the fictional aspect mixed with the Holocaust in the popular culture involves the moral aspect as well as the possible disinformation. As outlined in critics on the recent TV series Hunters (a story loosely based on Nazi hunters in the 1970), is it ok to invent equally horrible but false situations, inspired by the truth? Or does it, and other fictional work, exploit real sufferings in order to attract a public and gain popularity? Are imagined depictions conveying incorrect information that could contribute to historical inaccuracy or even to the Holocaust denial? Is the creation side leading to a falsification of the truth, that eventually lessens the burden of the responsibilities of the perpetrators?

The word to remember here is fiction. The Holocaust proved to be an endless source of inspiration for artists, who draw it from true events, and shape them with their own words or images into a product destined to an eager public. The interest, on its part, potentially comes from an historical curiosity. But it mainly holds such a growing place in the popular culture because books like The Tattooist of Auschwitz go beyond merely informing the readers. It allows them to have an emotional connection to the Holocaust through the characters, to visualize events, and to engage in real-time by provoking empathy or hatred in a more vivid way than a museum could.

On remarks that his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, contains incorrect elements, author John Boyne responded that made-up stories can’t be inaccurate since they are fictions. This valid point must be advertised, so that readers and viewers are aware that they are consuming a fiction work that is only based on the true events of the Holocaust. It gives an idea of the kind of things that happened, but states cautiously that it is romanticized.

The beauty of the phenomenon of fiction that reached the Holocaust, is that it proposes an approach to the subject that might be less traumatic, while still conveying the tragic aura. The entertaining aspect attracts a larger public than academic work, which is the starting point for an interest in this time period.

Of course, some Holocaust-related material is just plainly distasteful and wrong. Concentration camps themed Christmas ornaments, for example, only serve to generate profit. This kind of product doesn’t honor or commemorate the victims, and it doesn’t place the Holocaust at an accessible level like fiction does. Putting the Holocaust in the popular culture needs to remain respectful and linked to history, but it is also a way to nurture the interest, and by such, the remembrance. Fiction raises awareness. It is then up to the public to forge its own opinion and do its own research.

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