Deborah Lee Prescott. Imagery from Genesis in Holocaust Memoirs: A Critical Study. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2010. pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-4817-3.
Reviewed by Marvin A. Sweeney (Claremont School of Theology)
Published on H-Judaic (October, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Genesis and Modern Holocaust Midrash
In her recent study, Imagery from Genesis in Holocaust Memoirs, Deborah Lee Prescott examines autobiographies written by Jewish survivors of the Shoah (Holocaust) in an attempt to trace the use of biblical imagery from the book of Genesis to describe their experiences. She understands her work as an exercise in intertextuality that will shed light on both the text of Genesis and the attempted Nazi genocide. Presuming that rabbis and other trained Jewish professionals would naturally employ such imagery, she concentrates on the memoirs of lay persons, whether religious or not, as the bases for her study. Following Primo Levi, Prescott suggests that such memoirs written by Shoah victims constitute a “new Bible” that aids in explaining or contextualizing their ordeals (p. 5).
Throughout the study, Prescott maintains that three key elements must be considered: Holocaust (Shoah); Autobiography; and Midrash. By Holocaust (Shoah), she means the deliberate attempt by the German Nazi government to exterminate Judaism and all Jews as a primary goal in establishing the Thousand Year Reich. Although the Nazis targeted other groups as well, such as communists, Slavs, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, and others, the elimination of the Jews was the most pressing concern of the Nazi government. Her introduction to the Shoah is a rather basic account. Her use of the term, “Holocaust,” however, raises some questions. Although she is aware that the term refers to a whole burnt sacrifice in biblical literature, she does not seem to grasp the problematic character of the term. Popularized by Elie Wiesel because of its fiery imagery, the term has been rejected by subsequent interpreters who point out that the “holocaust offering” (Hebrew, ‛olah; see Leviticus 1) functioned as a means to maintain or to restore the relationship between human beings and God. Rejecting any implication of positive purpose, the Hebrew term Shoah, “destruction,” is now employed to describe the event. She rejects the term based on the mistaken belief that it refers only to natural disaster that does not connect the twentieth-century event with others in Jewish history. But her understanding of the term is based on a reading of Zephaniah 1 and not other occurrences, such as Isaiah 6, where the term is employed to describe the destruction of Israel or Judah at the hands of foreign invaders.
By “Autobiography,” Prescott presupposes an attempt to recount an entire life. But she notes that “memoir” is the choice to focus on a specific time period, making it the better term. She notes that scholars have traditionally seen autobiography as a non-literary genre not worthy of study, but her deliberate attention to intertextuality by allusion to or dialogue with other literary works, makes such autobiography worthy of study. But one may ask whether the intertextual use of Genesis alone--or any other biblical books for that matter--justifies her work. As she rightly notes, the choice to write such Shoah memoirs was a choice to engage in an ontological decision that challenges the author to convey an inexpressible event that defies comprehension. Although most survivors remained silent for years following their experiences of the Shoah, many have chosen to speak out later in life to tell the world, which remained largely silent on the matter both during the event and for years afterward, about the depth of evil into which it had plunged. Prescott’s work itself is an important element of such efforts to inform the world of the reality of the Shoah. As many have observed, the world’s silence was an important element in encouraging the Nazis to pursue their agenda; they believed that ultimately, the world did not care about the extermination of the Jews. Of course, one may ask if the Shoah was in fact only a Nazi genocide? Or one in which other elements of the world participated? In the face of contemporary efforts to deny the Shoah by Iran and other elements of the Islamic world as well as by the various anti-Semitic elements of the western Christian world, the testimony of those who experienced the Shoah becomes an essential element in preserving the realities of the Shoah and hopefully in preventing such an event from ever taking place again. Such an agenda becomes the true justification for Prescott’s work.
By “Midrash,” she refers to the traditional rabbinic means for interpreting the meaning of scripture. Following a brief discussion of modern midrashic scholars (I must note the erroneous spelling of the name of my former undergraduate professor, Gary G. Porton, on pp. 18, 191, and 195), Prescott correctly concludes that the purpose of midrash is to make ancient scriptures meaningful in the present. Midrashic exegesis in part demands that Jews remember the One God of Israel and God’s expectations, but following Sigmund Freud, the context of the Shoah also means that Jews remember such trauma as a means to grapple with and overcome the evil experienced.
The core of Prescott’s study is a series of six chapters that each takes up a Genesis narrative and examines the use of that particular narrative in the memoirs of Shoah survivors. Genesis 3-4, the narrative concerning the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, comes to represent “Paradise Lost” as Jews suffered the trauma of concentration camp internment and imminent death. Genesis 6-9, the narrative concerning the flood in which the entire world was killed with the exception of Noah, his family, and pairs of each of the animals on earth, becomes a metaphor for the horrors of the cattle cars used to transport the victims to the camps. Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel story, expresses the challenges to survive faced by many Jews, who spoke a variety of languages, to understand the German language in which orders were always given. Genesis 22:1-19, the Akedah in which Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac at the command of God, becomes a means to raise the question of God’s silence toward--or acquiescence to--the atrocities of the Shoah. Genesis 32:23-33, the narrative concerning Jacob’s wrestling with the man at the Wadi Jabbok, expresses the survivors’ attempts to struggle with the realities of the evil. Many returned to their homes to find the unremitting hostility of their former neighbors; others changed their identities in the aftermath of the Shoah, either to escape or to begin a new life. Genesis 4:1-26, the narrative concerning Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, becomes a metaphor for the Nazi murder of Jews.
In her epilogue, Prescott reflects that the book of Exodus might have been a better choice for her study, particularly because of its redemptive theme. But she concludes that Genesis is a fitting choice because of its capacity to be used for both personal and cultural self-reflection. She continues by indicating that Genesis is only the first book of the Bible, and that other books, e.g., Job, Esther, Psalms, and all of the others, have the potential for such self-reflection in the aftermath of the Shoah. She understands throughout this discussion that such self-reflection leads to rebuilding. Here we should note that Judaism rebuilt itself after earlier catastrophes, e.g., the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile; the destruction of the Second Temple; the expulsion from Spain; and others, and it will and must do so again. She need not limit herself to the Bible. (Perhaps her focus on the Bible is the product of a Christian religious or cultural identity, but one cannot know that when many Jews carry Christian names like Sweeney! Regardless of her own identity, she should avoid the term, “Judeo-Christian,” which implies that Judaism does not have its own distinct identity in relation to Christianity.). The Talmud, the Kabbalistic literature, the philosophical literature, the Haskalah literature, and modern Israeli literature emerge as potential resources for such an endeavor. Indeed, the mandate to rebuild becomes an essential aspect of grappling with the Shoah, particularly if the Shoah memoirs she discusses here become the “new Bible” that she envisions. They are not in themselves adequate to form a “new Bible,” as Jewish identity cannot be based solely on the identity of the victim. Rather, the victim must overcome the trauma, and the Shoah memoirs studied by Prescott form the starting point for such efforts, but they are not the final words on the matter.
In the end, Prescott has provided a valuable resource for grappling with the evil of the Shoah through the eyes and the words of its survivors. May it aid in achieving its purpose of ensuring that such atrocity never happens again.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Marvin A. Sweeney. Review of Prescott, Deborah Lee, Imagery from Genesis in Holocaust Memoirs: A Critical Study.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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