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New Voices: Contemporary Writers . . . Holocaust (Review)

John Brantingham
On Loss (May 2023)
New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust
edited by Howard Debs and Matthew Silverman
reviewed by John Brantingham

New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, edited by Howard Debs and Matthew Silverman, was released this April by Vallentine Mitchell, a publisher of books in the fields of Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Holocaust studies. It is a collection of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from dozens of writers and poets, including Marge Piercy, Ellen Bass, Tim Seibles, and Tony Barnstone, but it is not in a strict sense an anthology. That is, the volume is not a collection of existent works, but rather a creation of new works produced together to help update our understanding of the Holocaust and its lessons.

The method behind this book was to present photographs from the Holocaust to a range of authors and invite them to write new reflections on the images. The effect of this collaboration is a new discussion entirely. The result is a book that not only “never forgets” those events, but also updates and reinvestigates them from the point of view of the twenty-first century. It is in the nature of hatred to shift as culture and technology shift, and the writers in this volume have come together to examine the stirrings of genocide in the early twentieth century, so as to help us fight against it in our own time.

While I have read many volumes about the Holocaust, I have never read anything quite like this. I am struck by many aspects of this work, but what moves me most of all is how filled with hope it is. This is not a book that simply laments events of the past, although it certainly does do that, which is both appropriate and healthy. However, New Voices . . . the Holocaust goes beyond the single focus of lamentation and stands as a work filled with the possibility that we might resist future genocides, that we as a species are filled with resilience, and most importantly, that all humans form a single group, and that none should be isolated, shunned, or marginalized. When I set the book down, I expected to be paralyzed by the grief of it. Instead, I found myself ready to work toward the kind of future that is envisioned by my Quaker faith.

The primary goal of the book is to help all of us understand what genocide is and how to fight against it. The book also helps to introduce younger readers to Holocaust studies through the voices of contemporary writers, rather than voices from an “unrelatable” past. And for those of us who have been trying to understand genocide and hatred for a lifetime, it offers some new ideas, new ways of getting unstuck from our typical modes of understanding.

Pinpointing exactly what is contemporary here, exactly what couldn’t be stated in a previous age, is difficult, but some examples are clear. In one piece of flash fiction, Sara Lippmann’s “Good Girls,” two girls are being rounded up in Vichy France in the Velodrome to be sent to a concentration camp. They are “good girls” in the sense that they are complacent, silent, and obedient to all adults. Such complacency was generally thought of as a virtue in the past, but Lippmann’s story suggests the terrifying cost of training young people, especially girls, to prize being silent even when their silence could possibly cost them their lives. Silence and isolation, in fact, help create hatred.

In his poem “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Alan Catlin writes about the dangers of being desensitized in a world that bombards us with horrific images. This is not new. Certainly, people were desensitized in the past. But the concept has taken on new significance now that we have the Internet, hundreds of cable channels, and tens of thousands of violent video games. Of the danger of over-consumption of violent images, Catlin writes:

. . . That the grotesque,
becomes somewhat ordinary, and that our
ability to empathize becomes stunted as if we,
subconsciously, lose interest. (116)

That the grotesque is starting to seem normal is something that we as a society need to fight. These poets and writers are doing just that. New Voices . . . the Holocaust reminds us that some things should make us sick.

Fresh understanding of what causes genocide is also seen in Robert Perry Ivey’s poetic reaction to an image of a Nazi Brown Shirt throwing “un-German” books onto a bonfire. This is a poem that recognizes the danger of the Nazi authority’s policy of burning books, but it does not stop there. It also discusses the danger of banning books, of keeping them away from people, especially children who might grow from them, a disturbing trend we are seeing again today.

The steps to domination are no mystery:
. . .
destroy maps –
rewrite your own; disintegrate museums, schools,
language, art and letters and facts –
replace with your own,
          no matter how obvious the untruth. (54)

After all, books do not need to be burned. Their truths can be manipulated or destroyed in more subtle ways, and these approaches are perhaps more threatening to us. The forces of tyranny often begin by withholding access to facts and truth, and it is important to see the ways in which that is happening in our own society. All the works I have mentioned so far – by Lippmann and Catlin and Ivey – consider not only the past. They also consider the present and the future.

One of the most powerful messages conveyed by this book is that the people who lived through the Holocaust were resilient, and through that resilience, they were able to survive. More importantly, it suggests that we have similar resilience today, and this gives us guidance for action. In “Dawn,” Fabienne Josephat writes to a photograph of four resistance fighters, seen just after a town’s liberation. The final stanza speaks of hope:

My dead won’t let me forget.
I learn to remember through resistance.
I long to build hillside homes like these.
I want to gather those families at my table
and break bread, and mend their pieces.
Outside our window, the lake is a mirror
held up to the world as it contemplates itself.
Beyond it, hope is the certain light of sunrise.
I leave a window open facing east to let it in. (155)

I love Josephat’s consciousness of her dead. They are active and helpful to her. They help her to understand that life continues and should be savored. They are in fact, a force of wisdom and strength. By extension, we might understand that our own dead serve as an example to us of how we might continue. Such wisdom and strength are what this collection is about. Mark Tardi writes,

. . . a wound is formed when
something’s willfully unremembered,
another life snuffed out
by the edge of the frame (161)

Tardi also calls us to a consciousness of the dead. His hope, however, is directed less toward the living than toward the dead themselves. As long as they are remembered, the dead are real and are perhaps given dignity. All the poets and writers in this book convey the idea that there is a point to holding on, a point to going on, a point to resisting.

In “Flight,” M. Miriam Herrera imagines a war refugee in Shanghai waiting in a food line. The refugee looks up to see a V formation of geese:

The wind cried out, Look up!
your wings dusted off shame for good,
as ecstasy rushed through me.
I whispered
May you reach the sanctuary of home
and remember the breath of ease,
the arms of safety.
May you find the gates of compassion –
open. (181)

Even at the worst moment, even in the midst of loss and starvation, one can experience hope for a new world and a new way of being.

New Voices . . . the Holocaust is also dedicated to the idea that we should and can fight and defeat not only antisemitism, but also the forces of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and indeed all forms of systemic hatred. And the book takes as a given that all humans form a single species, and that we must resist any forces that work to separate us. One of the first ways that the editors of this collection were able to make this point was by being inclusive with the range of voices in the volume. The pieces are written from many different points of view by individuals who have suffered systemic hatred in many ways.

In the flash fiction piece “Witness,” Wendy Brandmark includes a character whose father fought for the Nazis. Standing in a museum, looking at an image of a soldier looking at a burning house in the Warsaw ghetto, the character sees that the photograph is a part of a larger exhibit, one that features images from places like Rwanda and Bosnia. Not only does she realize that genocide exists on a continuum, but more importantly, she is struck by the profound wrongness that humans keep repeating the Holocaust, over and over. She is a child of the evil that her father perpetuated, and yet, her awareness has transcended those origins. This adds another hopeful note that we all might transcend, even those of us from cultures that perpetuate evil.

Geoffrey Philp’s poem “Flying African,” a tribute to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, makes the point that Hitler’s hatred was not limited to Nazi antisemitism. Fundamentally, hatred is a universal problem that no one can ignore. Philp writes,

. . . But on that day, you
exposed the lie that had stalked
you through segregated hotels and rest rooms
with signs that read, “Whites Only,”
and ran as if you were striding the air
away from their hate, like your father did
when he left the South, away from flaming
crosses and hooded Klansmen, following
his dream of freedom, like in the story
of our ancestors . . . (57-58)

Philp gives hatred the life of a monster that stalks people in Germany, in the South, and in Africa. Of course, it is a monster that exists in all places and harms all people. The larger point here, the more hopeful point of this piece, is that if we analyze hatred, we can fight it. After all, in this world that includes the worst kind of hatred, we also find the highest kind of peace, as demonstrated by the life of Jesse Owens. In the photograph Philp writes to, Owens is running gracefully without fear, despite the reality that he runs in a country whose leader wants to kill him. Owens is the model that we all might aspire to, and such aspiration is possible for all of us.

New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust does not make the claim that humanity can or will overcome our incessant impulse toward genocide. The book is not hopeful in that way. However, it does offer the hope that, even though evil keeps shifting, we have grown as a species, and we understand evil better now than we did in the past. We understand that group-think is designed to isolate and minimize people. We understand that we exist as a single species of animal, and that we should aspire to group cohesion around that idea. We understand that when we resist forces that want to tear us apart, we are fighting evil. If we can recognize evil, then we can identify it, and we can unify against it.  ~~~

John Brantingham is a Friend who attended Quaker meetings in California for ten years. He has recently retired as an English Professor and moved to New York to focus on his writing and poetry career.

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