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“The fight against oblivion and silence” – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt. 3


This is the third of four posts on the recently published anthology Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. The third section of the volume is “Memory, Memorialization, and the Re-presentation of History”and contains two essays, the first being Dora Osbourne’s “Memory, Witness, and the (Holocaust) Museum in H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald.” With their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Nazis converted Prague’s Central Jewish Museum into a storehouse for material goods confiscated from the city’s Jewish population. It also served as a private museum for Nazi officials, offering “a grotesque parody [of] the traditions of the Jewish people” that portrayed them as an inferior race. After the war, however, H.G. Adler worked at the Museum for almost two years, participating in the restoration of its original function and collecting new objects for the purpose of building “an archive of persecution and of Theresienstadt,” the nearby concentration camp/ghetto. Osbourne examines the way in which the Museum functions in two of Adler’s novels – indirectly in The Journey and directly in The Wall.

Ruth Vogel-Klein’s essay “History, Emotions, Literature: The Representation of Theresienstadt in H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz” has two primary goals. The first is to suggest that Adler’s so-called “documentary” book is actually more literary and more emotional than Sebald and others have claimed. She demonstrates how Adler injects elements of sympathy, fear, accusation, pity, and moral indignity into  his writing, which he viewed as a paradigm of sober impartiality. Her second goal is to assert that Sebald “subverts elements of Adler’s text in several ways” by insisting that Adler wrote in a “purely documentary mode.” This is not surprising. As we have seen in his essays in Logis in einem Landhaus (A Place in the Country), Sebald – like most writers and artists – gleans only selectively from those he views as his predecessors. Vogel-Klein concludes:

Adler is very far from Sebald’s melancholy world. The Theresienstadt camp is for Adler a warning, while for Sebald, it appears to be the confirmation of a malign world order. One element does connect both authors however: the fight against oblivion and silence which is carried out unceasingly and with ever new and increasing energy.

Helen Finch & Lynn L. Wolff, editors. Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. Rochester. NY: Camden House, 2014. Here is a link to all of my posts on this book.

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