Imagining Jews


During the 1990s, the German writer W.G. Sebald published an extraordinary series of novels that redefined the way in which the Jews of Europe were imagined by non-Jews. In books like “The Emigrants” and “Austerlitz,” Sebald, who died five years ago in a car accident in his adopted country of England, created a narrator who traveled around the world recording the lives of Jews who were in permanent exile from their prewar lives. This unnamed narrator, the conscience and scribe of Germany, entered these lives with such force that it was impossible to tell where his story of agonized wandering ended, and the stories of broken, if resilient, Jews began. The success of Sebald’s novels reflects not just his storytelling instincts and the precision of his language but his formal innovations, mixing together fiction, biography, history, travelogue, architectural history and even photographs to create a kind of family album, drawing together the fates of Jews and non-Jews during Europe’s darkest hour, and its aftermath.

There have been two criticisms of Sebald. The first, which I discount, is that by tying his writing life so closely to the narratives of fictional or barely fictionalized Jews he poached their material, confusing his voluntary emigration with their forced exile. The second concerns Sebald’s seamless mixing of fact and fiction. Other writers, like the Serbian Jew, Danilo Kis, have also blurred the line between fiction and reality — in Kis’ case in his stories of Jewish victims of communism. But there is something about this kind of ambiguity in relation to the Holocaust that makes one more uneasy. Sebald’s clear moral framework, as well as his personal renunciation of German actions during the war, places his work beyond reproach. But we live in a world in which Holocaust deniers scour the globe looking for historical contradictions and ambiguities. The very nature of the Holocaust — the massiveness of it and our persistent instinct to disbelieve it, despite all available evidence — leaves us open to more vicious, and revisionist, acts of imagination.

Among the most vicious is the recent conference in Tehran dedicated to exploring the “reality” of the Holocaust. The conference was framed as an opportunity for “scholars” to openly discuss their ideas about the Holocaust, free from the “restrictions on free speech” imposed on them by Europe and America. The clear bias of the conference is to move world sympathy away from Jews and toward yesterday’s true victims, the Germans, and today’s true victims, the Palestinians. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad laid out his cards months ago, when he wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticizing “the propaganda machinery after World War II that has been so colossal that [it] has caused some people to believe that [Germans] are the guilty party.” This is, needless to say, bizarrely counterintuitive, even counter-factual. Disbelieving in the existence of the Holocaust comes from one or another type of mental mistake. The first is a failure of imagination — of what people are willing to do, and what nations are able to do. The second is an overabundance of imagination — indulging an appetite for the stories of the “conniving Jews” of lore who, in their current iteration, either faked the Holocaust or spun their recent history in order to force unwarranted reparations including, most shockingly for the Iranian leader, a brand-new state in the Middle East.

Even a deeply sensitive political imagination, like that of Hannah Arendt, can go askew when it comes to the Holocaust. Her famous interpretation of the work of Adolph Eichmann and his embodiment of the “banality of evil” — a view which is increasingly disputed as terribly naïve — makes it harder to imagine the Germans as being capable of engineering their brutal campaign, making it seem as if the Germans, along with the Jews, were merely caught up in a kind of impersonal war machine.

Near the end of “The Emigrants,” after several months of work on just one of his many biographical sketches, the Sebald-like narrator exclaims that he frequently “unraveled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralyzing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing.”

It’s a shame that Sebald is no longer with us — for the work he could still have written, and for the modesty with which he approached the limits of imagining the history of the Jews.

Daniel Schifrin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is at work on his first novel.