Literary Tripping Stones: The Holocaust in Contemporary German Literature – William Donahue

In contemporary German literature — but I
think this is true of American literature and other literatures as well — the
Holocaust no longer appears as a narrative unto itself. Those early literary encounters with the
Holocaust tended to tell you about the whole events, but now when the Holocaust
appears, generally speaking, it appears in small moments, in kind of passing glances,
and I find that to be very much similar to the Stolpersteine, a small pavement stone commemorating a victim in the Holocaust So why is that valuable? A stolperstein is a small piece in a large area, by
definition. On the one hand, you can ignore it, and on the other hand, it is something that can
strike you out of nowhere. You are reminded, starkly, by just looking down at
the ground, of what happened. What do you do with that? You probably walk on, but
it may stay with you, it may echo, it may resonate. And this I think is precisely
the way these these little stories work within these larger novels. And what that
does for you I think is it gives the reader an opportunity to let that
Holocaust episode work in a truly literary manner where the reader can
engage with it more freely. That worries people. Sometimes they think, “Oh this is the
beginning of the end. Once you start with fiction, then you know where is the truth
in all of this?” Well, my study tries to find out just that. An example would be a
book by Christa Wolf called Was Bleibt, What Remains. The larger book is about
the narrator being spied upon by the Stasi but the little narrative has to do with
a saleslady at an alcohol shop recalling years earlier during the Nazi
period a girlfriend by the name of Alfie who had an opportunity to be saved and it tragically doesn’t work out. The
narrator then walks away from it but what I’m, I guess, trying to argue is that we needn’t walk away as readers. The shock kind of radiates from it but there’s also the capacity that’s
demonstrated by the narrator to kind of walk right by it. That I think is at this
double-edge two-sided possibility with the Stolpersteine. It gives you both the
possibility of learning something, of experiencing something, of encountering
and the reality that we had every day and
perhaps need to survive and that is to simply ignore to put it behind us. They
have a way of making fresh this this horrible knowledge which I think it
should be. Genocide is still a major concern for us and if we habituate
to genocide, there’s really no hope. I think it’s ultimately a really
idealistic move that’s being made here. I’ve had wonderfully intelligent and creative students. It’s an act of imagination that you want to inculcate in your students. The last thing
I want to do is have them simply take on a critical that I have happened to come to.
Much more important to me is that I can teach that critical set of skills and
also empart that appreciation for different kinds of readerships and
different contexts. I really would like to talk about larger issues and hear about why
they disagree, and then talk about what it might mean in their setting, why is it
interesting in america, those questions where my students are themselves the
interpreters are much more interesting to me. They will see something that I
just hadn’t seen and I love to identify that and to celebrate it.

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