European Jewish Literature

The writings of Ashkenazic Jewry spans several languages and centuries.

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It’s sometimes hard to determine if European writers who happen to be Jewish are really "Jewish writers." Some writers who grew up in Jewish homes did not write on Jewish topics while others wrote on Jewish topics throughout their career. For an introduction to the wide world of Jewish writers who do write about Judaism, two anthologies into English offer a great start: The Oxford Book of Jewish Short Stories, edited by Ilan Stavans, and Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets, an international anthology of Jewish poetry edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf.

Holocaust Literature

Leafing through these and other anthologies, you’ll notice plenty of pre-Holocaust work. But of course, the destruction of the Holocaust did not come without its witnesses in literature. In Hungary, the great poet Miklos Radnoti was taken to a forced labor camp, and he wrote his last poems under terrifying conditions. On a death march, Radnoti was shot by a Hungarian Fascist, but not before he managed to sew his last poems were sewn into the lining of his coat. One of those, called “Fragment,” begins with a comment on the state of humanity in 1944:

            I lived on this earth in an age

            when man fell so low

            he killed willingly, for pleasure, without orders.

            Mad obsessions threaded his life,

            he believed in false gods. Deluded, he foamed at the mouth.

The Radnoti episode forced Hungarians to confront their own role in the Holocaust. More recently, a Jewish Hungarian fiction writer, Imre Kertesz, won the Nobel Prize for his depictions of life before and during the Holocaust, bringing Hungarian-Jewish writing to the spotlight again.

Jewish literature has also helped preserve Jewish history. The most well-known poet of the Holocaust, and to many the most haunting poet of the 20th century, is Paul Celan, who wrote in German. Celan’s “Death Fugue,” translated here by Stanford professor John Felstiner, chills with its depiction of the Nazi years. It begins:

            Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
            we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
            we drink and we drink
            we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped
            A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
            he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.