The Shadow of Death: Letters in Flame — A New Book by Prof. Moshe Pelli on Literature of the Holocaust

November 5, 2009

The Shadow of Death: Letters in Flames is the new book published recently by Prof. Moshe Pelli, Director of the UCF Judaic Studies Program. The book analyzes novels and stories pertaining to the Holocaust experience written by major Jewish and Israeli writers. It discusses critically works such as Eli Wiesel’s Night, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939.

The book is the culmination of many years of researching and teaching Holocaust literature and the study the unique nature of what is termed “the literature of atrocity.” It examines and analyzes the attempts of survivors and outsiders to describe the experience of the Holocaust through the medium of literature.

In the preface to the book, Pelli explains the structure and the nature of his book: “The book is divided into two main sections of Holocaust writings. The first is ‘The Holocaust Experience from Within’ – analyses of literary works by survivors who experienced the Holocaust first-hand. Among them are such well-known writers as Aharon Appelfeld, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Ka-tzetnik, and Jerzy Kosinski. Their works were written in several languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Italian, and English,” and all of them are now available in English.

“The second section is devoted to ‘After the Holocaust – Experience from Without,’ namely, literary analysis of works by writers who responded to the Holocaust after the event. They are the Israeli writers Hanoch Bartov, Hayim Gouri, and Yehuda Amichai, who wrote in Hebrew. . . Their works have been translated into English.”

The works discussed and analyzed in The Shadow of Death “have one thing in common,” Pelli writes in the preface. They “attempt to present the Holocaust experience, its background and its aftermath in an artistic way through literature.”

In the preface Pelli tells his own family story as related to the Holocaust, of parents who came as pioneers to pre-state Israel, leaving behind in Poland their immediate families, most of whom perished in the Shoah. Survivors who came to Israel after the war told their stories, but many preferred to remain silent about their personal experience during the war years, in ghettos, death camps, and forests.

He writes: “Twenty-five years after the silence, the memories emerged in the form of memoirs, testimonials, resurrected stories, poems, and various other types of Holocaust writings. Today there is a substantial body of writing by survivors, second-generation survivors, and others, which are referred to as literature of the Holocaust – the subject of my book.”

The first part of the book discusses survivors’ writings, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night, in a chapter titled “The Night of Auschwitz – The Right to Question.” The following chapter, on Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz is titled “An Essay on Man.” The chapter on Aharon Appelfeld’s novel Badenheim 1939 deals with “Premonition and Illusion in the Pre-Holocaust Years.” Another chapter is devoted to the Holocaust writer known by his pseudonym ‘Ka tzetnik’ and his book Star Eternal (the original Hebrew: Star of Ashes). The chapter discusses “Depiction of Another Planet.” The chapter on Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird deals with “The Risk of Metaphor.”

The second part of the book deals with outsiders’ novels on the Holocaust written by Israeli writers after the war. It has a chapter on Hanoch Bartov’s The Brigade titled “Late Encounter with the Holocaust – Paradigms, Rhythms, and Concepts.” The Israeli poet and writer Hayim Gouri is represented in his novel The Chocolate Deal and the chapter is titled “Concept of Post-Holocaust Reality.” Also, the late Yehuda Amichai, a poet and a writer and his novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place, are discussed in a chapter with the title: “Fractured Soul in a Split Reality after the Holocaust.”

The book is intended to serve as a guide to these literary works on the Jewish catastrophe. It provides insights into the meaning and significance of the Shoah, as perceived by major Jewish writers, by pointing out various literary devices that highlight the experience of inmates in the death camps and survivors during the war years.

It was also meant to spark discussion amongst students of Dr. Pelli’s course on the Literature of the Holocaust, which he offers at UCF.

Reacting to the publication of the book, Prof. Yair Mazor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, himself a prolific literary scholar and critic of Hebrew literature, calls it “a paramount and prominent addition to the study of Holocaust literature the book’s author impressively cultivates a delicate balance between […] studying the works of literature both thoroughly and insightfully while focusing on subtle details and drawing elucidating generalizations; remarkable breadth of knowledge exhibited by this book compelling insightfulness, make it a must for any reader whose intellectual standards are demanding.”

In the book’s introduction, Pelli discusses the question whether “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” as posed by the critic T. W. Adorno. Some authors and critics believe that the “total inhumanity and bestiality” that typified the Holocaust cannot be fully conveyed by words and art alone, and that silence is the true memorial of those who were cruelly killed in the years of the Holocaust. Pelli quotes George Steiner, a student of Holocaust Literature, saying, “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.” Pelli gives the alternative to this argument by quoting Alvin Rosenfeld, another student of Holocaust Literature, saying, “to let silence prevail would be tantamount to granting Hitler one more posthumous victory.”

Pelli strengthens this argument by discussing the fact that one cannot comprehend the complex subject of the Holocaust by merely studying history. He explains that the reader must be involved emotionally and intellectually, as “the very magnitude of the Holocaust is beyond comprehension.” He argues that facts alone may resemble other historical facts, and thus diminishe the importance and uniqueness of this catastrophic event in the annals of the Jewish people. Pelli ends his argument with a poignant quotation from the literary critic Richard Gilman, saying that “literature, like all art, is the account of what history has failed to produce on its own.”

Dr. Pelli’s main focus of his academic research and study is Modern Hebrew Literature. He has written extensively on Holocaust literature, Haskalah [Enlightenment] literature, and Hebrew culture in America, and published more than twelve scholarly books and over 170 research papers.

Dr. Pelli is The Abe and Tess Wise Endowed Professor of Judaic Studies, and the director of the UCF Judaic Studies program. He was recently elected as the President of the National Association for Professors of Hebrew (NAPH). He has been awarded the Friedman Prize for Hebrew Culture in 1991, as well as the UCF Distinguished Researcher of the Year in both 1996 and 2006.

The book is published by the University Press of America. The Shadow of Death is available for purchase at the UCF bookstore or by order from the publisher: www.univpress.com, or call 1-800-462-6420.

For more information on Dr. Pelli’s books or the UCF Judaic Studies Program, contact the program at 407-823-5039 or 407-823-5129, or peruse the Judaic Studies website.