New course expands Holocaust into literature

Teaching the Holocaust doesn’t boil down to a history lecture alone. A literature class is a necessary supplement to the subject, according to Alain Goldschläger, director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Western.

Goldschläger, who this fall will teach Holocaust and Literature, a new half-course in the Department of French Studies, said the class will widen the scope of study in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.

“The Holocaust has normally been the special domain of historical studies on an academic level. Here, it’s more. There is another understanding (of the subject), which is one through literature. The subject belongs to the Faculty of Arts & Humanities as much as to the historical domain,” he said.

The approach to studying history has long differed from the literary approach, Goldschläger continued, and that’s what will set this course apart, broadening the scope of the faculty.

“In the first wave of historians, the main question was, ‘How was it done?’ And those were mainly male historians, who wanted to know the practicalities. They were great and what they wanted to know what was the mechanics of what happened and how do we explain what happened,” he noted.

“A more recent wave of historians – often women – is considering, not how it happened, but how it was lived by the people, and so they started not looking at the perpetrators but at the victims. When you look at the victims what you have as documents are memoirs, basically. Those kinds of perspectives are very, very recent.”

The texts covered include Tenuous Threads by Judy Abrams/One of the Lucky Ones by Eva Felsenburg; Journal by Helen Berr; Fateless by Imre Kertész; If this is a man by Levi, Primo; and Night by Elie Wiesel.

There is no prerequisite required for the class and the texts – most of which are translations from the French, Yiddish, Hungarian and Italian – will be taught in English, he continued. They will expose students to personal, first-hand accounts of history.

The texts on the syllabus will deal with subjects such as Jews’ experience in ghettos, their disconnect from society during the Holocaust while being ‘the hunted’ and issues affecting survivors.

“Literary people have been considering the effect of the event on the victims and the people in the surroundings, the victims and the documents. There will not be statistics or lists of names (in the class) but there will be memoirs,” Goldschläger said. “My goal is only to expose the human side of the Holocaust, and of course you need a background in history, but what we are looking for is how the people went through the experience.”