In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Holocaust Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Encyclopedias
  • Second- and Third-Generation Literature
  • Biographies, Interviews, and Reportage

Literary and Critical Theory Holocaust Literature
Matthew Boswell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0009


In a 1977 lecture collected in Dimensions of the Holocaust, the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously argued: “If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.” This article offers some illustrative examples of the forms that testimonial writing can take, and of other “new literatures” and fields of intellectual inquiry that have developed alongside it, such as Holocaust fiction and memory studies. For the purposes of this article, Holocaust literature encompasses a broad range of documentary and fictional texts, including memoirs, diaries, essays, novels, poetry, drama, fake memoirs, and children’s literature as well as critical, theoretical, and philosophical reflections on this writing and on the Holocaust more broadly. Given the complexity and boundary-breaking nature of much Holocaust literature, many of the texts included in the article defy straightforward classification and could be included under multiple headings. The scope of this article is such that it does not include historical studies of the Holocaust, or critical works which focus principally on historiography or art forms other than literature.

General Overviews

From the mid-1970s to the turn of the 21st century, critical debates about Holocaust literature evolved through a series of landmark studies, such as Langer 1975, Ezrahi 1980, Rosenfeld 1980, Friedlander 1992, and Lang 2000, which explored diaries, poems, and memoirs of survivors as well as works of history and fiction. Often preoccupied by the question of the adequacy or otherwise of different forms of Holocaust writing, this generation of critics tended to be skeptical about the value of Holocaust fiction, which was thought to trivialize the experiences of Holocaust victims, with Lang 2000 and others arguing that silence often formed a more respectful and fitting response. During this period, landmark edited collections of essays, such as Friedlander 1992, were characterized by interdisciplinary conversations between historians and literary critics, with anxieties about fictionalization linking to attendant concerns about postmodern approaches to history and Holocaust denial. Works such as Young 1988 and Lang 2000 drew on narrative theory to offer sophisticated analyses of the relationship between literary form and the understanding of history. From the 2000s onward a new generation of critics, including voices emerging from outside this male American Jewish tradition, steered the discussion about representational ethics toward broader questions concerning the historical and (trans)cultural contexts that inform Holocaust writing, while being generally more open to the possibilities of fiction. Widening understandings of historical memory led to new literary and critical engagements with subjects such as transgenerational transmission, transnationalism, perpetrator perspectives, transgression, and the interconnectedness of Holocaust memory with other histories. These new directions are charted in detail in Adams 2014 and covered more fully in the Critical Studies section.

  • Adams, Jenni, ed. The Bloomsbury Companion to Holocaust Literature. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    A valuable recent resource for students and experienced scholars, with chapters on various aspects of Holocaust literature such as postmemory, transgression, and ethics. Comprehensive and meticulously edited, includes a section on “New Directions in Holocaust Literary Studies,” an annotated bibliography, and a glossary of major terms and concepts.

  • Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226233376.001.0001

    Discusses testimony and fiction, drawing particular attention to the religious and mythological schemas employed in this writing, and to continuities and ruptures with Jewish thought.

  • Friedlander, Saul, ed. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    A seminal volume on Holocaust representation, drawing together leading historians, theorists, and critics to consider the virtues and limits of diverse cultural and historical texts. Crystallizes debates about representational adequacy, which dominated the field in the 1990s.

  • Lang, Berel. Holocaust Representation: Art within the Limits of History and Ethics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

    Builds on previous investigations into the aesthetics and ethics of Holocaust literature in works such as the edited collection Writing and the Holocaust (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988). One of the last major attempts to make a case for the inherent limits of Holocaust writing.

  • Langer, Lawrence L. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

    Argues that Holocaust literature cannot be regarded as the exclusive domain of the victims alone, or even Jewish writers. An early study of the “art of atrocity.” The volume contrasts with Lang’s more proscriptive style of criticism.

  • Rosen, Alan, ed. Literature of the Holocaust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Contributions from a wide range of scholars, affording an excellent general introduction to Holocaust literature. Consists of three parts covering wartime victim writing, postwar responses in different national literatures, and alternative approaches such as song and anthologization.

  • Rosenfeld, Alvin H. A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    Outlines how Auschwitz marks a threshold moment for literature. Rosenfeld argues that literature must record both the extermination of the Jews and the death of the Enlightenment idea of the human (hence “a double dying”), with writers and critics brought to a new awareness of the limits of their language and methodological frameworks.

  • Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

    Investigates the interrelatedness of literature, narrative, and historical understanding, exploring the phenomenon of interpretation through analysis of documentary and fictional sources, as well as oral history and memorials, which all contribute to what Young terms the “texture of memory.”

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