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

  • Introduction
  • Early Criticism
  • History and Criticism
  • Ethics and Morality
  • Memory, Remembrance, and Testimony
  • Popular Culture and the Holocaust Novel
  • Gender and Jewish Identity
  • Children, Youth, and Generations
  • Study and Teaching
  • Anthologies and Reference Guides
  • Journals
  • Online Resources
  • Suggested Primary Texts

Jewish Studies Holocaust Literature
Lia Deromedi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0158


There are seemingly infinite anxieties about the historical, literary, ethical, and theological responsibilities of Holocaust representation. Early critics recognized the ethical dangers inherent in writing about an extreme historical event. But they also saw the expansion of possibility so that an evolving body of literature transcends national and cultural boundaries and shares a spectrum of attitudes toward the concentration camps and the world beyond. While later critics have focused on new issues, such as the resurgence and proliferation of Holocaust literature for popular consumption, and how distance in time alters representation, these works asked the first hard questions and revealed the innovative ways writers approach the historical event. Holocaust literature challenges the idea that there are distinct unsurpassable borders separating history from artistic representation. Criticism often calls attention to this idea of boundaries between history and art, all of which Holocaust literature seems to obscure or transgress in some way, revealing that the line between complete invention and genre distortion has already been crossed. Similarly, the ability to suggest experiences that could have happened or did happen, rather than documented cases, gives the Holocaust writer the opportunity to rethink and reevaluate actual events and emotions in a space that is freed from presumed boundaries that restrict the narration to strict truth or reality. Holocaust literature has been variously argued as generically different from postmodern postwar texts and as integrated within them. But more important than concerns about genre is the argument that much of the power in literature appears to originate from the dual claims it makes on fiction and fact to engage readers. Within critical and literary writing, the Holocaust is a vastly represented 20th-century event. Literary responses to history include fiction and autobiography written by survivors with compulsions to communicate the Holocaust, as well as writers with no direct experience who also share this compulsion. The 21st-century scholar of Holocaust literature will recognize its specificity and its relevance within the context of history and contemporary public consciousness, along with its important contribution to the ongoing history of literary scholarship.

Early Criticism

Langer 1975, and Langer 1978, and Rosenfeld 1980 embody some of the pioneering scholarship in the field of Holocaust literature. This section focuses on some of the criticism from the 1970s and 1980s that first addressed the importance of this literary genre, the emergence of which began immediately after the event, but only gained popularity and momentum several decades later. These works helped establish Holocaust literature as an arguably distinct and significant genre in the postmodern, postwar field. This early criticism often draws on survivor testimonies and memoirs, as well as lesser-known creative works, to explore what became a phenomenon in Holocaust representation. Works such as Ezrahi 1980 examine the ways in which writers who embraced the subject were forced to extend the limits of imagination to encompass such a real horror. As seen in Rosenfeld 1980, these critics were among the first to demand that “Holocaust literature” be examined in different ways than other literature, to be treated as part of the postmodern period but also a post-Holocaust period; what has been called a unique event in history demands a critical examination of its representation that is also distinctive. Although Young 1988 may also be included in later eras of criticism, this early work reinforces the key points made by the others that interpretation of Holocaust literature remains paramount for remembering the event. It is important to be aware of the first important criticism on the subject when reading contemporary analyses.

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

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226233376.001.0001

    Discussion of the fine line that Holocaust literature straddles between real events and imagined art. Ezrahi stretches the boundaries of the subject to discuss documentation, testimony, survivor literature, the particularly Jewish aspect of the Holocaust in the form of lamentations and covenantal context, the mythologization of the event, and American Holocaust literature.

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

    Langer addresses the challenge that literature and the imagination have in making the Holocaust accessible to readers. A discussion of writers, some of them survivors, exploring the paradox of how literature can affect readers who can no longer be shocked by a most shocking atrocity.

  • Langer, Lawrence L. The Age of Atrocity: Death in Modern Literature. Boston: Beacon, 1978.

    Langer further investigates how the tragedy of mass death affects insight and meaning. He offers an overview using Jean Amery and Ernest Becker, with their respective theories of torture as transcendence and “creatureliness,” examining works of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

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

    Argues for the special status of Holocaust literature to understand the enormity of the event and its repercussions for humanity. The title of the book suggests Rosenfeld’s main point that the Holocaust killed not only men, but also the “idea of man.”

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

    Historiographical work that interprets the meaning of Holocaust literature. Examines the perpetuation of Holocaust memory and understanding in several forms of media. Includes an extensive bibliography of works.

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