The Witness and the Artist
by: Steven Reisner

In his forward to the book, Witness: Voices From the Holocaust (Green & Kumar, 2000), Lawrence Langer explains the unique value of witnessing: [P]ublished statistics may confirm the numerical truth that many Jews were forced to subsist on two or three hundred calories per day, a diet that, unless supplemented, led to death from malnutrition within about three months. But, as witnesses in these testimonies grope for words to describe what ¡°real¡± hunger was like, they animate the distress of starvation as mere statistics cannot. And when we hear someone confess, abashedly, ¡°I¡¯ll tell you what real hunger was like. Real hunger is when you look at another human being as something to eat,¡± we know we have retrieved a phase of the agenda of destruction that no document could reveal. (p. xi) Yet, the testimony that Langer cites is not to be found among the voices of the witnesses that follow. It¡¯s source, it turns out, is indeed a Holocaust survivor, but one who was also a writer, Tadeusz Borowski, and comes not from testimony, but from his collection of stories, published in English as This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (1967). In the story, A Day at Harmenz, the main character, Tadek, is speaking to an older Jewish prisoner, Becker, known for his ruthlessness in a previous camp:
¡®Tell me, is it true that your own son has given orders to have you killed, because of Pozna_?¡¯
¡®It is true,¡± he said darkly. ¡°And it¡¯s also true that in Pozna_ I personally hanged my other son¡­He stole bread.¡¯
¡®You swine!¡¯ I exploded.
But Becker, the old, melancholy, silver-haired Jew, had already calmed down. He looked down at me almost with pity and asked:
¡®How long have you been in the camp?¡¯
¡®Oh, a few months.¡¯
¡®You know something, Tadek, I think you¡¯re a nice boy,¡¯ he said unexpectedly, ¡®but you haven¡¯t really known hunger, have you?¡¯
¡®That depends on what you mean by hunger.¡¯
¡®Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat. I have been hungry like that, you see.¡¯
(p. 54)
Langer, who has written incisively on both holocaust testimony (1991) and literature (1995), has here put the witness where the artist rightly belongs. The witness can offer the facts, more or less, and these are vital. But facts are just facts, ¡°indifferent reality¡± in Andr¨¦ Green¡¯s phrasing; they are the raw materials from which meaning is made or destroyed. Where there is massive trauma, no matter how much we think we need the facts, and we do, what we need, more, particularly when the facts are beyond us, is that rare creative soul who finds a way to make use of the facts.

Thus, after the terrible pogrom at Kishenev in 1903, the Hebrew Writers Union of Odessa ¡°sent the 30-year-old poet, Hayyim Nachman Bialik, to collect eyewitness accounts from the survivors.¡± The writers understood that these accounts in themselves had value, but more valuable would be what Bialik would do with them: ¡°While Bialik returned with several notebooks worth of survivor testimony¡­his pogrom poem, ¡®In the City of Slaughter¡¯ transformed the way that modern Jews perceived catastrophe¡± (Roskies, 1994, p. 34).

Bialik¡¯s (1948) lyric poem, like Borowski¡¯s stories, permits confrontation with horror and does not permit averting the gaze: Question the spider in his web!
His eyes beheld these things; and he can
A tale unfold horrific to the ear of man:
A tale of cloven belly, feather-filled;
Of nostrils nailed, of skull-bones bashed and spilled;
Of murdered men who from the beams were hung,
And of a babe beside its mother flung,
Its mother speared, the poor chick finding rest
Upon its mother's cold and milkless breast;
Of how a dagger halved an infant's word,
Its ma was heard, its mama never heard.
(p. 132)
Whereas, the witnesses and memoirists of massive trauma frequently invoke the by-now familiar trope that the horrors are inexpressible, the artists of trauma rarely employ this recourse to reverent speech. Landesmann takes a decidedly non-reverent approach to the ¡°inexpressibility¡± of the Shoah: ¡°I have precisely begun with the impossibility of telling this story. I have made this very impossibility my point of departure¡± (in Caruth, p. 154). And the poet Anna Aknatova, in an oft-cited example, writes: In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crown identified. Standing behind me was a woman, lips blue with cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
¡°Can you describe this?¡±
And I said, ¡°I can.¡±
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
(in Dawes, 2002, p. ix)
After massive trauma, there is an impetus to break off the attempt to make meaning out of horrors, as the attempt is seen as tantamount to the reduction of its impact. Adorno asserted, famously, in 1949 that ¡°to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric¡± (1981, p. 34)

Yet, invariably, what remains of value after tragedy is what has been made of tragedy, and most often, the ones who offer the sustained and useful transformations of the events of horror are the artists. In time, even Adorno reversed pessimistic pronouncement, asserting in its place: ¡°It is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it¡± (1962, p. 318).

* Hemingway, in writing of the language of war, states, ¡°Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of the regiments and the dates¡±
(cited in Dawes, 2002, p. 132).