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Autobiographical Literature

“There is a distance both temporal and psychological separating the memoirist from the event, and that distance is called memory. This is as true for the diarist, transcribing incidents and feelings which transpired only moments or hours before, as it is for the autobiographer delineating personalities and events half a century later; as true for the Holocaust writer as for others. But for those that have suffered the extremes of inhumanity and deprivation, as in the ghettos and death camps of the Final Solution, recovering memories entails a re-covering of exposed and vulnerable selves with which there may be no coming to terms.”[1]


The motive for writing autobiographical literature usually is a wish to come to grips with or to depict the writer’s own personality. Autobiographies of Holocaust survivors differ from other autobiographical writings in many cases, in that a central impetus for this form of testimony is the desire to tell about the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against their victims, lest these outrages be forgotten. For these writers, giving an account of their own lives bears witness to a greater historical connection and to the National Socialists’ crimes. Because of the important role played by the Holocaust in these autobiographical texts, it seems necessary to pay special attention in their analysis to the relationship between “objective” truths of the sort that historical literature strives to provide, and “subjective” truths of individual experience in the text. Repeatedly, people have approached survivors’ testimonies with questions about their historical accuracy, often misunderstanding the possibilities and intentions of limited personal and sometimes literary narrative in comparison with “historically exact” presentation. An important part is played by the point of view of an account, the way the alteration of the past is reflected by the writer’s recollection, by the process of remembering. In this regard, D. Mesher distinguishes between two tendencies in the writing of autobiographical Holocaust literature, “between autobiographies that strive to communicate an accurate re-creation of an individual experience in historical terms, and those that attempt to recover the emotions and impressions of that experience as self-validating in themselves.”[2]


Only a few examples of autobiographical literature by survivors of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp can be given here. Willy Berler’s account, Durch die Hölle (2003, Eng. Journey Through Darkness, 2004), is especially intent on historically exact classification of the reported events, an impression underscored by the explanatory background essays provided by historian Ruth Fivaz-Silvermann. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Elie Wiesel’s testimony of survival, La Nuit (1958, Eng. Night, 1960), characterized by a narrative perspective that attempts to recover through language the feelings and impressions of the main character, Eliezer, in the camp. Reflecting from the distance of years quite differently on those days, which decisively influenced all his writings, Wiesel gives another account of his time in the camp in his autobiography, Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994, Eng. All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995). The only “classical autobiography” of a Monowitz survivor, it speaks of the survivor’s entire lifetime, not “only” of his time in the camp.


The best known and, in terms of its philosophical and scholarly reception, most influential account by a Monowitz survivor probably is Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (1958, Eng. Survival in Auschwitz/If This Is a Man, 1959). To an unusual degree, Levi uses the vehicle of the story of one’s own experiences for phenomenological observations of camp life and reflections on its social meanings; this reflective attitude toward his own experiences is also characteristic of Levi’s account of life right after liberation, La tregua (1963, Eng. The Reawakening, 1965). Jean Améry, by contrast, did not want to give a documentary account of Auschwitz at all. Instead, his collected essays in Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (1966, Eng. At the Mind’s Limits, 1980) reflect isolated experiences of persecution, of torture, and of the camp from the survivor’s perspective and shed light on its significance for him and his life in postwar society.


Many survivors of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp decided quite late in life to chronicle their recollections of the time in the camp, among them Imo Moszkowicz and Paul Steinberg. In Moszkowicz’s account, Der grauende Morgen (Gray Dawn) (1998), the postwar life of the successful theater and film director plays an important part. Unbidden, the memory of the persecution, forced labor, and experiences in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp repeatedly interrupts his later work and forms an element of his daily life that Moszkowicz tries again and again to block out. Steinberg, however, in Chroniques d’ailleurs (1996, Eng. Speak You Also, 2001) tries to approach, from the point in time at which he writes, the 17-year-old boy he was when deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1943. The result is not only a portrait of the Paul Steinberg of that day in chapters that follow a loose chronology but also an impression of the camp’s lasting effects on Paul Steinberg, which he brings to the surface of his own awareness in his writing

(MN; transl. KL)


Améry, Jean: Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten. Munich: Szeszny, 1966.

Améry, Jean: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Berler, Willy: Durch die Hölle. Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald. Augsburg: Ölbaum 2003.

Levi, Primo: Si questo è un uomo. Torino: Einaudi 1958.

Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Levi, Primo: La tregua. Torino: Einaudi1963.

Levi, Primo: The Reawakening. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987.

Mesher, D.: “The Recovered Self: Auschwitz and Autobiography.” In: Judaism 45 (1996), No. 2, pp. 237–246.

Moszkowicz, Imo: Der grauende Morgen Eine Autobiographie. Munich: Knaur, 1998.

Steinberg, Paul: Chroniques d’ailleurs: Récit. Paris: Ramsay, 1996.

Steinberg, Paul: Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

Weissman, Gary: Fantasies of Witnessing. Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY/London: Cornell UP, 2004.

Wiesel, Eliezer: ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן […and the World Remained Silent]. Buenos Aires: Union Central Israelita Polaca en la Argentina, 1956.

Wiesel, Elie: La Nuit. Préface de François Mauriac. Paris: Minuit, 1958.

Wiesel, Elie: Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

Wiesel, Elie: Tous les fleuves vont à la mer. Mémoires Vol. 1. Paris: Seuil, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969. London: HarperCollins, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie: „Et la mer n’est pas remplie…“. Mémoires Vol. 2. Paris: Seuil, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie: And the Sea Is Never Full. Memoirs, 1969– . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Young, James E.: Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust. Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation.

Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988.

[1] D. Mesher: “The Recovered Self: Auschwitz and Autobiography.” In: Judaism 45 (1996), No. 2, pp. 237–246, here p. 245.

[2] Mesher: Recovered Self, p. 237.