Guest Lecturers, Holocaust Literature

Professor von der Luhe: Against oblivion Jewish Women’s Writing on the Holocaust


IMG_2340Our students were privileged to hear a presentation from Irmela von der Luhe who is a professor emerita of German literature at Free University of Berlin and since 2013 Senior Professor at the Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg. She has also taught at Kansas University and UC Irvine, at Beida University Pejing, at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at various Universities in Ukraine and Poland.  She has published a biography of Erika Mann (2009), edited collections of Erika Mann’s essays (1998,2000) as well as of her book Zehn Millionen Kinder. Die Erziehung der Jugend im Dritten Reich (1998; School for Barbarians, 1938). She has published on the Thomas Mann Family, on female writers from 18th to 20th century; in particular on the literature of refugees from Nazi Germany and of survivors of the Holocaust. Her recent research focuses on Jean Améry, Hannah Arendt and Margarete Susman.


Von der Luhe opened her talk with a reference to Theodore Adorno’s well-known claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. He later revised that dictum. But von der Luhe questioned what he meant by it – whether he was referring to all poetry or just poetry about Auschwitz and whether he included autobiographical works or just fiction. In light of this, von der Luhe insisted that poems and stories about he Holocaust call for a special justification in order to avoid trivializing the subject matter. Von der Luhe referenced a quote by historian Raul Hilberg in which he compared writing his historical works to Beethoven composing a symphony. There is some connection between art, historical scholarship, and representations of the Holocaust. Yet, one who wishes to write about or create works on the Holocaust is left to grapple with some dilemmas.  One the one hand the command to act as a witness and provide testimony about the horrors stands in opposition to the problem of representation. No form of representation is strong enough to express the magnitude of the crime so the witness must determine how to represent the Holocaust while trying to avoid trivializing and commercializing that history.

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Von der Luhe presented the work “Still Alive: A Holocaust Childhood Remembered” by Ruth Kluger in order to suggest some possible answers to the need to witness and remember and the dilemma of representing the Holocaust. Kluger was a professor of literature but never published about her experiences during the Holocaust until 1992 after a hospitalization in Germany following an accident brought back her childhood memories. As a literature professor and literary critic who was familiar with the canonical works on the Holocaust Kluger had to decide how to represent a topic that so many others had written on already. According to von der Luhe, Kluger was writing against a tradition that she couldn’t continue or ignore and this she chose a political and ironic representation. Kluger addresses the female reader in her autobiographical work and requests that her book not be seen in a sentimental light as “deeply moving.” Kluger is concerned with how and when memory comes and how to tell a story based on incomplete recollection. Her answer is to tell fragments of a story that is often a ghost story. Von der Luhe described that Kluger’s father is a large component of the stiry but the circumstances of his deportation remained unknown to Kluger. She was never sure why he left his family and so was writing fragments and not a unified story and over 60 years later her father was so distant from her it was as if she was writing a ghost story.


Von der Luhe ended her talk with an interesting quote from Kluger’s book about the museum culture of visiting the camps has become problematic and sentimental in a shallow way. Kluger writes:

“A visitor who feels moved, even if it is only the kind of feeling that a haunted house conveys, will be proud of these stirrings of humanity. And so the visitor monitors his reactions, examines his emotions, admire his own sensibility, or in other words, turns sentimental. For sentimentality involves turning away from an ostensible object and towards the subjective observer, that is, towards oneself. It means looking into a mirror instead of reality.” (Kluger, pg. 66)


This quote led to an interesting discussion between our students and professor van der Luhe on how one should feel when visiting the camps and in fact what the purpose of visiting the camps is. Students shared their experiences from their own visits to concentration and extermination camps including a student from Berlin who felt like she was taught to feel guilty. It was stimulating and enriching for our students to hear from a professor of literature and to get an additional perspective from a discipline outside of history.

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