If this is a man: the image of man in autobiographical and historical writing during and after the Holocaust

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Leni Yahil in 1964 wrote that there is an obligation to record the history of the Holocaust. The central query is to tackle the image of man posed by Primo Levi: “If this is a Man?” This article seeks (a partial) answer by focusing on autobiographical literature – testimonial and memorial. The author stresses that Israeli historical research has probed mainly into institutions, movements and leaders. Primo Levi’s If this is a Man was published in Italy in 1947, but translated into Hebrew only in 1987. Anne Frank’s diary centers on man and humanity and ends on a hopeful note. Victor Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning refers to man’s inner being (space), where he could maintain his humanity in parallel to the harsh, chaotic, threatening “outside.” Although such inner invulnerability occurred in the minority it proves the basic humanity of man. The author poses a difference between two conditions: crisis and trauma. Crisis leaves space for eventual hope via autobiographical redemption; trauma does not. However, this is often not true as many noted narrators of personal Holocaust experience, such as Levi and Améry, took their lives, sometimes many years later. Chaim Kaplan claimed that writing is a form of spiritual resistance and endows significance to death. Paradoxically, he stated that the Nazi positioning of Jews outside the law stripped them of humanity: “The spirit of God has left us.” Paul Kovacs goes further and declares that the price of witnessing is the renunciation of humanity – being alive biologically, but with inner death of mind and reason. Finally Saul Friedlander is quoted: “We must ask again: What is the nature of human nature following the Holocaust?”

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)381-429
Number of pages49
JournalYad Vashem Studies
StatePublished - 2005

Bibliographical note

Appeared in French as "'Est-ce bien (la nature de) l'homme?' L'image de l'homme dans l'écriture autobiographique pendant et après la Shoah" in "Revue d'Histoire de la Shoah" 188 (2008) 379-415. In Hebrew: "יד ושם; קובץ מחקרים" לג (תשסה) 305-342

RAMBI Publications

  • Rambi Publications
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Historiography
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Personal narratives
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Philosophy
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Psychological aspects
  • Humanity -- Psychological aspects


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