Babelia, the literary supplement of Madrid’s El País, is interviewing (March 16th) American writer Cynthia Ozick on the occasion of the publication in Spain of her new novel, Cuerpos Extraños (Foreign Bodies).
Asked about the theme of the Holocaust, which appears in many of her novels and short stories, including Foreign Bodies, Ozick replies: “As a novelist, the Holocaust doesn’t interest me at all. Neither does it interest me as a Jew, since the culture that produced it is not my culture; it’s the culture of the oppressor … As a writer I normally refuse to use it as a matter of principle …”
A refusal to use the Holocaust would indeed seem to be an honourable thing. Primo Levi quite literally did not find himself able not to speak and write about the camps after his personal experience as an inmate of Auschwitz. But he strongly deprecated the meretricious use of this immense historical crime. In particular he strongly disliked Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter, which unites a camp survivor and her SS torturer by chance in 1950s Vienna and places them in an intense sexual relationship. Levi found the film “beautiful and false”; nor was he impressed by the vacuous babble Cavani offered when asked about its meaning: “We are all victims and murderers … in every environment, in every relationship, there is a victim-executioner dynamic more or less clearly expressed and generally lived on an unconscious level.” “I do not know,” Levi responded, “and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed, not only in Germany, and still exist, retired or on active duty, and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation …”
There would seem however to be a thinnish line (I can’t quite see it myself) between refusing to use the Holocaust and creating a fictional character, as Ozick says she has done in Foreign Bodies, “to underline to what degree it is impossible to eradicate anti-Semitism from the European mentality”, and perhaps particularly in France (a country that however had three Jewish prime ministers in the course of the twentieth century).
What exactly this pervasive anti-Semitism is and where it resides is something of a mystery to many contemporary Europeans, who go about their business day after day, month after month, year after year, without hearing it expressed. (Anti-Semitism does of course exist, but it is the creed of a rabble or of some very odd and no longer very powerful corners of what used to be the ruling class.) So where does Ozick see it? Well, one might have known – it is to be found in “the incessant defamations and demonisations of Israel, which pass themselves off as mere political criticism. In summary, it is a virulent and dishonest anti-Semitism which hides behind the words human rights, peace and justice. And which will not hear facts, information, truths, much less history, either about the Arabs or the Jew.” Perhaps we should not be surprised at Ozick’s views. She did write for Esquire in 1974 an essay with the title “All the World Wants the Jews Dead”.
In 1982 Primo Levi angered many of his fellow Italian Jews, and some close friends, with his denunciation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and in particular the “bloody arrogance” of prime minister Menachem Begin, whose Christian Maronite allies were allowed to murder hundreds of civilians in the Sabra and Chatila camps. One thing that Levi knew was that actions of this kind, as well as being, first of all, appalling atrocities, were damaging not just to the reputation of Israel but (unreasonably) to the image of Jews throughout the world and that they tended to bring the anti-Semites out of the woodwork. The whole business saddened him immeasurably.