2016-06-30
This is Part II of a Beliefnet interview with novelist Thane Rosenbaum. In the days before New York's Jewish Museum opened its controversial exhibit, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Art/Recent Imagery," Beliefnet asked Rosenbaum to discuss the treatment of the subject of the Holocaust in his writing. (To read Part I of the interview, click here.) He spoke with Beliefnet's Jonathan Lowet about his recently published second novel, "The Golems of Gotham."

You're the son of Holocaust survivors. How does your fiction tackle the Holocaust? How does it help keep lessons of the Holocaust alive?

My fiction doesn't fit in with the Holocaust. It only fits in with the post-Holocaust. I have never written about the years 1939-1945, nor would I. I would never fictionalize that period -- it's holy ground and just not appropriate. I only deal with contemporary tales in which the Holocaust functions as a kind of looming dark shadow that continues to affect lives. It speaks to the spiritual damage of the survivors themselves and the next generation.

What does "survivor" mean? Physically, you still have a heartbeat and a pulse and vital signs, but your life is contaminated; it's corrupted by this darkness, by this black hole, by this intimacy with mass death. And your children pick that up too. What is it like then to proceed? To march forward to a world where you have an incredibly fundamental awareness of what was back there, of what was left behind, of all that collective loss? That's the world of my fiction.


My books are unambiguous about what was left behind. Symbols of the Holocaust are often-times reintroduced into my fiction, invoked only to do one of two things: to remind us of their lethal character and to show how these symbols have penetrated our consciousness as symbols of mass death -- both physical and spiritual death in its aftermath. And when they're invoked, sometimes it's for the purpose of being reclaimed by the survivors themselves. I certainly don't refashion these symbols [like some of the artists represented at the Jewish Museum show] into something else that is trivializing, distorting, misleading, diluting, infantilizing, ultimately altering their lethal character.

A lot of what you've written about explores the unspoken -- the silence that so often exists within contemporary Jewish families that include Holocaust victims or survivors when the topic of the Holocaust arises. It seems so difficult to fill in those blanks.

It's not western to think this way, but perhaps some things have to remain unspoken because the quality of it is just so unimaginable, because it requires such faithfulness and fidelity that we try to speak to it in some way, but we can't get truly inside of it, precisely because of its forbidden nature. We want to acknowledge the memory of the loss, but they are black holes. And some of those black holes are just too wide and deep. So that's the point. Do we then try to fill it with this nonsense? Is the Jewish Museum exhibit ["Mirroring Evil"] really a way to help fill the black holes? In my mind, it only widens the gap, because it makes the information that is already unknowable more confusing. More unknowable. The works exhibited don't create clarity; they create distortion. And who's better off because of that?

This sounds like rich fodder for future books.

It's funny you say that, because this new book I finished [, The Golems of Gotham,] is the closing-out of a post-Holocaust trilogy. I had actually planned not to do any more. But maybe you're right. It reminds me of the Godfather, Part III when Pacino says, "I'm trying to leave, then they pull me back in."

I had every intention of not writing about the Holocaust in fiction again. That was it. At least for ten or twenty years, I was done. I wanted to turn the imagination somewhere else. I've been saying this now for six or seven years. I was going to write a post-Holocaust trilogy -- once I was in the middle of my first book, I just knew that there were three different sorts of landscapes that I wanted to cover in the post-Holocaust world. And this most recent one, "The Golems of Gotham," in my mind, is a kind of one-stop shopping of post-Holocaust ideas.

The irony of this book is that it is, in fact, an attack against the Jewish Museum and what it's doing, even though it was written long before I ever knew about it. The golems of Gotham, the eight ghosts that reemerge on Manhattan, ultimately riot against the City, even after bringing peace and revival of spirituality and a kind of tenderness and soul. They eventually turn -- like the Golem of Prague did -- precisely because of this desecration of memory; because of this total disregard for pain. This novel is essentially an attack against everything the museum is doing. It's just ridiculously ironic.

I was really referring to other events that had just happened, like the release of "Life is Beautiful." I had no idea that the Jewish Museum exhibit would open just as my book was coming out. I had thought that there had been enough in the trend that the golems of Gotham -- not the novel, but the characters -- would have plenty to rebel against. Little did I know that the museum show would be front and center of what it was that the Golems were attacking.


So, I don't know. I still hope that I don't have to do this again and that "The Golems of Gotham" speaks for itself.

How does the passing of time affect our understanding of the Holocaust?

With time, everything just seems less horrific -- the Inquisition, the slavery of Jews in Egypt... I've written about this in all my books, because I fear this for the Holocaust.

All my books have a Passover scene. I do that to try to set the idea that it's not about seeing your Aunt Sophie from Syosset who you only get to see a few times a year. That's good, but that's not the point -- so that someone can remark on how much weight you've lost. The basic principle is this: 4,000 years ago, Jews were slaves in Egypt; then, by whatever force, things changed. This is what we gather to remember.

To the extent that the seder dilutes or trivializes or misleads or doesn't pay proper honor to what we really gather for, that's bad. Of course, it's easier to do 4,000 years later. In my second book, ["Second Hand Smoke"], one of the characters, during one of these desecrated Passover seder scenes, turns to the other and says, "Is this how people are going to one day remember the Holocaust?" It's the final scene of that seder.

In my fiction, I'm obsessed with the idea of the acknowledgement of pain and history and atrocity -- that we own it, and we keep naming it. And we name it for what it was.

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