University Writing Courses: ENG 380L Literary Responses to the Holocaust

This is a 380- Senior-Level writing course. The full title is: “Literary Responses to the Holocaust  Reading through the Prism of the Literature of Witness”

I was excited to see that this class had far fewer than the maximum students enrolled: that means more attention from the professor for everyone in the class, and a more relaxed, intimate learning experience. It’s a seminar course where we all sit around in a circle (in a classroom, alas, because the Grad School seminars get all of the cushy conference room type seminar rooms. Greedy bastards.

We are not allowed to use outside sources for this course: only the texts assigned by the professor. All of the texts for the course were written by Holocaust survivors, or by the children of Holocaust survivors.

There are at least three long papers, along with a midterm exam and a final exam. Class participation in discussion is mandatory and will revolve around close readings of these texts.

I was a little confused about what a close reading actually is, so I looked it up. Harvard University Writing Center has a good online “how to” on the process here. I do hope there is dissention in the class about whatever conclusions we may or may not draw from our readings of these texts.

The professor is Dr. Paul-William Burch. He’s a veteran of the Vietnam war, a poet, a literary critic and a full professor. He’s also a good friend of Elie Wiesel and other authors who survived the Holocaust.

The list of authors is a who’s who: Wiesel, Jacob Glatstein, Jankiel Wiernik, Theodor Adorno, Ahron Appelfeld, Jean Amery, Abraham Lewin, Josef Zelkowicz, Czeslaw Milosz, Avraham Tory, Charlotte Delbo, and Tadeusz Borowksi, among others.

The major text a lot of the writings are published in is Art from the Ashes put together by Lawrence Langer. It’s a very important source work for essays and poems that the major publishers have not seen fit to publish. Remember – as strange as it seems now, after it’s great success, even Elie Wiesel’s agent had a great deal of difficulty getting Night published.

So, what can one say about the Holocaust? First, I’m amazed and appalled that there are whole groups of people who – even in the face of these writings and of hard evidence from the Russian archives – dare to deny that the Holocaust happened at all, dare to deny the deaths of 63% of Europe’s Jews, dare to deny the slaughter of 36% of the planets Jews.

Second, even those of us who take the historical account as fact can never get our heads around it. Even those who survived cannot get their heads around it. How could Germany – the most advanced and intelligent, creative and prosperous, enlightened and educated culture of its era on this planet – how could such a culture have deliberately planned and committed this astounding collection of brutal atrocities? How is that even possible?

And, of course, the big question is how is it possible that such things continue now, in the 21st century? The former Yugoslavia, Uganda, Rwanda, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, 9/11 in the US – and others. How can this still be happening?

Some would claim that women are undergoing their own Holocaust in the Islamic nations, and the political right in America seems hell bent on dictating what women must do with their bodies – as if that concept is or should be a political football.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to get into discussions about the post-WWII genocides or the War on Women, or if we’ll touch on the Vatican’s blood-soaked hands, or the blood soaked gold still stockpiled in the vaults of Swiss banks.

And what of the religious responses? Will we touch on the rise of “Reformed Judaism”? Was it a direct response to Holocaust, or if not, what influence has Holocaust had on the demise of religion in general? We don’t know about such things here in the US – we’re such prigs when it comes to our supernatural being that we honestly believe that America’s “divine right” of Manifest Destiny extends to the entire planet! What incomparable arrogance!

The course opens the doors to many other aspect of Holocaust that probably will not even come up – but who knows? From the syllabus:

Our work will be informed by the belief that literary responses to the Holocaust are, as Carolyn Forche has written, in themselves “material evidence of that-which-occurred.” The literature of witness in particular provides an enrichment of the narrative of History – not a counterpoint to History, but a deepening and focusing of it.

Wow. It’s going to be an extraordinary experience – as should all learning experiences of those things located outside our personal lives, cultures and Being-In-The-World.


There is no end to the ramifications of the Holocaust.


About fester60613

Evangelical Antireligionist.
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