(Mis)understanding Holocaust literature. Reception of Tadeusz Borowski and Primo Levi by Polish and Israeli readers.

Submitted by: Agnieszka Kania
Abstract: Key words: Holocaust literature, context in understanding, fact and fiction literature

The participants of the project were college students of English Studies from Israel (50 people) and university students of Polish Studies from Poland (30 people). They would all educate about the Holocaust in the future. The two groups communicated in English by exchanging e-mails with essays written on various topics.

One of their tasks was to express comments on two narratives concerning the reality of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp:
- “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowski (Polish). The short story, blending fact and fiction, is based on the author’s experience as a political prisoner of Auschwitz and resembles a part of a memoir.
- “If Tis Is a Man” by Primo Levi (Italian Jewish). The memoir describes the author’s stay in Auschwitz.

The objective of this activity was to compare participants’ reception of the same literary texts. While all participants had no problem understanding Levi’s memoir, Borowski’s story appeared far more difficult to comprehend for the first Israeli group as its context hadn’t been introduced beforehand. When that group presented their essays it became clear that they had completely misunderstood the story. They accused the author-like narrator of anti-Semitism and perceived him part of the Nazi regime. The explanation of the author’s technique, offered afterwards, helped to calm their emotions and change initial interpretation.

What could be the cause of that process? Borowski’s works depicting dehumanization (Glasner-Heled, 2007) are very complex. It is a standard practice in Poland to introduce the author’s exceptional writing style and to discuss human condition in the time of death and humiliation. Explaining Borowski’s philosophy of literature and presenting him as a compassionate man prevents possible false and unfair conclusions This approach was not adopted in the case of Israeli group one which provoked heated discussion about Polish-Jewish relationships in the camp. The other Israeli groups, given the background before reading, expressed sympathy to all the prisoners and discussion about the moral condition of humankind was raised.

The case clearly demonstrates the importance of teacher’s knowledge and necessity to introduce the proper context of Holocaust literature (Lindquist, 2008; Shawn & Goldfrad 2008).

Lindquist, D. H. (2008). Informed COMMENTARY: Five Perspectives for Teaching the Holocaust. American Secondary Education Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 4-14.
Glasner-Heled, G. (2007). Reader, Writer, and Holocaust Literature: The Case of Ka-Tzetnik. Israel Studies Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 109-133.
Shawn, K. Goldfrad, K. Ed. (2008) The Call of Memory: Learning About the Holocaust Through Narrative. A Teacher’s Guide. Teaneck: Ben Yehuda Press.