Language and Representation of the Holocaust

by Bryan Davis

Holocaust Education Teacher InserviceBryan Davis is the Director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

What words did victims of the Holocaust use to attempt to represent their experiences during the war?  They were faced with the unthinkable challenge of realizing (depending on when they wrote) that what they wrote would be used as a marker of their place individually, and the Jewish place collectively, in history, as they were being systematically annihilated and that at the same time, words were inadequate for representing the horrors they experienced.

Hélène Berr was a twenty-one year old student in the English Studies Department at the Sorbonne when, in 1942, she began keeping a diary in her home in avenue Elisee-Reclus in German occupied Paris.  Hélène came from an affluent family, she was well read in British literature, especially the Romantic poets, and she was a gifted amateur violinist.  Hélène's diary served shifting and overlapping purposes for her during the time she kept it from April 1942-February 1944.  At times Hélène hoped the diary would provide a message to her fiancé Jean who had fled France to join the resistance, while increasingly, as the persecutions around her grew closer and more brutal, she hoped to use the diary to "tell the story."  On October 10, 1943 she wrote:

"I have a duty to write because other people must know.  Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict.  And I am still trying to make the effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill."

"For how will humanity ever be healed unless all its rottenness is exposed?  How will the world be cleansed unless it is made to understand the full extent of the evil it is doing?  Everything comes down to understanding.  That truth fills me with anguish and torment."

The Poetry Center is co-sponsoring a teacher in-service to examine language and representation of the Holocaust and how the diaries, letters, memoirs and testimonies of the victims of the Holocaust can be used in the classroom. The in-service will feature lectures by Susan R. Suleiman (Harvard), Susan Shear (teacher and playwright) and a testimony by Holocaust survivor Sidney Finkel.  Teachers will be given the tools to explore and present a multi-faceted understanding of literary responses to the Holocaust.

Full descriptions of all sessions as follows:

Susan R. Suleiman, C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and professor of comparative literature at Harvard will lead two hour-long sessions:

(1) Moments of Self-Consciousness in Holocaust Memoirs

(2) Diaries in a Time of Catastrophe

Susan Shear Prinz uncovered over 500 letters written by her mother's family as they tried to escape Nazi Germany. She will present No Way Out, a curriculum and theater production that juxtaposes her family's letters against Nazi anti-Jewish laws.  No Way Out has been presented around the country at history centers, universities, theatres and museums including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Sidney Finkel was a child in Piotrkow, Poland when Germany invaded in 1939.  He will provide a testimony of his experiences in ghettoes, slave labor and concentration camps including Buchenwald and Theresienstadt.  

Register at

Created on: 
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents