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 Autobiography is usually defined as a retrospective narrative written aboutone’s life, in the first person and in prose. Such writing has appeared withincreasing frequency in Western literature since the beginning of thenineteenth century. As a result of the events of World War II, it gainedconsiderable significance in France, as can be seen in the works of authorssuch as André Malraux and Simone de Beauvoir. In view of the proliferationof autobiography, the recent studies by the critics Philippe Lejeune andGeorges May have attempted to examine its characteristics and determine to what extent it could represent a literary genre. The history of the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis hasrelied heavily upon the accounts written by survivors, which will probably remain a prime source of information concerning the magnitude of thecatastrophe. Autobiography written as a result of experiences lived duringthe Holocaust is therefore an integral part of its literature. Since suchliterature cannot be linked to any of the norms of literary art, it has beentermed a literature of “atrocity” or “decomposition.” Holocaustautobiography inherits, therefore, the problematic aspect of bothautobiography and the literature of the Holocaust. In the light of the above-mentioned studies on autobiography and on the basis of 
(1958) by Elie Wiesel,
When Memory Comes 
(1978) by Saul Friedländer, and
Of Blood and  Hope
(1979) and
 La Ressource humaine
(1983) by Samuel Pisar, we shall
Holocaust and Autobiography:Wiesel, Friedländer, Pisar
 Reflections of the Holocaust in Art and Literature
, ed. Randolph L. Braham. © 1990 by Randolph L. Braham.
 Joseph Sungolowsky
examine who writes Holocaust autobiography, why and how it is written, and what is the substance of such writing.
 Autobiography is generally written in midlife by an author who has achievedfame thanks to previous works which have been recognized for their value,or by an individual who has played a significant role in public life. SaulFriedländer was 46 years old when
When Memory Comes 
 was published. Atthat time, he had gained an international reputation as a historian of Nazism. Samuel Pisar was 50 when he wrote
Of Blood and Hope
. He is alsothe author of 
Coexistence and Commerce
(1970), an impressive political andeconomic treatise advocating trade relations between East and West,especially as a means to ease the Cold War. He, too, has achieved recognitionas a political scientist, as an advisor to governments, and as an internationallawyer. Writing autobiography at an earlier age or as a first book is consideredan exception.
Elie Wiesel’s
is such an exception. He recounts howfortuitous his career as a writer was in its beginnings, especially consideringthat he might not have survived the concentration camps at all. Upon hisliberation, he vowed not to speak of his experience for at least ten years. It was the French novelist Francois Mauriac who persuaded him to tell hisstory, and Wiesel adds that at the time Mauriac was as well-known as he wasobscure.
 Thus, at the age of 28, Wiesel published his autobiographicalnarrative concerning his experience in the concentration camps, first in Yiddish under the title
Un die velt hot geshvigen
, subsequently in French underthe title
 La Nuit 
. In 1976, Wiesel stated that
could have remained hisone and only book;
indeed, when he began to write fiction, the French criticRene Lalou wondered how Wiesel could have undertaken to write anythingelse after
Clearly, at the time Wiesel published
, he lacked thefame as an author of previous works usually expected of an autobiography, asindicated by Philippe Lejeune and Georges May.
 An autobiography is deemed authentic when there is identity betweenthe name of the author appearing on the title page and the narrator of thestory.
, Wiesel relates that during a rollcall in Auschwitz, he hearda man crying out: “Who among you is Wiesel from Sighet?” He turned outto be relative that had been deported from Antwerp. Subsequently, Wiesel iscalled by his first name “Eliezer” by that relative, by Juliek, a fellow-inmate,
Holocaust and Autobiography
and by his father.
Friedländer refers to his name several times in the courseof his narrative. He recalls how difficult it was for him to get accustomed tohis new first-name “Paul-Henri” given to him in the Catholic boardingschool in France, as he was called “Pavel” or “Pawlicek,” the diminutivegiven to him by his family. He names himself again when he recalls his stay,in 1950, with an uncle who directed an institution for mentally ill children.One of them tried to communicate with him during a fit, and all he could say  was “Herr Friedländer.” (Friedländer sees in this incident an example of theunlocking of the inner world which he experienced himself when he beganto write his book.)Pisar names himself throughout
Of Blood and Hope
. Upon returning to Auschwitz as a member of a delegation to a commemorative ceremony, hedescribes himself as follows: “a reincarnated Samuel Pisar clothed simply inhis respectable attire of international lawyer, scholar, American citizen had tostep into the light and avow once more that once, not so long ago, he hadcrawled in the pain, the filth and the degradation of the factories of death.”
Later on, he quotes Solzhenitsyn commenting upon his views on coexistencebetween East and West: “Pisar is one of the few to see clearly.”
 Autobiography is considered genuine when the author states, either inthe text itself or in connection with it, that his intent has indeed beenautobiographical. Lejeune calls such a statement an “autobiographicalpact”—an agreement between author and reader according to which thereader is assured that he is reading the truth.
Upon the publication of his book, Friedländer told an interviewer thathe wrote it as a result of an “inner necessity,” and he discussed its mainthemes: his childhood, his life as a youngster in a Catholic boarding schoolafter he was separated from his parents during the war, his discovery of Zionism and his views on Israel where he lives.
In the preface to the Frenchedition of his book, Pisar explains that in order to write it he had to revivefrom within the depths of his self the tragic episodes of his life whichrepresent such a sharp contrast with his “reincarnation” as a brilliant publicfigure.
Pisar’s subsequent book intitled
 La Ressource humaine
is of a similarintent. It opens as follows: “I sleep with eyes half-closed. I have done so forthe last forty years. Even since I entered the precincts of Auschwitz.”
 Wiesel’s autobiographical pact was established twenty years after thepublication of 
, when he told an interviewer: “
, my first narrative, was an autobiographical story, a kind of testimony of one witness speaking of his own life, his own death.”
 Joseph Sungolowsky
 Autobiography is written in order to come to terms with oneself.
Recapturing the past is, therefore, the most common preoccupation of theautobiographer. This motivation is repeatedly stressed by Saul Friedländer whose childhood was shattered by the events of the war. Recounting hissuicide attempt after he was separated from his parents, he wonders whetherhe is the same person or even the same Jew “if there were such a thing as acollective Jew.”
 When he tries to seek out a former schoolmate 35 yearslater, he suspects that this impulse is dictated by the “need for synthesis ...that no longer excludes anything.”
 Therefore, in order to recapture thepast, his sole recourse is to write, for “writing retraces the contours of thepast ..., it does at least preserve a presence.”
In measuring the distancebetween past and present, Friedländer realizes that he has retained areticence toward people, a tendency to passivity, moral preoccupations andself-examination inculcated to him by the “taboos” of his former Catholiceducation.
In searching for himself, the autobiographer may indulge in narcissismand conceit.
Pisar hardly avoids these temptations. Self-glorification is apervasive theme in both of his autobiographical books. He dwells extensively upon his close relationships with world celebrities, on his brilliance as apolitical scientist whose advice is sought by statesmen, on his participation ininternational conferences where he is eagerly listened to, on his talent athandling the affairs of renowned movie stars. However, such vanity seemsdeliberate, for Pisar never fails to stress the contrast between his presentsuccess and his former condition as a concentration camp inmate. He oftenrecalls “the young boy with a shaven head, pale skin tightly drawn over hisface, and an almost broken body.”
 La Ressource humaine
, he writes: “Icarry the immense privilege of a double experience. That of a sub-humanthrown in the deepest hell of the century and that of an individual treasuredby the great and productive cultures of this planet that are still free.”
 Autobiography is written as a testimony, especially when the author haslived a particular moment of history that must not be forgotten.
Such wasElie Wiesel’s intent when he wrote
. For him, “Auschwitz was a uniquephenomenon, a unique event, like the revelation at Sinai.”
Had it not beenfor the war, he would not have become a storyteller but would have writtenon philosophy, the Bible, and the Talmud. He recalls that as he looked athimself in the mirror after his liberation, he realized how much he hadchanged and decided that someone had to write about that change. Althoughhe had vowed to remain silent for ten years, he had absorbed “the obsession
Holocaust and Autobiography
to tell the tale.” He states: “I knew that anyone who remained alive had tobecome a story-teller, a messenger, had to speak up.”
 Autobiography may also be written to educate. The autobiographer wishes his reader to learn from his experience.
In the preface to the Frenchedition of 
Blood and Hope
, Pisar writes that he did not mean to write anarrative describing the atrocities of the Holocaust or an abstract ideological work on the subject, but: “to forget those four hellish years spent in the mostloathsome trashcan of history.”
For him, the danger of a thermonuclear war is a mere repetition of the former madness. He writes, therefore, toeducate the youth of today. “They need to arm themselves against thetragedies, the hypocrisies, the false gods of history.”
 La Ressourcehumaine
, Pisar further explores the means by which a third world war can beavoided. The autobiographical element is present in it again, and with thesame educational intent. He relates that while he was about to enter the gaschamber, he escaped from the line, seized a brush and pail, and beganscrubbing the floor of the waiting room much to the liking of the guards. Heis convinced, therefore, that the world possesses likewise the resources toavoid a nuclear war.
No matter how sincere or truthful the autobiographer intends to be, he mustface the technical and literary problems related to the writing. Suchproblems are even more acute in the case of Holocaust autobiography.Before they write autobiography, authors will make sure that a reasonableamount of time has elapsed between the events they wish to relate and theactual writing. Such “distanciation” ensures orderliness to the narrative. Inthe case of Holocaust autobiography, the waiting period is not only technicalbut also emotional. Elie Wiesel states that he feared being unable to live upto the past, “of saying the wrong things, of saying too much or too little.” Hetherefore decided to wait ten years before writing.
Friedländer stated thathe had unsuccessfully attempted to write his account fifteen years earlier.
Pisar waited about 35 years before he decided to write. With the best faith or memory in the world, it is impossible to re-create in writing a reality long gone by.
In this respect, Holocaustautobiographers are even more frustrated. They constantly suspect that whatever the form and content of their narrative, they have not succeeded inconveying the past adequately. Wiesel feels that, while
is the center of his work, “what happened during that night ... will not be revealed.”
In the
 Joseph Sungolowsky
midst of writing, Friedländer feels “deeply discouraged.” He writes: “I willnever be able to express what I want to say; these lines, often clumsy, are very far removed, I know, from my memories, and even my memories retrieveonly sparse fragments of my parents’ existence, of their world, of the time when I was a child.” At the conclusion of his book, he is still wondering whether he has succeeded “in setting down even so much as a tiny part of  what [he] wanted to express.”
However, since they represent an attempt torecapture whatever is retained of the past, such memories, as fragmented asthey may be, remain invaluable. As put by Leon Wieseltier, they are “all themore illuminating, because memory is the consciousness of things and eventsthat have not yet disappeared completely into knowledge.”
No matter how truthful the autobiographer tries to be, he cannot avoidhaving recourse to fictional or literary devices. Indeed, autobiography isnecessarily linked to related literary genres such as the novel, the theater, thediary, or the chronicle.
 Thus, despite Theodore W. Adorno’s contentionthat it is barbaric to write literature after Auschwitz, the Holocaust writer orautobiographer must engage in a “writing experience” if he wishes to expresshimself. The terse language of Wiesel’s
is occasionally broken by harrowing scenes such as that of Madame Shachter gone mad in the cattlecar or by dialogues such as those that take place between himself and hiserstwhile master Moshe-the-Beadle or with his dying father. Fantasy ispresent when he depicts his native Sighet as “an open tomb” after its Jewshave been rounded up. He uses irony when he recalls that a fellow inmate hasfaith in Hitler because he has kept all his promises to the Jewish people.Images express the author’s feelings. Gallows set up in the assembly place inpreparation of a hanging appear to him as “three black crows,” and the violinof a fellow inmate who has died after playing a Beethoven concerto liesbeside him like “a strange overwhelming little corpse.” The grotesque bestportrays his fellow inmates, “Poor mountebanks, wider than they were tall,more dead than alive; poor clowns, their ghost like faces emerging from pilesof prison clothes! Buffoons!”
 While Friedländer and Pisar are not writers in the artistic sense of the word, they cannot avoid resorting to literary devices. On page 78 of 
When Memory Comes 
, Friedländer writes in a footnote: “All the names associated with my stay in Montlucon, the Indre and Sweden are fictitious,” clearly atechnique widely used by discretion-conscious autobiographers and by authors of autobiographical novels.
 The universe of the concentrationcamp has imprinted on Pisar’s mind indelible images and myths. Upon visiting the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, he is impressed by the latest
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