Online Edition: Spring 2003

Holocaust Girls by S. L. Wisenberg

Holocaust Girls

History, Memory & Other Obsessions

S. L. Wisenberg

University of Nebraska Press ($24.95)

by Lisa Lishman

“You don't have to be Jewish to be a Holocaust Girl," writes S.L. Wisenberg in her new essay collection, Holocaust Girls: History, Memory and Other Obsessions. "But it helps. . . .What matters most is that you must love suffering. You have to pick at wounds, must be encumbered by what you consider an affliction. You have to see your pain as a dark hole you could fall into."

It might be easy to characterize some of Wisenberg's writing, especially early in the book, as self-indulgent, or even sentimental ("You watch your tears make little dents, like tiny upturned rose petals, on the pages," she writes, describing turning through pages of Holocaust photographs in the library's World War II-Europe section). However, what emerges by the book's end is Wisenberg's enormous capacity for empathy; her deeply-felt desire to locate herself in different places and times, in other peoples' skins. One senses that Wisenberg is writing to maintain connection between the past that haunts her and the present in which she struggles to understand her identity as a Jewish-American woman living in a post-Holocaust world.

Wisenberg grew up in Houston in the 1960s. Her parents were born in America, too, but Sandi and her older sister, Rosi, grew up acutely aware that "if our grandparents and great-grandparents hadn't immigrated in the beginning of the 20th century we probably would have ended up like the people who died in the Holocaust--or survived." Sandi and Rosi spent many hours playing a game not unlike "cowboys and Indians." In their version, "Nazis and Jews," the two would hide in their bedroom closet and pretend they were hiding from the Nazis: "We liked playing in the closet," Wisenberg writes. "We liked the thrill of hiding. . . . The Nazis would take us to a concentration camp. They would take my glasses and asthma drugs and let death just come up and kill me, like that."

When she grows up, Wisenberg's obsession with the Holocaust becomes a metaphor for her urgent desire to connect her personal and private past with the larger, historical past in which millions of Jews were lost--or, perhaps even more urgently, for her fear of losing that connection. The inventive style of the essays, as well as their varied subject matter, reflects both this desire for connection and the fear of losing it: the writing is always associative and ruminative; often, Wisenberg doesn't bother to construct transitions between the disparate movements that make up her essays, as a more traditional essayist might. In "The Language of Heimatlos," Wisenberg moves between descriptions of her childhood in Houston, where the one kosher bakery in town was run by "short, sharp foreign bakers" who scared her "with their unfamiliarity," and a beautifully researched account of Herschel Grynszpan, the young German Jew who assassinated a German embassy official in Paris in 1936. (Hitler used Grynszpan's action to justify Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, in which "at least ten thousand Jews, including longstanding citizens of Germany and Austria, were sent to Buchenwald and tortured.")

In other essays, Wisenberg pairs her reflections on Kafka with her memories of her father; she imagines the diary entries that Anne Frank's sister, Margot, might have written; she reflects on race relations in her hometown of Chicago; she describes her parents' observance of Jewish rituals and writes somewhat regretfully of losing touch with her faith: "And you try but you can't remember when you stopped saying the Shema. And it's not their faith that you envy so much as their daily acceptance of the mystery of oneness--the oneness of unbroken repetition, the chain they are still a part of."

In "Monica and Hannah," perhaps one of the most unlikely and interesting pairings occurs, as Wisenberg riffs on Monica Lewinsky and Hannah Sennesh, the young Hungarian martyr to the Nazis: "These two young Jewish women, half a century apart, are as good examples as any of paths that privileged young Jewish women in the developed world can take, have open to them, make open to themselves. Is that a fair statement? Is it fair to lump them together?" Fair or not, Wisenberg makes a convincing case that Monica is a Holocaust Girl, too, a Jewish woman of her time, just as Sennesh was.

Ultimately, Holocaust Girls reflects Wisenberg's philosophy that in order to understand the past, you must lose yourself in it, and perhaps that kind of imaginative leap has its own risks. In "Plain Scared, Or: There is No Such Thing As Negative Space, the Art Teacher Said," Wisenberg writes:

This is the secret, the secret I have always known: that the bare open plain is my heart itself, my heart without connection; that the bare cinder block room is my soul, my soul without connection--the place I fear I will end up when the fear of loss of connection overrides everything else.

In order to find a place herself in the present, Wisenberg must lose herself in the past, and that irony is what makes Holocaust Girls such a poignant and urgent collection.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents