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Narrative Closure and the “Whew” Effect: The Ethics of Reading Narratives of Survival of the Holocaust

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The Ethics of Survival in Contemporary Literature and Culture
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This chapter explores the ethical dimensions of reader engagement with narratives of survival of the Holocaust. It investigates conventional practices of reading that encourage narrative closure through what McGlothlin terms the “whew effect”, which she employs to refer to readers’ relieved reaction to the moment in the survivor’s account that describes his or her eventual liberation. The “whew” effect thus leaves unassimilated those aspects of the survivor’s story that complicate the “happy ending” of liberation. The chapter connects this phenomenon both to the recent prominence of the survivor memoir and to the popular practices of reading that have developed in response to it. In particular, this essay argues, the “whew effect” is the result of the generic conventions attendant to the survivor memoir and the expectations aroused by it.

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  1. 1.

    Phelan (1998, 320).

  2. 2.

    Phelan (1998, 320).

  3. 3.

    Franklin (2011, 3).

  4. 4.

    Langer (1975, 1978, 1982, 1991, 1995, 1998), Young (1988), Hartman (1996), Eaglestone (2004), Waxman (2008).

  5. 5.

    Langer (1991, xi). As Eaglestone (2004, 40) writes, “To understand testimony as a genre it is necessary to look at the radical doubt and the self-consciousness of each of these texts, to read them with an eye to gaps, shifts, breaks, and ruptures, which show how they are not, in any simple way, easily consumed”.

  6. 6.

    Rider (2021, 47).

  7. 7.

    Eaglestone (2004, 67).

  8. 8.

    In After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (2004, 41), Eva Hoffman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, makes a forceful argument against using the concept of tragedy—which after all has its roots in Aristotle’s concept of the fatally flawed tragic hero—to designate the traumatic events of the Holocaust: “War is always utterly deplorable, and the suffering it causes is incalculable. And yet that suffering can come in different valences, different affective tonalities. […] But perhaps tragic suffering is more resolvable than the traumatic kind. For tragedy, of course, involves a conflict—agon—between opposing principles and agents. Trauma is produced by persecution of subjects to whom all agency and principle have been denied. Tragic struggle may entail moral agony, but it leaves the sense of identity and dignity intact”. In the same vein, I think we have to be careful in our application of concepts related to tragedy, such as catharsis, to narratives of survival of the Holocaust and other historical mass traumas.

  9. 9.

    Birenbaum (1996, 197–198).

  10. 10.

    Langer (2000, xiv).

  11. 11.

    Langer (2000, xiv–xv).

  12. 12.

    Keen (2007), Hogan (2003, 2011a, b), Rider (2013).

  13. 13.

    Bergen (2016, 297).

  14. 14.

    Levi (1988, 70–71).

  15. 15.

    David Patterson (1995, 210) writes with regard to the representation of liberation in Holocaust memoir, “Liberation comes not only with the breaking down of the prison gates but with the opening up of a path to follow. If that path has been erased, then there can be no liberation. When the gates of the camps were unlocked, many did not move, for they had nowhere to go. Having lost a home and a center to which they might return, the Jews were faced with a movement of return that could never be consummated”.

  16. 16.

    Birenbaum (1996, 200).

  17. 17.

    Birenbaum (1996, 199).

  18. 18.

    Birenbaum (1996, 199).

  19. 19.

    Langer (1991, 175).

  20. 20.

    Although there have been a number of empirical studies of Holocaust pedagogy in secondary education, to my knowledge there has been a neglect of empirical research on the subject with regard to university education, particularly with regard to the teaching of Holocaust literature; for a notable exception to this see Rider (2013).

  21. 21.

    Baum (1996, 45).

  22. 22.

    Fallace (2006, 81).

  23. 23.

    Fallace (2006, 81).

  24. 24.

    Rider (2021, 53).

  25. 25.

    Rider (2021, 53). To be sure, Rider (2021, 54) does not see the possibilities for Holocaust pedagogy as a strict binary, with the affective and experiential modes preferred by US secondary schools on one end and methods that focus purely on historical and social context on the other: “That is not to say that Holocaust education [in American secondary education] eschews the socio-historical dimensions or civic questions; rather it is a question of emphasis”. Lisa Jenny Krieg (2015, 115) writes that the binary is in fact fairly entrenched in discussions of Holocaust education: “In Holocaust education, emotions are frequently discussed and evaluated in opposition to fact-based, rational approaches. This opposition between emotion and reason has a tradition in the sciences, but cannot be upheld, as research from various disciplines shows”.

  26. 26.

    Rider (2021, 54–55). For a fascinating deep-dive into a particular implementation of this educational model in a single US high school classroom, please see Schweber (2003).

  27. 27.

    Certainly, affective pedagogies in Holocaust education are broadly used outside the US context as well. Mary J. Gallant and Harriet Hartman (2001, 10), in their review of Holocaust education in the United Kingdom, write that “a direction in pedagogy which is gaining in importance is the idea of ‘pedagogical emotions’, or ‘what I have learned to feel’ as a result of Holocaust education”. The history of Holocaust pedagogy in Germany, on the other hand, has taken a very different trajectory. Björn Krondorfer (1995, 34), writing about the “third generation” of post-Holocaust, non-Jewish (West) Germans born in the 1960s and 1970s (the same era in which Holocaust education in secondary schools began to emerge in the US), argues, “Because their teachers were themselves ambiguous about their emotional and personal investment in the history and memory of the Holocaust, the third generation was instructed in mostly intellectual, political, analytical, and sometimes moral terms. Teachers did not help them develop mechanisms for coping with either the emotional impact of the material or encounters with Jews”. Krieg (2015, 124) demonstrates that Holocaust pedagogy in German secondary schools has in the meantime adopted a much more emotion-based approach: “one can see that educational practices circulate the Holocaust as an educational and affective object, which becomes saturated with dominant and obligatory emotions. These are experienced and navigated by educators and learners, and become interconnected with their emotion ideologies”.

  28. 28.

    Rider (2021, 48, 55, 56).

  29. 29.

    Rosenfeld (1999, 70).

  30. 30.

    Garber (2018).

  31. 31.

    Rabinowitz (1987, 201). In his famous essay “The Gray Zone”, Primo Levi (1988, 37) suggests that such drive toward closure is part of a greater “desire for simplification” characteristic of education (especially of young people) more broadly: “Popular history, and also the history taught in schools, is influenced by this Manichaean tendency, which shuns half-tints and complexities. […] The young above all demand clarity; a sharp cut; their experience of the world being meager, they do not like ambiguity”. Levi thus implies that what I have been connecting in particular to American secondary education might be more generally applicable.

  32. 32.

    See Wieviorka (2006).

  33. 33.

    Eaglestone (2004, 38).

  34. 34.

    Rabinowitz (1987, 177).

  35. 35.

    Kent (1986, 26).

  36. 36.

    Rabinowitz (1987, 176). Rabinowitz (1989, 120–121) writes elsewhere, “the sense or meaning of a work […] is not simply ‘in’ the text, but is construed or constructed by the reader, using techniques learned—through education and/or experience—before approaching the particular text in question”.

  37. 37.

    Young (1988, 37).

  38. 38.

    Young (1988, 30).

  39. 39.

    Brooks (1984, 22).

  40. 40.

    Rabinowitz (1987, 111–113).

  41. 41.

    Hayward (1994, 409).

  42. 42.

    Lejeune (1989, 11).

  43. 43.

    Rabinowitz (1987, 61).

  44. 44.

    Focusing on the titles of canonical Western texts that signpost to their readers the plot trajectory of the opposite experience—that of death—Rabinowitz (1987, 113–114) writes, “it is not only modern ‘category’ texts […] that announce the basic shape of their plots on their covers. Calling a play The Tragedy of Hamlet is not that much more subtle a way of warning us about how it is going to end. Nor, for that matter, is calling a novel the Death of Ivan Ilych”.

  45. 45.

    Abbott (2008, 239).

  46. 46.

    Bernstein (1994, 16).

  47. 47.

    Abbott (2008, 236).

  48. 48.

    Abbott (2008, 58, 236).

  49. 49.

    Abbott (2008, 64).

  50. 50.

    Miller (1981, 275).

  51. 51.

    Abbott (2008, 89).

  52. 52.

    Langer (1991, 171).

  53. 53.

    Langer (1991, 171).

  54. 54.

    Klüger (2001, 210).

  55. 55.

    McGlothlin (2004, 56–57).

  56. 56.

    Schaumann (2004, 326), Rider (2021, 48).

  57. 57.

    McGlothlin (2004, 59).

  58. 58.

    Rider (2021, 58).

  59. 59.

    Klüger (2001, 135–136).

  60. 60.

    Klüger (2001, 138).

  61. 61.

    Rider (2021, 57).

  62. 62.

    In weiter leben, which differs from Still Alive in essential ways, Klüger addresses the phenomenon of the “whew” effect even more directly. In a passage that addresses the problem of the “escape story”, she writes, “Wie kann ich euch, meine Leser, davon abhalten, euch mit mir zu freuen, wenn ich doch jetzt, wo mir die Gaskammern nicht mehr drohen, auf das Happy-End einer Nachkriegswelt zusteuere, die ich mit euch teile? […] Wie kann ich euch vom Aufatmen abhalten?” [“How can I prevent you, my readers, from rejoicing with me as I’m heading, now that the gas chambers no longer threaten me, toward the happy ending of a postwar world that I share with you? […] How can I prevent you from breathing a sigh of relief?” (Klüger 1992, 140; my translation).

  63. 63.

    Rothberg (2000, 226).

  64. 64.

    Rothberg (2000, 226–227).


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McGlothlin, E. (2021). Narrative Closure and the “Whew” Effect: The Ethics of Reading Narratives of Survival of the Holocaust. In: Freiburg, R., Bayer, G. (eds) The Ethics of Survival in Contemporary Literature and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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