The Historical Importance of Storytelling

Storytelling has been deemed a crucial component of history, as it enables readers to gain a different perspective on events which they might not have otherwise even considered, furthermore creating a foundation for analysis of other subjects such as psychology, ethics, and philosophy. Through varying rhetorical techniques, authors such as Olga Lengyel, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, and Art Spiegelman are able to encompass the same historical event yet through different literary means of doing so. Each author assuredly has a unique story to share, though each author also harbors a unique writing style, evident in their Holocaust memoirs. However, similar themes are prevalent within these memoirs, including the notion of hope, writing as a form of avenging those who did not survive, and psychological impacts of such a traumatic event. This combination of themes serves to not only provide a blunt story of the author’s triumphant survival, but it also exemplifies the relationship between writing, storytelling, and history, hence furthering the understanding of the Holocaust in new ways for students.

The most evident difference within these five selections occurs in Art Spiegelman’s memoir, Maus I; the medium Spiegelman uses is entirely different from the four other memoirs, as instead of the use of direct prose, he produces a graphic representation of his father’s survival. He ironically portrays Jewish people with drawings of mice — a stereotype used against those of Jewish origin. Such a portrayal, however, has only been controversial for Spiegelman; some readers proclaim that essentially creating a Holocaust-themed “comic book” is offensive and insensitive, though other readers find the medium to be refreshing, original, and subsequently useful in furthering one’s perspective of the Holocaust. Students are inevitably accommodated to reading works of literature absent of any graphic representation, thus this strategy would at least provide a new experience in understanding the various forms of it; moreover, other students are more apt to analyze the memoir due to its imagery rather than attempting to over-analyze its prose. Nevertheless, despite the contrasting use of visuals in telling a story, the theme of psychology is just as present as in the other four memoirs, especially apropos the notion of guilt; Art Spiegelman feels immense guilt throughout the entire story, rationalizing that perhaps attempting to describe his own father’s feelings through cartoonish images is unjust.

The impact of guilt is also incessantly mentioned in Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys, who feels as if she played a key role in the death of her family. For instance, she immediately opens her memoir exclaiming she was “in part, responsible for the destruction of my own parents and of my two young sons” (11), inducing a self-inflicting tone and creating an immediately morbid yet awakened sensation in readers. This notion is especially important for readers of Five Chimneys, as Lengyel is also one of the very few female writers of a Holocaust memoir, which in itself creates an original perspective for students to experience.

The only other memoir of the five which includes an intense psychological theme of guilt is Elie Wiesel’s Night; similar to Lengyel, Wiesel feels guilt throughout his story as a result of not being able to help his dying father, as if Wiesel’s attempt to survive on his own would deem him selfish and unloving. However, Wiesel more importantly focuses on the theme of hope. Compared to the other authors, Wiesel is also the only one who identifies himself as religiously Jewish, subsequently including components of his faith within his story. Wiesel therefore stated that he relied on his religious upbringing to further his survival as a coping mechanism, yet he also subjects readers to the turmoil of his deteriorating relationship with religion; Wiesel begins losing faith upon experiencing the death of innocence, as he watches a young boy being hanged. He exclaims that God is “hanging here, from this gallows” (65). Moreover, he refuses to fast as an act of rebellion towards his faith for not protecting him, proclaiming that he “no longer accepted God’s silence” (69). Being the only one of five authors with deeply religious views, Wiesel promotes an understanding of the shift from religious anti-Semitism to the all-encompassing anti-Semitism of the Holocaust, which connects readers to the historical triumph of Jews, including early biases within the First Crusade, expulsions during the 14th century, the rise of racial obsession in Europe, and even the creation of Israel in 1948.

In contrast, though both Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski mention hope throughout their stories as well, both authors are exclusively atheist, which effects the overall tone of their prose style; for instance, most readers upon reading Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen are left with the impression that Borowski was not only pessimistic, but perhaps exceptionally cruel. He writes with a grim, isolated perspective about his experience in the Holocaust, nonchalantly including images of death with brief and consequently blunt syntax. The imagery which Borowski is able to create with simple wording is macabre; he states that he would “snicker, amused at the sight of a man in such a big hurry to get to the gas chamber” (95), and his main focus during his experience is himself, which is assuredly different from Lengyel’s story, who sacrificed some of her own food and belongings in order to help other prisoners. Hope within the reader is nearly obsolete in discovering that Borowski commits suicide shortly after publication, though his legacy will continue to perplex readers, as his effect on storytelling is assuredly the most unique of these five memoirs; with his use of simple language yet simultaneous employment of unimaginably gruesome imagery, Borowski is able to provoke responses from students which no other memoir can, thus This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen serves as an exemplary addition to any Holocaust-focused course.

Lastly, many of the authors also propose the idea that writing a survivor’s tale about the Holocaust is liberating not only for themselves, but for those who did not survive. This is especially evident amongst Night, Five Chimneys, and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz; Levi even includes a scene about storytelling during his time within a concentration camp when a fellow prisoner sings and tells of the same story each evening, which suggests that doing so was undoubtedly a form of alleviating stress for many of them. Similarly, Lengyel stated that part of her purpose in writing a memoir included ensuring that the voice of those who did not survive would be heard, though her main purpose was driven by a need for “revenge” against those who presumed their actions would go unnoticed. Moreover, upon Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he included that “no one may speak for the dead… yet I sense their presence… I always do” (118), and concluded with “our lives belong to all of those who desperately need us” (120), again showcasing the importance of storytelling as it pertains to history.

Each of these authors and their undeniably unique stories work to serve their own differing purposes, though they all include comparable components within their works, such as similar themes of emotional conflict, the desire to include the voices of the dead, and hope (or the lack thereof) as a technique for survival. Because of their similarities and differences, students are able to obtain multiple viewpoints, analyze various rhetorical strategies, and ultimately further their understandings of what the Holocaust truly was not just as a whole, but for the individual. Conclusively, each of these stories are vital examples of why sharing experiences not only progresses the continuation of history, but enhances a student’s capacity for human understanding.