New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust is many things, but the editors of the collection want to be sure that their readers understand that it is not an anthology. There is a good reason for that. Anthologies gather the wisdom of the past from an array of writers and poets. This book was written for a completely different reason. All of the writing is from current poets and writers like Tony Barnstone, Marge Piercy, Ellen Bass, Sara Lippmann, Amy Gerstler, Lois P. Jones, Su Hwang and many others who understand the Holocaust from a contemporary point of view so that we might take its lessons and apply them to the world that we are in today. The project of the book was to take photography from the Holocaust and have these writers respond to the images. The central idea of the text is that if we are to prevent future genocide, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, antisemitism, and a whole litany of other forms of hatred and contempt then we must understand what has happened in the past, and learn from it and keep relearning. This is a work of artistic and moral courage and the project which continues beyond the book is one that should be engaged with and promoted by readers, leaders, teachers, and parents.
It took me far longer to read this collection than it normally takes; the work is often emotionally difficult, but in the end, this project is focused on hope. After all, the point of doing this kind of work is to bring about change in ourselves and in our world, to root out those things that might bring pain. One of the most powerful pieces for me was the final essay, where Sam Fleischacker gives a way forward to preventing this kind of evil. He gives us a roadmap to something that might be completely overwhelming. He writes, “The key is to acknowledge our capacity to succumb to evil; to assume otherwise is both foolish and disingenuous. It blocks us from seeing our own tendencies to inhumanity” (218). The problem is that the evil of inhumanity tends to shift, and that is the point of the collection. Not to look back and simply never forget, but to stay focused on the here and now in light of that past. The poetry and fiction also gives us ways forward, ways to see when our world is slipping toward danger. “The Displaced” by Barry Seiler is an example as he deals with the pain of relocation. He responds to an image of displaced persons on a vessel dubbed “Ship to Freedom”:
We wonder if they know
what Ship to Freedom means
But, really, all they know is this:
they are sailing elsewhere.
Elsewhere is all (192).
Seiler reminds us that relocation, whether forced or in flight, is an indicator of possible genocide. Of course we see that playing out in our own age, and he reminds us to take it seriously, that it is not simple or benign.
New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust is also multicultural in both its writers and poets and in its attempt not to simply prevent antisemitism, but all the various forms of hatred. At its core, it exists to remind us that all humans are a part of a single species of animal, and when we cease to see each other in this way, we move ourselves again toward danger. Amy Gerstler reminds us of the importance of reinforcing all people’s humanity in “Unearthed” where she responds to an image of the Ringelblum Archive being buried as a way to rehumanize those people facing extermination:
We were Jews, but we could have
been you. So, we assembled and buried this archive
of lost lives, just as you’d do, beneath ruined
school. Our reverse-archaeology revolt organized
and annotated, crammed into milk cans and tin
boxes. Because something of us had to survive (163).
The ultimate wisdom here and throughout the book is that not only as Gerstler states, “we could have / been you,” but that truly we are them. We are all simply human, one body, one people. These pieces help to bring light upon our shared humanity and what should be a shared horror of the past and the possible future. Worse still, what is happening in the present. So often, as I read through these pieces, I recognized that we are still engaging. Anyone who is aware and has a conscience will recognize that fact, but these pieces helped to reinvigorate my shock of the present and to rededicate my belief that it is my responsibility to fight evil as I can.
There are books that are transformative. This is one of those books. It is easy to become complacent in the face of pain. We engage again and again in collective trauma, and the most natural thing in the world would be to flee from that trauma emotionally and mentally. It is important that we do not give into this tendency, that we read books like New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, and that we understand that we need to relearn these lessons in a new way for every new generation.