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Case Studies

How Holocaust survivors bear witness in German-language literature

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Date: 25/01/2013
Funding Type: Research
Research Type: Fellowships - Early Career Researchers

Who was allowed to speak as a German literary witness to the Holocaust and who was excluded from the ‘canon’? An AHRC Early Career Fellowship will explore this question.

Dr Helen Finch proposes that a canon of Holocaust literature was formed in post-war German-language culture, granting cultural legitimacy to certain voices of the Holocaust and denying it to others. However, no systematic account of the way in which this canon was formed, or of the mechanism for excluding certain authors, exists. Dr Finch hopes to fill this gap.

Her Fellowship will create an innovative methodology, drawing on sociology and close literary analysis, to consider nine case studies from 1945 to 2012 of survivor writers excluded from the canon of German-language Holocaust literature. It will use these exemplars to determine how and why certain writers were excluded due to their exile status, aesthetic practice, political affiliation or gender. For example, it will analyse the exclusion from the canon of writers such as H. G. Adler, who was told by publishers that he did not conform to the austere norms thought suitable for Holocaust writing in the 1950s, and how East German Holocaust writers struggled to find their place in the West German canon.

The project will also consider the influence this canon has had on later Holocaust literature in German, and how it has been challenged and transformed since the 1960s in both Austria and West and East Germany.

A final strand of the project responds to the ‘Translating Cultures’ highlight notice. It aims to offer an understanding of how German literature on the Holocaust has been translated in UK literary contexts, and how the German-language canon has informed the way we understand the Holocaust in the UK.

More broadly, the project will analyse how the canon of German Holocaust testimony has been used as a way to read and come to terms with traumas in different, transnational contexts. To explore this issue, Dr Finch, with a team of researchers from the UK and South Africa, is working with the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, sharing insights into the role of literature in mediating testimony and trauma in post-Apartheid South Africa. This is part of a lasting partnership between the Foundation and the University of Leeds.

This award is amongst the first cohort of Fellowships offered under the AHRC’s revised Fellowships scheme. The Fellowship aims to support Dr Finch, as an Early Career Researcher, to develop her capacity as a research leader in Holocaust studies. Leadership activities include establishing a research group at the University of Leeds on ‘Cultural Trauma’, setting up a network on ‘Holocaust Testimony and Remediation’ and producing an edited volume on H. G. Adler / W. G. Sebald: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics.

The Fellowship also aims to have impact outside of the academic community. As well as working with the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, Dr Finch is building an annual Holocaust Memorial Day event with Leeds University researchers and Leeds City Council. This will bring together the Leeds University Liddell collection of Holocaust literary testimony and local community writing initiatives.

Written by Myriam Volk