In summer 2012 I enrolled at a JTS summer course: Holocaust and Post-Holocaust Jewish Thinking. The course enabled me to focus on several philosophical, historical, aesthetic and theological issues related to this complex topic. I wrote several papers examining some of these issues. This is the first one – examining the role of language in conveying – or not – human horror.


The Betrayal of Language

May 23, 2012

A noticeable recurring motifs in Holocaust literature found in official documentation, testimonials and literary works, is the violent use of language, and the very use of language as a central tool in the formulation of that reality.  What is often thought of as the most central achievements of culture and civilization, language itself becomes complicit in one of the most horrendous cases of inhumane histories. The Nazi voice, depicted through written words, coldly sketching out the details of genocide, or recalled as brutal verbal commands, conveys the devastating betrayal of culture itself. The Nazi use of words, including Hitler’s rhetoric, Goebbels’ propaganda and the average soldier’s instructions to the random victim became an elaborate language, constructed to both disguise and implement dehumanization and mass murder on an unheard of scale.

For the victims, language often fails entirely. Many were silenced by death. Others turned mute as they faced their unfolding horror. Many survivors and surviving documents depict a terrible, dumbfounded silence, at various stages of the war, pointing at the very betrayal of language itself. What words will do to describe their reality during those experiences – or even after? Words themselves became suspected, doubted. For many, silence prevailed for years to come.

Sometimes, simple words became too burdened with baggage to be used simply at all.

“Trains”, for instance. Or words like ‘Concentration’ or even ‘ramp’.

In his now infamous SchenllBrief, dated Sept 21 1939, Hedrich address the “Jewish Question in Occupied Territory”. “Jewish Question” is in itself a chilling and telling expression, offering a glimpse into the Nazi mindset and careful use of language, but it is the instructions themselves that depict the cruel mechanics of what lay ahead:

 “Only cities which are rail junctions, or are at least located on railroad lines, should be selected as concentration points.” 

These are the first official appearances of simple words that will become identified as the markers of the Holocaust. For many, these will never be simple words or neutral concepts ever again.

What was the initial intention for using trains? Were they intended for convenient labor transport, extermination or both? Functionalist and Intentionalst interpretations of the Nazi motives analyze these words and come up with different conclusions, but these simple instructions enable us to begin tracing the construction of the horror, executed so efficiently precisely because of the use of sharp and efficient language.  The dry bureaucratic tone used here will be, for a while at least, triumphant, and the deeds that will follow it will match its tone. But when we read it now this text itself is an indictment of the crime, as these words, representing those who wrote and read them, symbolize the failure of language to serve the humane interests of humanity.


Many of the accounts that describe the experience of the Nazi’s victim pick up on this theme. Words became the vehicle of new reality. Printed laws were followed by written instructions on ghetto walls turning into shouts and commands. Both tone and actual meaning served to terrorize and dehumanize the victims.

In ‘The Holocaust Kingdom”, Alexander Donat, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, describes the process of deportations, paying close attention to what words were used:

“With the gunfire we heard shouts that we were to keep on hearing and remembering for a long time to come: “Alles runter! Alle Juden runter!” “Everything downstairs! All Jews downstairs!” The tone was bad enough, but the humiliating impersonality of that “Everything downstairs!” where normal speech called for “Everyone” was even more shocking. “ (Alexander Donat, The Holocaust Kingdom 1963, in OW, p. 171)


Anne Langfus, a Polish Jewish survivor living in France, published a prize-winning novel in 1960, which was one of the first works of fictions detailing the horrors of the Holocaust.  ‘Le sel et le soufre’, translated into English one year later as ‘The Whole Land Brimstone’ weaves personal memories with fiction, giving voice to the silence that followed the war years.  In one scene, Langfus’ heroine attempts to escape the chants of death on the streets of the Lublin Ghetto:

“A cart was coming along the road, drawn by a woman. In it lay two small children with swollen bellies. Beside them waked a man of appalling thinness. Pointing at the car, he was chanting an endless, monotonous chant, as though unwinding a threat in some dark labyrinth, the shadow of which filled his haunted eyes: “Brother Jews, have pity on a poor woman dragging her dying children. A scrap of bread, a small scrap of bread..” I took the first side street. “Dragging her dying children. A scrap of bread, a small scrap of bread…” I took another turning, then another. When I slowed down there nothing to be heard. “

(Anne Langfus, ‘The Whole Land Brimstone’, in OW, p. 345)

For Primo Levy, one of the most important voices that articulated the experience of the Holocaust through his writings, the brutality of his surroundings was depicted through the collapse of language. Not only was he, as an Italian with a very limited understanding of German suddenly stripped of his own language, but also as an intellectual he is thrown into an existence where words become almost meaningless. In “If This Is a Man/Survival in Auschwitz”, published in 1959, he describes the written signs in the latrines, mocking his reality. Levy quotes the German inscription, in rhyme, translating it as ‘After the latrine, before eating, wash your hands, do not forget’, and proceeding to comment on: “For many weeks I considered these warnings about hygiene a pure example of the Teutonic sense of humor…” (Primo Levy, If This Is a Man, 1959, in OW p.23)

But it’s his first encounter with the horrors of the camp that clarify the inability of words to make sense anymore: “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.” (p. 22)

It wasn’t just the language used by humans to interact with other humans that collapsed in the Holocaust. For many, the sacred words that connect humanity with the Divine completely lost their meaning, no longer trusted. The role of prayer in those dark days, in the larger complex framework of understanding the religious mindset at work, especially under duress and harsh conditions, is a vast topic in itself. Here too, silence often prevailed. Where praises to God and pleas for supplication were once the daily murmurings of many, they were often replaced with the Bible describes as ‘Thinnest sound of silence.’(Kings I 19:12)

The failure of liturgy and religious faith to give meaning to the experience of the Holocaust is one of the key places, I believe, where the role of language and its failures to supply support is most central.

What does it take to survive? What are the essential ingredients of human dignity and being that enable one person to hold on to life while others falter?  What role do words, does language, mundane and secular or divine and sacred, play in the construction or the deconstruction of a human being?  This is a topic I’d like to explore further.

Primo Levy, whose words did so much to make sense of the senseless writes about both words and actions as the core conduits for survival. He describes those words in the latrine, and how he later understood the horrid humor to be vital advice. For him, the daily routine of cleanliness, despite its useless results, was in itself a human duty, an essential holding on to human dignity.

“To survive” he wrote,  “we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.” (p. 24)

שוב שיר פרידה
The Choice of Hope/Thinking about the Holocaust (2)