The Holocaust in Culture: The Best of 2009

Yes, this is a weird culture category; and no, this isn’t the “best of the Holocaust.” After last year’s ubiquity of Holocaust films such as The Reader and Defiance, 2009 brought a flourishing of films, art, and literature inspired by the Holocaust. Both within the art world and outside it, many people have made it their mission to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten. And the act of creating new stories and new culture about the event helps keep it fresh in our minds. Here are some of the most noteworthy that we’ve encountered this year.

Clara’s War by Clara Kramer
A striking, matter-of-fact memoir of a 15-year-old girl who was forced into hiding during the Holocaust. Part diary and part retelling of “events that have never left me,” Kramer’s story is simple and shocking and, ultimately, triumphant. Its beauty and honesty are such that it doesn’t feel heretical to call it a companion to Anne Frank’s diary…only, here, the protagonist survives.

inglourious basterdsInglourious Basterds
Have we said this often enough? We love the Bear Jew — and he’s just one of the reasons that this movie is so fist-pumpingly good. Director Quentin Tarantino does what he does best, which is to tell stories that don’t let up and never rest with your expectations. Although the film raises some complaints — the fact that literally every woman in the story dies senselessly is a big one — the film itself, as well as the fact that it seems to have ignited everyone’s imagination, from artsy twentysomethings to eightysomething survivors, speaks of its genius.

kahn & engelmannKahn & Engelmann by Hans Kirshner
“Traveling is the involuntary national sport of the Jews,” writes Kirshner, himself a survivor who currently lives in Austria. This book follows the Engelmann family from rural Hungary in 1921 as they run from trouble in their tiny hometown to even bigger trouble in the capital city of Vienna, and all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dense and lyrical, Kahn & Engelmann is a strange and fascinating book.

kindly onesThe Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
This fictitious memoir of an SS officer was slammed in America, due in no small part to its long-windedness (it’s 983 pages long, after all) and the length and subject matter of its descriptions, which are at times both morose and scatological. The book itself is meticulously crafted, with rich descriptions and an obsessive attention to detail. If it doesn’t inspire, sympathy for the title character, it still definitely nurtures our desire to get deeper inside his head.

soaring undergroundSoaring Underground by Larry Orbach and Vivien Orbach-Smith
Possibly the strangest book that came across my desk this year. Pitched as “a Catcher in the Rye with a Holocaust backdrop,” this memoir of a teenager who launches himself into the WWII-era Berlin underground is definitely a Holocaust book — the growing-up-before-his-time sensibility and the events themselves are both irrefutable reminders of that. At times, it’s hard to remember that this story takes place against a backdrop of Nazi genocide — more pressing experiences like smuggling contraband, sexual discovery, and street fights are at the forefront of the memoir. At heart, it’s the story of a boy who comes of age in a world where there are no rules, and where, quite literally, thousands of people want him dead.

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