am Institut für Germanistik der Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen


Definition of Terms (1) 

Since the 1980s at the latest, the term ‘Holocaust Literature’ has been used to label an established literary genre that includes a variety of texts, which exceed the classical boundaries between epic, poetry and drama. The concept was originally developed in America, substantially initiated by the literary scholar Susan Cernyak-Spatz, who herself survived the Holocaust (2).

The Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur in Giessen has worked throughout recent years on developing a definition of the term ‘Holocaust Literature’ that includes all forms of literary texts about the Holocaust. Fundamental to this is a wide understanding of the metaphor ‘Holocaust’: It includes all aspects of the National Socialist policies of persecution and extermination against all victimized groups. Of course, such a broad definition cannot be legitimized if it does not include the unique characteristic of the planned extermination of the European Jews, which characterized the prominent and incomparable mark of the Nazi terror. Consequently, it is suggested to use the metaphor ‘Shoah’ to name the entirety of racial discrimination and repression policies that Jews were faced with. Or as Walter Reich, former director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., puts it: to describe the “dreadful heart of the Holocaust”. Both terms are closely related to one another and are not to be used independently of each other.

The National Socialists’ persecution and exclusion policies began immediately after their seizure of power in 1933. It is also the particular point in time when the first texts that addressed the events were written. According to the Arbeitsstelle’s understanding of Holocaust Literature the genre therefore includes not only the early texts about the persecution and concentration camps (between 1933 and 1939) but also those about the ghettos and extermination camps that were built after the beginning of the war (3). This approach does not aim on neglecting the complexity of the historical development of the policies nor on blurring it. Instead and within a literary-historical context it should clearly be emphasized that the texts that were written during different phases of the National Socialists’ reign carry strong relations and references among each other. As a result, genre conventions which influenced later texts (up until now) developed at a very early stage. Texts of the genre ‘Holocaust Literature’ are ‘literary’ in so far as they do not commit to objective scientific criteria or conventions. However, they – in the wider sense – present themselves as ‘subject dependent’ interpretations of the Holocaust as opposed to scientific ‘metadocuments’. This form of interpretation can also include the fictionalization of the events, which serves as a distinct feature that distinguishes “Holocaust Literature” from the requirements scientific works are expected to meet (4)

‘Holocaust Literature’” does not only include diaries and chronicles composed throughout the war, but also memoirs and reports by first-hand witnesses written and recorded after the events. The genre also covers fictional adaptions, for instance novels, drama and poems, which bring with them fictional characters, events and places and address the Holocaust as a central topic. Of course, the texts written by those who may be considered ‘non-affected’ have to be included as well. However, it should be emphasized that the connection between the author and the events of the Holocaust, their status as a direct participant (perpetrator or victim) or as a non-involved person (e.g.. as a member of subsequent generations) is crucial for the interpretation assessment of each.

(On the scientific substantiation of the concept of Holocaust Literature in detail see: Sascha Feuchert [ed.]: Holocaust-Literatur: Auschwitz. Stuttgart. Reclam 2000, p. 5-26.)


(1) Der nachstehende Text ist nur der Versuch einer allgemeinverständlichen Zusammenfassung der Gegenstandsbereiche der Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur. Zur genaueren wissenschaftlichen Verortung des Begriffs "Holocaustliteratur" vgl. die untenstehende Literaturangabe sowie u.a. die weiterführende Arbeit von Katja Zinn: Literarische Versionen des Gettos Litzmannstadt: Holocaustliteratur als Spiegel von Erinnerungskultur, dargelegt an Texten von Opfern, Tätern, Zuschauern und Nachgeborenen. Dissertation, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen 2009 ( sowie die grundlegenden Ausführungen von James E. Young: Beschreiben des Holocaust. Darstellung und Folgen der Interpretation. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1997.

(2) Vgl. Susan Cernyak-Spatz: German Holocaust-Literature. New York (u.a.): Lang 1985.

(3) Zur weiteren Differenzierung wird daher in manchen Kontexten auch von "Holocaust- und Lagerliteratur" gesprochen.

(4) Wobei man selbstverständlich beachten muss, dass auch historiographische Werke immer Interpretationen sind. Allerdings ist diese wissenschaftliche Form der Interpretation dazu verpflichtet, umfangreich Quellen auszuwerten und in ihren Schlüssen soweit wie möglich "objektiv" oder besser: "intersubjektiv" zu bleiben.


Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur
Otto-Behaghel-Str. 10 B / 1 · D-35394 Gießen · Deutschland