Adorno’s Whispers in the Dark: The Holocaust, The Child, and the Schlemiel

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As a third generation American – and as a person three times removed from the Holocaust – I was always curious about the meaning of the Holocaust. It happened, as the author David Grossman writes in his novel See: Under Love, “over there.”   What I find so intriguing about Grossman’s novel, which begins with the meditations of an Israeli child about the Holocaust, is how close it is to my own experience in so many ways. To be sure, the main character of the novel, Momik, tries to piece the Holocaust together by way of things he hears and gathers from scattered conversations and images relating the to the Holocaust.   Unlike his parents, who refuse to discuss, he can sense that something rotten is being hidden from him. And, like a detective, he tries to put it all together.

Although, as an American, my experience is much different from an Israeli’s, I can identify with the desire to put together clues. For, in truth, when it comes to the Holocaust, we are all like children. Something “whispers” to the child – regarding trauma – that the civilized adult can’t hear.

Theodor Adono points this out in his book Negative Dialectics:

Children sense some of this in the fascination that issues from the flayer’s zone, from carcasses, from the repulsively sweet odor of putrification….An unconscious knowledge whispers to the child what is repressed by civilized education; that is what matters, says the whispering voice….it kindles “what is that?and “where?”

David Grossman’s Momik is constantly hearing these kinds of whispers from people around him. And after hearing them, him repeats them and puts them together into a comic kind of narrative-slash-collage. The narrator of the novel parries this naïve search for truth and suggests that Momik believes that he is hearing a “secret language” from people who were “over there”:

Momik loved Grandma Henny very much. To this day it makes his heart ache to think of her. And all the suffering she suffered when she died too. But anyway, Grandma Henny had a special language she used when she was seventy-nine after she forgot her Polish and Yiddish and the little bit of Hebrew she learned here. When Momik came home from school he used to run in to see how she was, and she would get all excited and turn red and talk that language of hers….She had a permanent smile on her little face, a kind of faraway smile, and she talked through her smile. (34)

Henny is a living cartoon-like character for Momik. He doesn’t see her as mentally ill so much as funny or odd. Strangely enough, the language she speaks sounds a lot like Sholem Aleichem. To be sure, David Grossman was inspired to write by Aleichem and it comes through in this section.   What I’d like to suggest is that Henny’s secret language brings together Aleichem with the Holocaust. Something that, in reality, never happened. After all, Aleichem died in the early 20th century.

Henny talks about “Mendel,” an Aleichem character that leaves her and travels from Russia to America (35). This is what Momik gathers of this narrative:

How could you do such a thing and break your mother’s heart, and then she begs him, Sholem, never, never, even when he reaches America where the streets are paved with gold, to forget he’s a Jew, and to wear tefillin and pray in synagogue. (35)

The narrator tells us that she is speaking a “language no one understands” and yet “Momik understood everything. That was a fact. Because Momik has a gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk”(35).

Moreover, Momik can “translate nothing into something. Okay, that’s because he knows there’s no such thing as nothing, there must be something, nu, that’s exactly how it is with Grandfather Anshel” (35).

Momik hears these “whispers in the dark,” and as the novel goes on we learn that the little bits and pieces he hears are all a part of different narratives. Some of them are fictional while others are not. Regardless, all of these stories are mimicked (like his name, Momik) and translated into Momik’s narrative on the Holocaust.

I can identify with this. And I think that Momik’s queries about the Holocaust were a search for the truth and that truth was tied to the meaning of his Jewish identity. I still ask the question today, on Yom HaShoah: who am I in relationship to what happened over there? Like Adorno’s child, I ask “What is it?” and “Where is it?” It is still over there, so to speak. And with all of the media we have today, I still feel as if I am hearing a faint whisper of some secret language. The facts are incontrovertible, true; but, still, they must be put together in ways that relate to us and that is an act of the imagination.

In going through this exercise, we become like Momik, a schlemiel. We feel through the dark yet with the passion of a schlemiel, which, though misguided, is still the passion for truth. In listening closely to these whispers in the dark, to this secret language, we become like children. And a man-child is…to be sure….a schlemiel.   Here….a post-Holocaust schlemiel.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Adorno’s Whispers in the Dark: The Holocaust, The Child, and the Schlemiel

  1. Thank you for your review of the novel See: Under Love. Is the strange language that Grandma Henny speaks really one that no one understands? Or is it merely that no one today speaks it, but it’s a dialect which was spoken in the past? Perhaps, this “unknown” language is Hebrew itself but with the words pronounced as in the distant past, even pre-Masoretic?

    • It could mean a few things. It’s the language that was once spoken in Europe. The language of the Eastern European Jews. It is also a language that was tainted by the Holocaust.

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