Elizabeth Rosner's Beloved Obligation
When the Holocaust is Family History
lizabeth Rosner’s Gravity explores her experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In a mix of poetry and prose, Rosner traces the earliest remembered resonances of her parents’ past and her dawning awareness of the war history that colored her family home during her youth in Schenectady, New York. The result is a book in which Rosner reexamines the relationship between faith, trauma, and family. Between reading dates, Rosner responded to some questions from Propeller’s Wendy Bourgeois about the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust and the challenge of feeling that one has an “obligation” to certain material.
from Elizabeth Rosner’s Gravity (Atelier26 Books, 2014)
there are no
is in my bones
in the grief I
a secret that
never goes away
but is passed
and that other
have no name for
Propeller: I am curious about how you feel about literature of the Holocaust? Does it present a different set of problems than other kinds of writing for you in particular, or for others?
Rosner: Although I must confess that I haven't seen the film, the title Don't Touch My Holocaust (from 1994 I believe) has a strangely powerful resonance for me as a daughter of survivors and also as a writer. It may sound simple but in fact it's altogether complicated. On the one hand I have come to embrace what I call the "beloved obligation" to my inheritance—emotionally, psychologically, creatively—and on the other hand I feel almost overwhelmed when attempting to address an artistic response to the subject. It's deeply personal and therefore utterly compelling, but how to do justice to something that is so elusive and so vast? Mostly my solution has been to focus quite deliberately on my experience as "daughter of" rather than daring to climb inside the more direct experience. When I read books like Elie Wiesel's Night, and the astonishingly poignant Tell Me Another Morning by Zdena Berger, I am reminded that in my own worldview, the only ones able to write with adequate authenticity about the Holocaust are those who lived through it.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Martin Amis in person, on the subject of his latest novel, The Zone of Interest. It's a brilliant and highly sophisticated piece of work; I respect his approach and its set of "distortions" as necessary to depict the surreality of Auschwitz. But some part of me also experiences a deep discomfort about the "imagination" involved. I get nervous about the (all-too-imminent) time when there will no longer be first-person witnesses, and we will all be reliant on interpretation. Like the rest of the world, I will have to make my peace with this inevitability. My family's personal history will become part of collective memory.
Propeller: I'm curious about your term "beloved obligation." It sounds like you are saying that for you, this interpretation and exploration of family history is essential to your creative project. Can you imagine a time when you might feel "done" with this subject, or do you ever wish you were? I can at times feel burdened by my own obsessions as a writer, and I'm curious if you ever experience ambivalence around this "obligation." Additionally, does poetry allow you to access different means of engagement than prose, and if so, how is it different?
Rosner: After completing The Speed of Light (which took me a total of ten years), I was sure I was "done" with the subject. And yet, my second novel, Blue Nude, insisted upon addressing the subject yet further. With that novel, my gaze turned toward the German side of this inheritance, and my discovered empathy for the challenges of carrying burdens of grief, shame and confusion... I found that my own creative process was a way of reconciling seemingly irreconcilable differences. After completing that book (which took a "mere" six years to write), I was really done.... Which was indeed a kind of relief and liberation for me. I wanted at that point to widen my scope, my canvas, my field of vision. And I could only write Electric City (eight years, while we're counting) after having written my way through the previous two novels.
Although I believe that my poetry and prose have much in common, I can say without a doubt that I learned a great deal about emotional honesty by way of writing poems. This was indirectly a result of surrendering my ambitions (about fame and fortune!) and letting the poems simply "tell the truth" in the clearest and most economical and (perhaps) most elegant way possible. Once I began doing that, I think my prose deepened a great deal too—that is, I have felt more able to take risks and get at more essential layers of the subjects and concerns that interest me.
Ambivalence to be sure. But probably more gratitude, strange as that may sound.
Elizabeth Rosner grew up in Schenectady, New York, as a daughter of Jewish holocaust survivors. Her father, who was born in Hamburg, Germany, was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, while her mother survived the war by hiding in the Polish countryside. Rosner's third novel, Electric City, is just out from Counterpoint Press.