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Hilsenrath, Edgar

HILSENRATH, Edgar

Nationality: American (originally German: immigrated to the United States, 1951, granted U.S. citizenship, 1958). Born: Leipzig, 2 April 1926. Education: Completed primary and secondary school in Germany. Family: Married Marianne Boehme. Career: Moved to Bukovina (now Romania and Ukraine) as a child; imprisoned in the Moghilev-Podelsk (Romania) ghetto and held in a Russian forced labor camp during World War II; worked at several odd jobs in Palestine, 1945-47; reunited with his family, France, 1947; lived in New York and worked as a writer, 1951-75. Moved to Berlin, 1975. Awards: Alfred Döblin prize, 1989, for Das Märchan vom letzten Gedanken; Hans Sahl prize, 1998. Agent: Maximilian Becker, 115 East 82nd Street, New York, New York 10028, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Nacht. 1964; as Night, 1966.

Der Nazi und der Friseur. 1977; as The Nazi and the Barber, 1971; as The Nazi Who Lived As a Jew, 1977.

Gib acht, Genosse Mandelbaum. 1979.

Bronskys Geständnis. 1982.

Zibulsky, oder, Antenne im Bauch. 1983.

Das Märchan vom letzten Gedanken. 1989; as The Story of the Last Thought, 1990.

Moskauer Orgasmus. 1992.

Jossel Wassermanns Heimkehr. 1993.

Die Abenteur des Ruben Jablonski: Ein autobiographischer Roman. 1997.

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Critical Studies:

Memories of the Holocaust: Edgar Hilsenrath and the Fiction of Genocide, 1982, and "Memories of the Holocaust: Edgar Hilsenrath and the Fiction of Genocide," in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte (Germany), 56(2), June 1982, pp. 277-89, both by Peter Stenberg; "Social Darwinism in Edgar Hilsenrath's Ghetto Novel Nacht, " in Insiders and Outsiders: Jewish and Gentile Culture in Germany and Austria, edited by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz and Gabriele Weinberger, 1994, and "History, Identity, and the Body in Edgar Hilsenrath's The Story of the Last Thought, " in Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins: Essays on Ethnic and Cultural Boundaries in German-Speaking Countries, edited by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz and Renate S. Posthofen, 1998, both by Lorenz; "Writing As Revenge: Reading Edgar Hilsenrath's Der Nazi und der Friseur As a Shoah Survivor's Fantasy" by Jennifer L. Taylor, in History of European Ideas, 20(1-3), January 1995, pp. 439-44; "Autobiography and the Fiction of the I: Edgar Hilsenrath" by Bianca Rosenthal, in The Fiction of the I: Contemporary Austrian Writers and Autobiography, edited by Nicholas J. Meyerhofer, 1999.

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Having survived an episode of the Nazi persecution of European Jewry unfamiliar to many, Edgar Hilsenrath has employed his fiction to tell the story of this forgotten side of the Holocaust and to delve into territory that few other writers have dared to explore. In his unique approach to his subjects and in the unusually humorous tone of much of his writing, he has broken taboos and opened up new possibilities for understanding the dynamics of guilt, victimization, and identity in the context of the Holocaust—all in ways that have subjected him to both praise and controversy.

Hilsenrath has always identified with the German language and German culture. After a youth spent in the eastern German cities of Leipzig and Halle, he escaped Nazi persecution of the Jews with his mother and younger brother and moved to his maternal grandmother's home in Bukovina, located in present-day Romania and Ukraine. After being subjected to the oppressive race laws in Germany, Hilsenrath found a home in the multiethnic region. As a German speaker he spoke the language that was both the administrative language and the common means of communication. As a Jew he was a member of one of the largest groups in the population. Hilsenrath ironically felt like more of a real German in Bukovina than he had in Germany and later described his life in Bukovina as ideal. Tragically this ideal was short-lived.

As World War II progressed the region came under Nazi and fascist Romanian control, and Hilsenrath and other Jews in the area were deported to camps and ghettos. In 1941 Hilsenrath and his family were sent to the ghetto in Ukrainian Moghilev-Podelsk, where they survived until 1945. After the war Hilsenrath moved first to Palestine, then to France, and after that to the United States, before finally returning in 1975 to Germany, where he settled in Berlin. Thomas Kraft writes that in almost all of Hilsenrath's texts, as varied as they may be, the painful experiences of an author in exile are reflected, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Kraft detects a restless driving force, propelled by the traumatic experiences of being uprooted by the terror of the Holocaust—a force that can find balance and peace only in literary expression.

Indeed, in his attempt to find wholeness in his post-Holocaust existence, Hilsenrath has staunchly maintained his use of German in his literary production, though others in his situation had begun writing in other languages. He also returns again and again to his idyllic youth in Bukovina, using it as a setting for works like Nacht (1964; Night, 1966) and Gib acht, Genosse Mandelbaum (1979), and creating characters in Jossel Wassermans Heimkehr (1993) and Der Nazi und der Friseur (1977; The Nazi and the Barber, 1971) who have their roots in the region.

Yet Hilsenrath is not an idealist and does not live in the past. His writing clearly reflects his desire to engage the post-Holocaust reality in which he works in a very direct and sometimes even confrontational way. Hilsenrath's writing was initially so controversial that it went almost entirely unnoticed in Germany. After an initial printing in 1964 of about one thousand copies, his first novel, Nacht, was not reprinted. Critics have indicated that his portrayal of the Jews in the text was not in line with the wave of post-Holocaust philo-Semitism prevalent in Germany at the time. In spite of low sales in Germany, translations of Hilsenrath's first novels into English, French, and Italian sold more than a million copies. German audiences finally appeared ready to accept Hilsenrath's work when, in 1977, his second novel, Der Nazi und der Friseur, was published. This text, too, was criticized for its portrayal of Holocaust victims and perpetrators, in particular for Hilsenrath's refusal to draw distinct lines between the two groups and for his use of satire and humor in a German novel about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.

Hilsenrath has remained uncompromising in his writing, refusing to change his style or his approach in the face of criticism or ideological objections. In his 1982 novel, Bronskys Geständnis, the title character, the author of a novel much like Hilsenrath's Nacht, corrects an interviewer who calls his novel a "book about the Jewish Ghetto." It is, Bronsky informs him, a "book against violence and inhumanity." Indeed, these are Hilsenrath's main themes. Whether he is using humor, satire, or stark realism, Hilsenrath finds creative and unusual ways in his writing to force readers to reexamine their assumptions about the massacre of European Jews by the Nazis, the Armenians' genocide at the hands of the Turks, and German Jewish identity politics in the post-Holocaust world.

—Gregory Baer

See the essays on Night and The Nazi and the Barber.

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