The fact and its destruction

If erasing the traces of the genocide was a major concern of the Nazis, it is false to assert that the Shoah would have led to a destruction of the fact. Literary studies must take into account two key issues: factuality and truth.

From the writings of the Warsaw ghetto to the collections of audiovisual testimonies in the Spielberg collection, from the manuscripts of the Sonderkommandos to investigations in the style of Missing from Mendelsohn, from Primo Levi to the ever-renewed forms of memorial kitsch, Maxime Decout's essay intends to embrace at a single glance all the scriptural enterprises (but also, in the last pages, cinematographic or museum) which seek make a trace of the Shoah.

In his book we come across the big names in the literature of testimony, Primo Levi, Robert Antelme, David Rousset, Jean Amry, Charlotte Delbo (even if they all did not bear witness to the Shoah, but to the concentration camp system), a poet from the ghetto of Warsaw (Wladyslaw Szengel), playwrights (Peter Weiss), surviving writers like Imre Kertesz or Aron Appelfeld, children or grandchildren investigators (Lydia Flem, Ivan Jablonka).

A clear and documented path

The question of make a trace allows us to bring together these writings beyond the chronological breaks (which are however marked in the chapters), the variety of languages ​​of writing, the multiplicity of genres (novel, poetry, theater, documentary or testimonial literature), even the supports ( printed, audiovisual) and, of course, the experiences lived by the authors.

Make a trace invites us to emancipate ourselves from the sole issue of testimony, since the author proposes to include the writings of testimony in a much larger whole which does justice to those who, although survivors, were able to choose fiction (Anna Langfus, Piotr Rawicz), the words of poets from the camps and ghettos, as well as the writing of heirs of the Shoah; in short, the multiplicity of formal choices aroused by urgency, then by necessity, continues to trace the genocide of the Jews.

It is therefore a useful book, which can offer anyone who wants to enter the mass of these scriptures a first clear and documented path. We may regret that the publisher did not consider either a bibliography or an index, which would have made it a real vademecum. Specialists may criticize the author for not having sufficiently explained his critical biases and for having preferred the panorama to the discussion with the numerous researchers cited in the notes (Catherine Coquio, Claude Mouchard) and who, before him, sought to understand what the Shoah did this writing and publishing activity that we call literature.


Make a trace is, however, based on a major critical hypothesis that can be formulated as follows: secrecy about the genocidal enterprise, then the destruction of traces of the annihilation operations, were a major concern of the Nazis. The erasure of genocide is therefore part of the genocidal enterprise itself (this is the famous sentence of Himmler Posen in 1943 on the page of history that has never been written and never will be).

From then on, the writing of Jews targeted by destruction is a double action against erasure: it aims to bear witness to what is taking place and to fight against the enterprise of erasure itself. This is the meaning of the initiative led by Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto: to create an archive of the life and death of the ghetto, so that one day its history can be written beyond its destruction.

Now some, and we are here at the heart of the hypothesis which supports the essay, have analyzed the genocidal enterprise not only as the aim of the most total destruction of a people, of its memory and the disappearance of the means of its history, but as the destruction even of the fact. Maxime Decout quotes Marc Nichanian about the Armenian genocide: Genocide () is not a fact, because it is the very destruction of the fact, of the notion of fact of the factuality of the fact. And with Marc Nichanian, The Dispute by Jean-Franois Lyotard about Auschwitz:

Something new has happened in history, which is that the facts, the testimonies which bore the trace of the here and now, the documents which indicated the meaning or meanings of the facts, and the names, finally the possibility of the various kinds of sentences whose conjunction makes reality, all this has been destroyed as much as possible.

And Lyotard always: The name Auschwitz marks the confines where historical knowledge finds its competence challenged. (ibid.) Place, therefore, literature, a literature of theafter Auschwitz determined by this lack, this archive evil, this impossibility and this necessity of knowing. And Maxime Decout describes:

His language is not that of the historian who needs the factuality of the fact. It is a language which can create regimes of non-factual historicity, which can say what is and what is not (). Literature is, moreover, that which can speak of its own impossibility. While historiography strives to document and archive, literature, even though it accompanies it in this task, has the power to give voice to what seems unarchivable (p. 20-21).

The strength of the evidence

The matter is too important not to discuss this hypothesis, which is also contradicted by a good part of the book. The historian that I am does not accept that a fact of destruction can be considered as the destruction of the fact. We cannot admit the kind of transfer of the genocidal will (as formulated by Himmler) towards a philosophy which rethinks the question of truth starting from the hypothesis of the destruction of factuality: as if, ultimately, Nazism had philosophically won.

But let's see: the Nazis did in fact seek, as much as they could, to erase the traces of their factories of death and the mass graves left by the Einsatzgruppen. They affected the erasure of traces of Sonderkommandos special forces as part of Operation 1005. What were they trying to make disappear?? Evidence, traces which would have proven a word curiously not present in Maxime Decout's book, even though it was one of the great affairs of the Jewish resistance and, of course, of the post-war trials.

By destroying the gas chambers, the Nazis destroyed the most damning evidence: they did not destroy its factuality. By asking Yankel Wiernik, a survivor of the Treblinka prisoners' revolt in August 1943, to recount his detention and draw plans of the camp, the members of the clandestine Jewish National Committee in Warsaw constituted a evidence file : the text was microfilmed to be transmitted to the Allies via London.

destruction and erasure, the Jews and their supporters therefore waged a war of proof. Furthermore, factually, the Nazis did not destroy all the evidence.

The facts have been widely, constantly, carefully documented: analyzing the writing produced during the events writing since the current deathas Maxime Decout aptly calls it in chapter 2 from the destruction of fact precisely amounts to removing all meaning from the gestures of writing, often desperate, struggling with the limits of language, the dread of not being believed, the fear of not documenting enough, accomplished since the current death.

The recourse to literature, here, in a poet like Katzenelson for example, is in no way a matter of regime of non-factual historicity; it is the gesture of archiving, in carefully chosen words, the fact of the fact.

The issue: the truth

Do we really need to think about literature from the destruction of fact to understand the scriptures of the Shoah? The journey taken by Maxime Decout suggests rather the opposite. Because the issue of all these scriptures of the Shoahif we consider that such a category has relevance despite its heterogeneity, is indeed that of the truth, of the historical truth of the Shoah.

Place literature under the leadership of destruction of the fact sidesteps the question of truth, which was firstly that of proof, but also that of the fight against forgetting, and that of the fight against negationism, and that of the refusal of kitsch, of complacent aestheticization. Place literature under the leadership of destruction of the fact also avoids the factuality of the scriptures of the Shoah, the factuality of stubborn recourse to writing and, sometimes, literature, as a repertoire of forms and models specific form of communication capable of encapsulating in words death in progress.

This is why the category ofscriptures of the Shoah is both interesting and insufficient. Interesting, because it brings together multiple forms of written recourse without distinction of genre, because it leads us to observe together the writings produced during the events, the scriptural enterprises of the survivors, often testimonial and sometimes fictional, and the aftershocks in the seismic sense of the Shoah in the writings of generations born after the war, up to us, beyond us.

Insufficient, because it appears stable over time. Besides the fact that some of the testimonies cited by Maxime Decout, such as those of Rousset or Antelme, are not testimonies of the Shoah (which the author agrees), we know well that the term of the Shoah itself as well as the evidence of its catastrophe in the universal consciousness only imposed itself slowly and gradually.

After the war, the suffering of the Jews was only one aspect of the horrors of war. It was the end of the 1950s, with The night by Wiesel and The Last of the Righteous of Schwartzbart (to stay in the French case), that what was then called the Jewish tragedy detached itself from the stories of the concentration camp experience: literary fiction therefore played a role in this awareness, even if all the stories were influenced by a fear of an excess of fiction.

The testimonies, for their part, took a long time to be recognized as real literatureas Perec remarked about The human species at the beginning of the 1960s. And yet, he emphasized, a work like that of Antelme gave back literature had lost its meaning and defined the truth of literature and the truth of the world.

If literary studies persist, install their expertise in a beyond of historical competence, a space where the question of the factuality of the facts would have been erased, they turn away from the question of truth, that the scriptures of the Shoah However, it is important to put it at the heart of any critical reading.