Langer reports that:
I have chosen Art from the Ashes as the title of this anthology not to proclaim a phoenix reborn from the mutilation of mass murder, redeeming that time of grief, but to suggest a symbiotic bond linking art and ashes in a seamless kinship. Whatever "beauty" Holocaust art achieves is soiled by the misery of its theme. The early sections of this collection, drawn from nonfiction accounts of the ordeal, introduce us to the landscape of disaster as it was seen (with one or two exceptions) by those who occupied it.
Such testimony forms a ballast for the chorus of fictional, dramatic, and poetic voices that succeeds it. As we move from the literal to the literary, we begin to understand those commentators who insist that the impact of Holocaust reality exceeds the force of any imaginative work that might seek to capture it...Because Holocaust facts often seem so unimaginable, they assume the features of fiction; on the other hand, wary of promoting disbelief, Holocaust fiction clings to its moorings in the grim truth of the event. My aim in this anthology is to give readers a chance to encounter the variety and complexity of both-the facts, and the fictions about them. (p. 8)
Particularly refreshing is Langer's hard-hitting and unflinching analysis of what constitutes excellent vs. weak literary response to the Holocaust, and to what the fact of the Holocaust has to say about human civilization today. He is especially scathing with regard to those who seek meaning in the suffering and/or attempt to locate something approximating hope out of the facts of the resistance that took place. As he bluntly states:
We are still wrestling with the loss of stature that a disaster like the Holocaust imposes on our ideal of civilization...Our pursuit of these questions may usher in meager answers, but the history of the Holocaust itself leads to a spiritual universe more haggard than the one we inhabited before its arrival. (p. 5)
Those who would convert death in Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen into a triumph of love over hate feed deep and obscure needs in themselves having little to do with the truth. In addition, they pander to a hungry public clamor for reassurance that mass murder had its redeeming features. The best Holocaust literature gazes into the depths without flinching. If its pages are seared with the heat of a nether world where, unlike Dante's, pain has no link to sin and hope, no bond with virtue, this is only to confirm the dismissal of safe props that such an encounter requires. (p. 7)
Each section of the book (for example, "The Way It Was") includes a short but highly informative introduction by Langer in which he delineates key issues about the genre being highlighted, and offers cogent remarks about various selections. Preceding each selection is a short commentary regarding its author's life and work.
Langer has made a concerted effort to winnow the selections down, providing readers not with a smattering of short pieces, but with long prose works. Thus, instead of presenting short excerpts from five or six plays, he includes one play, Ghetto by Joshua Sobol, in its entirety. And, rather than two or three poems each by a score of poets, he limits his selection to the work of six major poets: Abraham Sutzkever, Dan Pagis, Paul Celan, Mikos Radnoti, Nelly Sachs, and Jacob Glatstein.
Section VI, "Painters of Terezin," focuses on the unique testimony (in the form of drawings and paintings) produced by a group of artists incarcerated in Terezin, or Theresienstadt as it was called by Germans. The group included Leo Haas, Karel Fleischmann, Peter Kien, and Frita (Fritz Taussigi). Risking their lives-for if caught they faced the possibility of execution-they documented life as experienced and witnessed in one concentration camp.
Twenty of their works (bearing such titles as "Scenes of Life in the Ghetto," "The Old and the Ill," "Registration for Transport," "Leaving Transport," and "Life in the Attic") appear in this volume. They are accompanied by Langer's introduction and an essay titled "The Affairs of the Painters of Terezin" by Leo Haas. The latter discusses how the Terezin artists were caught and punished, some to the point of death, for creating their art.
Some readers are bound to question the inclusion of certain works, and the exclusion of others, in this volume. Langer says:
My main principles of selection are the artistic quality, intellectual rigor, and physical integrity of the texts...I believe that everything I include deserves to be preserved for its ability to engage our attention and stimulate reflection, and most of all, to liberate responses on the deepest levels of psychological, mental, emotional, and aesthetic concerns. (p. 8)
That being the case, it is worth noting that the selections are, indeed, outstanding. Among them are Jankiel Wiernik's One Year in Treblinka, Jean Amery's Torture, Elie Wiesel's A Plea for the Dead, Abraham Lewin's Diary of the Great Deportation, Ida Fink's The Key Game, Aharon Appelfeld's Tzili, Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Arnost Lustig's Infinity, Jakov Lind's Resurrection, Pierre Gascar's The Season of the Dead, Dan Pagis' Written in the Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car, Paul Celan's Death Fugue, and Nelly Sachs' You Onlookers.
As valuable as this book is, there are a couple of additional components that would have enriched it, at least for educators and students who read and use the volume. First, the inclusion of a bibliography (preferably annotated) of major personal accounts and pertinent literary works-by authors who are and are not represented in this book-would have been very beneficial. Second, the inclusion of references or footnotes in the various introductions and author's notes would have enhanced their usefulness.
This volume is a must read for anyone trying to comprehend how people suffering conditions so abhorrent to what "enlightened civilization" purported to be could forge their experiences into such a remarkable testimony to the endurance of the human spirit.