Lawrence Langer, Unblinking Scholar of Holocaust Literature, Dies at 94

Lawrence L. Langer, a literary scholar whose unblinking assessment of the Holocaust as an event so vast and evil that it defies moral framing helped deepen scholarly and popular understanding of the atrocity, died on Monday at his home in Wellesley, Mass. He was 94.

His son, Andrew Langowitz, said the cause was rectal cancer.

Across some 15 books and monographs, Dr. Langer insisted on a searing interpretation of the Holocaust as a moral black hole from which not even meaning can escape. He rejected words like “survivor,” “hero,” “martyr” and “tragedy” when applied to the Holocaust because, he said, they hinted at the possibility of a redemptive silver lining.

“In the decades after the war, there was pressure to make the Holocaust fit a moral framework,” Ruth Franklin, a biographer and literary critic, said in a phone interview. “What he emphasized was that there were no morals to be found.”

Dr. Langer agreed with writers, many of them Holocaust victims, including Primo Levi, Paul Celan and Tadeusz Borowski, who resisted easy explanations for their experience. To them, and him, survival was not a matter of will but of brute chance and a series of impossible choices that could not fit within conventional morality.

“Life in the Holocaust was an accident,” he said in the documentary “Lawrence L. Langer: A Life in Testimony” (2022), by Joshua Greene.

Reason, humanism and Enlightenment values had no function in the concentration camps, he argued. Instead, he found himself devising new terms to help interpret it — the “choiceless choice,” “afterdeath,” “inappropriate guilt.”

“Traditional language is not going to be sufficient to confront this experience we call the Holocaust,” he said in the documentary.

Dr. Langer was in turn critical of anyone who tried to find a moral in the Holocaust: philosophers, Hollywood melodramas, even Anne Frank. She came up short, he argued, with her claim, at the end of her diary, that “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

All of this, he said, muddied the awful truth at the center of the story.

“There’s nothing dignified in standing by while 10 members of your family are killed, and there’s nothing triumphant about staying alive when you’re powerless to help the people you love to stay alive,” he told The New York Times in 1995.

Dr. Langer’s early work was on the literature of the Holocaust, but in the late 1970s he shifted his focus to oral testimonies from its victims.

In 1978, Geoffrey H. Hartman, a literary scholar at Yale, invited Dr. Langer to work on the Fortunoff Video Archive, a new program in which Holocaust scholars spent hours interviewing victims. Dr. Langer would ultimately interview more than a thousand, with some interviews running up to 16 hours.

He drew on about 300 of those conversations to write “Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory” (1991), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and which The Times listed as one of its 10 best books of the year.

Dr. Langer’s influence could be felt acutely in the 1980s and ’90s, as the Holocaust seeped further into popular culture. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List” appeared in 1993, the same year that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened on the National Mall.

At one point the experts charged with designing the museum were trying to decide how to mark the end of the visitor experience. One board member suggested ending with something uplifting, like Anne Frank’s famous quotation.

“I said if we did that, Larry Langer will rip us apart,” Michael Berenbaum, who served as project director for the museum’s development, said in a phone interview. “And worse, he’d be right.”

Instead, inspired by Dr. Langer, the museum experience ends with a film of survivor testimonies.

Lawrence Lee Langer was born on June 20, 1929, in the Bronx, the son of Esther (Strauss) and Irving Langer, a clerk at Ellis Island.

He graduated from the City College of New York in 1951 with a degree in English, and received his doctorate in American literature from Harvard in 1961. He arrived at Simmons College in Boston as an assistant professor in 1958 and stayed until he retired in 1992.

He married Sondra Weinstein in 1951. Along with their son, Andrew, she survives him, as do their daughter, Ellen Lasri, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Dr. Langer originally worked on decidedly non-Holocaust-related topics, like the novels of Henry James. He did not encounter the subject of his life’s work until 1964, when, on a Fulbright grant to teach at the University of Graz, in Austria, he visited the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in the country’s north.

He found himself the only visitor that day, and he wandered its grounds and buildings in terrified awe.

“I sat on the floor, covered my eyes and tried to reconstruct what it must have felt like to be in the gas chamber,” he said in the documentary. He quickly realized that imagining the experience of those in the camps was an impossible task — but also one that was worth pursuing for the rest of his career.

Returning to Simmons, he created what is believed to be the country’s first academic course on literature and the Holocaust. He also set to work on his first book, “The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination,” the bulk of which he wrote in 1968 and ’69 while on sabbatical in Germany.

It took him five years to get it published. He later said that academic presses seemed not to know what to do with a book that used fiction to try to understand a historical event. Yale’s press eventually took it, and it appeared in 1976. It was a finalist for the National Book Award that year and is today considered a founding text in the field of Holocaust studies.

As he branched out into oral histories, Dr. Langer also took up the problem of art and the Holocaust. “How do you write a poem about Auschwitz?” he often asked himself, and others around him.

He found one answer in the work of Samuel Bak, a painter and Holocaust survivor whose work draws on artists like Salvador Dalí and Hieronymus Bosch in an attempt to convey the atrocity’s evil emptiness. Dr. Langer wrote a half dozen monographs about Mr. Bak’s work, including, most recently, “An Unimaginable Partnership: The Art of Samuel Bak and the Writings of Lawrence L. Langer” (2022).

“All Holocaust art,” he wrote in his book “Preempting the Holocaust” (1998), “is built on a mountain of corpses, so that it can never be an act of celebration.”

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