The Holocaust and the 'Whew' Effect

by Erin McGlothlin
Associate Professor of German and Jewish Studies

After having taught undergraduate and graduate courses on the literature of the Holocaust for almost 20 years now, I have come to recognize a particular phenomenon that invariably occurs when my students read and engage with memoirs written by Holocaust survivors. I call it the “whew” effect (“whew” describing the sound that pent-up air in the lungs makes when one suddenly exhales it in a moment of released anxiety and subsequent relief). I use the term to refer to students’ relieved reaction to that moment in the survivor’s account that describes his or her eventual liberation or escape from a concentration or death camp, ghetto, death march or other experience of incarceration and oppression. In many memoirs, this moment of liberation, which effectively marks the author’s transformation into a survivor, represents the emotional apex of the narrative.

"Holocaust or Genocide: Uniqueness and Universality"
Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies, Department of History, University of Toronto - Holocaust Memorial Lecture
November 2, 2016 - 5:00pm
Umrath Lounge
Some students begin their reading with the conscious expectation of encountering the “whew” moment (since they know even before they begin to read that the author, by virtue of having written the memoir, has survived the Holocaust) and in fact are impatient to get there. Other students are only vaguely aware that one reason they’re willing to read through the survivor’s description of horrific experiences is that they hope to eventually get some emotional “payoff” when they finally reach the yearned-for moment of liberation. But nearly all readers (I include myself among them) approach the text with some degree of desire to arrive at this moment, which we hope will be cathartic and reward both the survivor for his or her hardship and us as readers for following such a difficult account.

The “whew” effect can be quite gratifying for the reader and additionally can offer much-needed relief to the experience of reading about traumatic events. However, it can also be deeply troubling, for it means that we invariably read such memoirs for their allegedly positive outcomes and thus use them, in part, to turn away from the more distressing aspects of the Holocaust, not least the facts that 6 million European Jews and 5 million people from other victim groups were murdered and that survival in most contexts was the exception rather than the rule. When we respond to survivors’ accounts with “whew,” we often turn their stories into narratives of redemption that may leave us feeling better but that contribute more to our forgetting of the Holocaust than to our remembrance of it.

In her memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, the survivor Ruth Klüger meditates on the “whew” phenomenon in her description of her own escape from a death march:

"Now comes the problem of this survivor story, as of all such stories: we start writing because we want to tell about the great catastrophe. But since by definition the survivor is alive, the reader inevitably tends to separate, or deduce, this one life, which she has come to know, from the millions who remain anonymous. You feel, even if you don’t think it: well, there is a happy ending after all. Without meaning to, I find that I have written an escape story, not only in the literal but in the pejorative sense of the word. So how can I keep my readers from feeling good about the obvious drift in my story away from the gas chambers and the killing fields and towards the postwar period, where prosperity beckons? You cannot deduct our three paltry lives from the sum of those who had no lives after the war. We who escaped do not belong to the community of those victims, my brother among them, whose ghosts are unforgiving. By virtue of survival, we belong with you, who weren’t exposed to the genocidal danger, and we know that there is a black river between us and the true victims. This is not the story of a Holocaust victim and becomes less and less so as it nears the end. I was with them when they were alive, but now we are separated. I write in their memory, and yet my account unavoidably turns into some kind of triumph of life."

According to Klüger, the “escape story” (her counterpart to my “whew” effect) is not only a problem of the reader’s response, but also one that is actually built into the genre of the survivor’s account itself. The conventions of this genre shape the survivor’s experience (which may or may not have included in the original moment a sense of “triumph of life”) according to particular narrative patterns inherited from the storytelling frameworks we employ to make sense of personal and historical events. Klüger feels she has to write in resistance to those traditions in order to remind her readers that our cathartic pleasure in her escape and survival involves a troubling ethical failure in which we avert our attention from the many people who didn’t survive to the “happy ending” of one person who did.

In her seminal history War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (a core text in its third edition that is a staple in university courses on the Holocaust, including courses taught by WU faculty Anika Walke, Jennifer Kapczynski, Tabea Linhard and me), Doris Bergen reminds us that the “whew” effect is not just operative in our reading of individual survivors’ accounts but is also at play in our larger understanding of the history of the Holocaust. Although designed as a comprehensive history and not a review of the historiographical challenges of writing about the Holocaust, War and Genocide makes an effort to expose its readers to some of the problems Bergen and others encounter in their attempt to create a coherent narrative of an immense and complex set of events. In her final chapter, “Legacies of Atrocity,” Bergen writes explicitly about what it means to make conclusions about the Holocaust and its aftermath:

"Deciding how to end a history of the Holocaust may be even more difficult than choosing where to begin. The Holocaust and its repercussions extend beyond May 1945 in so many ways. And what about the fundamental question: Is the ending happy or sad? Do we conclude with uplifting and inspiring themes — liberation, survival, resilience, success, justice — or with grief, loss and the suffering and failure evident in displacement, persistent antisemitism and subsequent genocides? Reflection on the Holocaust, its reverberations and legacies suggests that resilience and devastation, survival and loss, life and death cannot really be separated, not in this case. With destruction of such magnitude, every outcome, no matter how triumphant, is steeped in sadness. At the same time, even the most horrific accounts seem to include some spark of light — a gesture of kindness, expressions of defiance and dignity, the miracle of survival. Efforts to conclude a history of the Holocaust neatly or to achieve closure oversimplify the past and its influence on the present and future. Even worse, such attempts often end up appropriating the power of the past for current agendas."

Bergen cautions us here to avoid easy answers or redemptive readings when considering the outcomes of the Holocaust, even if at times we can perceive “some spark of light” in accounts of the darkness of the genocide. The moment of liberation and escape, while removing the threat of imminent violence and mortal danger, rarely signaled a “happy ending” for those individuals who were fortunate enough to survive. Indeed, although survivors escaped with their lives, the aftermath was rarely unremittingly positive for them: Many lost whole families and entire communities, were displaced from their homes and countries of origin, were subject (in the case of those living behind the Iron Curtain) to continued political oppression, and often suffered (and continue to suffer) significant physical and emotional effects of the genocidal violence.

For most survivors, the “whew” moment of liberation and escape, even when they perceived it as such at the time, did not bring cathartic relief or emotional redemption to their experience. Klüger and Bergen remind us that we, as readers, should be wary of assigning the triumphal happy ending to what was in reality a much more ambivalent and complex experience.