The de-scribing disaster: Representing silence in the wake of violence

Plan Author

  • Martha Henzy, 2015

Fields of Concentration

  • Literature

Sample Courses

Project Description

Loss of Voice: Charlotte Delbo and Writing Silence.

Faculty Sponsors

  • Richard Glejzer
  • William Edelglass

Outside Evaluator

  • Michael Bernard-Donals, University of Wisconsin-Madison


This Plan is composed of essays considering the representation of violence in Holocaust and genocide literature, with a focus on the ways writing may be fragmented to signify the lived experience of the witness. The first essay examines the use of repetition as a bridge to cover over the collapse of understanding during a trauma, through the lens of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. The second essay explores the Charlotte Delbo’s trilogy Auschwitz and After, which presents, without offering a resolution, the paradox between the imperative to witness and the impossibility of access to memory of the event born witness to: the unarticulated event. A third essay titled “Performing Testimony” compares two films that represent testimony to traumatic events, The Last of the Unjust and The Act of Killing, to explore the role of the filmmaker as party to the creation of testimony. And finally, and essay titled “Out of Place: Embodying the Lacuna in Spaces of Memory” describes experiences traveling through Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic to visit death camps, concentration camps, ghettos and memorials of the National Socialist Party genocide.


What I’m arguing here is not a case for censorship, as an account of the violent event must to some degree represent the violent acts perpetrated. In criticizing the violence of the novels without investigating the performative nature of the texts, however, there has been a significant oversight in representing the suffering of the victim as separate from the originary violent act. Jerzy Kosinski is criticized, for example, for having within his text excessive episodes of violence leveled against women. While this charge is supported by the content of the novel, it does not address the way this articulation of suffering functions for an audience. As previously articulated by Caruth, the essential quality of the testimony of the victim is the collapse of understanding characterizing their memory of the event. The event that distorts the suffering of a victim, one defined by this gap in knowledge, and in its place offers the originary act of violence, assumes that the episode may be explicated by articulating that violence. As such the audience is no longer witnessing the lacuna embodied by the victim; the action that disturbs displaces the witness as bearer of the event and, as it appears in documents like Justine and The Painted Bird, suggests that the witnessing of this horror absolves one from further investigation of it.

I did not cry at Auschwitz. I wanted desperately to have a physical reaction, to feel that my body rejected the evil things that had happened there, but I had no frame of reference to suddenly make real the events that I knew were perpetrated in that space. At the beginning of a ten-day trip through Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, I referenced my project as one of bearing witness. There was no explicit intention, no determined research project that would come out of this journey: I was there to bear witness. I could not imagine at the outset that the act itself would prove elusive. How does one become a witness in practice? Not in a theoretical sense, where the witnessing is derivative of an encounter with a text that articulates some element of the historical or experiential event, but in the real, physical encounter with a place. How do you see, and bear witness to, something that is absent not only imaginatively but also physically—something that is simply not there. How does one reconcile witnessing in a practical sense with feeling hungry? With having packed the wrong shoes? Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the historical immensity of these spaces, I was shocked, ashamed, by my inability to register what had actually happened there.