Exploring Jewish themes in Irish literature

Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, maintained as a memorial to the millions, mostly Jews, murdered by the Nazis

THE works of Jennifer Johnston, John Banville, Fergus O'Connell, Tom Paulin, John Boyne, Ellis Dillon, Iris Murdoch and Frank O'Connor are among those under the spotlight in the Holocaust Memorial Day Lecture at Belfast's Linen Hall Library today.

January 27, the date the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, is recognised annually as Holocaust Memorial Day, when people are encouraged to reflect on the appalling atrocities of the Second World War. Dr Barry Montgomery will speak on The Holocaust in 20th century Irish fiction and poetry, particularly the tensions between literary representation and historical fact.

"Many of the texts are concerned with the trauma of surviving, of characters adjusting once more – physically, intellectually, emotionally, culturally – to the world following the horror of the death camps. The adequacy/inadequacy of literature as a medium for discussing or depicting the Holocaust as a subject will be prominent, especially when negotiating Holocaust as history and Holocaust as metaphor for evil," he says.

Based at the University of Ulster, Dr Montgomery is a researcher on a wider project on The Representations of Jews in Irish Literature by the Arts Humanities Research Council. Until the end of this month, The Linen Hall Library is hosting its touring exhibition examining the portrayal of Jews and Jewishness in Irish Literature, from the late medieval period to the present day. The results of the research project will be published next year.

"It's a very important and vital episode of history that shouldn't be forgotten," Dr Montgomery said.

While most Jewish-related Irish literature is composed by non-Jews, memoirs have been published by Holocaust survivors who relocated to Ireland post-1945, including Helen Lewis's A Time to Speak (1992) and Final witness: My journey form the Holocaust to Ireland (2006) by Zoltan Zinn-Collis with Alicia McAuley.

"Whilst some try to analyse and understand the nature of trauma, in quite a lot of 20th century literature there is a refusal to sentimentalise the Holocaust," says Dr Montgomery, particularly referring to Irish-born novelist Iris Murdoch's depiction of the "manipulative Julius King" in her 1970 novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), which led to her being accused of anti-Semitism.

For many, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the first work that comes to mind when thinking of Holocaust-related literature – and not just that with an Irish link – but Dr Montgomery takes issue with some aspects of Dubliner John Boyne's 2006 novel.

"We are of course dealing with a best-seller, which is now taught as a Holocaust text, but the novel has caused some offence on the grounds of historical inaccuracies and a general lack of factuality about the nature and conditions of the death camps," he adds.

:: Holocaust Memorial Day Lecture, Belfast Linen Hall Library, today, 1pm.

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