Excerpt from my thesis:

"Bearing Witness: Supplanting the Collective with the Individual in Holocaust Memory and Post-War Experience"

        Cultural Studies aims to displace hegemonic or static models of cultural identity, such as heteronormative ideology, nationally or regionally bounded narratives, and history as articulated along a linear progressive timeline. Further, according to theorists Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, cultural identity no longer can sufficiently be expressed using fixed, essentialist language. “Group identity,” write Boyarin and Boyarin, “has been constructed traditionally in two ways. It has been figured on the one hand as the product of a common genealogical origin and, on the other, as produced by a common geographical origin” (693). However, as the Boyarins point out, while the latter point of connection typically has neutral or positive connotations, the fusion of global communities and transnational partnerships has begun to erode distinct connections (racially-based or otherwise) to particular physical locations. Thus, we can read The Letter Opener as a response to essentialist ideology; Maclear frames Sara’s post-war identity within a heightened nationalistic era, and situates her within a particularly isolated, non-Jewish Romanian community where she is “fated to become the conspicuous Jew, to be either pilloried or patronized, treated with too little or too much kindness” (Maclear 36). As an individual who exists outside the official Israeli state, Sara confounds and complicates notions of Jewish collectivity, exclusionism, and representation. As a female Holocaust survivor, Sara resists the artifice of “official” nation-state ideology; her refusal to join the mass immigration of Jews to the new Israeli state implicitly critiques notions of authenticity and myths of origin as incomplete oversimplifications of identity formation and kinship.

       During the internment years and shortly after the war, Jewish survivors experienced the pull between two polar desires: at various points the internees desired “solidarity,” yet as Primo Levi relates, even “a human word, advice, even just a listening ear, was permanent and universal but rarely satisfied” (78). Though the camps drew the diasporic Jewish community into temporary, albeit tenuous, communities during the war, as Levi argues, few could resist “the principal rule of the place, which made it mandatory that you take care of yourself first of all” (78-79).

 

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