English Professor Julia Creet and humanities Professor Sara Horowitz have won the 2016 Canadian Jewish Literary Award in Jewish Thought & Culture for their book, H.G. Adler: Life, Literature, Legacy. The award was shared with Amira Bojadzija-Dan, a research associate with the Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, who co-edited the book with the two York University professors.
H.G. Adler: Life, Literature, Legacy is the first English collection of essays devoted to the life and work of H.G. Adler, a German-language author. The collection is an examination of Adler’s writing in relation to the life he lived, especially his survival of the Nazi death camps.
“The book claims a place for Adler as a serious and important writer whose work grapples with catastrophe and overwhelming bereavement and horror, and the place of art in responding to these things,” said Horowitz, who also teaches in the Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics.
During the Second World War, Adler was interned in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other labour camps. Theresienstadt was a hybrid ghetto and concentration camp where Nazis imprisoned Jewish artists, musicians, writers, composers and performers.
“And so, amid the horror of starvation, filth, humiliation, diseases and omnipresent death, it also had an active cultural life,” Horowitz said. “Adler was prolific. It is unusual to find someone who writes in the range of genres that Adler wrote in — and to do it well. He wrote novels, poems, works of philosophy, theology, history etc. His writing about the Holocaust is searing. He faces the horrors witnessed and experienced without romanticizing them, without giving his readers an easy ‘out.’ In many ways, you could say that he was before his time.”
His work was not without controversy.
“Although Adler nurtured the creativity of his fellow prisoners, he later came to regard the cultural life with suspicion,” said Horowitz. “Against the prevailing way of looking at Jewish participation in the cultural life of Theresienstadt — and ghettos more broadly — as a form of cultural resistance against the dehumanizing forces of the Nazi genocide, Adler worried that the ability to participate in the cultural life during the Holocaust might have made people more compliant by furthering the illusion that life was, in some ways, ‘normal.’ ”
Since the early 2000s, Adler’s novels have been translated one by one into English, thereby making them more accessible. The collection gathers together contributions from the most important Adler scholars in the world, as well as scholars that Horowitz, Bojadzija-Dan and Creet thought should be working on Adler.
“We selected them because we had a sense that — based on their interests and areas of expertise — they would have insightful things to say about Adler’s writing. And we were right,” said Horowitz.
“Adler was very much his own person and uncompromising in the integrity of his thought. In many ways, he was out of step with the prevailing thinkers and writers of his time. This explains why a writer of such magnitude and genius remained virtually unknown for so long,” she adds. “But writing as a Jew in the German language after the war was not a simple thing.”