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Benjamin Paloff

Genera through Generations: On the Evolution of How We Read Concentration Camp Literature

For as long as there have been literary representations of concentration camps, ways of reading this literature have been shaped, often naively and at times cynically, by the personal or political agendas of those doing the reading. For just as long, this manipulation of the discourses surrounding concentration camps has itself been effaced from discourse, leaving the public with little guidance on how to understand the relation between the literature and the lived experience it communicates. This paper traces the generic evolution of concentration camp literature from the 1940s, when much factual material was dismissed as implausible, to the present, when a great deal of fiction is assumed to be fact. In the process, we find that this literature cannot be read responsibly without consistent attention to its genre norms.

Benjamin Paloff is the author of Lost in the Shadow of the Word: Space, Time, and Freedom in Interwar Eastern Europe (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and of the poetry collections And His Orchestra (2015) and The Politics (2011). The translator of several works from Polish and Czech, he has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been a fellow of the US Fulbright Programs and the Stanford Humanities Center. He is associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature at the University of Michigan.