Art out of Agony: The Holocaust Theme in Literature, Sculpture and Film


194 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88794-121-4





Reviewed by Bruce Whiteman

Bruce Whiteman is Head of Rare Books at the McGill University Libraries
and author of The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books II to IV.


This book is based on a series of interviews on the subject of the Holocaust and the arts; the interviews were first aired on CBC’s “Stereo Morning” programme in May and June of 1983. Stephen Lewis spoke to 10 artists, mostly writers, all of whom had treated the Holocaust in their work. Certain questions recur: why the deluge of Holocaust books in the past decade? Is the Holocaust denigrated or cheapened merely by writing or making a film about it? Is silence the preferable response? And so on.

If most of the answers to the questions posed contain no surprises, nevertheless these artists do speak for the most part fluently and interestingly about a subject that has obviously caused them much thought and heart-searching. William Styron and D.M. Thomas, the authors of the two Holocaust books that have had the widest audience (Sophie’s Choice and The White Hotel), talk passionately of their decisions to treat the subject, as well as compassionately of the critics who have deplored those decisions. Aharon Appelfeld and Elie Wiesel insist on the impossibility of representing the Holocaust imaginatively without degrading it. Only Jurek Becker is sufficiently cocksure (impertinent? honest?) to suggest that “it is not enough to be moved. There are some people, some victims, some survivors for whom it is enough. They have a button. You push on it, and their eyes full up with tears.”

The intended audience for such a book as this is a little puzzling. One presumes that as a radio series these interviews would reach an audience who might not normally concern itself with the literature of the Holocaust. But there is not a great deal here that has not been said elsewhere, which makes the series’ manifestation as a book a little superfluous. In spite of this, however, these ten interviews are competently carried out and are worth the reflection that their availability in book form perhaps allows more readily than did their original form as broadcasts.


Lewis, Stephen, “Art out of Agony: The Holocaust Theme in Literature, Sculpture and Film,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 19, 2024,