Bianca Patricia Pick


Distancing as a Literary Strategy in the German Shoah Literature

The subject shapes itself through the experience of distance from the surrounding world. This hypothesis forms the starting point for the dissertation project distancing as a literary strategy. The aim of the project is to trace the use of distancing as a means of reclaiming and asserting subjectivity in the literary writings of Shoah survivors.

This doctoral project attempts to answer the question of whether a person who has been transformed into a victim, who has looked into the “abyss,” can establish himself or herself as a literary subject. The basic research question is: How do Shoah survivors deal with their memories in narrative form? And further: What is it they are distancing themselves from—and what are aims are they pursuing?

Insight into how Shoah survivors recall traumatic experiences of discrimination and violence can be gleaned from texts by Jean Améry, Albert Drach, Edgar Hilsenrath, Ruth Klüger, Primo Levi, and Käthe Vordtriede. Considered in this project are works by Jewish victims of National Socialism who, according to the theory posited here, make use of distancing as a literary strategy to address their autobiographical experiences and their role as “victims.” These works will provide the textual substrate for tracing various facets of re-subjectification. The term re-subjectification is used here to refer to the individual attempt of a disempowered subject to give expression to his or her own process of becoming a subject through literary writing. In this sense, the project should be understood as an attempt to consider the perspectives of Shoah survivors in a new way. These survivors do not engage in writing as a purely self-referential process; the strategy of distancing also allows them—each in their own, individual way—to move away from an identity as “victims.” With the aid of a praxeological approach, this project formulates the hypothesis that there even is a de-victimized form of subjectification that can be identified in these works—evident, for example, in the use of sarcasm. The idea that an author can resist being forced into the role of a victim through the narrative use of sarcasm is based on textual analysis. The project highlights a gap in the literary critical discourse that extends beyond the individual phenomenon of “sarcasm” in literature. Alongside the cultural-historical approach to sarcasm undertaken in the study by Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek (Was ist literarischer Sarkasmus? Ein Beitrag zur deutsch-jüdischen Moderne, 2009), this project examines sarcasm as a literary style that allows the writer a measure of distance. Furthermore, based on a descriptive analysis of literary texts, the project identifies four further stylistic forms in which a distancing narrative stance appears: the grotesque, resentment, reflection, and record-keeping. In this project, they are studied as literary forms of distancing in which the survivors record their traumatic experiences while also asserting or even defending themselves in writing. Furthermore, by understanding sarcasm, the grotesque, resentment, reflection, and record-keeping as forms of distancing in the German Shoah literature, it becomes possible to better understand where the literary writings of Shoah survivors (what Günter called “Überlebendenliteratur” or what Ezrahi calls “the literature of survival”) fit in to the literary landscape of their time. When the authors use sarcasm in their writings as a means of critique, for example, they are on the one hand simply voicing aggression. On the other hand, however, the autobiographical sarcasm outlined in these preliminary observations elevates the autobiographical depictions of victims of the National Socialist terror regime as narratives in which the authors resist that which has been forced upon them. When an author establishes distance, she is claiming an “autonomous narrative space.” Distancing thus opens up a free space in which the writer can create her own—de-victimized—concept of subjectivity.

Ressentiment includes distancing: if an author affected by violence uses Ressentiment to autobiographically narrate personal grief and exclusion, her or she literarily distances experiences of violence and the world around.Therefore, my aim is to emphasize the constructive potential of Ressentiment.

In narrative writing, distancing does not require temporally or spatially prefigured distance. Arguments like that of Gerhard Lauer, claiming that the features of sarcasm in autobiographical texts can be explained by temporal distance, should therefore be fundamentally reconsidered. Lauer contends that literary sarcasm is temporally prefigured, and could only be employed as a literary strategy by survivors after they had gained temporal distance. To the contrary, it is argued here that forms of distance are founded more significantly on the distance between the experienced and the narrated, and that this can affect distanced narratives and the intentionality of the text, but that temporal distance is not required in principle. For this reason, the corpus contains texts written both in the 1940s as well as in the early 1990s.

From a literary research perspective, the project will contribute to the study of distancing as a literary category. This will make it possible to understand individual phenomena of “the literature of survival”, first, from the aspect of distancing, and second, as strategies employed by authors. On this basis, third, they can be studied in detail as literary expressions of a re-subjectification enacted through distancing.


Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven: By Words alone. The Shoah in Literature. Chicago, London, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980.

Günter, Manuela (Hg.): Überleben schreiben. Zur Autobiographik der Shoah. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002.

Lauer, Gerhard: Erinnerungsverhandlungen. Kollektives Gedächtnis und Literatur fünfzig Jahre nach der Vernichtung der europäischen Juden. In: Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 73 (1999), Sonderheft, S. 215–245.

Meyer-Sickendiek, Burkhard: Was ist literarischer Sarkasmus? Ein Beitrag zur deutsch-jüdischen Moderne. München: Fink, 2009.

Michaelis, Andree: Erzählräume nach Auschwitz. Literarische und videographierte Zeugnisse von Überlebenden der Shoah. Berlin: Akad.-Verl., 2013.

(Changed: 19 Dec 2022)