Holocaust, Home and Memory in Literature

Emily-Rose Baker | 28 January 2019

Modern History | European History | Cultural History | Jewish History

The following post has been adapted from the author’s contribution to a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, held in the Winter Garden, Sheffield City Centre on 28.01.19.

The home, both as a place of dwelling and as a more abstract yet instinctive sense of belonging, is a frequently evoked image within Holocaust literature. Home can mean many different things to different people: it can constitute a country of origin or birth, encompass friends and family and is often central to the creation of selfhood and identity. Yet to not have a home, to be home-less, is a fear (or realisation) that can be universally related to. The act of being ‘torn from home’—this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme—whether a house, nation, people or a combination of all three, affected all those who experienced the Shoah to some degree. Under Nazi persecution, European Jews were dispossessed of land and property, were forced to evacuate their homes to be deported or killed, or to go into hiding. They were also physically displaced in ghettos and/or camps. Those who survived returned to homes and formerly thriving communities destroyed by war, and faced the very difficult task of re-establishing new ones.

The home features in the work of Holocaust memoirists, in survivor testimonies, film, graphic novels, poetry and other media. In many instances, it remains an image of hope for refugees and those imprisoned and forced into slave labour in concentration camps – although, as late survivor Jean Cayrol reflects, to linger on memories and dreams of home was often detrimental to survival. In Charlotte Delbo’s short story ‘The Teddy Bear’, the uniting power of the word ‘home’ is enough to carry the author and her fellow inmates through a Christmas Eve dinner spent in a death camp, even when spoken in another language. ‘The Frenchwomen […] tried to repeat the magic words’ of their Polish inmates, Delbo writes.[1] ‘Do domou, do domou—at home.’[2]

In other accounts, the home is an irrevocably ruined construction: a traumatic reminder of a pre-war past. In her autobiography A Lesser Child, Kindertransport refugee Karen Gershon had to write about her ‘German self’ in the third person as ‘Kate’ and in her mother tongue when articulating the traumatic experience of growing up as a child in Nazi Germany, which she escaped in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

For those with families who survived, the postwar return home at least meant reuniting with loved ones. Yet repatriation was often a disillusioning process for survivors, some of whom were welcomed by racial hostility and violence as well as stolen property. Even the voyage back was itself arduous: many prisoners freed from camps were malnourished and diseased, with either no means of getting home or a lengthy journey ahead of them via rail or foot. Primo Levi’s The Truce documents the treacherous journey home across Europe from Auschwitz to Italy, which entailed further starvation, marching and work in a Russian rehabilitation camp before reaching his homeland nine months after liberation.

The alternative to these desolate realities was the adaptation of victims to new wartime lives and temporary homes – as was the case with Anne Frank and her family, who took refuge, in Amsterdam, 1933, from an increasingly hostile antisemitic climate in Germany. The hiding place of Anne Frank and her family from July 1942—an attic in the building of her father’s business—constitutes perhaps the most famous example of the home in collective Holocaust memory and literature, visited by thousands each year. Much of the global interest in the Anne Frank House owes to its authentic traces of a life that continued despite perilous political and domestic conditions. These include the displayed pages of Anne’s diary and posters of German film stars cut from magazines and plastered onto walls, which gesture toward the popular culture of the period and illustrate the interests of a ‘normal’ (albeit persecuted and later revered) teenager. The diary itself provides an intimate portrait of a home life filled with the happiness and tensions of a typical family despite limited space and the ever-present fear of their discovery.

Sites such as Auschwitz, however, represent the antithesis of home. This is exemplified by Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s ironic use of the phrase ‘Auschwitz, Our Home’ as one of his short stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The luxury of being able to choose one’s home rests on their right to move. Today, this is increasingly undermined and threatened by the strictures of hard borders and tightened immigration laws. Among those who are unable to pinpoint a specific location or physical construction they call home are refugees and asylum seekers – an especially important consideration on Holocaust Memorial Day.

On July 23, 1943, Anne Frank wrote of her wish ‘to be able to move around freely’ in her own home despite her successful assimilation into a new culture, language and way of life in the Netherlands.[3] This desire deeply resonates with the kinds of discourse surrounding EU separation and an escalating global refugee crisis exacerbated by detainment and deportations. It also exposes the fact that, contrary to erroneous depictions of migrants as job-takers and exploiters of national services, many refugees long to return home to a place of familiarity, but are prevented from doing so due to circumstances beyond their control. An event often described as historically ‘unique’, this reminds us that the persecution of minorities central to the Holocaust is not confined to the past, but manifests today in the refusal of a home or place of safety within society to those targeted on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender.

Emily-Rose Baker is a second-year WRoCAH funded PhD student based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines central-eastern European Holocaust memory and dreams in the post-communist era.


[1] Charlotte Delbo, ‘The Teddy Bear’, Auschwitz and After: Second Edition, trans. by Rosette C. Lamount (London: Yale University Press, 1995) p.164.

[2] Delbo, p.164.

[3] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition, eds. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler (London: Penguin, 2011) p.112.