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Professor Alvin Rosenfeld


By Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld, posted April 14, 2015.

Alvin Rosenfeld will be giving CISA's 2015 Shindleman Lecture on Monday, May 11, 2015 at 7:30 pm at the Hotel Fort Garry.

Join us after the lecture for coffee and a book signing.

Please buy your tickets online

Reprinted from the Times of Israel, April 13, 2015

The books we are moved to read and, even more, the books we feel compelled to write tell us a lot about who we are and what matters most to us.

In my case, what first drew me was wordless — a childhood fascination with some family photographs — and only later took on verbal form. Pictured in these photos were relatives of my mother whom I never knew and never would know. They remained behind in the small towns of Podolia where my parents were born and from which they later left for a new and better life in America. The handsome people pictured in these photos were not so fortunate: their letters from Russia stopped coming with the onset of World War II, and they were never heard from again.

As a boy, I knew nothing about their fate in Europe. Their intelligent faces and dignified bearing beguiled me, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about them. Most of all, I wanted to know when we might see them in America, but whenever I asked my parents that question, I never received an answer. Whatever was hidden behind that mysterious silence puzzled me and introduced a heaviness into my young life that has remained to this day. In ways I could not have foreseen, the indecipherable presence-and-absence of these Russian relatives was to shape my reading and writing for decades to come.

My first love was poetry. And so, not surprisingly, my first published book, done while still in graduate school, focused on a poet: an edited collection of original essays I commissioned on the British visionary poet William Blake. That work was followed by a Ph.D dissertation on two major American poets–Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman — and then by a volume collecting and introducing the published and unpublished poetry of the American writer John Wheelwright.

But during the same time that I was teaching and writing about modern poetry, I chanced upon two books that were to significantly redirect the focus of my intellectual interests and scholarly life.

Both books appeared in French and were published in English translation in 1960 and 1961. The first, a slim memoir by a writer I had not heard of before — Elie Wiesel — was called Night. The second, by André Schwarz-Bart, an author whose name was also new to me, was a novel called The Last of the Just. A graduate student at the time, I had begun to do some independent research on the catastrophe visited upon European Jewry during the Nazi period, but nothing I had previously encountered spoke to me the way these two books did.

The experiences of personal suffering and communal devastation they recounted were shattering. Primo Levi, himself an Auschwitz survivor, described the impact of this massive human destruction in a single memorable phrase: he called it, succinctly and unforgettably, “the demolition of a man.” Reflecting philosophically on the broadest ramifications of this intense human levelling, Elie Wiesel concluded, mournfully, that “at Auschwitz not only man died but also the idea of man.”

Events of this magnitude are rare, but if Wiesel was right, the iniquity revealed in the Nazi camps was so enormous — Levi called it the “greatest crime in the history of humanity” — as to require a radical rethinking of human definition itself.


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