Ten years after Edith Anisfield Wolf established the book prizes, Soviet troops advanced across southeastern Poland and liberated Auschwitz, the complex were 1.3 million were enslaved — and 1.1 million murdered — during the Second World War.
Did the prominent Jewish Clevelander with family in Austria ask herself in 1945, “In the face of such decimation, what good is a book award?”
Seventy-five years after the fact of Auschwitz was laid bare to the world, “attacking Jews has once again become socially acceptable in many countries – across the left-right ideological spectrum, and among groups that blame Jews for their grievances and oppression” writes Dr. Walter Reich, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in the Atlantic Monthly.
He attributes this resurgence to diminishing general knowledge of the Holocaust. “The horrifying knowledge of where anti-Semitism can lead,” he writes, “has been, in large measure, lost in a miasma of forgetting, ignorance, denial, confusion, appropriation, and obfuscation.”
In her classes at Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Lisa Nielson, an Anisfield-Wolf scholar, often teaches two writers in the canon: philosopher David Livingstone Smith and the Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch.
In 2012, Smith won his prize for “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others” and Asch — a Polish-born immigrant to the United States — for his 1947 novel “East River.”
“Smith has some grim and important stuff to say about the Holocaust, and Sholem Asch is a great pairing,” Nielson writes. “Asch has a devastating short story about identity, dehumanization and survival called ‘Heil, Hitler!’ that is a powerful — if hard for some — choice to read.”
In “Less Than Human,” Smith writes, “For most readers of this book, the word genocide is probably synonymous with Auschwitz. The Holocaust was the paradigmatic twentieth-century genocide, and is also the most thoroughly documented one. These is an immense literature describing how Germans of the Third Reich thought of Jews, as well as Slavs and Gypsies, as less than human, portraying them as apes, pigs, rats, worms, bacilli, and other nonhuman creatures. And it is abundantly clear from this evidence that the Nazis did not intend the term subhuman to be taken metaphorically.”
“’One does not hunt rats with a revolver,’ quipped one SS expert, in a chilling allusion to the mass exterminations, ‘but with poison and gas.’”
Standing between the Nazis and the “degenerate Jew” propaganda was the fiction and plays of Asch. In 1933, Nazi students at more than 30 German universities pillaged libraries in search of titles they considered “un-German.” Among those thrown into the flames were the books of Sholem Asch.
Pull up a chair at Case Western Reserve University’s new reading seminar for a hearty discussion of four Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, covering everything from the modern, urban Native experience to the consequences of political upheaval in Chile.
Organizers invite you to explore four Anisfield-Wolf award winning books:
- “There There” by Tommy Orange (2019, fiction) — January 23
Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, launched his literary career with :”There There,” a layered, multi generational journey of 12 Native American characters who converge on a fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.” Orange said during a recent stop in Cleveland.
- “Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation” by Jonathan Kozol (1996, nonfiction) — February 20
In “Amazing Grace,” Kozol examines the living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx, giving residents in his 300-page treatise space to discuss AIDS, drug addiction, prostitution, crime, dismal education systems, white flight and more.
- “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” by Kevin Young (2018, nonfiction) — March 19
“Bunk” spans nearly 200 years of fraudulent behavior, from the cruel spectacles of showman P.T. Barnum to modern day racist birther movement. Young, the current director of the Schomburg Center in New York, spent six years researching the book.
- “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (2017, fiction) — April 16
What began as a letter to Allende’s 100-year-old grandfather became “The House of the Spirits,” her debut novel that led to a career tally of more than 67 million copies sold. The story follows four generations of the Trueba family through political upheaval in Chile, Allende’s home.
Colette Ngana, a doctoral student in sociology, said the choice to begin with “There There” was an intentional one.
“I don’t think we highlight indigenous writers often enough,” Ngana said. “[There There] allows us to learn more about the historical perspective. If you didn’t know about the occupation of Alcatraz, for example, the book pushes you to look into indigenous history. What does that mean for our perspectives in resistance movements of the indigenous experience?”
Facilitators will provide historical and political context on the books, while participants are invited to discuss the larger themes these books present.
The reading seminar is open to the community, with organizers hoping for a mixture of students, staff and Cleveland-area residents to attend. “Often we don’t have many opportunities for people in the community to feel integrated into academic life,” Ngana said. “[This first seminar] will be a test to see who comes. We want everybody to feel welcome.”
The first session will be held Thursday, January 23 from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Dampeer Room, 11055 Euclid Avenue. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Lisa Kollins at email@example.com.
Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women.
Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”) writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a baffling fact considering the robust reading habits of black women.
Collectively, they took steps to remedy that omission. “Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon,” Greenidge writes in the introduction. “They form a revealing mosaic of the black American experience during the time period.”
Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Jesmyn Ward was one of the six panelists who selected the works, ranging from poetry to plays, nonfiction to short stories and novels. Alongside Ward was Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books; Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson and author of “Negroland;” Ayana Mathis, a professor and bestselling author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie;” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and author of “Thick”; and Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies whose most recent book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”
The 100 works are divided into five sections, spanning 160 years of literature: “A Fight For Our Humanity” (1859-1900), “A Rebirth of the Arts” (1924-1953), “Civil Rights & Black Power” (1959-1975), and “The Strength of Self Worth” (1976-1999) and “A Radical Future” (2000-2010).
Browse the list and you’ll find Anisfield-Wolf winners peppered throughout: Toni Morrison appears four times (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” and “A Mercy”) and Rita Dove gets a nod for 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Sonia Sanchez, our 2019 lifetime achievement winner, is recognized twice for her 1970s poetry collections: “We a BaddDDD People” and “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems.”
As ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins debuted the list on Twitter, she noted: “For those academics who are scratching their heads over how to make their syllabi more diverse, here you go. You have 100 books to choose from and they were chosen from the best of the best.”
And to cap the birthday off, Amistad Press is giving away free electronic copies of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visit www.CelebratingZora.com for downloading instructions.