Knut Hamsun. 248.88.
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Norway's commemoration of the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun's birth has made Rafael Medoff question that country's role as chairman of an international task force for Holocaust education ("A tale of 2 Norwegian Nobel Prize winners for Literature, June 30" ).
There is no doubt whatsoever that the author had very strong sympathies toward Germany and German culture per se, and later toward the Nazi regime.
Born in 1859, Hamsun was 81 when the Germans attacked and occupied Norway on April 9, 1940. In an infamous piece in the newspaper Aftenposten, he wrote that the Norwegians should lay down their arms and welcome the Germans. Yes, Hamsun was pro-Nazi, and even met Hitler and Goebbels, but there is next to nothing in his books that points toward a hatred for Jews. He was a collaborator with an occupying regime, but there is nothing to prove that the old man had the faintest idea that by 1942 Nazi Germany had set out on the path of the industrial destruction of the European Jewry.
While Hamsun may be guilty as charged for being pro-Nazi stand and for collaborating with the enemy, does that nullify the achievement of his work? In his article Medoff presents Hamsun's masterpiece Growth of the Soil as one of the favorite books of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It might very well be that Goebbels liked the novel, but so did many others - among them Jews.
In fact the novel, which tells the story of Isak, who built his own farm out of nothing, was very popular among kibbutz members before and after World War II. Many of Hamsun's other works, such as Hunger and Pan, were translated into Hebrew from 1922 onward.
Hamsun also had a profound influence on several authors who operated in the now sadly fading genre of Yiddish literature. In 1967 Isaac Bashevis Singer said of the author: "The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun." And Singer was totally aware of the stands Hamsun had taken during the war. Another Yiddish author who took heed of the writings of Hamsun is the now mainly forgotten Israel Rabon, whose brilliant novel Di Gas (The Street) is more or less a homage to Hunger. It is also said that Hamsun was a major influence on Israeli Nobel laureate Shai Agnon.
Even today Hamsun's books are readily available in Hebrew, especially Hunger (Ra'av), Pan, Victoria and Growth of the Soil (Birkat Ha'adama). Thus it wasn't only the Nazis who found Hamsun's literature exciting and renewing.
THIS BRINGS to the fore once again the old question of whether art can be admired for art's sake, apart from the life and actions of the artist. Had Hamsun written literature filled with anti-Semitism, I have no doubt he would have been all but forgotten. He didn't and hence his legacy as an author lingers on.
There are, of course, questions to be asked regarding if it is right to commemorate Hamsun. I do not for one moment think what he did during the occupation should be defended. Hamsun was clearly wrong regarding his view of the Nazis. That is precisely why the debate regarding his position is very much alive in his native Norway. The debate will probably carry on for a few more decades, since most people still have a schizophrenic view of him: they love his literature, but are aware of the mistakes he made in the dusk of his life.
That Norway has now opened a center for him is in some ways understandable; barring Henrik Ibsen, he is the most known Norwegian author in the world. His works are still read, and hence it would be wrong not to carry on studying them and presenting his life (and his misdeeds) to a wider audience. There is only the slimmest of chances that he will ever become a modern icon for right-wing radicals or, worse, neo-Nazis.
That Norway has been willing to take the chairmanship of the international task force on Holocaust education should not be intertwined with Hamsun's life and work. In a famous poem Hamsun once stated that "in a hundred years all will be forgotten." This is the real danger of the Holocaust today. The real danger is that it will be forgotten, or largely played down - apart from in the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and in Israel - when popular memory of World War II gradually fades away.
That is exactly why one needs to teach new generations about the extermination of European Jewry. If Norway is willing to put money into that project, it should be welcomed rather than questioned. The real issue is how to educate new generations about the Holocaust, and that is far more important than Hamsun's wrong turn late in life.
The writer is a Norwegian who lived and worked in the Middle East for 11 years.