USC Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies

2015 Citation Recipient

Rachel Feldhay Brenner

The University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies, established in 2009 and sponsored by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California, is awarded annually for an outstanding monograph published on Russia, Eastern Europe, or Eurasia in the fields of literary and cultural studies in the previous calendar year.

Co-Winner: Rachel Feldhay Brenner
Title: The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers’ Diaries from Warsaw, 1939-1945 (Northwestern University Press)

Rachel Feldhay Brenner has written a remarkable book that significantly deepens our understanding of the nature of witnessing and the experience of Polish writers confronted with the events of the Holocaust—in this case, the establishment, deportation, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ethics of Witnessing focuses on the wartime diaries of five major Polish intellectuals—Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Maria Dąbrowska, Aurelia Wyleżyńska, Zofia Nałkowska, and Stanisław Rembek—who recorded the Occupation and the unfolding of the Jewish genocide, sometimes from the perspective of empathy, horror, and dismay, and sometimes, through the lens of a disengaged and distant observer, as if the catastrophe that was taking place nearby, and which could be “seen, heard, and smelled,” could be intellectualized but not felt. The five diaries represent the only wartime diaries known to have been kept by writers in Warsaw, and together, they provide a lens into the moral and ethical crisis of bearing witness to terror. As Brenner points out, no Polish writer, no matter how disassociated from the Ghetto and the Holocaust they imagined themselves to be, emerged on the other side of war unscathed by the events to which they had born witness. Their diaries and postwar writings speak to the trauma of watching the destruction of the modern self—grounded in humanistic values.

Co-Winner: Friederike Kind-Kovács