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Historical or Hysterical? Reading Babi Yar and The White Hotel

Updated: Jan 9

Sunday, January 7, 2024, 3-4:30 pm Pacific

The "double header" of Babi Yar and The White Hotel as an intertextual pairing has given me and our two guest discussion leaders, psychologist Dr. Claudia Kohner and literary scholar Dr. Andrea White, almost too much to think about. Are two or three heads better than one? We hope you think so!

Introduction (Gelya Frank):

I'm offering here some framing thoughts, leading to the essay by Andrea in conversation with Claudia based on a close reading of The White Hotel's manifest and latent content. The essay is followed by questions for discussion. To start off, Claudia is interested to hear how readers first became aware of the genocide that took place at Babi Yar in the fall of 1941. She asks whether American readers, like herself, first became aware of the Babi Yar massacre only as late as 1981, when the novel The White Hotel appeared. Why was Babi Yar not on the radar of so many otherwise interested readers? Andrea picks up this question in her essay, where she proposes to put The White Hotel in a literary historical context of works by survivors concerning the Holocaust--that is, the appearance of a literature of witness.

Reading scholars, critics, and interviews with D. M. Thomas, the three of us (Andrea, Claudia, and Gelya) are taken with the author's interest in the question of hysteria and, in particular, with the premise or proposition that events such as at Babi Yar can be read as locations of mass hysteria, sites where personal and social symptomatology express themselves in parallel, if not interconnected ways. In my brief comments here, I take the role of a "disobedient reader" who questions Thomas's use of a female patient Lisa Erdman as the symbolic carrier of the personal hysterical symptoms (unexplained pains in her breast and groin) that, by the end of the book, the author reveals as having been "caused" by events that happen later in time. This book offers a mystical, poetic, atemporal transubstantiation of a half-Jewish character's suffering--and her brutal death on earth in a Nazi genocide-- and the resolution of her psychological conflicts in a Christian-like afterlife (set in Israel!) where the sun shines and loved ones meet again. Do you buy it?

In the gallery of images above, who is the mysterious woman who in fact historically links The White Hotel with Babi Yar? Surely not the opera singer Lisa Erdman, the fictional patient treated by Dr. Sigmund Freud in The White Hotel. Fictional characters, like ghosts, do not lend themselves to photographic likenesses. Rather, the woman pictured between Anatoly Kuznetsov's "documentary novel" Babi Yar and D. M. Thomas's fictional psychoanalytic case history is Dina Mironovna Pronicheva (1911-1977). Her physical suffering--including having been stomped on the breast and hand by hob-nail booted Nazi gunmen-- is revealed late in Thomas's book to be the temporally dislocated cause of the patient Lisa Erdman's "hysterical" symptoms. Whereas Pronicheva actually survived, however, her fictional incarnation as Lisa Erdman dies at Babi Yar. What purpose and vision of Thomas's theme does the death of Lisa/Dina serve?

Dina Pronicheva, a Soviet trained actress in the Kiev puppet theatre, was thought to be the sole survivor among the 30,000 Ukrainian Jews rounded up and massacred by the Nazi army at the Babi Yar ravine on Yom Kippur, September 29-30, 1941. Not only was Pronicheva's first-person account, as heard by Kuznetsov, the basis for the descriptions of murder, rape and other atrocities in his chapter Babi Yar (pp. 89-110). Pronicheva's resolute nine-minute testimony was captured on film in Russian and can be seen on YouTube with English subtitles at the Soviet trial in Kiev on January 24, 1946 of case No. 1679 "On the atrocities committed by fascist invaders on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR." A simple Google search of Dina Pronicheva turns up the YouTube material and various versions of Pronicheva's written testimony in Russian and in English translation.

In my opinion, these sources by and about Pronicheva are well-worth finding online and thinking about. Historians' responses to the different versions of Pronicheva's testimony, it appears, have focused on questions of the historical credibility of her accounts, given the differences (the so-called "contradictions") she introduced under differing circumstances over time. When The White Hotel was published in 1981, critics also jumped on a textual controversy but of a literary rather than historical nature--i.e., whether author D. M. Thomas plagiarized the chapter titled Babi Yar in Kuznetsov's book. We can ask, if there were a misdeed on author Thomas's part, does it involve a literary crime against the earlier author Kuznetsov? Or, instead, was there a historical, cultural, and even moral crime in Thomas's corruption of Pronicheva's testimony as a survivor? Again, why is it important to the book that Lisa dies at Babi Yar rather than survives? Thomas disregards the historicity of Jewish survival in favor of a conceit about humankind's struggle in Freudian terms between Eros and Thanatos.

This leads me to the more general and important question. A decade into the second wave of feminism when the book was published, what symbolic weight is carried by the character of Lisa in The White Hotel? Why is it necessary that it be a female who suffers? That she suffers from symptoms in her body's sexual zones? And that she must die? Lisa's life and death are the field on which, in Thomas-cum-Freud's world, Man's most destructive impulses play out as "mass hysteria." I say "Man" with a deliberate capital "M," because the gender binary embedded in The White Hotel portrays war as the business of men, a business that propels the Western literary canon from its beginnings in the Trojan Wars (Odysseus, The Aeneid) to today.

Essay (Andrea White)

As many have observed, a new literary genre emerged after the Holocaust, the literature of witness, that could speak of those incomprehensible and unspeakable events as told by subjective witnesses. Some took the form of daily journal entries – Anne Frank’s, Victor Klemperer’s, for example. Some took the form of documentary accounts written after the fact, such as by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

A novel about the Holocaust seemed a trickier proposition, mixing fiction with horrific facts, but semi-fictional accounts started emerging as well. But not right away. In fact most people wanted to put the war years behind them and few publishers felt there was an audience for what survivors wanted to say. Even the left wing publisher Einaudi refused to publish Primo Levi’s This is a Man in 1946. It wasn’t published until 1959 and didn’t sell well until 20 years later. Chava Rosenfarb’s masterful three volume novel The Tree of Life that we read together over several sessions movingly tells the story of the Lodz ghetto where she and her family were imprisoned. It wasn’t published until 1971, first in the original Yiddish. It didn't appear in English until 1985. Thanks to the tireless persistence of her daughter and translator, literary scholar Goldie Morgantaler, Rosenfarb's work is finally getting recognition in North America and, importantly, as of 2023, in Poland.

Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar, seems a late-comer, its English translation appearing in 1970. It would have been published in 1966, if Soviet censorship had not held it up. In fact its uncensored publication was only possible when Kuznetsov defected to London and smuggled his manuscript with him. He describes his work as “a document in the form of a novel” and himself as “a crafter of memory.” In order to avoid the eclipsing of the catastrophes of the 20th century, he writes in his Preface, these events must be remembered, especially in light of the absence of a monument that clearly memorializes the horrors of Babi Yar.

Dina Mironova Pronicheva testifying on January 24, 1946 in Kiev at the Soviet trial of Case No. 1679, "On the atrocities committed by fascist invaders on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR."

“Remember!” This is the injunction and function of this literature of witness, especially since there was already such a willful forgetting in the decades after the war. Documentary testimonials, literary non-fiction, documentary novels all seek to establish the historical facts and at the same time write from an identifiable point of view, achieve necessary exposition through invented dialogue, provide imagined words and thoughts that don’t contradict those known facts but individualize and humanize the characters. And help us remember.

Even before Kuznetsov’s documentary novel, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem “Babi Yar” told the world – probably for the first time – about that particular massacre twenty years earlier in which over 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis, over 33,000 of them Jews. The next year, the Russian composer Shostokovitch wrote his Symphony #13, a choral work that took as its text Yevtushenko’s poem. Kuznetsov’s book was certainly influenced by both of those forerunners.

Twenty years after Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar --and forty years after the massacre itself--D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel was one of the many novels that started emerging, finally. Thomas was greatly influenced by Kuznetsov’s book and, contrary to charges that he plagiarized the chapter titled Babi Yar, acknowledged his use of some of the earlier author's material. Thomas's novel became a bestseller as well as a critical hit, almost winning its author the Booker prize. At the same time the book caused some controversy, blending what some felt was pornography with the Holocaust. But it kept selling in spite of (because of?) the controversial parts.

While the word was out by this time about the horrors of the Holocaust and particularly of Babi Yar, Thomas was interested in telling this untellable story by linking it with another phenomenon of the twentieth century, Freudian psychoanalysis. The linking is interesting, as Gelya Frank explores "disobediently" in her introductory comments, above.

Many readers note that Lisa’s symptoms that emerge through the case study belong to the age, not just a single life. Lisa's hysteria – and Thomas writes in his Author’s Note that hysteria is “the terrain of this novel,” and thus calls for the presence of Freud himself as a character–- seems to have more to do with the trauma that awaits her at the Babi Yar ravine, and millions of others through the Holocaust, than with a trauma from the past. Her symptoms are premonitions rather than recollections. Interestingly, author Thomas has his character Freud see this. The fictional Freud writes that, if he had it to do over, he would devote himself to the study of telepathy. In this vein, the author Thomas points to Lisa's “gift” of telepathy, of her intense sympathetic response to future horrors and even refers to her as Cassandra, Hector’s sister who prophesied the fall of Troy.

With The White Hotel, we are definitely in the land of fiction, an imaginative depiction of mid-20th century events through the character of Lisa and other ancillary players in her drama of suffering. What is Thomas's intent? Is it to make the unfathomable somehow more visible for readers by its in-depth exploration of a woman's private life (her quest for relief of pains in her breast and groin; her sexual desires and acts; her ambivalences about career, marriage and motherhood; her abundant dream life and lush verbal productivity) and its extinguishing by the mass hysteria of war? Eros and Thanatos.

The historical facts of the Holocaust and of Freud himself aren’t denied by Thomas, but told via an avowed fiction, involving us emotionally. An aspect of the fictionality yet sense of reality of The White Hotel is its textuality. Various kinds of texts --letters, postcards, case studies, both 1st and 3d person narration, verse, fantasy, newspapers, references throughout to various books, to musical scores, and even footnotes -- together emphasize the made-ness of the work. Intertextuality alerts us to pay attention to point of view-- Lisa’s point of view, Freud’s point of view, and the author's. Each has a different way, more than one way, of expressing their emergent truths. What gets told in letters differs from what postcards can say. Only the case study--the author's construction of Freud's analysis--stands apart with its particular authority. To this, as Gelya would suggest in her above comments, we must add the final chapter of The White Hotel, with its transpersonal third-person omniscience that takes us out of embodied existence and into some version of a redemptive heavenly afterlife in D. M. Thomas's imagination.

So, this novel is not told as is Kuznetsov’s from the point of view of a “scared, smart, scrappy boy,” who insists throughout that he’s telling nothing but the truth. By way of contrast, the point of view in The White Hotel is multiple and actually not always clear. And there’s little sense, as there was in Babi Yar, of a straight through chronology. While we feel as though we’re moving toward something, there’s some doubling back as well. The structure at least at first is puzzling. We don’t know what we’re reading in Part I (“Don Giovanni”) and we won’t for a while. The author Thomas doesn’t give us the information we’re used to getting in most novels about time and place, character and motive. The letters preceding the fantastical Don Giovanni poem (the first dated 1909 from Worcester, Massachusetts to the last dated 1931 from Vienna) provide us with important clues, markers recognized well enough to cause a sense of dread about what might be coming. The letters are for the most part jocular and reassuring and the poem itself – although fantastically libidinous is written rather carefully in iambic slant rhyme couplets. Where are we and where are we going?

If as readers we don't really know where we are going, neither do the characters. As Leslie Epstein noted in 1981 in his New York Times review of The White Hotel:

What is most brilliant in this record of obsession [here he is referring to "Don Giovanni"] is the sense of apathy at the center of events. The lovers stare blankly at the carnage around them, the chef cooks, the gypsy band plays; and all the while more guests check in, oblivious, flush-faced, detached.  The poem here does pinpoint with great exactness how the disease of the person catches and reflects the great ill of the modern age - the dissociation, the unhinging, of experience from feeling.

Another aspect of this fictional treatment of the horrors of Babi Yar is Thomas’s use of imagery. Himself a poet and translator of Russian literature, he understands the force of imagery. Images abound of hiding, burying, masking, concealing, covering and uncovering, bringing to light that which had been hidden, both in Babi Yar and in the unconscious. It begins in the first letter from Freud's colleague Sandor Ferenczi to his lover with his reference to the peat-bog corpses recently dug up in northern Germany. This imagery is central to the novel and appears and reappears throughout. Throughout the chapters there are references to luggage mostly absent, to trenches filled with bodies, coffins. These images echo throughout as premonitions and backward glances both at once. They are central to Lisa’s analysis--incomplete as it is ---as well as to the monstrous fact that awaits her, her death at Babi Yar, with its sediment of corpses.

Questions (Claudia):

1. How did you, the reader, first learn about Babi Yar? How did it affect you and your understanding of the Holocaust?

2. What is the problem Lisa brings to Freud? What is the progress of her treatment? How does it progress?

3. What does the white hotel symbolize?

4. Is it a problem that the male Thomas inhabits a female psyche? Is his depiction of Lisa and her fantasies a kind of cultural appropriation or projection? If so, of what?

5. Can you imagine the structure of this novel differently ordered, the chapters coming in a different sequence? What is the effect of ordering the chapters as Thomas does?

6. What do you make of Lisa’s prophetic powers?

7. What do you make of the last chapter?

8. Literary and cinema scholar Marsha Kinder speaks of the centrality in the novel of the contrast/competition between Freud and Jung. What does this opposition help you see in the novel? What might it explain?

9. Thomas writes that history and psychology are insufficient to explain the horrors of the Holocaust, that myth and poetry are essential. Does The White Hotel accomplish this for you? Do we "need" a myth and poetry to explain the Israel-Hamas war, for example?

10. What do you think of the premise that war and atrocities are essentially a state of exception (i.e. mass hysteria)?


Freud (1915), Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (pdf)

Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
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