The relationship between the arts and the Holocaust has been controversial. Many writers and critics believe that writing is a key way to preserve our collective memory of the horrors of the Holocaust so that it is remembered but never repeated. But others prefer unwritten memories, and some argue that it is unfitting to marry such a horrific topic with high art. German philosopher Theodor Adorno claimed that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." The fear he articulates is twofold. First, to the extent that art is inherently beautiful, high art can be perceived somehow to justify or valorize the horror. Second, to the extent that art is cathartic, effective art might "cure" the sadness and remorse in a way that formalizes and purges our memory rather than keeping it active.
In writing Everything is Illuminated, Foer joins the many writers who believe it is not only fitting, but necessary, to delve into the terror and mystery of the Holocaust. Countless memoirs of the Holocaust have been written, as well as fiction written by victims and survivors. Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Anne Frank are some of the more widely known authors of Holocaust literature. In recent decades, there have been movies, documentaries, Broadway plays, and many more art forms dedicated to a topic that disgusted Adorno. These artists would not find it fitting to confine themselves to "lower" forms of expression when addressing the Holocaust. They would say that art about the Holocaust that is beautiful in no way valorizes it, and audiences will be inspired to honor the memory of those who died rather than those who caused death.
As a member of a generation that did not live through the Holocaust, but living in a country where it is an active memory, Foer is in a unique position to evaluate its effects two generations out. Being this far removed from the Holocaust presents certain challenges. For example, he must himself rely on memory--the oral and written accounts of others. More than sixty years on, this novel valorizes the role of fantasy in storytelling, not as a way to hide the facts but as a way to make their truth more real. Foer has confronted the difficulty of maintaining a connection to a past he can never truly know.