Thursday, November 3, 2011


Dara Horn
Jewish Review of Books, Summer 2011

It isn’t every day that one has the opportunity to read a literary masterpiece. But a literary masterpiece that doubles as a work of prophecy? Such books have been rare since the death of Isaiah--which is why this new English edition of The Glatstein Chronicles deserves not only praise but its own cantillation. Largely set in a Jewish sanatorium-resort in 1934 Poland, The Glatstein Chronicles is easy to label as a Jewish Magic Mountain. But Thomas Mann’s novel about the decline of European civilization as dramatized at a sanatorium-resort was published in 1925, after the ravages of World War I made his characters’ prewar lives poetically moot. The Glatstein Chronicles might have been that book, had it been written in 1946. Instead, this devastating kaleidoscopic vision of doom for Jewish Europe first appeared in print in . . . 1934. Jacob Glatstein was no mere poet, but a Yiddish prophet. And now American Jews can rediscover what prophecy really means.

Like most prophets, Glatstein at first resisted the call. Born in Lublin in 1896, he escaped Poland’s painfully circumscribed opportunities by convincing his parents to send him to America at age 17--where his one American uncle couldn’t even leave his sweatshop job to meet him at the dock. Bright enough (and fluent enough in English) to enroll in New York University Law School, and also bright enough to voluntarily drop out, Glatstein at 24 made a conscious decision to live his literary life in Yiddish. His early poetry is phenomenal, world-class modernist verse that catapulted Yiddish into the worlds of Eliot and Joyce and beyond. Almost untranslatable because of his punning and layering of nearly every word (in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and Polish) and his clever references to both Yiddish highbrow and children’s culture (all, by 2011, requiring extensive footnotes), Glatstein’s first three published books of poetry are works of genius by a writer stretching his wings in a Jewish world that felt too small for his talents.

But in time Glatstein saw that these brilliant tours de force could be no more than brilliant, and the growing crisis in Europe made him see the pitiful aspect of writing Yiddish verse modeled on the language games of Anglo-American poets. Like claiming today that his novel is a “Jewish Magic Mountain,” this kind of work suggests that Jewish literature is a pale imitation of “world literature,” rather than the generator of world literature’s most fundamental themes. Without anti-Semitism, this assumption would be merely pathetic. But when one considers the active degrading of Jewish culture within the most lauded realms of Western civilization, the idea that Jewish literature ought to mirror its non-Jewish counterpart becomes worse than base. After violent pogroms in Poland in 1938, Glatstein in New York wrote his most famous poem, “Good Night, World,” which bids a sarcastic farewell to the supposed glories of Western civilization, insisting to the non-Jewish world that “Not you, but I slam the gate,” as the poet rejects Western culture for a stunted Judaism that at least opposes the wider world’s moral hypocrisy:

Good night, world. I’ll give you a parting gift
Of all my liberators.
Take your Jesusmarxes, choke on their courage.
Croak on a drop of our baptized blood…
From Wagner’s idol-music to wordless melody, to humming.
I kiss you, cankered Jewish life.
It weeps in me, the joy of coming home.

In The Glatstein Chronicles, the poet literally comes home. Composed as two novellas here combined in one English volume, The Glatstein Chronicles is a work in the great 200-year-old tradition of Jewish autobiographical novels--including masterpieces ranging from S.Y. Agnon’s A Guest for the Night (also about a Jewish man visiting his hometown in 1930s Poland) to Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March. But it surpasses even those, because its majesty derives from the author’s reimagining of the Hebrew Bible’s recurrent motifs of personal and national betrayal--and from his astonishing power of genuine prophecy. Of the dozens of thematically interlocked layers that this book offers its readers, many of which have been richly mined by scholars, it is its prophecy that resonates loudest of all in 2011. Reading this work today, one cannot help continuously flipping back to editor Ruth R. Wisse’s insightful introduction to check the book’s publication history, incredulous. The second novella first appeared in 1940, though it was likely composed long before that. The first was already serialized in 1934.

The novel’s putative story is that of an unnamed narrator whose biography matches Glatstein’s exactly (the Yiddish titles included the narrator’s name, “Yash,” a diminutive for Jacob), and who after 20 years in America is called back to Poland to attend his mother’s death. The book’s first half, “Homeward Bound” (in Yiddish, Ven Yash is geforn, “When Yash Set Out”), follows the narrator’s Atlantic crossing and his journey through Europe, focusing on his encounters with the cosmopolitan Jews and non-Jews whom he meets on the way. Its second half, “Homecoming at Twilight” (in Yiddish, Ven Yash iz gekumen, “When Yash Arrived”), takes place at a Jewish sanatorium-resort in southern Poland where the narrator stays after his mother’s death--and where his fellow residents from all walks of Polish Jewish life share their stories and ultimately die. We never meet the narrator’s dying mother, who was supposedly the purpose of his journey; nor does he even mention her, except in a few flashbacks to his childhood and negotiations over her burial, which are written to resemble the biblical Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah. Instead, we are left with the impression that the dying mother to whom he has come to bid farewell is Jewish Poland itself. And this is where the book crosses the line from travelogue to prophecy.

The narrator’s prophetic visions begin on the Atlantic crossing. During the voyage, word arrives of the “Night of Long Knives,” Hitler’s first violent purge of his Nazi rivals. Seeking others who share his panic, the narrator tests out the news on his fellow passengers--and finds that the ship is divided, as Europe soon would be, between Jews and non-Jews:

"I realized that to the Gentiles, Hitler meant something altogether different than he did to me. My non-Jewish fellow passengers . . . regarded Hitler as merely Germany’s dictator. To me, to 600,000 German Jews, and indeed to all the 17 million Jews worldwide, Hitler was the embodiment of the dreaded historical hatemonger, latest in a long line of persecutors that stretched from Haman . . . wielding a bloody pen that was writing a dreadful new chapter of Jewish history."

These discussions remain theoretical until the ship docks in Europe--and the narrator must travel to Poland through Germany, via trains packed with Hitler youth.

In Poland, it becomes clear that anti-Semitic fury has already begun to take its toll on Jewish youth. Young people train for professions that will not admit them, and then fall back on flimsy businesses that barely survive ongoing boycotts, causing “love to die among them” as even romance falls prey to the practicalities of their artificially-induced poverty. They endure this poverty on a knife’s edge. At first, the narrator’s intimations of mortality are subtle or atmospheric, taking the form of dreams involving “a vague fear of impending destruction,” or an observation that “It was the end of August, and these men were probably the first to become aware, in the midst of summer pleasures, that winter was on the way.”

But as he meets more and more desperate Jews who try to stuff his suitcases with messages begging for help from their American relatives, the narrator’s intimations of doom give way to a stunning clarity. On nearly every page of this magnificent novel, one finds astonishing remarks like these from Polish Jews in 1934:

“The fact is that a real war is being waged against us, a war of attrition. . . . There’s no escaping it: all the countries have imposed a siege. . . . Believe me, the Poles are much cleverer than Hitler. They don’t rant and rave, they just pass over our bodies with a steamroller and drive us right into the ground. . . . Formerly you could escape by emigrating. Today our people are staring death in the eyes.”

Nor is this intended to be figurative, as conversations like the following make abundantly clear:

“It started with Pharaoh who bathed in the blood of Jewish children. Why, oh why, why do we deserve this, Mr. Steinman? What do they have against us, Mr. Steinman?”

“Ah, you’re raising fundamental questions,” Steinman said. He had become grave. “You want to go to the root of things. Well, I’ll tell you: they want to destroy us, nothing less. Yes, to destroy us. For instance, take me--I am a patriotic Pole. And yet they’d destroy me too. They want to exterminate us, purely and simply. Yes, exterminate us.”

The “Haman” dimension of current events is hauntingly evoked near the book’s conclusion, when the narrator visits Kazimierz. A picturesque resort beloved by artists, Kazimierz is a town with a Jewish-Polish myth attached to it. Its ruined castle was once occupied by King Casimir the Great, a real 14th-century Polish monarch who, according to legend, had a Jewish lover named Esther who lived in the castle as his queen. The story was imagined variously in Polish and Yiddish sources as abduction or seduction, but among Polish Jews it usually evoked a sense of Polish-Jewish interdependency and belonging, echoing the biblical Book of Esther with its irresistible Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish king--with the queen placed in the palace for the Jews’ eventual rescue.

The narrator goes to Kazimierz almost by accident, when a driver appears at the hotel with the mistaken information that he has planned a day trip there. Another guest, in love with the town, decides to go and invites the narrator along, explaining: “You see, it’s fate. A man has to visit Kazimierz sooner or later, so what difference does it make when you go?” With its echo of the appointment in Samarra, “visiting Kazimierz” becomes a metaphor for the destiny of Polish Jews: everyone believes in this myth of Gentile-Jewish romance at some point, just as the poet Glatstein once did, until the myth is revealed to be a picturesque ruin--or worse.

Once in Kazimierz, the narrator climbs up to the ruined castle with his traveling companion, who caresses its stones and describes it as holy, suggesting the ruins of the ancient Temple:

For what has really gone on here in Kazimierz? I think I can help you to understand. The Jew had his own poor world, and the Gentile led his own separate life. We always walked as far as the city gates, beyond which death lies--a great cemetery full of ancestors. In other words, walk no farther than the gates and turn right back, for you can see only too clearly what lies in store. The grave. But the people created a legend in defiance of the limitations of this life.

This legend claims to be a Purim story, but in Glatstein’s prophetic vision, it is really a story about Tisha b’Av--and Jewish Poland is the latest holy temple on the verge of destruction. Returning from Kazimierz, the narrator considers this “dark omen.” Alluding to a Spanish novel about a wounded Casanova, he reflects: “All of us . . . would very soon arrive at winter with a hand shot off. That would be the hand which, I had vowed, I would let wither if I forgot you, and you, and everything that had ever imprinted itself on my eyes and mind.”

Reading The Glatstein Chronicles is itself an act of mourning, and the editor and translators must have endured this grief all the more acutely. The translation is rendered magnificently, and Wisse and the translators (Maier Deshell and the late Norbert Guterman) have taken great pains to produce the illusion that we are reading this masterpiece as the author wrote it. Terms that would have felt natural to 20th-century Yiddish speakers have been subtly explained within the text; more complex cultural references are explicated in unobtrusive endnotes.

But the reader familiar with the original cannot but mourn--not only for the doomed community captured within its pages, but also for the world of readers lost with it. The book offers its readers endless unspoken references to once-famous works of Yiddish literature, like I. L. Peretz’s “At Night in the Old Marketplace,” a surrealist play set among the living dead (at one point the novel is subsumed by a surrealist play), as well as brilliant portraits of real figures who once illuminated the Jewish world: the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the German historian Heinrich Graetz, the Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin, and even a sanatorium resident modeled on Peretz himself. One misses, painfully, the world that once existed where every reader of this novel would have known these references as household names.

Unfortunately, The Glatstein Chronicles is unlikely to find a wide audience among American readers, even American Jewish ones. Americans are taught to seek in literature the satisfaction of our own hunger for action and unambiguous resolutions--neither of which are on offer here. In a contemporary review of Glatstein’s book, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose popularity came largely from fulfilling American literary expectations, complained that “Jules Verne would not have wasted ten lines on a journey so bereft of adventure or romance.” He was certainly right, but the observation does more harm to the critic than to the author. For the patient reader open to other possibilities, The Glatstein Chronicles does progress--in a symphonic rather than a linear fashion--toward important revelations. And time has only added new layers of power to its prose.

Now that the prophesied destruction has come to pass, the few moments where Glatstein’s prophecies fail him have an even more terrible poignancy. “It occurred to me,” Glatstein’s narrator muses as he arrives in Europe, “that in twenty-five years such travelers returning to pay respects to the graves of forefathers will have disappeared. . . . Should their children ever think of visiting Soviet Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, they would go as one might visit Paris, Switzerland, or Italy. . . . There will be tourists, but no one going home to see a dying mother or father, or to mourn dead parents.”

In 1934, even the prophet Glatstein could not imagine that American Jews would someday go as tourists to Poland exclusively to mourn.

But Glatstein’s Poland is not only a place of mourning. It also has an eerie consoling power. In the sanatorium, where “you never know whether you’re talking to a mental case,” the narrator’s prescience is amplified by the haunting symbolism of the hotel guests. In one scene, the narrator comes across the hotel’s proprietor standing watch in the hallway at the witching hour:

“You aren’t asleep yet?” I stammered, vaguely frightened.
“I can’t sleep until my last guest has turned in,” he said. “I’m responsible for the lot of you, you know. That’s the kind of job it is.”

Reading these lines, one thinks of the translators of Yiddish in the 21st century--and of the editor Ruth R. Wisse, who has brought this and many other Yiddish masterpieces to new generations of readers and students. The second novella’s opening line, spoken by one of the central figures at the hotel, is “Even from the gutter will I sing praises to Thee, O Lord, even from the gutter.” Seventy years after Glatstein’s devastating prophecy came true, the consoling miracle is that these volumes still sing.

(Dara Horn is the award-winning author of three novels,
the most recent of which is All Other Nights [Norton].)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tourist Season at Auschwitz by Mark Lewandowski

Polish-American novelist Leslie Pietrzyk has recently started a website called Redux to showcase classic pieces of creative writing that have so far not been published online.

The fifth installment features Mark Lewandowski's essay "Tourist Season at Auschwitz," originally published in The Gettysburg Review (1999).

I first read this essay about 3 years ago, and I thought then that I had never read anything better about what it feels like to visit Auschwitz. I had visited there in 1990 and written about the visit a number of times, about what it was like being a tourist there, but nothing I've written and nothing I've read by other writers compares to what Mark Lewandowski offers in this superb essay. Here is an excerpt. The entire essay along with a brief piece by Mark about how he came to write the essay is available at the website.

"Tourist Season at Auschwitz"

On the morning of the October day that England qualified for Italia ’90 (the World Cup soccer tournament), a small group of Englishmen were seen by some of the sports press at Auschwitz, laughing and posing as they took pictures of each other—doing the Nazi salute. Pete Davies, “All Played Out”

At Birkenau stands a mound unlike those dotting the countryside that Poles have built in remembrance of past generals and statesmen. You will not see picknickers lay out blankets on it or watch their children roll down the slopes. The Birkenau mound is a mass grave for Soviet soldiers killed by the Nazis. The bodies were packed so tightly together that they are still decomposing, and when it rains now, almost fifty years later, human grease rises to the surface and fans out through the grass in a brilliant rainbow of color.

Not far from the mound lies what looks like an ordinary pond. Bend over and peer into its depths and you might be surprised not to see a minnow or two, at least, in the water. Take a stick. Dip it into the water and movie it in circles. Soon, a whirlpool of gray ash will funnel to the surface. This pond is only one repository for the remains of the Jews.

A Polish actor told me that these were just a couple of the sights in the Auschwitz complex most tourists miss. I was with two American women I had met in a youth hostel in Kraków. This was the summer of 1990. The Berlin Wall had been down for only seven months. American tourists were still a novelty to most Poles. The actor, who spoke English fluently, spied us three on the rickety commuter train from Kraców to Oświęcim, site of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He was going to visit his mother, who was a librarian at the Auschwitz museum.

“By all means,” the actor said, “do not spend the entire afternoon in Auschwitz. After you have watched the movie and seen the major displays, go to Birkenau. The barracks still stand unmolested by museum directors. Wander the buildings and you will read messages written in coal by the inmates. You will find fragments of clothing, steel cans, rotted straw, heating stoves. Leave the barracks and follow the tracks to the gas chambers. They have not been reconstructed. They have been left the way they were found, a much more profound statement to the horrors of the Holocaust than the glitz you will find in Auschwitz. Why would the retreating soldiers bother to destroy the evidence if they were not aware of the incredible crimes they had committed against humanity? Do not believe that they felt justified or that Hitler brainwashed them. They knew their sin. You will not experience their guilt among the glassed-in cases of human hair and suitcases at Auschwitz. Only in Birkenau, the much larger of the camps, will you find what you are seeking.”

And what were we seeking? What do the hundreds of thousands who visist concentration camps every year hope to find amongst the barbed wire, the staggering statistics pasted to barracks walls, the bricks riddled with bullet holes and once saturated with blood?

To read the entire essay, click here: Redux.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rosenbaum on Rosenfeld: A Strong Review of an Important New Book

Faustian Bargain

The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering

By Ron Rosenbaum |October 10, 2011 7:00 AM

Alvin Rosenfeld is a brave man, and his new work is courageous. The book [1] is called The End of the Holocaust, and it is not reluctant to take on the unexamined pieties that have grown up around the slaughter, and the sentimentalization that threatens to smother it in meretricious uplift.

The real “end of the Holocaust,” he argues, is the transformation of it into a lesson about the “triumph of the human spirit” or some such affirmation. Rosenfeld, the founder and former director of the Jewish studies program at Indiana University, which has made itself a major center of Jewish publishing and learning, is a mainstream scholar who has seen the flaw in mainstream Holocaust discourse. He has made it his mission to rescue the Holocaust from the Faustian bargain Jews have made with history and memory, the Faustian bargain that results when we trade the specifics of memory, the Jewishness of the Holocaust, and the Jew-hatred that gave it its rationale and identity, for the weepy universalism of such phrases as “the long record of man’s inhumanity to man.”

The impulse to find the silver lining is relentless, though. Suffering and grief must be transformed into affirmation, and the bleak irrecoverable fate of the victims must be given a redemptive aspect for those of us alive. In fact it’s an insult to the dead to rob their graves to make ourselves feel better. One recent manifestation Rosenfeld has shrewdly noticed is the way there has been a subtle shift in the popular representation of the Holocaust—a shift in the attention once given to the murdered victims to comparatively uplifting stories of survivors, of the “righteous gentiles,” of the scarce “rescuers,” and the even scarcer “avengers,” e.g., Quentin Tarantino’s fake-glorious fictional crew.

Rosenfeld is not afraid to contend with the fact that, as he writes, “with new atrocities filling the news each day and only so much sympathy to go around, there are people who simply do not want to hear any more about the Jews and their sorrows. There are other dead to be buried, they say.” The sad, deplorable, but, he says, “unavoidable” consequence of what may be the necessary limits of human sympathy is that “the more successfully [the Holocaust] enters the cultural mainstream, the more commonplace it becomes. A less taxing version of a tragic history begins to emerge, still full of suffering, to be sure, but a suffering relieved of many of its weightiest moral and intellectual demands and, consequently easier to be … normalized.”

Normalized? The Holocaust as one more instance in the long chronicle of “man’s inhumanity to man”? Rosenfeld’s book offers a welcome contrarian take on the trend. Yes, we’ve had enough, as Rosenfeld points out, of museums that cumulatively obscure memory in a fog of well-meaning but misleading inspirational brotherhood-of-man rhetoric. We’ve had enough of films like the execrable Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful and the well-intentioned but misguided Schindler’s List, with its sad lack of self-awareness that a happy ending, celebrating a Christian rescuer and some lucky Jewish survivors, is woefully off base. We’ve had enough of phony-memoir love stories, and we’ve had enough of the way a genuine tragic heroine and victim of Nazi death camps like Anne Frank is mendaciously turned into a spokeswoman for the “goodnesss of man.”

What we haven’t had enough of is a careful consideration of the implications of the Holocaust for the nature of human nature. As George Steiner told me (for my book, Explaining Hitler [2]), “the Holocaust removed the re-insurance from human hope”—the psychic safety net we imagine marked the absolute depth of human nature. The Holocaust tore through that net heading for hell. Human nature could be—at the promptings of a charismatic and evil demagogue, religious hate, and so-called “scientific racism”—even worse than we imagined. No one wants to hear that. We want to hear uplifting stories about that nice Mr. Schindler. We want affirmations!

And the fact that it was not just one man but an entire continent that enthusiastically pitched in or stood by while 6 million were murdered: Doesn’t that call for us to spend a little time re-thinking what we still reverently speak of as “European civilization”? Or to investigate the roots of that European hatred? How much weight do the Holocaust museums give to the two millennia of Christian Jew-hatred, murderous pogroms, blood libels, and other degradations? Or do they prefer to focus on “righteous gentiles” in order to avoid offending their gentile hosts?

And for all their “reaching out” and “teachable moments,” how much do the Holocaust museums and Holocaust curricula connect the hatred of the recent past with contemporary exterminationist Jew-hatred, the vast numbers of people who deny the first, but hunger for a second, Holocaust? It’s a threat some fear even to contemplate—the potential destruction of the 5 million Jews of Israel with a single well-placed nuclear blast—a nightmarish but not unforseeable possibility to which Rosenfeld is unafraid to devote the final section of his book.

It’s something I speculated about in the Tablet Magazine excerpt [3] from my book [4] How the End Begins. It’s something spoken of eloquently by Imre Kertész, one of the writers Rosenfeld wishes to rescue from the “end of the Holocaust.” (Only two novels by this Hungarian survivor of Nazism and Stalinist oppression, a 2002 Nobel Prize winner, have been translated, a situation I would like to formally petition some serious-minded publisher to remedy forthwith.)

“Before Auschwitz,” Kertesz writes, “Auschwitz was unimaginable. That is no longer so today. Because Auschwitz in fact occurred, it has now been established in our imaginations as a firm possibility. What we are able to imagine, especially because it once was, can be again.” I wonder what our dedicated affirmationists who once disdainfully mocked concerns about a second Holocaust would say to Kertesz.

But no one wants to hear about such grim implications anymore. In a way, who can blame them? Why let the dead have so much power over us? How do we decide how much mental space the Holocaust should occupy? What do we owe the dead? Rosenfeld is on a lonely mission to prevent their disappearance into the maw of generalized human tragedy.

It’s been said before and it’s probably far too late to make a difference, but to me the process began—the process of the de-natured representation of the murder of 6 million—with the near universal acceptance of the word “Holocaust” for Hitler’s exterminationist crime. I’m speaking for myself here, not Rosenfeld, though inspired to express my anger by his eloquent despair. But it cannot be denied that the use of the word “Holocaust”—a Greek-derived word for a religious ritual, a sacrificial offering to the gods that is wholly burnt to ashes—is a lamentable formulation that is an attempt to vaguely sacralize and rationalize mass murder. It gives to the frenzied bloodthirsty slaughter an aura of dignity, religiosity—bestowed not on the victims but to the slaughterers. It’s problematic not because of its pretentiously classical Greek derivation, but because it seeks to give a monstrous crime a transcendent meaning with a vaguely salvific, even redemptive tone.

A burnt offering! Remind me who “offered”? I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s too late now—though I wince every time I feel compelled to use the term, a choice that goes to the deepest ramifications of Rosenfeld’s thinking: It is unbearable to live with the naked, uninsulated, unpunished horror of it all without some phony affirmation. So we clothe it in the fake gravitas of Greek and the fake piety of ritual. Whatever you choose, do not gaze upon the horror without some semantic scrim to veil its monstrousness. Worse is the impulse to somehow make what happened consonant with a religious worldview when in fact, to my mind (and here, again, I’m not speaking for Rosenfeld), the Shoah calls into question the religious interpretation of history. The image of the all-powerful, loving, protective—and interventionist—God that Jews pray to. The one we’re so special to.

Of course to some Jews there are no questions, no problems. You are aware I’m sure of the pronouncement of a former chief rabbi of the Sephardic Shas movement in Israel, who called the murder of 6 million Jews God’s righteous punishment of secularized European Jews for straying from Orthodoxy into modernism. That Hitler was not evil but rather “the rod of God’s anger.” But even for those believers who don’t stoop to such obscenity there seems a necessity to absolve God of Hitler. To those who still pray and praise Him as the living protector of His beloved Jewish people: Was He just a little busy during those six years from 1939 to 1945? Other things on His plate? Or it was “part of God’s plan” to—what plan was that exactly? To establish the State of Israel? What an ingenious plan! Didn’t He have any others on hand?

The question remains for believers who still offer up those prayers to the God who is their shepherd: Where was God during those years? And please don’t tell me—in the latest “sophisticated” rationalization theodicy, the one you hear from very modern rabbis—that “God was in the camps,” in every act of goodness and self-sacrifice by the inmates there. It’s a formulation that takes from the brave desperate inmates the credit they deserve for their acts and gives it to Someone who was not there. Wouldn’t it have been better if God had been in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, slitting the throats of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich? What an inglorious bastard He would have been.

Sometimes I think the Jewish people who still pray to this God, praising Him for all He’s done for us, have acceded to a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which they will find any excuse for their heavenly captor’s acts or lack thereof.

Again, I’m sure Rosenfeld would disavow any such sentiments provoked by his book in malcontents like me. But it is one of the virtues of his book, his discussion of how the Holocaust has been sentimentalized to death, that it can fire you with fresh anger at an act that repeated exposure to diminished versions of can dull. I’d guess most people are weary of the subject and would rather not think about it. That’s the true “end of the Holocaust” and Rosenfeld is determined not to let us off the hook.

Consider the Faustian bargain that Holocaust museums in America have so often made with the non-Jewish majority: The survivors and eyewitnesses of the Holocaust are dying, and the only way to get Americans to care about the destruction of the Jews, the only way we will get a (nearly) front row seat on the National Mall in Washington for our Holocaust museum, is by convincing Americans that the Holocaust can be a “teachable moment” in America’s uplifting struggle against intolerance. Rosenfeld calls this bargain “the Americanization of the Holocaust,” and even though he’s on the executive committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum he’s not happy about the tendency.

In discussing, for instance, the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance (the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Holocaust museum), he says that “by situating the Holocaust within a historical framework that includes such quintessentially American experiences as the Los Angeles riots and the struggle for black civil rights, both of which are prominently illustrated, the Museum of Tolerance relativizes the catastrophe brought on by Naziism in a radical way. America’s social problems, for all their gravity, are not genocidal in character and simply do not resemble the persecution and systematic slaughter of European Jews during World War II.” It’s a critique I first saw articulated by Jonathan Rosen in a 1993 New York Times op-ed called “The Misguided Holocaust Museum” back when the museum on the Mall was first opening. At first I was surprised, but then I was persuaded, at least to a certain extent, by Rosen’s impassioned dissent from the conventional wisdom.

And of course there is the difficult question of how one compares such tragedies. Why not a Cambodian genocide museum? In what ways are the Cambodian, the Armenian, and the Rwandan genocides similar and different from the Nazi genocide? If the Rodney King riots do not deserve being placed on the same plane shouldn’t the casualties of slavery in America, an institution that killed the bodies and murdered the souls of those who survived, count just as much?

There’s an argument that it’s a politically savvy heuristic strategy to unite with other sufferers against the murderous haters rather than set our suffering apart. And Jews have a strong record of concern for the sufferings of others. Solidarity! But Rosenfeld is on a mission not to allow the differences of the identity of the Jewish victims to disappear, and he is both a moral thinker and an astute cultural critic.

I first came across his work when I was writing Explaining Hitler, preparing to interview one of the most brilliant historians of our age, H.R. Trevor-Roper, whose biography of Hiter (Hitler: The Last Days) set the tone for envisioning the Fuhrer for decades after the war. Trevor-Roper was feared for his venomous, devastating attacks on fellow historians, but Rosenfeld found the flaw in Trevor-Roper’s analysis of Hitler. In his book Imagining Hitler, which was a study of mainly fictional and film visions of Hitler, Rosenfeld picked up on the language Trevor-Roper used to describe Hitler, as a mystical, numinous, spell-binding, virtually occult figure. Rosenfeld essentially blamed Trevor-Roper for falling under Hitler’s spell himself in his prose and thereby planting in the collective imagination of his millions of readers a superhuman vision of Hitler that precluded rational analysis of why he succeeded—and failed.

I’ll never forget the moment I gingerly brought up Rosenfed’s critique to Trevor-Roper face-to-face at a parlor in London’s Oxford and Cambridge Club. It was an awkward moment. I think he realized there was some truth to it, and it had gotten under his skin.

And Rosenfeld reminds us that even stories of survivors are not necessarily triumphs over evil. His chapters on Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, and Elie Wiesel include accounts of suicide and anguish despite survival. Rosenfeld deserves honor for having preserved their truths in all their brutal honesty.

My own feeling is that the end of the Holocaust will not come from Holocaust denial, or Holocaust affirmation kitsch, or even dissolution in universalism. It will come in what I’ve called “Holocaust inconsequentialism”—the sequestering of the Holocaust from history. One saw it not long ago in an article by a prominent British intellectual who claimed Menachem Begin should have been “ashamed” to invoke the Holocaust when he announced the 1981 Israeli raid on Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. Begin said he did it because he was thinking of the million infants killed in Hitler’s Holocaust and the responsibility he felt never to allow it to happen again. Our British intellectual harrumphed and said Begin shouldn’t have made such an inflammatory connection. But in fact such connections are what historical consciousness is about.

There are only two points in this valuable book I found myself questioning. First is Rosenfeld’s citation of a typically portentous pronouncement from Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah:

“ ‘To portray the Holocaust,’ Claude Lanzmann once said to me,” Rosenfeld writes, “ ‘one has to create a work of art.’ ” This is one of those profound-sounding decrees Lanzmann is given to. Only artistes like Lanzmann are qualified, not the humble survivors themselves, for instance. One could argue exactly the opposite of Lanzmann, in fact—and it seems to me the thrust of Rosenfeld’s book is that unmediated testimony is a higher form of Holocaust discourse. Artistic license can lead to corruption of the truth. To Life Is Beautiful.

One cannot deny the importance of Shoah, nor can one deny the self-importance of Lanzmann, who, as I point out in Explaining Hitler, misunderstands and distorts one of the key statements of Primo Levi about Auschwitz—the one in which Levi quotes an SS man declaring to him: “Here,” in the camps, “there is no why.” Lanzmann turns this brutal Nazi reproof into an esthetic commandment for Jews, against investigation or interpretation. Against asking why. Lanzmann tells post-Holocaust Jews we must follow the orders of an SS man. It is an inconsequentialist attempt to cut the Holocaust off from human inquiry.

This is “mystification of the Holocaust,” as the influential Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer calls it, that is of a piece with treacly affirmationism.

The other point I don’t disagree with so much as think it’s been made too often. It has to do with Rosenfeld’s critique of the misuse of Anne Frank’s legacy. Yes, it’s true she’s become an instance of the Faustian bargain: the need to give non-Jews a way of relating to the Holocaust that doesn’t make them feel too bad about human nature. Hence the focus on a single sentence in her diary: “In spite of everything, I believe that people are good at heart.”

Yes, it’s true, as Rosenfeld puts it, that this sentence, written before her capture, may well not be the way the real Anne Frank felt once her family had been betrayed and she had been taken by the Nazis. As Rosenfeld puts it, “surrounded by the dead and dying of Auschwitz and later herself a victim of the deprivations and diseases of Bergen-Belsen [where she died, probably of typhus] it is doubtful that such a passage from the diary represented anything close to what Anne Frank must have felt at the end.”

I would agree with Rosenfeld that the case of Anne Frank has been a particularly striking instance of affirmationism occluding the ugly truth with fraudulent uplift. And yet I feel this wasn’t her fault, she shouldn’t be written out of the story because people take away the wrong lesson from it. The number of recent attacks on the misuse of that one “goodness at heart” line have begun to seem like an attack on her. Let poor Anne alone already. Is it such a crime that a child in Japan or South Africa comes to awareness of the Holocaust through Anne Frank? Better they be ignorant? That’s the choice the Faustian bargain forces us to make.

Don’t blame Anne for the Faustian bargain. Do read Rosenfeld to understand and struggle with it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust

Over the years, I've read a number of anthologies of poetry on the Holocaust. Among them are Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust, The Last Lullaby: Poetry from the Holocaust, Holocaust Poetry, and Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust.

Each has its own special focus. One concentrates on poets alive during the Holocaust; another gathers together poems from around the world; and a third looks at poems written by Holocaust survivors and victims. All of these works, of course, are valuable, but I find myself most often returning to one anthology of Holocaust poetry, the one edited by Charles Adès Fishman, my co-editor here at Writing the Holocaust. The range of poets represented is truly extensive, and whenever I find myself wanting to see what a poet has written about the Holocaust, Fishman's Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust is the book I turn to first.

It contains the work of over 200 poets, some old, some new, some well known and others not so well known, but the breadth and depth of writing here is remarkable. Also valuable are the personal remarks made by many of the poets regarding what moved them to write poetry in response to the Holocaust.

Take a look.


An extensive review of this book by Michael R. Burch appears at Hypertexts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hope by Barry Koplen

Occasionally, we run across a piece of writing about the Holocaust that we want to share with people. "Hope" is one of those pieces. It was written by Barry Koplen, a poet and blogger. He writes often about chance meetings he's had with people as he travels or works in his clothing store in Danville, Virginia. This essay is about one of those encounters.


Assertively, the butcher with a patch over his right eye responded to a comment I had made to my daughter about the sign that advertised kosher salami made from turkey.

"H'it comes from Israel," he announced with a stoic's pride. His 'it' sounded a little like 'hit', his vestigial ch suggesting an accent from the Mideast. "You want a taste?"

"Yes, please," I said, cheerfully, to the man who resembled Moishe Dayan. Moments later, on a piece of wax paper, he slid two thin slices toward me. "That's too much," I said, tearing off a small section of one slice.

"How you gonna know what it tastes like?" Impatient with me, he seemed to be telling me that I knew nothing about some of the world's finest salami. What I did know was that I can't tolerate ordinary beef salami because it's too garlicky.

This was different, milder. "I'll take a quarter pound," I said with a smile.

Moments later, he nodded as he handed me the wrapped packet. I didn't tell my daughter what I thought I had seen in the man's eye, a suppressed pain that she probably hadn't noticed. She was too excited; we had just toured Towson University, and she loved the school. It seemed she had decided to do her graduate work there in Jewish studies.

"Look at this!" I exclaimed seconds later when I spotted delicacies I had often known as a child. We marveled at a row of five varieties of fresh knishes, then turned from the meat counter to examine ten different kinds of kugel. "Even in Israel, I didn't see a store like this," the 7Mile Market, a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Baltimore.

On inviting shelves, we saw breads and pastries, including boxes of what appeared to be the kosher version of Little Debbie Cakes by Entenmann's in New York. "I like to give these as gifts," my daughter said, as she examined the different flavors.

Leaving her there, I returned to the meats, and, since I was the only customer approaching that counter, was spotted by the butcher I had spoken to earlier. "Yes?' he asked, his expressive voice a match for his sullen demeanor.

"Are you from Israel?" I felt sure I had I identified his accent.

"Tel Aviv."

"I went there a few years ago," I told him, "to meet the man who wrote Light One Candle. He is a Holocaust survivor, Solly Ganor."

"I know the book," he said, eying me with more interest.

"Solly came from Lithuania. I met him when I went to Israel for his annual Holocaust survivors' reunion at Ramat Gan. Have you been there?"

His left eye widened as he beckoned to me. "My mother and her sister were in the Holocaust. They survived..." He paused.

"Then you've been to the reunions?"

"Yes, but before you were there. My mother died two years ago."

I could hear my daughter calling for me. But there was so much more I wanted to hear, stories I wanted him to share, reminiscences I would have listened to for hours and hours. Perhaps I would have had a chance to tell him about a woman I had met, an American who's Dad had fought in World War II. He'd been in Germany, had seen a concentration camp liberated, had taken pictures of the prisoners. A month ago, her Dad died. While sorting through his memorabilia, she found an album of those pictures, actually two.

His collection was one she had never seen. Nor had she seen the other one she found, a scrapbook with German inscriptions; its images of a Nazi soldier, standing tall amidst downtrodden Jews. Her father had probably pilfered it, she told me, a trophy from the war.

She was concerned about giving it back to the soldier's family. I wasn't at all sure that anyone would want to claim those confirming images. Many Germans I had known didn't want to think their relatives had anything to do with Nazi atrocities.

The butcher was speaking to me as my mind wandered to thoughts about that woman and her compelling albums. "Do you want to know how they escaped?" His focus riveted mine.

I didn't breathe, barely shook my head as if to acknowledge and, at the same time, ward off the horrible details I knew I was about to hear.

"In the lines, when the ones to the right went to the gas chambers, Eichmann told her and her sister to go to the left. Then he took them out of the line to be his secretaries."

"Adolph Eichmann?" I wanted to ask. But I didn't have to.

"Eichmann," he said, as if that fact still seemed irreconcilable.

I held his eye as if he had just shared a story that was still too difficult for him to bear alone. "Will you come back again?" he asked, as he reached out to shake my hand.

"Yes!" I wanted to exclaim, "to see my daughter and you. And to hear more about your remarkable family." But I didn't say a word. I had to process what he'd told me, had to consider the profound bit of history he had shared.
So I said very quietly. "Yes, I will see you when I return again."

He smiled at me, a smile so knowing it filled me with wonder. "Shalom," he said, with a caring glance.

"Shalom," I responded, as one who had been humbled by a story that seemed a most uncommon blessing.


To read more of Barry Koplen's writing, stop by his blog, Poetscry.

The photo above shows Barry at the recent wedding of his daughter Chana Batya Anderson.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Elegy For the Shtetlen

Writing the Holocaust has primarily focused on scholarly work on the literature of the Holocaust, but occasionally we find a creative work that we like to share with others.

"Elegy for the Shtetlen" is such a poem. It is a lament for the predominantly Jewish small towns of Poland that were lost because of the Holocaust. Originally written in Polish (Elegia miasteczek żydowskich) by Antoni Slonimski (1895 – 1976), the translation here is by Scottish writer Jennifer Robertson and her husband Stuart.

Elegy For the Shtetlen

No more, no more shtetlen in Poland,
whether in Hrubieszów, Karczew, Brody or Falenica
ou’d be hard put to find lit candles in their windows,
or catch the strains of song in wooden synagogues.

The last vestiges of Jewish life have gone;
blood covered over with sand, all traces swept away,
walls whitened with fresh coats of lime
as if some plague has passed, or a feast is welcomed in.

Here the moon shines solitary, alien, chill, and pale.
Out of town, on the highway, where night is ablaze,
my Jewish kinsfolk, makars a, will not find
Chagall’s two golden moons.

Those moons illumine another planet now.
They fled, frightened by the sombre silence.
The shtetlen are no more where the cobbler was a poet,
the watchmaker a philosopher, barber a troubadour.

The shtetlen are no more where Bible chants
swirled on the wind with Polish song and Slav lament,
where Jewish grandfathers, secluded in shady cherry orchards,
mourned the holy walls of Jerusalem.

Those shtetlen are no more, vanished with a shadow,
and this shadow will intrude between our words
until the advent of brotherhood, unity renewed:
two nations nourished by centuries of suffering.


We were curious about the words "makars a" in the third line in the third stanza, and Ms. Robertson said, "The line you are asking about is my rendering of krewni moi zydowscy, poetyczni chłopscy, which literally means my Jewish relatives, poetic lads (or boys). My husband Stuart suggested putting the slightly pawkish humour of the phrase into the Scots makars a - makar is the Scots for poet (maker) and a, all is sometimes written with an apostrophe, a', though purists of the Scots tongue prefer to omit these apostrophes as they suggest something is missing ie the English form and thus dilutes the Scots!"


Ms. Robertson is the author of a number of works on the Holocaust, including a collection of poems about the Warsaw Ghetto entitled Ghetto (Lion Publishing, 1989)and Don’t go to Uncle’s Wedding: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto (Azure /SPCK).

She feels that it's important to continue to write about the Holocaust despite the pressure sometimes not to.

You can read more about her writing at her website.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Anne Frank's Birthday, June 12

Anne Frank's birthday is June 12. She would have been 85 years old if the Nazis had not killed her.

I first read her diary for a class in high school. I don't remember which class or which teacher or how old I was or what I was obsessing about, but I remember her book, the silence I felt as I read it, and I remember how slowly I read it because I didn't want the book and her life to end.

There weren't a lot of books about the Holocaust available to me back then in the early 60s. This book was the first, and it taught me something profound about that experience. The suffering and death of even a single person can touch and change a person.

Here's a link to one of the best website's about her: the Anne Frank page at the US Holocaust Memorial. Just click on the words US Holocaust Memorial.

The site includes interviews with those who knew Anne Frank, information about her diary, weblinks, and the shared thoughts of many people who have read Anne's diary and been touched by her and her story.

You might also want to take a look at a youtube done by the poet Lois P. Jones. It collects a series of photos of Anne and her family. Click here.

Feel free also to leave a note here about Anne Frank.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Free Access to the National Holocaust Archive

During the month of May, free access to the National Archive of Holocaust Materials is available through the cooperation of and the US Holocaust Memorial. The site contains stories from the Holocaust, information about the various camps, and records from the National Archive.

Click here to go to the site.


The picture above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White of the prisoners at Buchenwald where my father was. More of her photos are available at this online cite.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Auschwitz Revises Its Exhibition to Meet New Mission of Education -

An interesting article from the New York Times focusing on the changing nature of the exhibits at Auschwitz. Especially interesting are some of the final remarks of Marek Zajac, a 31-year-old Polish magazine editor who serves as secretary for The International Auschwitz Council.

To read the article click on the following:

Auschwitz Revises Its Exhibition to Meet New Mission of Education -


The illustration above is by Voytek Luka and is taken from my book Third Winter of War.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shattering Shame and Silence

Written by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel, the following article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post:

As the United Nations observes Holocaust Remembrance Day today, we should be mindful to include the history of sexual violence against Jewish women during that genocide. Especially because this year’s theme is “Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion,” it is appropriate to call attention to that neglected aspect of Holocaust history.

Jewish women were among those subjected to sexual abuse during the Holocaust and World War II. However, this issue has always been hidden in plain view. Eyewitness accounts can be found in the archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. This type of brutality is included in some memoirs and reports, as well as in documentary films and literature.

In addition, more than 1,000 testimonies housed in the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education mention rape and “coerced sexual activities” by Nazis and their collaborators, as well as by other Jews, non-Jews and liberators. These assaults took place in ghettos, in hiding and in concentration camps. Nevertheless, the subject has been swept under the rug, ignored or denied for more than 65 years.

DURING THE Nuremberg and lesser-known Nazi war criminal trials, rape was not among the charges as a crime against humanity or a component of genocide. Rape was not defined as such under international law until 1998, by a decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established by the UN. Based on this definition, verdicts have been passed against the perpetrators – Bosnian Serbs accused of systematic sexual violence against Muslim women during the Bosnian war, and Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of the Taba township, in connection with the mass raping of Tutsi women by Hutu men in Rwanda.

Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the subject of Lynn Nottage’s powerful off- Broadway play Ruined, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009. Nottage poignantly exposes the horrors of the Congolese war and the bravery of the women subjected to its brutality. “Ruined” is a euphemism for raped, with mutilation of genitalia, as well as psychological ruin and rejection by society. In Congo, as in Rwanda, women were raped and then excluded from their own communities – considered defiled because they had been raped.

When it comes to sexual violence, there are similarities and differences between what happened to women during the Holocaust and in later genocides. The similarities stem from the fact that violence against women has been universal and timeless, especially when accompanied by genocide. Rape involves subjugation and humiliation of a vulnerable victim. In all cases, women were doubly defiled – as females, and as members of a perceived lower class of human beings. For example, the Hutu called their Tutsi neighbors “cockroaches,” just as the Nazis called their Jewish compatriots “untermenschen” (subhumans) and “vermin.”

Unlike later genocides that encouraged sexual violence against the perceived enemy, the Nazis had a race defilement law that prohibited sexual relations between Germans and Jews. But this law did not necessarily protect Jewish women, just as anti-rape laws today do not prevent rape. Sexual abuse of Jewish women may not have been part of German genocidal policy, but rape by Nazis nevertheless occurred, and was an intrinsic part of Jewish women’s experiences during the Holocaust. Subsequent murder of the victim was the most expedient way to deny that the act had taken place.

The UN, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust and World War II, is striving to combat the atrocities that women are suffering during current genocidal situations, and to prevent recurrences. We commend it for choosing the topic of “Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion” as the theme for this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and hope that the issue of sexual violence will be given proper attention.

The writers are coeditors of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2010).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Response to Dr. Goska's Review of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust

The following is a response by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel, the co-editors of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, to Dr. Goska's review:

As co-editors of the anthology Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, we appreciate Dr. Danuska Goska's taking the time to read and comment. We are somewhat surprised, however, that she would expect a book with this title to deal with subjects of broader interest, such as the Polish victims of the Nazi regime. In case readers of the book or the review have any doubts, the book is part of the Hadassah-Brandeis Series on Jewish Women, and it is about Jewish women.

As Dr. Goska writes in her review, "sexual violence against non-Jewish women is mentioned, but not focused on, and non-Jewish survivors' voices are not heard." She is correct, because the book is a scholarly interdisciplinary study about Jewish women. While we sympathize with all suffering, especially that of all women who were subjected to sexual abuse during the Holocaust and World War II, our specific academic research has the purpose of shedding light on only this one aspect of sexual violence. Other volumes need to be written focusing on such issues as the travails of Polish and other women during that period. However, that is not what our groundbreaking book is about.

While accusing the book of leaving out non-Jewish women, the reviewer contradicts herself by complaining that one of the authors provided an account about non-Jewish Yugoslav women. The review even criticized the book for leaving out the starvation of Jewish men, again, not the volume's subject. Furthermore, writing about the book's foreword by the series editor, the reviewer inappropriately turned "the history of men and women" into "men v. women."

When the reviewer declares that "there is no attempt to systematize knowledge about sexual violence against Jewish women," and asks "how many victims were there," clearly she does not understand that this is unfeasible. The Nazis did not keep records of such violence and often their victims were murdered. Scholars are therefore left mostly with survivor and bystander accounts. In this context, it is generally accepted (and even utilized by the reviewer) that memoirs and literature and their analysis are a legitimate part of academic discourse. This book examines the issue of sexual violence against Jewish women from various academic perspectives. Even so, many questions are unanswered and will never be answered.

Leaving aside various other inconsistencies in the review, accusing the book of claiming that "Polish Catholics, not German Nazis, are the perpetrators" of the Holocaust could be considered libelous. The book makes no such claim. The chapter authors address sexual violence against Jewish women by Nazis, by their collaborators, by liberators, and even by Jewish men. It is questionable why the reviewer is so indignant about parts of the book that deal with violence by Poles, but neglects to mention an entire chapter about atrocities in Ukraine. The review serves an agenda that could be described as "ideologically-tinged scholarship," which the reviewer instead attributes to the editors of the book.

Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, with chapters by a distinguished interdisciplinary and international group of scholars, was vetted by stringent peer review before being accepted by the prestigious University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press for publication. It has been recognized as "significantly expand[ing] scholarship about the Holocaust's extremity" and "deserv[ing] great credit" by leading Holocaust scholars.

It seems oddly unbalanced that any reviewer would have such a strong negative opinion about an entire book with chapters written by eighteen authors. We believe otherwise, and hope to have clarified for the benefit of the reader the main issues raised by the reviewer. We suggest that interested individuals read Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust and make their own judgments.

Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel, Co-editors

Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust: A Review

The following review was written for Writing the Holocaust by Dr. Danusha Goska:

When I was a kid, my mother took me to her natal village in Slovakia. It was like standing under an avalanche of relatives: poor Catholics, rich Communists, city mice, country cousins, hugs, kisses, slivovice. I was taken aside and given a speech before we met one aunt. During WWII, advancing Red Army soldiers gang-raped her when she was a little girl, I was told, and she had taken it badly. She had never had the normal romantic life of a young woman. When she was close to spinsterhood, an exceptional man – a dissident – married her. He understood that she could never give him children. Around her, I was to be particularly restrained in my behavior. "She had taken it badly": this locution suggested to me that others of my loved ones had been raped, as well. This Slovak woman was different not because she was violated by invaders, but because she had taken it badly.

During that 1974 visit, we were surrounded by street banners announcing Soviet domination. We were in Czechoslovakia six years after Soviet tanks crushed 1968's "Prague Spring." Graffiti from '68 was visible on buildings. The Russians left the graffiti up, my mother said, to emphasize to the Slovaks their complete impotence in the face of Soviet power. My aunt's husband, the dissident, lived the life of a non-person – no work, few friends, no freedom of movement. We ran into Russian soldiers everywhere. I made faces at them. My mother chided me. "It's not their fault. They're just kids."

My aunt, when I met her, surprised. She had the modestly pretty mien of a 1950s TV sitcom mom, and she was deeply gracious. All my loved ones had spent their lives wrestling with crushing forces. This aunt stood out. She radiated: "I know I am broken and vulnerable, and I build what strength I have on awareness of that."

I am not special because I have an aunt who was sexually violated by invaders under whose thumb she lived most of her life. My friend, the poet John Guzlowski, introduced me, via his poetry, to his Aunt Sophie, who was raped, and his Aunt Genia, who was murdered and sexually mutilated with a bayonet, by Nazis and Ukrainians. Another friend's mother was injected with chemicals in a Nazi concentration camp as part of an experiment to discover methods to mass-sterilize Poles.

In the US, I attended meetings for survivors of sexual assault. Every survivor there knew that a conquered territory where anything goes can be as small as a suburban bedroom. One California grandmother discovered this truth on December 3, 2010. Her two-year-old granddaughter was sexually assaulted by another shopper in a Dollar Store as she Christmas shopped in the next aisle. "Man is wolf to man," Janusz Bardach said. Bardach, a Polish Jew, had been a devout leftist. Imprisonment in the notorious Soviet gulag of Kolyma cured him of that.

What to make of the evil of sexual violation? Scholar Peter Viereck outlined the left's and the right's approach to evil thus, ''The liberal sees outer, removable institutions as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as creating a world in which evil will disappear … The conservative sees the inner unremovable nature of man as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as coming to terms with a world in which evil is perpetual and in which justice and compassion will both be perpetually necessary. His tools for this task are the maintenance of ethical restraints inside the individual and the maintenance of unbroken, continuous social patterns inside the given culture as a whole'' (35).

The sex abuse survivors I have known have all been, in their actions and worldview, deeply conservative, according to Viereck's definition. Academic feminism has been wildly leftist. "Patriarchy" is to blame. According to Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, humanity was egalitarian and peaceful before patriarchy was invented and ruined everything. This patriarchy is popularly understood to be a Judeo-Christian invention (Antonelli). Interestingly, Eisler's utopian book shares roots with Nazism's neo-paganism (Anthony).

Academic feminists group patriarchy with colonialism and white supremacy as the antagonists that must be eliminated before sexual abuse can stop. The usual suspects are heterosexual, white, male, Christian Westerners. To support this position, selective focus is applied. Feminists have devoted much energy to protesting sexism in America, but are less likely to note sexism in non-Western and non-white societies, for example, mass female infanticide and resultant high sex ratios in Hindu, Muslim, and Confucian Asia (Hudson), or culturally-supported gang-rape among Australian Aborigines (Nowra). And feminists have chosen to ignore the key role white, Christian imperialists played in resisting sati (suttee), or widow burning, in India and foot-binding in China.

In recent years, sociobiologists have developed a scientific answer to the evil of sex abuse. The urge to rape is a Darwinian inevitability. Men's urge to rape can be thwarted through training; women can be trained to protect themselves (Thornhill and Palmer 5). Though associated with atheism, this view jibes with the right-wing position: civilization is something humans create to protect the vulnerable and rein in exploitative impulses.

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, edited by Sonja M. Hedgepeth, Professor of German at Middle Tennessee State University, and Rochelle G. Saidel, founder of Remember the Women Institute, describes itself as "the first English-language book to address the sexual violation of Jewish women during the Holocaust" (1).

Sexual Violence is an anthology with contributions by eighteen different authors. It is a choppy read, and the aesthetic discomfort it engenders in the reader signals deeper problems. For example, it is asserted several times that attention has not been paid to sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. This assertion is merely repeated, without any sustained analysis as to why. The repetitions should have been edited out. The lack of analysis of this lacuna in the vast body of Holocaust scholarship is a serious problem, for reasons that will be discussed, below. There is no attempt to systematize knowledge about sexual violence against Jewish women. How many victims were there, how did Nazi or Soviet policy affect violations, how did aid agencies respond or record these violations? No attempt is made to answer these questions definitively.

Sexual violence against non-Jewish women is mentioned, but it is not focused on, and non-Jewish survivors' voices are not heard. Polish and Romani contributors are absent from the book's list of authors. There may be sound scholarly reasons for focusing on sex abuse of Jewish women, and not non-Jewish women. Those reasons are never so much as alluded to in the text.

In fact, every form of sex abuse against Jewish women described in Sexual Violence was committed against non-Jewish women as well. The text pays much attention to Nazis shaving Jewish women's heads; this painful process reduced Jewish women to "animals" to the "sub-human" to "a species they have never seen before" (77). The heads of Polish camp inmates' heads were also shaved. Jewish women traded sex for food or other forms of protection. Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, was forced to provide sexual services to a 70 year old Nazi in order to safeguard the lives of the twelve Jews she saved. Nazis sterilized Jewish women. Nazis developed several methods to suppress reproduction of Poles, including forced sterilization. Nazis passed race laws criminalizing sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews. Hitler demanded that any Polish man who had sex with a German woman be shot, and that the German woman be pilloried and sent to a concentration camp. Germany exploited millions of Slavic slave laborers. Slavic women were impounded in brothels to service them, to prevent sex relations between Germans and Slavs. Germans who had Slavic slave laborers received a notification stating, "Keep German blood pure … every German who has intimate relations with a Polish man or woman transgresses" (Weikart 146-47). Jewish women witnessed the deaths of their children. Polish women watched their children starve in Ravensbruck and elsewhere. Ravensbruck is mentioned again and again in the text. Poles outnumbered Jews in Ravensbruck.

Nazis enslaved German and Polish women in brothels in concentration camps. A chilly, decontextualized chapter of Sexual Violence acknowledges this. Polish female victims are statistics; in contrast to treatment of Jewish victims, no attempt is made to add flesh to exploited Polish womens' bones, poignancy to their plight. The book repeatedly refers to Jewish women who, the authors insist, were similarly enslaved, in spite of Nazi policy forbidding it. It seems bizarre to insist that Jewish women's being violated in this way matters, and is part of the larger Nazi project of genocide, and that Jewish women's grief over this is worth attending to, but that none of that applies to Polish women. Romani, aka Gypsies, are cited throughout the text as suffering the same fate as Jewish women. Gypsies are not Jews; most in Europe are Catholic.

The most macabre account in the book details five women in advanced stages of pregnancy, weakened by starvation in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, struggling to give birth during a death march to Auschwitz, but too weakened to fully expel their newborns. The women were in labor for three days, snow falling the entire time. The concentration-camp-survivor witness reports that the event was so gruesome that "That was a picture which I shall not be able to forget in my lifetime" (143). All five women were Yugoslavs, and non-Jews.

Further, Sexual Violence points out that starvation in concentration camps especially victimized Jewish women because it shrank their breasts and hips, "regions stereotypically associated with femininity and attractiveness" (80). Concentration camp starvation similarly shrink areas of men's bodies associated with masculinity, for example their biceps. It's not clear why focus on Jewish women, exclusive of Jewish men, is necessary here.

I do not point out these realities as part of an effort to protect Poland's good name, or to enter Poland in the dubious honor of being counted as victim, but rather to argue that while Sexual Violence's selective focus may serve currently popular academic ideology, it does not best serve understanding. Sexual Violence's foreword states that the book begins the exploration of a "horrific chapter in the history of men and women, and of Jews and antisemites" (x). Those dichotomies – men v. women, antisemites v. Jews – are inadequate to plumb the questions at hand.

The emphasis on Jewish women may be easier to understand if one factors in potential reasons why, as the authors repeat again and again, sexual abuse of women has been ignored in Holocaust scholarship. As my own book, Bieganski, points out, some Jews cite the Holocaust as an identity-cementing aid in a time of increased secularism and assimilation. Focus on women's suffering might threaten some readers because it vitiates the Holocaust's cited ability to keep Jews united and feeling Jewish. There is another reason. How we categorize molds how we think, and vice versa. If one focuses on gender as a significant category, Jewish women have something in common with Polish Catholic women victims. Some would prefer not to see that happen.

It gets more challenging. One of the most notorious gender-related atrocities in history was the mass rape of women, including German women, by the advancing Red Army. These rapes were sanctioned by Soviet leadership (Beevor). One cannot adequately focus on sexual violations committed against any ethnicity in WW II without at least placing such violations in the context of these mass rapes. Acknowledging that communism produced this mass crime against women will be challenging to some scholars who would like to locate the source of sexual violence in a patriarchy invented by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Further, mentioning Soviet mass rapes of Germans will tempt the reader to feel sympathy for, and solidarity with, German women. Sympathy for and solidarity with women who had cheered on Nazism is difficult. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an eyewitness. His poem "Prussian Nights" forces the confrontation upon us:

The little daughter's on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it
A platoon, a company perhaps?
A girl's been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse.
It's all come down to simple phrases:
Do not forget! Do not forgive!
Blood for blood! A tooth for a tooth!

There is another reason why sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust has been under-examined, and that the authors never so much as hint at it does not speak well for their ability to profoundly probe this topic. Men are supposed to protect their womenfolk from the ravages of other men. Those men who fail to do so feel special pain and humiliation. The pain and shame of Jewish men whom he assessed as failing in this duty was vividly provoked by H. N. Bialik. Bialik, "Israel's National Poet," described the 1903 Kishniev pogrom in his poem, "In the City of Slaughter." Bialik describes Jewish men crouched, hiding in corners, watching their wives, sisters, daughters and fiancées being raped. "In the City of Slaughter" played a role in the formation of self-defense groups in Russia and the Haganah in Palestine. The point here is not that Jewish men had the ability to protect Jewish women from Nazi violations – Jewish men did not have that power. The point is that, given the tradition of men assuming responsibility for their women, some will feel that Jewish men failed in their task to protect Jewish women, and this feeling makes discussion of sexual violations against Jewish women too uncomfortable to Jewish men to be acceptable. The same goes for Polish men, Gypsy men, or, indeed, for the suburban American father whose daughter is raped. Part of what makes it hard for that man to confront what happened to his daughter is that he will torment himself with the merciless conviction that he should have been there, and he should have protected her, and that he has failed as a man. Indeed, sexual violation of women is also a violation of the men who love them. The authors miss, or choose to downplay, this point.

The theme of Jewish men's failure to protect Jewish women is in the background of Miryam Sivan's contribution to the volume. Sivan teaches in Israel. She reports that "Jews in the Diaspora" are "intimidated" by the topic of sexual violence against Jewish women, and so it is "cloaked in denial." Israelis, on the other hand, command "military agency," they emphasize "durability, resilience, and fortitude" (201) so they are not afraid to address the topic.

There is disturbing and unfortunate material in Sexual Violence that supports the chauvinist interpretation of the book's emphasis on Jewish, exclusive of other, women. Sexual Violence is yet another Holocaust book that works to displace rage against and guilt for German Nazi crimes onto Polish Catholics. If "Sexual Violence" were fully to include Polish Catholic women victims in its purview, its displacement of Holocaust guilt from Nazis to Poles would make less sense.

Most accounts of sexual violence in the book are brief and disjointed from original context. The longest account of sexual violence against a Jewish female is two pages long. It does not describe an assault by a German Nazi, rather, in detail, it describes an assault by a Catholic Pole on a Jewish girl. Another account details a Polish Catholic priest who protects a Jewish girl from rapist Poles. Disgusted with his own people, this priest removes his cross from his neck, throws it to the ground, and announces that, from this moment forward, he is a Jew (228). A remarkable feature of both accounts is that they are both fiction. That's right – a scholarly book published by a university press addressing assaults against Jewish women during the Holocaust – for which there is a heartbreakingly large amount of veridical data – resorts to reserving its longest uninterrupted passages to fictional accounts in which Polish Catholics, not German Nazis, are the perpetrators. In case the reader misses the point that Poles are responsible for the Holocaust, one author, S. Lillian Kremer, emerita distinguished professor, hammers it home. She applauds the author of the fictional piece she discusses for "masterfully adding German to characterize the Polish betrayer" thereby the author "links the Polish blackmailer to Nazism." The Pole "allies himself with the Nazis" (185). In another "masterful" touch, one fiction story cited in the book depicts a rescuer honored at Yad Vashem as merely a rapist who saved Jews (and risked death for the entire family at the hands of the Nazis thereby) just to have a Jewish female to rape. The rapist is not isolated; his parents and the village priest know about his crimes. These Righteous Gentiles just did it for the sex. This narrative works to undermine even the respect and gratitude one might cede to Polish rescuers at Yad Vashem. If there is any doubt, the subsequent paragraph demolishes it. Jews died not because of Nazism, but because of Poles' "ingrained antisemitism" (225). We must be exposed to such stories, "Sexual Violence"'s editors, Hedgepeth and Saidel insist, even if they are fiction, because "there is danger that the perpetrator may be recast as the victim" (231). One may not talk of Poles as victims of Nazis. One must tell stories in which Poles are perpetrators. Because, of course, Poles are worse than Nazis. "Not every German was bad," the book reminds the reader. Contributor Eva Fogelman, a psychologist, quotes one Jewish Holocaust survivor as reporting, "I was never raped by a German. Not one German ever laid a finger on me." The Germans, Fogelman reports, "liked her looks, but treated her like a Fraulein, giving her food and milk." "By contrast with her praise of the Germans, she said, 'What I do hate is Ukrainians and Poles. I shiver when I see them in the streets'" (269). In case the reader misses the point, Fogelman, lists "Germans, Poles, Ukrainians" as "persecutors" (272).

Given the history of the use of The Painted Bird as Holocaust educational material, the use of fictional accounts of Polish Catholic men acting as Nazis in their rape of Jewish women in a first-of-its-kind scholarly book is especially unfortunate. The Painted Bird was a sensationalistic novel by Jerzy Kosinski. It depicted bestial Slavic men committing sex crimes against women. The book was presented as autobiographical non-fiction, and used in Holocaust education classes. Later, Joanna Siedlecka, a Polish writer, exposed The Painted Bird as fiction. Kosinski had survived the war with the aid of Polish Catholics.

There is another possible reason why Sexual Violence downplays Polish victimization at the hands of the Nazis. The book reports that "Extreme racism dominated National Socialist ideology. This racism was particularly aimed at two groups of people, Jews and so-called Gypsies" (33). Poles are not included in this formulation. One wonders why Gypsies are. Perhaps because the authors classify Gypsies as non-white and their inclusion supports the understanding that white people are uniquely guilty of racism, and non-whites are uniquely victimized by it. The author of the above quote cites a work entitled "The Privilege of Invisibility: Racism from the Viewpoint of Being White." The book devotes time to explaining how Africans in Europe were victimized by Nazi racial ideology (159), though Africans in Europe were very few in number, constituted a statistically insignificant number of victims of Nazism, and were not a focus of Nazi ideology. Though Poles are quite pale-skinned, they were categorized as racially inferior by both Nazis and the Scientific Racists in the US, including Madison Grant, who inspired the Nazis. Including Poles in the list of those significantly victimized by the Nazis would throw a monkey wrench at the "whites are victimizers; darker skinned persons are victims" Politically Correct construct.

If guilt for the Holocaust, including sexual violation of Jewish women, can be displaced from neo-Pagan, atheist, and scientific Nazis onto the famously Catholic Poles, the belief that evil is a product of "patriarchy," a human invention associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, is supported. A human invention, patriarchy, makes men rape, not human nature. To stop rape and other sexual abuses, we need not look to human nature, we need not demand that men and women take stock of themselves and learn to confront and defeat evil in their own hearts, rather, we must progress past the alleged sexism of the West and of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Anyone who has stopped going to church and who votes left gets a free pass, and need never examine his own misogyny.

In any case, any reader might object to Sexual Violence's inclusion of fictional, and cinematic, accounts. An entire chapter is devoted to Yehiel Dinur's work, which has been denounced as both fictional and pornographic. Only in the footnotes does this chapter's author acknowledge that Dinur, though writing about his sister, never had a sister. A chapter is devoted to films, including The Night Porter, a soft-porn, Holocaust-exploitation movie. Another chapter details a self-published, sado-masochistic sex fantasy. This chapter's author, Eva Fogelman, theorizes that sex abuse may have turned the Holocaust-survivor author of this fantastical account into a crazy liar (258, 263). Survivors of sexual assault have always been called liars. To include fictional accounts in this book dishonors survivors of such abuse.

The Jews v. antisemites, men v. women construct can't get to the truth of sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. One can easily find photographic souvenirs posted on the web of Indonesian Muslim men gang raping non-Muslim, Chinese women during the 1998 Jakarta riots. Accounts of rape in Congo and Darfur abound. Women continue to do sexual violence to other women, both in and out of conflict zones. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, during the Rwandan Genocide, incited the mass rape, murder, and torture of Tutsi women – though she herself was both a woman, and of at least partial Tutsi descent. Jews raped, as well. The most notorious is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat in the Lodz Ghetto. He is mentioned once in Sexual Violence, and only in passing. Understanding sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust will be advanced, not hampered, by factoring in sexual violence against all victims during all periods of chaos. To fully honor the chosen topic, one must understand more than the chosen topic. To do less is to fall prey to the same failing that the authors themselves criticize others for falling prey to: to marginalize other victims, including those Polish internees at Ravensbruck and in the concentration camp brothels, to marginalize women who were raped by other women and the number, however small, of Jewish women raped by Jews. A specific example: in her article, Nomi Levenkron, an Israeli attorney, mentions "trafficking Jewish Eastern European women to South America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." She cites Edward Bristow's book Prostitution and Prejudice. Bristow's book is a harrowing read. Unlike Levenkron's formulation, it does not hesitate to identify who was doing this horrific trafficking: Jewish men. Levenkron is more forthcoming in the rest of her article, citing instances where vulnerable Jewish girls and women were sexually menaced or at least used by Jewish men, including a girl in hiding with an adult Jewish man (21), a Jewish Red Army captain who did not protect women menaced by Red Army soldiers (19) and forest-dwelling partisans who exchanged protection for sex (22). These mentions of violations that do not fit the book's overall dichotomies of "men and women, Jews and anti-Semites" are never woven into any final analysis.

Examples of what struck this reader as ideologically-tinged scholarship and jargon include the following. After the above-described account of Yugoslav concentration camp victims struggling to give birth in snow, which would seem to require no commentary to amplify its tragedy, the article's author, Helga Amesberger, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Conflict Research in Vienna, steps in to explain that "according to bourgeois patriarchal notions, motherhood is to be understood as the fulfillment of a woman's life." Women "suffer when they cannot meet society's expectations" (145). "The female body is seen as the "symbolic representation of the national body" (31), Brigitte Halbmayr, also at the Institute of Conflict Research, reports in her contribution. "The root cause for sexualized violence is widely seen as located in … the centuries-old tradition of patriarchal societies" (32). Kirsty Chatwood places pomo scare quotes around the word "factual" (61). Monika J. Flaschka attributes sexual violence to a "rape culture," (78) thus suggesting that there are such things as non-rape cultures that one might aspire to. She makes this clear: "I operate under the assumption that gender identities are constructed … are performed in social environments" (79). She suggests that there are societies where rape is not such a big deal: "there is nothing inherent or given about the effect of rape on the development or maintenance of gender identities. Rather, rape is assigned a specific meaning by specific societies … gender identities are constructed, fluid, performed in a theoretical sense … [rape is not] a transhistorical mechanism of women's oppression" (79). Rape follows a "script," Flaschka reports; the scare quotes are hers. "women were perceived as rapable" Flaschka says (89). Again, this awkward and ugly word suggests that Flaschka believes in a brave new world where women are not rapable. "The 'rape script' can be changed so that rape ceases to be a way to define what it means to be a woman." We can "imagine" women free of "rapability" (90, 93). The hard reality we must all come to terms with is that no such rape-free world exists, or has ever existed, or can be "imagined" into existence by pomo scholarship.

There is an unforgettable passage in Bernat Rosner's Holocaust memoir. He describes being rounded up in his Hungarian hometown.

Right in front of him, Bernie's mother was forced to take off all her clothes. He had to watch while, naked and helpless, she was searched at the hands of a hostile Nazi thug. One might argue that Bernie had to endure worse atrocities later at Auschwitz and beyond, but he was only twelve, and he had never seen an adult, much less his mother, naked. The evil mix of forced nudity, the public humiliation, and the physical molestation converged to form an enormous emotional shock for him that symbolized a loss of innocence as well as the beginning of unimaginable horrors to come. For a brief moment, Bernie's mother was stripped of her social persona, her family status, and turned into a helpless creature subjected to the crude hands of an anonymous oppressor. (72)

I learned more from Rosner's passage about sexual violence against Jewish women in the Holocaust than I did from Hedgepeth and Saidel's entire book. Sex abuse dehumanizes and commodifies its victims. Sometimes so does scholarship.

Anthony, D. W. 1995. Nazi and Eco-Feminist Prehistories: Ideology and Empiricism in Indo-European Archaeology. In "Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology," eds. P. L. Kohl and C. Fawcett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 82-96.

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Goska, Danusha V. Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010.

Hedgepeth, Sonja M. and Rochelle G. Saidel. Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010.

Hudson, Valerie and Andrea den Boer. Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Nowra, Louis. Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal Men's Violence Against Women and Children. North Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2007.

Rosner, Bernat and Sally P. Tubach. An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Thornhill, Randy and Craig T. Palmer. "Why Men Rape." The Sciences. (Jan/Feb 2000): 30-36.

Viereck, Peter. "Unadjusted Man." Transaction, 2004.

Weikart, Richard. Hitler's ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.


The editors of Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust responded to Dr. Goska's review. Click here to read the response.

Danusha Goska is the author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture, winner of the 2010 Halecki Award. Her work also appears in the books Folklore Muse and The Impossible Will Take a Little While.