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
Alvin Rosenfeld is a brave man, and his new work is courageous. The book
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
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
“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.