Holocaust in American Life
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Review of Books
June 27, 1999
A Sacred Evil
A historian reconsiders traditional views of the Holocaust.
By LAWRENCE L. LANGER
THIS BOOK will be welcomed by those who value the role of conjecture in American culture. But those who prize findings verified by firm proof will want to read "The Holocaust in American Life" with caution. Peter Novick, a historian at the University of Chicago, is not unaware of the problem he faces, and he meets it with intellectual courage and conviction. Does news media coverage of an event, he asks, even a disaster like the Holocaust, reflect or create the concern it seeks to cover? "We can only speculate," he concludes, "based on fragments of evidence, often ambiguous poll results and seat-of-the-pants impressions." Despite this admission, he remains unapologetic in anticipation of the dissent his contrarian posture is bound to arouse.
His speculation concerns the impact of the Holocaust on American consciousness during the past 25 years. (But he might have been addressing the previous quarter-century too.) As soon as we assert, as Novick does, the centrality of the Holocaust in American life, we raise a number of difficult issues, beginning with the question "Which Holocaust?" The expression "the Holocaust" has no intrinsic content. We paint its blank canvas with the palette we possess, and who can tell what meager brushstrokes might result from such an endeavor? How many American Jews today, to say nothing of American gentiles, can identify Sobibor or Chaim Rumkowski, explain the use of mobile gas vans or Zyklon B, tell us the importance of Lodz or Babi Yar? When they remember "the Holocaust," are they thinking of the 300,000 Jews deported to their death from Warsaw in the summer of 1942, or the heroic but doomed uprising in the ghetto the following spring? It makes a difference.
Moreover, when we try to measure the impact of "the Holocaust" on American Jewry, which Jews do we mean? There is no such creature as "the American Jewish community." Secular Jews like the author approach the topic in one way. But devout Jews have to wrestle with questions of covenant and belief that are of little consequence to Novick. He cites a few examples of efforts to sacralize the catastrophe, asking how many Jews choose the word "awe" to describe "their emotions when contemplating the Holocaust." But we have no idea how many, and no way of finding out. Novick's tone implies that the number is large, but hunches do not make good history.
Novick offers without evidence his surmise that "it has become standard practice to use the term 'sacred' to describe the Holocaust and everything connected with it." I do not recall ever having used that term to describe the Holocaust, nor do I find it in the writings of numerous Holocaust commentators whose work I respect. Novick properly deplores attempts to mystify mass murder, but we never learn whether those attempts echo a few influential voices or a prevailing tendency in the American response to that grim event.
Novick's main thesis is that over the decades the Holocaust has "moved from the margins to the center of how American Jews understand themselves and how they represent themselves to others." Is this true? He is unsure enough to admit in his next sentence that "so far as self-understanding is concerned, there's no way of knowing just how many American Jews, and which American Jews, ground their Jewish identity in the Holocaust, but the number appears to be large." No doubt if one searched one could find handfuls, maybe sizable handfuls, of Jews for whom Novick's notion is correct. But like hunches, handfuls do not make good history.
As Novick grows more specific in his challenges to conventional thinking about the Holocaust, he forces us to reconsider many traditional views, and this is the real merit of his volume. Much ink has been spilled on the issue of whether the Holocaust is unique, but Novick asks what we would accomplish even if we could prove that it was. Those who feel that it is more important to explore an episode in history than to define it will be cheered by this question. But others will argue that Nazi Germany's decision to invade more than a dozen countries with the eventual intention of murdering every last Jew in the territories under its control was indeed unprecedented, and knowing this contributes to our understanding of what Hitler and his cohorts called "the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe." Novick does not quell the dispute, but he introduces some provocative rejoinders to those who believe that it has already been settled.
He is on more uncertain ground when he addresses the controversy over the request to bomb Auschwitz. Basing his position on research that has been largely discredited by subsequent findings, he assumes that the suggestion "was a well-intentioned but misbegotten idea that we can perhaps be grateful was turned down." He points out that even the Jewish Agency Executive headed by David Ben-Gurion opposed bombing early in June 1944, apparently unaware that a few weeks later that body reversed its view and joined those supporting the bombing proposal. He draws on a 1990 study to confirm that an attack against the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau would have been dangerous and inaccurate, and probably would have caused high casualties among the inmates, though a recent, more detailed study done in 1997 reaches opposite conclusions. He writes about the Allied failure to bomb Auschwitz becoming "a standard trope of Holocaust discourse," though few of the many recent books on the Holocaust even mention the subject.
But Novick's most remarkable claim is that by the fall of 1944 "prisoners knew that liberation was near at hand; how ironic to die by Allied action in the waning days of their imprisonment." This may have been true for some non-Jewish inmates of Auschwitz; but for the Jews, the only thing they could expect in the waning days of 1944 was their impending death. When the Russians arrived in January 1945, they found several thousand ill and starving prisoners. The rest, more than 50,000, had been driven out 10 days earlier on marches that a large percentage of them would not survive. Most of those who managed to stay alive were not freed until April or May of 1945 -- hardly a time we could describe as "near at hand."
Novick weakens his analysis of the impact of the Holocaust on American consciousness by frequently confessing that much of it is based on guesswork. This strategy is a significant feature of his book. He speaks of the growing number of colleges and universities that now have chairs in Holocaust studies, but he fails to mention that major institutions like Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis were offered such chairs but eventually turned them down. He supposes that the pressure to pay tribute to the "suffering and endurance" of survivors will diminish as their numbers decrease, and may disappear when they do, as if the historical importance of the event itself were not enough to compel memory.
Novick even takes a dim view of survivor testimonies, burying in a footnote an unsubstantiated charge about witnesses being cajoled by the appeal that "even if they'd prefer not to summon up these memories, it is their duty 'to history,' or that their testimony is necessary to 'refute deniers.' " Far more important than this trivial criticism is the neglected question of the influence of these testimonies on Holocaust consciousness in America as they become increasingly available to broad audiences through published analyses and film or television documentaries. Novick barely addresses this matter.
Novick rightly slights formulaic responses to the Holocaust, from the ubiquitous but vacuous "Never again!" to the periodic manipulations of popular sympathy by some Jewish organizations when they fear a rise in anti-Semitism or a decline in support for Israel. But the abuse of the Holocaust for political or emotional ends does not discredit the continuing significance of the atrocity itself, as a human catastrophe and an example of vast evil in our time. How to talk about it and how to think about it remains a summons to memory, as Novick agrees, that needs no pragmatic justification.
Novick's sensible if unpopular conclusion that we should study a historical event like the Holocaust not to extract lessons but to appreciate its complexities and contradictions will please a few readers but probably upset many more. The same can be said of "The Holocaust in American Life," and this is one of the paradoxical virtues of the book: far better to stir up the sea of inquiry than to leave its surface as placid as when you found it.
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