Holocaust in American Life
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July 12, 1999
By Jon Wiener
BETWEEN 1945 and 1947 the United States underwent perhaps the most breathtaking ideological transformation in its history. "The Good War," which had united America with Russia to save Western civilization from Nazi barbarism, ended, and within two years the incarnation of evil had been relocated: Germany was suddenly our ally in defending freedom from the USSR.
This astonishing ideological shift was accomplished by invoking the theory of totalitarianism, which held that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were "essentially alike." Whatever the intellectual strengths or weaknesses of the theory, it served to marginalize talk about what we today call the Holocaust: The suggestion that the destruction of European Jewry was the defining feature of the Nazi regime undermined the logic of the cold war by denying the essential similarity of Hitler and Stalin. The dizzying reversal redefined discussion of German war crimes as evidence of disloyalty to the "free world."
A riveting new book by historian Peter Novick describes how "the Holocaust" as we speak of it today--a singular event--barely existed in Jewish consciousness or anybody else's at the end of World War II and for many years afterward. American Jews had learned by 1945 about the fate of "the 6 million." But for Jews and non-Jews alike, it was the overall course of the war and the deaths of 50 million people that were the dominant facts. Jews understood themselves to be one group among many that suffered immense and heartbreaking losses.
During the fifties, Novick shows, the Holocaust was not held up as a source of historical lessons but rather as something terrible that had ended. The principal instruction the public took from the war arose not from Hitler but from Hiroshima--an urgent theme underscored by civil defense drills and bomb-shelter hysteria. Since Americans were both the perpetrators of atomic bombing and potential victims, it made sense that nuclear anxieties should dominate public consciousness about world politics.
So Jews in the fifties weren't talking about the Holocaust or defining themselves in primary terms as the victims of Hitler. They sought integration into American society and culture; they embraced the fifties liberal "family of man" ethos. Now, Novick poses a simple question: How, then, did consciousness of the Holocaust, evident most recently in the enormous triumph of Schindler's List, become so pervasive in American culture? Novick, a University of Chicago professor who previously wrote a prizewinning study of the history profession, also examines what is most puzzling to him about this consciousness: The Holocaust didn't happen here, and survivors and their descendants make up but a tiny proportion of the Jewish population.
Novick's contention is that "the Holocaust" was constructed twenty-five years after the war in a way that would not have been recognizable to Jews or gentiles in 1945. Indeed, Novick shows that while the Holocaust as such was hardly talked about from 1945 to 1965, from the seventies on it became increasingly central to Jewish self-consciousness. Despite the fact that after World War II Jews became the best-educated, most politically effective and wealthiest ethnic group in American society, official Judaism since the seventies has increasingly drawn on the Holocaust to portray Jews as victims, pitting them against other groups seeking redress--especially through affirmative action--for their own victimization.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington becomes one of Novick's biggest concerns in this regard. "There surely isn't going to be a second Jewish institution on the Mall, presenting an alternative image of the Jew," he writes. The official American representation, the most expensive and best Jewish museum in the world, portrays Jews as victims and gentiles as either persecutors or guilty bystanders. Novick has to ask the irresistible question: Is it good for the Jews? And is it good for anybody else?
Novick begins with an analysis of wartime policy. During the war, Jews eagerly embraced the Allies' ideological claim that Nazi Germany was the enemy not just of them but of "free men everywhere." Jews understood that throughout their long history, tyrants had periodically arisen who persecuted and killed them; but Jewish life would survive Hitler the way it had survived all his predecessors. For those concerned with world Jewish issues, working for the creation of a Jewish state took precedence over the rescue of Europe's Jews. American Jews accepted David Ben-Gurion's belief that creation of a Jewish state was the best way to make future tragedies impossible. In this context, Jews supported FDR's conduct of the European war with enthusiasm and gratitude.
This strand of Novick's argument runs against David Wyman's important and well-known book The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman argues that the Roosevelt Administration willfully disregarded rescue opportunities that could have succeeded, that anti-Semitism was the main problem and that inaction by American Jews also played a role. The "failure of rescue" is also a prominent theme in the Holocaust museum on the Mall.
Novick presents a strong case, however, that rescue efforts wouldn't have worked, and that trying to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers (much discussed by historians today) would have been a bad idea because precision bombing was a myth; nobody wanted to be blamed for bombing tens of thousands of Jews at Auschwitz--what could be regarded as helping Hitler kill Jews. In Novick's judgment, rescue efforts might have saved 1 to 2 percent of Jews from the ovens--"a worthwhile achievement indeed"--but he relentlessly documents the fact that rescue was barely mentioned by Jewish organizations.
"Abandonment of the Jews," he concludes, would have been an incomprehensible phrase at the time, because no one believed rescue of foreign civilian populations was an obligation for the Allies. With only a few exceptions, Jews concurred with the goal of the Roosevelt Administration and its allies: to force the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany as quickly as possible. That was the best way to help the European Jews who were still alive. All other objectives, including rescue, had to be subordinated to it.
Novick then provides a fascinating picture of the differences between postwar Jewish culture in America and that of today. Talk about the Holocaust during the early postwar years was "something of an embarrassment," indeed something seen as inconsistent with American ideals. Only the Communists worked to keep alive the memory of Hitler's campaign to exterminate the Jews--part of their fight against German rearmament. Official Jewish thinking in that era was evident in the response to proposals for a Holocaust memorial in New York City made in the late forties by prominent Jewish individuals. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and other official voices all agreed: Such a monument would be "a perpetual memorial to the weakness and defenselessness of the Jewish people" and thus "not in the best interests of Jewry."
Jews' desire to escape from the "victim" schema was perhaps best dramatized by an incident from the grotesque daytime TV show Queen for a Day, in which contestants competed for the most miserable story: A Birkenau survivor said, "Each time I look down at my left arm and see my tattoo I am reminded of my terrible past.... If only my tattoo could be removed!" The audience, Novick reports, voted enthusiastically in favor of an award of cosmetic surgery.
There was, of course, one monument of nascent Holocaust consciousness in the fifties: The Diary of Anne Frank, brought to the stage in 1955 and the screen in 1959. But those productions emphasized Anne's "universalism" and upbeat optimism and played down her Jewishness. Onstage and onscreen, Anne proclaimed, "We're not the only people that've had to suffer...sometimes one race...sometimes another." At the time this was precisely the way American Jews wanted their story told. But with the rise of Holocaust consciousness since the eighties, those productions have come under brutal attack. Cynthia Ozick wrote in The New Yorker in 1997 that the universalizing of Anne's story had gone too far, so that it might have been better if the diary had been "burned, vanished, lost."
The story of such a monumental reversal in official Jewish thinking occupies the second part of Novick's book. Where did the concept of "the Holocaust" as a distinct entity come from? Novick's answer is that it derives from the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the first time the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews was presented to the public as distinct from Nazi barbarism in general. Israeli tactics in kidnapping Eichmann and bringing him to Israel for trial had initially aroused considerable opposition: The New Republic recommended that Israel "confess error and hand Eichmann back to the Argentine authorities," and the Wall Street Journal editorialized that the trial could benefit only the Communists and was pervaded by "an atmosphere of Old Testament retribution." William F. Buckley's National Review was the most vehement, denouncing Israel for "bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims."
But the Israeli prosecutors succeeded in showing American Jews that they could and should discuss a singular event they called "the Holocaust," that they need no longer be defensive about Jewish victimization. American Jews had not taken the initiative in this development, but many nevertheless found the end of silence liberating.
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 provided a major impetus to the rise of Holocaust consciousness in America. Jewish enthusiasm about Israeli invincibility, which followed the Six-Day War of 1967, came to a sudden end, as did the claim that the Jewish homeland provided a kind of security unknown in the diaspora. The 1973 Israeli victory came only after frightening early reverses and massive Israeli casualties. Only US support assured Israeli victory and survival. Suddenly the Holocaust had an intense new significance, invoked on behalf of Israeli security. Elie Wiesel wrote that he was, for the first time since the end of World War II, "afraid that the nightmare may start all over again."
Along with this theme came offensive arguments made by defenders of Israel. Most encompassing was Cynthia Ozick's statement in 1974 that "all the world wants the Jews dead." She was arguing, essentially, that since nobody cared what happened to the Jews, they should stop being so concerned about injustices to others and focus on defending their own particular interests. Talk about "our timidity" and "our failure" in the face of the Holocaust now became central to Jewish discourse, the implication being that "we" must not be timid or fail to protect Israel this time around.
While Zionist spokesmen expressed deep anxieties about the survival of Israel after the 1973 war, Jewish leaders began worrying during that decade that the greatest threat to Jewish survival in the United States was the loss of Jewish distinctiveness. Novick points out that it's not easy to come up with grounds for a distinctive Jewish identity in America today: Most Jews aren't particularly religious; most have no particularly Jewish cultural traits; Zionism provides only a thin and abstract commitment. For many official voices, the best argument for Jewish survival is the obligation to deny Hitler a "posthumous victory."
This contention that Jews are an endangered species was accompanied by an irrational anxiety about a "new anti-Semitism" in America, whipped up by professional Holocaust memorializers like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which bombarded Jews with mailings describing frightening threats and appealing for money. But in fact, as Novick argues, "it was the absence of hostility to Jews that was threatening"--the threat now was assimilation, and especially intermarriage. "The monster has assumed a different and more benign form," said Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, "but its evil goal remains unchanged: a Judenrein world."
As a historian, Novick is profoundly critical of the argument that the Holocaust was "unique." Every historical event is unique in some ways, yet each can be compared with others in other ways. It's easy to point out ways in which the Holocaust was not unique: Stalin killed more people than Hitler; Gypsies suffered losses that were roughly proportional to those of the Jews. But there's a more radical argument Novick found in the work of philosopher Berel Lang: "So what if the Holocaust is unique?" The uniqueness argument serves primarily to denigrate or minimize the sufferings of others.
In the seventies the insistence that the Holocaust was unique turned into what Novick calls "the Victimization Olympics." Official Jewish treatment of the Armenian genocide has been particularly reprehensible, Novick shows. Originally the Holocaust museum had pledged to provide some coverage of the Armenian genocide, but its planners yielded to the Israelis, who didn't want to offend Turkey, a crucial Muslim ally. American Jewish activists joined Israeli lobbyists in defeating a 1989 Congressional resolution memorializing the Armenian genocide, while major Jewish organizations stayed silent. In response to Armenians who argued that they too were the victims of genocide, Lucy Dawidowicz, a leading Holocaust historian, argued that the Turks had "a rational reason" for killing Armenians, unlike the Germans, who had no rational reason for killing Jews.
Black-Jewish Holocaust competition has been equally distasteful and destructive. "They are stealing the Holocaust from us," Wiesel complained. "The greatest victory," Novick writes, "is to wring an acknowledgement of superior victimization from another contender. Officials of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum tell, with great satisfaction, a story of black youngsters learning of the Holocaust and saying 'God, we thought we had it bad.'"
James Baldwin long ago provided the best response to this Jewish oneupmanship: "It is not here, not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him."
Holocaust consciousness today is thoroughly embedded in mainstream popular culture. This has happened, Novick writes, because American Jews "are not just 'the people of the book,' but the people of the Hollywood film and the television miniseries, of the magazine article and the newspaper column, of the comic book and the academic symposium." A giant leap in situating this in the mind of Middle America came with the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust. One hundred million Americans watched all or part of the four-night broadcast. Wiesel didn't like the program--he wrote that the series "treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event.... Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized.... The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering." But it made a tremendous impression on the American public.
Then came Schindler's List (1993); Oprah Winfrey declared on television, "I'm a better person as a result of seeing Schindler's List." Again a few Jewish critics complained; again the public responded with tears and sympathy. Novick, ever the clear-eyed questioner, asks "why the eliciting of these responses from Americans is seen as so urgently important a task."
The central claim justifying the spread of Holocaust consciousness is that it teaches "lessons" that we all "ignore at our peril." Novick is deeply skeptical of this claim. He points to the ways contending groups have drawn different, self-serving "lessons." On the right, thinkers like George Will have claimed the Holocaust teaches that we must reject the liberal belief in the perfectibility of man, that we need to adopt government policies to deal with the evil people in our communities. But Americans, with their daily TV diet of images of crime, murder and mayhem, hardly need the Holocaust to teach them about the dangers outside their door, and Novick politely suggests that Will's opposition to liberal social programs did not arise out of his study of the Holocaust. Liberals, of course, draw their own lessons--the need for tolerance and mutual understanding among different ethnic groups. And antiabortion groups proclaim they are fighting the abortion holocaust.
Novick is interested in the "lesson" that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary evil, but he argues that the Holocaust is not as relevant a case of this as the work psychologist Stanley Milgram did at Yale in the mid-sixties. Milgram recruited ordinary New Haven residents for what they were told was an experiment in the influence of pain on learning. He told them to inflict increasingly painful electric shocks on subjects who gave wrong answers. The upper range of shocks on what was in fact a fake generator was described as "Danger: Severe Shock" and "XXX." Despite hearing screams of agony and pleas for help, more than 60 percent continued to crank up the shocks, and 90 percent of those reading the questions but not administering the shocks continued to the end. If you want lessons about the capacity of normal people to inflict pain, you don't need to go to a society in a total war with an ideology that has dehumanized some groups--you don't need Auschwitz when you've got New Haven.
Another lesson some have drawn from the Holocaust is awareness of "the crime of indifference." Novick agrees that "the atrophy of a sense of mutual obligation" is indeed a problem in modern individualistic societies, but he doubts that the Holocaust provides the most useful example, again because of the extremity of the situation. When Kitty Genovese was attacked in Queens in the mid-sixties, thirty-eight neighbors heard her cries for help and didn't respond or even call the police. They didn't have to fear Gestapo retaliation.
The most fundamental thesis the professionals advance is that Holocaust consciousness sensitizes us to oppression and atrocity. But making the Holocaust the example of oppression can easily have the opposite effect. It's such an extreme event, Novick argues, that it tends to trivialize everything of lesser magnitude: Slavery was bad, but not as bad as systematic mass murder; Americans may have killed 2 million Vietnamese, but that's not as bad as the Nazis' killing 6 million Jews. The argument for the uniqueness and incomparability of the Holocaust contributes directly to this kind of "lesson." Novick's harsh but unavoidable conclusion is that the Holocaust doesn't teach lessons at all. Visiting the Holocaust museum doesn't make you a better person--it could conceivably provide a rationale for minimizing current injustices.
Beyond these immensely significant arguments, Novick's book is full of revealing little gems. The Holocaust text quoted most often is Martin Niemöller's confession: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist--so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat--so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew--so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me." Niemöller had the progression of Nazi concentration camp policy correct. Al Gore quoted the passage, but moved the Jews to first place. He also left out Communists and trade unionists, and he added Catholics, who were not on Niemöller's list. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum preserves the list intact and in the correct order, except that it omits Communists. Other versions add homosexuals.
The invocations of the Holocaust in American politics and culture today cited by Novick are mind-boggling. Hillary Clinton, under attack in 1996 for her Whitewater financial transactions, appeared in the gallery of the House during her husband's televised State of the Union address, sitting with daughter Chelsea on one side and Elie Wiesel on the other. Surely this should get the award for best use of Holocaust imagery in a photo-op. Runner-up goes to Woody Allen for his explanation about how he was able to cope with the scandal over his romance with his teenage stepdaughter: by learning from "all the reading I'd done through my life on the Holocaust.... Those who focused on what was actually happening to them--the daily horror...the reality of it--they survived."
Virtually every reader will have some disagreements with this provocative and vigorously argued book. I thought Novick should have considered the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the "other" big Holocaust museum in the United States, which, unlike the one on the Washington Mall, seeks to relate Jewish suffering to the sufferings of other groups, to teach that all minorities have an interest in protecting one another from discrimination. I disagreed, too, with his assessment of the writing about rescuers--Christians who helped Jews. Novick says its purpose is to condemn the millions who did nothing by honoring the few who helped, but the work I know--particularly Gay Block and Malka Drucker's magnificent book Rescuers--simply affirms that, under the most difficult circumstances, ordinary people can be heroes. Novick suggests that the Holocaust curriculums mandated for public schools are a waste of time, teaching trivial lessons about being nice to everybody; I think the Holocaust ought to be taught in school.
But Novick has made his case: The present state of Holocaust consciousness is not good for the Jews. It provides a negative way for Jews to define themselves as a people and a destructive way for Jews to relate to others. His wonderfully clear and intelligent voice, his insistence on posing difficult questions and his deep learning make this, for me at least, the history book of the year--not just for what it says about Jews but for what it reveals about cultural politics in America since World War II.
Jon Wiener (JMWiener@uci.edu), who teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, is a Nation contributing editor.
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