Holocaust in American Life
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July 25, 1999
The Holocaust in American Life
By Franklin Foer
THE 1978 television extravaganza "Holocaust" is notable, of course, for Meryl Streep's breakthrough performance. But it also marked another significant turning point. One hundred million viewers tuned in to the NBC miniseries, launching a new ritual. Every year since, it seems, another Holocaust movie debuts and becomes a cultural event, a "must-see" -- from "Shoah" to "Winds of War," from "Schindler's List" to "Life is Beautiful." At the same time, Holocaust museums sprouted across the Sun Belt -- Tampa, Los Angeles and elsewhere -- nearly as fast as strip malls. And Holocaust studies departments appeared on far-flung university campuses.
Why? Why has the destruction of European Jewry become an increasingly omnipresent fixture in the American conscience? And is this a good thing?
There is an obvious answer to these questions posed by historian Peter Novick. Because of its magnitude, the Holocaust commands attention. But Novick is a brash and penetrating observer. Behind the current prominence of the Holocaust, he discerns more mundane forces at work. He links our current Holocaust "fixation" with the politics and anxieties of American Jews. The Holocaust in America is an uncomfortable yet compelling portrait of that community -- a powerful essay on identity and assimilation.
Novick starts with the war. At the time, few Americans viewed the Holocaust as a Jewish atrocity. Combing through the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and the dispatches of William L. Shirer, for instance, Novick finds much talk about the murder of political prisoners and scant reference to Jews. In part, this omission is cognitive dissonance. In 1945, who could comprehend systematic genocide? In part, it had to do with the powerful assimilationist impulse among Jews.
Eager to prove their patriotic bona fides, especially in the shadow of McCarthyism, most American Jews resisted drawing attention to their people's plight. Even in Jewish homes, the Holocaust went largely undiscussed. But all that changed in the '60s. With the Six-Day War, the rise of black anti-Semitism, and increasing intermarriage, the Holocaust emerged as the mother of all Jewish concerns. It became a metaphor for widespread fears about Jewish survival. As Novick puts it, "The Holocaust came to symbolize the natural and inevitable terminus of anti-Semitism: first stop an anti-Semitic joke; last stop Treblinka."
Alarmism -- only now does it sound so ridiculous -- was common fare. The classic example of this overblown rhetoric is a 1974 Esquire essay by Cynthia Ozick, "All The World Wants the Jews Dead." In moments of candor, Jewish leaders admitted that they had found a potent tool for keeping their flock from straying too far down the path of secularization. A fundraiser for the Wiesenthal Center conceded that the Holocaust "works every time."
In short, Jews began playing the same identity-obsessed politics that has consumed African Americans and Native Americans and nearly every other ethnic group since the late '60s. This observation is a painful revelation. And, perhaps too aggressively, Novick claims that American Jews are among the most masterful practitioners of this victimology: "[Witness] the angry insistence on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. What else can all of this possibly mean except 'your catastrophe, unlike ours, is ordinary; unlike ours is comprehensible; unlike ours is representable'."
Novick's biggest beef with all this attention thrust on the Holocaust is that it distorts history. He devotes great space to debunking some of the most powerful conventional wisdoms about the Holocaust. For instance, he unpacks the claim that the Roosevelt administration could have done more to save Jews. Anti-immigration sentiment, Novick says, was too strong in the Congress for the president to overcome. And bombing the rail tracks to Auschwitz would have been hollow symbolism. Or more persuasively he takes issue with the assertion that 11 million Jews and Gentiles died at the hands of the Nazis. It turns out to be an ahistorical concoction by Simon Wiesenthal, designed to make the Holocaust seem more universal. (Novick does not provide an alternative figure, however.) And using the Holocaust to make the case for tolerance, some museums have claimed that 500,000 homosexuals were murdered. According to Novick, however, 5,000 falls closer to the truth.
The Holocaust in America provides a necessary and important corrective. One hopes it will help reset the debate. But Novick himself could stand a corrective. Yes, the Holocaust is exploited for political ends. In debating Kosovo, both hawks and doves have drawn Holocaust parallels to prop up their positions. And Novick proves that this sort of back-and-forth can debilitate. But how could it be avoided? Americans are consumed by the Holocaust because it shows our civilization at its very worst. Drawing lessons from such an event seems natural, and even admirable.
While Novick is relentlessly even-handed and logical, he misses a big point -- the devastating theological impact of the Holocaust. A self-described secularist, he isn't interested in how the Holocaust has come to replace belief in God as a central tenet of the religion. He makes the point in passing that this lugubrious fixation -- with talk of martyrs and the righteous -- appropriates Christian concepts foreign to Judaism. But with conservative and reform Jews it has does more than that. It has helped rabbis and theologians downplay the old religion -- the textual, ethical, spiritual sort -- and strike a perfectly '90s note of guilt.
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