The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering
Alvin Rosenfeld is a brave man, and his new work is courageous. The book 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), “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 from my book 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.
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