The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering
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.
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