The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering
And of course there is the difficult question of how one compares such tragedies. Why not a Cambodian genocide museum? In what ways are the Cambodian, the Armenian, and the Rwandan genocides similar and different from the Nazi genocide? If the Rodney King riots do not deserve being placed on the same plane shouldn’t the casualties of slavery in America, an institution that killed the bodies and murdered the souls of those who survived, count just as much?
There’s an argument that it’s a politically savvy heuristic strategy to unite with other sufferers against the murderous haters rather than set our suffering apart. And Jews have a strong record of concern for the sufferings of others. Solidarity! But Rosenfeld is on a mission not to allow the differences of the identity of the Jewish victims to disappear, and he is both a moral thinker and an astute cultural critic.
I first came across his work when I was writing Explaining Hitler, preparing to interview one of the most brilliant historians of our age, H.R. Trevor-Roper, whose biography of Hitler (Hitler: The Last Days) set the tone for envisioning the Fuhrer for decades after the war. Trevor-Roper was feared for his venomous, devastating attacks on fellow historians, but Rosenfeld found the flaw in Trevor-Roper’s analysis of Hitler. In his book Imagining Hitler, which was a study of mainly fictional and film visions of Hitler, Rosenfeld picked up on the language Trevor-Roper used to describe Hitler, as a mystical, numinous, spell-binding, virtually occult figure. Rosenfeld essentially blamed Trevor-Roper for falling under Hitler’s spell himself in his prose and thereby planting in the collective imagination of his millions of readers a superhuman vision of Hitler that precluded rational analysis of why he succeeded—and failed.
I’ll never forget the moment I gingerly brought up Rosenfed’s critique to Trevor-Roper face-to-face at a parlor in London’s Oxford and Cambridge Club. It was an awkward moment. I think he realized there was some truth to it, and it had gotten under his skin.
And Rosenfeld reminds us that even stories of survivors are not necessarily triumphs over evil. His chapters on Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, and Elie Wiesel include accounts of suicide and anguish despite survival. Rosenfeld deserves honor for having preserved their truths in all their brutal honesty.
My own feeling is that the end of the Holocaust will not come from Holocaust denial, or Holocaust affirmation kitsch, or even dissolution in universalism. It will come in what I’ve called “Holocaust inconsequentialism”—the sequestering of the Holocaust from history. One saw it not long ago in an article by a prominent British intellectual who claimed Menachem Begin should have been “ashamed” to invoke the Holocaust when he announced the 1981 Israeli raid on Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. Begin said he did it because he was thinking of the million infants killed in Hitler’s Holocaust and the responsibility he felt never to allow it to happen again. Our British intellectual harrumphed and said Begin shouldn’t have made such an inflammatory connection. But in fact such connections are what historical consciousness is about.
There are only two points in this valuable book I found myself questioning. First is Rosenfeld’s citation of a typically portentous pronouncement from Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah:
“ ‘To portray the Holocaust,’ Claude Lanzmann once said to me,” Rosenfeld writes, “ ‘one has to create a work of art.’ ” This is one of those profound-sounding decrees Lanzmann is given to. Only artistes like Lanzmann are qualified, not the humble survivors themselves, for instance. One could argue exactly the opposite of Lanzmann, in fact—and it seems to me the thrust of Rosenfeld’s book is that unmediated testimony is a higher form of Holocaust discourse. Artistic license can lead to corruption of the truth. To Life Is Beautiful.
One cannot deny the importance of Shoah, nor can one deny the self-importance of Lanzmann, who, as I point out in Explaining Hitler, misunderstands and distorts one of the key statements of Primo Levi about Auschwitz—the one in which Levi quotes an SS man declaring to him: “Here,” in the camps, “there is no why.” Lanzmann turns this brutal Nazi reproof into an esthetic commandment for Jews, against investigation or interpretation. Against asking why. Lanzmann tells post-Holocaust Jews we must follow the orders of an SS man. It is an inconsequentialist attempt to cut the Holocaust off from human inquiry.
This is “mystification of the Holocaust,” as the influential Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer calls it, that is of a piece with treacly affirmationism.
The other point I don’t disagree with so much as think it’s been made too often. It has to do with Rosenfeld’s critique of the misuse of Anne Frank’s legacy. Yes, it’s true she’s become an instance of the Faustian bargain: the need to give non-Jews a way of relating to the Holocaust that doesn’t make them feel too bad about human nature. Hence the focus on a single sentence in her diary: “In spite of everything, I believe that people are good at heart.”
Yes, it’s true, as Rosenfeld puts it, that this sentence, written before her capture, may well not be the way the real Anne Frank felt once her family had been betrayed and she had been taken by the Nazis. As Rosenfeld puts it, “surrounded by the dead and dying of Auschwitz and later herself a victim of the deprivations and diseases of Bergen-Belsen [where she died, probably of typhus] it is doubtful that such a passage from the diary represented anything close to what Anne Frank must have felt at the end.”
I would agree with Rosenfeld that the case of Anne Frank has been a particularly striking instance of affirmationism occluding the ugly truth with fraudulent uplift. And yet I feel this wasn’t her fault, she shouldn’t be written out of the story because people take away the wrong lesson from it. The number of recent attacks on the misuse of that one “goodness at heart” line have begun to seem like an attack on her. Let poor Anne alone already. Is it such a crime that a child in Japan or South Africa comes to awareness of the Holocaust through Anne Frank? Better they be ignorant? That’s the choice the Faustian bargain forces us to make.
Don’t blame Anne for the Faustian bargain. Do read Rosenfeld to understand and struggle with it.
Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, U’netaneh Tokef: On Yom Kippur, finding redemption is a matter of laying down the right soundtrack