My life as an accidental Holocaust expert—and why I decided to quit
It should have been a straightforward talk on the impossibility of talking about the Final Solution. But a funny thing happened on the way to the abyss that night—an event that led me to rethink the place of the Holocaust in modern history.
I was giving a guest lecture on the subject of Primo Levi at a synagogue in Houston, presenting Levi’s masterpiece, Survival in Auschwitz, to a crowd of 50 or so. I spoke about the nature of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz: his relationship with fellow prisoners, the camp’s makeshift economy and pecking order, the reasons he thought he survived while so many others died, and the narrative strategies he adopted to describe something that could not be described. In particular, I dwelt on Levi’s notion of the “gray zone”—the ways in which death camps blurred the frontiers between guilt and acquiescence, persecutor and victim. By way of conclusion, I revealed to the audience that the title of the book in its original Italian was If This Be A Man. With that abrupt flourish, I slowly closed my lecture binder and looked down at my hands.
I was superb.
An elderly and energetic man in the audience, however, did not agree. He raised his hand, gave his name—I’ll call him Siggie—and announced he was a survivor. A respectful hush fell over the audience, and all heads craned toward the small figure. Siggie declared that Levi didn’t know what he was talking about. “Gray zone, schmay zone,” he declared, more or less. As I stared at him, Siggie then launched into a long and polished account of his own experience at Auschwitz, one that drew fast and sharp lines between victim and victimizer. Moreover, Siggie suggested, anyone who tried to offer a literary or theoretical account of Auschwitz was little better than an interloper. This applied not only to Levi, but even more so to academics like me, who had never been in a concentration camp.
I tried to respond but soon gave up; as a survivor, Siggie commanded not just the moral high ground but the ontological depths, too. What could I say? He was right: I had not been there. Normally, being “there” is not an issue for a historian. Only a lunatic would repudiate an account of, say, the fall of the Bastille or Battle of Marathon because the historian had been born one or one hundred generations too late to savor the sulfur or participate in a phalanx. In fact, historians have long assumed that not being there is a professional advantage. In an odd phenomenological twist, we have always claimed that the distance provided by time and space, along with the accumulation of documents and data, permits us to know the past even better than did an event’s contemporaries, who were stuck in the chaos as they happened. Anyone can make history, but it takes a historian to understand it.
But Auschwitz was different. This, at least, is what Siggie reminded me as he gesticulated with his branded forearm. The grim tattoo was an infinitely more powerful sign of authority than the leather patches on my tweed jacket. With a wince, I recalled Elie Wiesel’s claim: “Any survivor has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened.” As a historian, I knew Wiesel’s statement was nonsense; but as a Jew facing a survivor, I knew it was irrefutable.
Did I even dare suggest that, after nearly half a century and countless retellings, Siggie’s own experience had crystallized into a story—a story whose relationship with the event was perhaps even more problematic than Levi’s or my own? Where, I asked myself, did the scales tip between my doctorate and Siggie’s experience? As I looked at Siggie and the audience, all of these questions were no-brainers. Hiding my elbow patches as best I could, I ceded the floor to Siggie. Apologies to Adorno, but I concluded that, after Auschwitz, history—at least the sort where historians do what they are trained to do—was certainly possible, perhaps even necessary. But, most important, it was irrelevant.
There is a sense in which Emil Fackenheim was right to say that for Jews to forget Hitler’s victims would be to grant him a “posthumous victory.” But it would be an even greater posthumous victory for Hitler were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience.
These are the concluding lines from Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life. Published slightly more than a decade ago, shortly after my encounter with Siggie, Novick’s book provided me with an epiphany about the oddness of my vocation. A historian at the University of Chicago, Novick was attempting to explain how the Holocaust—an event that had happened more than a generation earlier on a different continent and affected a mere fraction of those living here—became by the late 1960s the central experience in the American Jewish historical narrative. Novick suggested that this sudden communal awareness of the Holocaust, far from being the result of deep trauma, instead resulted from a series of political events that prodded American Jewry to embrace the destruction of European Jewry as its defining narrative. The rise in racial tensions in the United States, the existential character of the Yom Kippur War, the growth in “identity politics” and its dark side of victim culture: These are some of the factors, Novick suggested, that led to American Jewry’s belated discovery of the Holocaust.
Agenda, Hanukkah edition: Matisyahu comes clean in Williamsburg, latkes get judged, and a 4,000-pound menorah is lit. Plus our seasonal gift guide!