My life as an accidental Holocaust expert—and why I decided to quit
The issue of identity certainly played a role in my becoming—almost by accident—a Holocaust specialist. Levi? Auschwitz? I was no more an expert on either subject than I was on thermal dynamics or the mating habits of the manatee. My dissertation had been on the relationship between the Jewish and Protestant communities in a French city during World War II, but I had never studied the history of the Holocaust, had never read the literature generated by the Holocaust, and had never written on the Holocaust. My own work orbited like a distant moon around the dense black mass of Auschwitz.
But, it turned out, that was close enough. Almost immediately upon my arrival in my first teaching job, I became the go-to guy for the Holocaust. Of course, this was partly due to my dissertation, but in larger part, I suspect, because of my Jewishness. This was fine with me for a number of reasons. First, as a junior faculty member, this identification, though merely professional, could only help in my quest for tenure. An expert on the Holocaust carried infinitely greater weight, I thought, than an expert on ministerial instability during the French Third Republic.
More important, though, such expertise appealed to my sense of self-dramatization. If the Holocaust is, as is so often said, an “inexplicable mystery,” inspiring awe and bordering on the sacred, then I wanted to be part of it. This was not simply the sort of subject that fell outside the normal purview of a historian, but one that also carried a bit of flash. In my lectures on Levi or Frank, Borowski or Delbo, the metaphysical and, well, melodramatic undertow always pulled me away from the strictly historical and textual. I ignored dry-eyed and serious historians like Raul Hilberg and instead steeped in the theological ruminations of Emil Fackenheim. Looking back, I now believe my membership in the American Historical Association should have been revoked.
Actors Equity would have rightly wanted no part of me either. When Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List opened in Houston, a local news station contacted me for an interview. Between the phone call and news crew’s visit to my office the next day, I tore through not just the Thomas Kennealy book on which the film is based but also dozens of book and movie reviews. Once the lights were deployed and my nose powdered, off I shot like a helium balloon, bouncing from one insight to the next. In the midst of my academic preening, I managed to make the humdrum point that while Schindler was flawed, he was also a remarkably good man in dark times.
The following night I settled in front of the TV and encountered a different kind of shock and awe. From that hourlong interview, 59 minutes had ended up on the editing room floor. In the 60 seconds that remained, I’d noted that the real Oskar Schindler was an alcoholic and a womanizer, adding that had it not been for the Holocaust, he would never have amounted to anything. But the news editor was not through with me. Sandwiched between my observations was an interview with another elderly survivor. He wasn’t Siggie, but no matter: Old and kindly looking, he rightly sang Schindler’s praises. No need to go on, I think. The bell for the first round had scarcely rung, and I was already down for the count, floored by the one-two combo of my own vanity and the modern news-cycle.
Why teach Holocaust texts? For more than a decade, I’d taught such works as part of a “Great Books” course, yet I had never bothered to ask myself this basic question. Nor did I ever question the conviction that Levi (or Wiesel, Borowski, or the like) should always bat cleanup. Like the Great Bambino pointing his bat at the center field wall, these writers pointed their pens at the wall the Holocaust had thrown up against history. Along with the rest of my colleagues, I worked on the unspoken assumption that the great ark of Western history, rising on the vast wave created by the Renaissance and Reformation, the Industrial and French Revolutions, was bound to crash and smolder in the crematoria of Auschwitz.
I loved this ending: It appealed to me for all sorts of awful reasons. First of all, it satisfied my desire as an acculturated and agnostic Jew for identification with the religion of my ancestors. In his intellectual memoir, The Imaginary Jew, Alain Finkielkraut, born after World War II and ignorant of anti-Semitism, described how he happily shouldered the Holocaust as a cheap yet effective form of self-identity in France, one that carried all of the metaphysical weight with none of the historical experience. Finkielkraut wrote that, thanks to the all too real tragedy of the war, he eagerly assumes the heroic leading role in his own make-believe tragedy. “The interminable list of all of these deaths,” he noted, “was my passport to nobility.”
Teaching the Holocaust ratified my professional pose as the intellectual gatekeeper to the end of life as we knew it, validating my standing as a historian pas comme les autres. Progress? Enlightenment? Ha. I enjoyed the thought that I was pulling the philosophical rug out from beneath the feet of my students. The joke, it turned out, was on me: My perverse joy in claiming that progress was a sham was all the more perverse because the students never knew that progress had been on the march. They had never worried about the fate of humankind before my course, and I’ll bet bottom dollar they have not worried about it since. In a word, my kids had no dog in this fight.
Agenda, Hanukkah edition: Matisyahu comes clean in Williamsburg, latkes get judged, and a 4,000-pound menorah is lit. Plus our seasonal gift guide!