My life as an accidental Holocaust expert—and why I decided to quit
Long ago Lionel Trilling observed that he asked his students “to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: ‘Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom.’ ” Imagine Trilling’s reaction if the abyss had already been institutionalized in his own time as a museum, one where students could, like my own, tour it with a kindly docent while carrying an ID card identifying them with an actual victim. He might have concluded that progress does, in fact, exist—we were simply looking for it in the wrong place.
More troubling, of course, was my own attitude toward the abyss. Of course, I cannot speak for others who have taught the subject. But at least I had come to read everything that preceded the Holocaust as prologue, an ineluctable series of events destined to end in what Levi rightly called the anus mundi. At one time historians fell victim to what Herbert Butterfield called the “Whig interpretation of history”: the tendency to portray the past as yoked to a present of greater liberty and happiness. For these historians, at the end of all of mankind’s toil and travail lay the Reform Act of 1832. But I had fallen victim to the very opposite spin: that Western history was destined to lead to the Wannsee Conference of 1942.
In fact, beyond mere teleological fallacy, I was guilty of a kind of eschatological fantasy. I approached the past like the Jews after 70 C.E. who, Yosef Yerushalmi has argued, interpreted all subsequent history through the prism of the Second Temple’s destruction. By then, Yerushalmi suggests, the Jews had all the history they needed. Even the traumatism of the Spanish Expulsion did not spur the growth of history writing. Instead, the cataclysmic event fed into the flourishing of the Kabbalah. When push came to shove, Jews plumped for mysticism over footnotes.
In a similar fashion, I was shoveling history into the Final Solution. All roads of modernity seemed to lead to Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, Yerushalmi had already anticipated this moment. Toward the end of Zakhor, his masterpiece on the intersection of history and memory, he noted how hard it is to “escape the feeling that the Jewish people after the Holocaust stands today at a juncture not without analogy to that of the generations following the cataclysm of the Spanish Expulsion.” Would we decide to do like our ancestors? Transform a single event and allow our past, and thus our future, to be defined by it? Would we, through the desperate conviction that, as Cynthia Ozick once blurted, “all the world wants the Jews dead,” go on sacralizing the Holocaust? Did plain old history, with its insistence on the mundane categories of time, space, and causality, ever stand a chance against such passions?
Yerushalmi was not optimistic: “Most Jews today are in search of a past, but they patently do not want the past that is offered by historians.” American Jewry’s stubborn refusal of history is underscored, paradoxically, by its equally stubborn insistence on the lessons to be drawn from the history of the Holocaust. Despite the gloom and doom of my own lectures, I pretended to do the very same thing with my Holocaust texts. I believed there were lessons to be learned. What were they? If pressed, I would echo the mission of the Houston Holocaust Museum: “Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.”
Of course, while no one could argue against such didactic aims, no one—including myself—could explain why we required the Holocaust as an example in reaching them. In fact, as I eventually realized, such aims were either incoherent or irrelevant. As Novick observed, the “very characteristics of the Holocaust that make it such an appealing illustration of this or that lesson make it a dubious source of lessons.” If I were to insist on the unique character of the Holocaust—though my reasons constantly shifted as, one by one, fellow historians pulverized them—then it simply could not, by definition, serve as a source of lessons. But when I conceded that the Holocaust was unique only insofar as any historical event is necessarily unique, I could not answer why so extreme and horrifying an event was the best of examples to teach the virtues of tolerance and dialogue along with the dangers of prejudice and indifference. I would be the last to deny the magnitude of the crime. But I also wonder if, by a glance at the pages of the local newspaper, we cannot find an abundance of examples that, precisely because of their pedestrian character, make them far more conducive to “teaching moments.”
Toward the end of his book, Novick plaintively wondered if, as a matter of practical morality, “our greatest worry [should] be about people blindly following explicitly genocidal orders.” An immediate and by no means glib reply is that for those at the receiving end of such orders, this is the only question that counts. But Novick seemed to be pointing us in the same direction as Madame du Deffand did in a famous bon mot. When told about the miracle of Saint Denis, who walked two miles with his decapitated head cradled in his arms, she replied: “It’s only the first step that is difficult.” As a matter of practical morality, and more important as a matter of historical integrity, we might take such advice to heart.
Agenda, Hanukkah edition: Matisyahu comes clean in Williamsburg, latkes get judged, and a 4,000-pound menorah is lit. Plus our seasonal gift guide!