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My life as an accidental Holocaust expert—and why I decided to quit

Robert Zaretsky
December 19, 2011
(Illustration: Tablet Magazine; blackboard:
(Illustration: Tablet Magazine; blackboard:

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.

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.

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.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook, to be published next month by Little, Brown.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook, to be published next month by Little, Brown.