Commentary Magazine


One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust, by Judith Miller

Judith Miller, an editor at the New York Times, here looks five countries where the Germans waged their war against the Jews, and at one, her own, where it was just a well-established rumor, in order to report how that episode is being dealt with today. She has discovered, to her dismay, that in Germany, Austria, Holland, France, and the USSR, the facts of the Holocaust are being cooked, that history is being mythologized for local consumption and political purposes. And in the United States, she describes a welter of museums and memorials, some vulgar, some dignified and useful.

To be sure, Miller awards each of her European countries a different grade. When it comes to facing the Holocaust, Austria flunks. Holland, France, and the USSR, though commended for some efforts, are faulted for self-serving distortions, evasions, and silences. West Germany comes off best. This is thanks to official statements of culpability, reparations to Israel and to individual Jews, commemorations, education, the didactic speeches of President Richard von Weizsdcker, some trials of war criminals, some historiography.

Even so, Miller has problems with West Germany. Craving normality and acceptance, tired of atoning for their fathers’ sins, some Germans try to relativize and so escape the Holocaust, to have done with it by subsuming it in the history of the century. This group includes, for Miller, the revisionist historians, the director of the movie Heimat, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl when he led Ronald Reagan into the Bitburg cemetery. “Developments in the 80’s,” she writes, “have shown that a thorough reckoning with the past has still not taken place [in Germany].” It will have to, she claims, if Germany’s “neighbors” are to be persuaded “that history will not repeat itself.”

A dubious claim. Germany is reuniting itself, and its immediate neighbors have accepted this as inevitable and even desirable, quite apart from any more “thorough reckoning” with “the past.” Such a reckoning as Miller would like may never take place.

Why should it? Above all, she believes, for reasons of mental health. Liberal and progressive, depressed by what she has found in Europe but still hopeful, Miller opposes living with skeletons in the closet. For her, disjunctions between the private and public, between asleep and awake, are unhealthy and dangerous. She would therefore like the Dutch, the French, the Soviets, for their own sakes, to tell themselves and their children the whole truth, and to do this before the last collaborators with the Nazis and the last Jewish survivors are gone. She wants the Europeans to do more than, at this late date, most of them probably think there is any good reason to do.

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If Miller’s disappointment in Europe is with the Gentiles, in her own country it is with the Jewsor at least with some of them. She has nothing in principle against “the Jewish push for monuments, memorials, and public tributes to the period of their most intense suffering.” This push has resulted in, among other things, the proclamation by Congress in 1980 of an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the designation of a parcel on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, the cornerstone of which Ronald Reagan unveiled just before the end of his presidency and the opening of which is expected in 1993.

What Miller fears and warns against are bad taste, abstraction, political exploitation. She thinks the worst offender on all counts may be the “egregious” museum being built by Rabbi Marvin Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Hier, it seems, has a reputation as a “genius” at show-business techniques, and one of his constant messages (according to Miller) is that proper remembrance of the Holocaust requires American Jews to back the hawkish line in Israel. But this is not to say that Miller doubts Hier’s sincerity, or rules out the possibility that his project may turn out to be not so terrible.

Nor is it to say that she wholly approves the museum in Washington. All depends, for her, on how it is done-“either this place will be a sanctuary, or it will be an abomination,” she quotes Elie Wiesel predicting as he quit the organizing committee in a flurry of recriminations in 1986. The competition for funds with Rabbi Hier, and the fighting among Jewish sponsors, experts, and curators over the design and theme of this “living memorial,” which Miller goes into in sad detail, have puzzled and perhaps amused other Americans.

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Three years before the scheduled opening, the Washington museum’s main message is still to be clarified. To what extent will it present the Holocaust as an event in Jewish experience, something done by Gentiles to Jews, and to what extent will it, in the American way, try to render the event in its universal aspect? The answer is being worked out in what amounts to a political process, a many-sided and not necessarily unedifying dialectic of agendas. In a development too recent for Miller to mention, for example, it has been announced that a section of the Washington museum, as well as of another museum being built in New York, will honor the homosexual victims of the Nazis.

Conscientiously, Miller reports the arguments over whether there should be such a museum on the Mall in the first place. “The Mall,” the columnist George Will has written, “is a shrine to which Americans come as pilgrims.” This museum is being built, planned, and paid for by Jews. But will it be good for them? No, according to Henry Kissinger. “Building a memorial on national ground is likely only to reignite anti-Semitism . . . [by raising] . . . too high a profile.” Kissinger prefers the project planned for Manhattan. Ambassador Max Kampelman, a member of the Holocaust Council, disagrees: “Our building will demonstrate the tolerance of [American] culture, its ability to empathize with the suffering of all its people.” And Will is also for this museum in this place. It is “needed,” he says, “because nothing in nature is more remarkable, or dangerous, than the recuperative power of innocence in a liberal society.”

If Will and Kampelman are right, though, why remember only the Holocaust so prominently, so permanently? Why not also have empathizing memorials on the Mall to the suffering of the Irish, the Ukrainians, the Kampucheans, the Armenians, the blacks, the red Indians? Why not a Victims’ Row, where each American group can exhibit its wounds and appease its demons? In fact, and in no surprise to anyone, legislation calling for a National Museum of the Afro-American Heritage on the Mall has already been introduced in Congress.

The danger may be that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, far from exhibiting bad taste, will be superb, and will thus be apprehended as proof of the disproportionate attention-grabbing and guilt-manipulating power of one very small and shrinking group in the American tapestry. And the risk, if any, may be still greater if, unexpectedly, the memorial is brutally honest. Its architect, James Freed, has said that his building “will be stark and deliberately designed to make visitors feel uncomfortable.” But what if it is so effective, so honest and accusatory, that some visitors are insulted in their patriotism, or become ill and drop out? For the Holocaust did not happen outside history. Nor, despite the fact that it did not occur in the New World, did America come out of those years with a clean record.

It can be argued that if visitors to the Washington memorial-museum are to be truly served, they will have to be informed at the very start about the origins of anti-Semitism in Christian doctrine. Then, along the way, in the midst of the horrors, maybe close to the authentic boxcar which is being brought over from Poland, they would have to learn, not only that the New York Times knew exactly what was happening at Auschwitz and chose to hush the news, but that FDR refused to order the bombing of the railroad to the gas chambers, and that the State Department saw to it that the number of lifesaving visas was kept to a minimum. George Will would rather that all that were not highlighted—the place on the Mall “should be an institution of understanding, not accusation.”

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The easier it goes on such facts, the easier the museum may be for tourists to take and the less harm it may do to Jews in the future. Yet there is no telling for sure. America is a strange and wonderful country, where the flag is burned and life goes on. Irving Kristol has warned that finally America is a Christian, not a Judeo-Christian, country, yet it may turn out to be able to assimilate even a terrifying, accusatory memorial within sight of the White House and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, with no ill effects to anyone. The current director of the project may be right when he says that “Jews who resist the notion of a Holocaust museum on federal land tend to be those who are not comfortable as Jews or as Americans.”

Miller—the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father—seems comfortable enough, but she is aware that to erect the museum is to take a perhaps unnecessary chance. She prefers the New York memorial because of its less touchy location and because it aims to put the Holocaust within the broader sweep of Jewish history. She also likes a project at Yale which is collecting the videotaped testimony of survivors for serious students, not tourists. This she calls crucial, since by focusing attention on individuals it combats “memory’s most virulent enemy—abstraction.” She declares that we owe this focus not just to the survivors and to those who were murdered but to ourselves, for unless we can keep it in mind that the Holocaust was comprised of the suffering of individuals, each with a face and name, ignorance and forgetfulness will prevail, depriving Jews and Gentiles of their “surest defense” against the repetition of “such gigantic cruelty.”

Miller’s respect, sympathy, almost awe for the survivors come across strongly. “The majority,” she notes in her chapter on the U.S., “came here.” This is incorrect—more went to Israel. She might have given a third dimension to her book by considering how the Holocaust is remembered, memorialized, and used in the Jewish state; but for some reason she has not done so. If in Europe the problem of memory has become mainly a non-Jewish one, and in the U.S. one for both Jews and Gentiles, in Israel the survivors and the new, presumably unmarked, generations are free to face the past as they choose, without needing to worry what kind of impression they are making on non-Jews.

The result ranges from the sensational to the appropriate. There is Meir Kahane’s scarifying Museum of the Potential Holocaust in Jerusalem. There is the exhibit on resistance at the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz. And, most important, there is Yad Vashem, the government-sponsored institute, publishing house, and museum. Its mandate when set up by the Knesset in 1953 was a multiple one. It was to “ensure that the world never forgets,” to preserve the memory of the murdered Jews and of those Gentiles who tried to help them, and to teach Israelis and Jews in general. Inevitably, besides a mandate, Yad Vashem too has an agenda, which of course is Zionist. A visitor is supposed to be persuaded that what happened could not have happened had there been a Jewish state.

Yad Vashem these days is strapped for money. One reason is that it has to fight with dozens of other claimants for a slice of the governmental budget. Another is that when its emissaries pass the hat in North America, they find that some of the biggest givers have already been reached by Washington, New York, or Los Angeles. A good quarter of the latest Forbes list of the “400 Richest Americans” are Jews. Some of these men are giving generously to help settle Soviet Jews in Zion. But when it comes to commemorating the Holocaust, they seem to feel that it is time to do so at home.

Nevertheless, the last and most nearly timeless project at Yad Vashem is coming to completion. This is a maze of ravines along which the names of every ravaged and vanished Jewish settlement in Europe are being carved in stone. The tacit realization behind this project is that despite all that we and our children and their children do and must do to keep them vivid, eventually the names and faces of those who were exterminated will be rubbed away by time, and all that will remain will be an abstraction. Hence these carvings, on this hillside.

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