Deformations of the Holocaust
Over the last year and a half, there has been a growing debate on what stance Jews should assume collectively toward the Holocaust, what role it should play in their institutional life, in their theology, and in their political thinking. The debate has been conducted in the pages of Jewish journals like the Reconstructionist, Sh’ma, Midstream, and the National Jewish Monthly, and has been given space in general magazines like the National Review, Newsweek (which sketched out the controversy in its religion section on March 10, 1980), and the New York Times Magazine (which in its September 14, 1980 issue ran a more detailed overview of the debate by Paula E. Hyman, with extensive quotations from a few of the disputants). As might be expected, different groups have seized on the Holocaust out of different motives, and various critics have objected to the entire trend for different reasons. I shall try to sort out the principal elements of this large and somewhat confusing picture, but first something needs to be said about the evolution of the Holocaust phenomenon in this country since the early 1970’s and about its publicly visible dimensions.
The two central events that would appear to have triggered the new consciousness of the Holocaust were the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I say “triggered” rather than “produced” because this turning of so many Jewish minds to the terrible vistas of genocide may have been inevitable sooner or later both as a response to the extremity of the original trauma and as an expression of the ambiguities and malaise of Jewish identity in our late, troubled stage of modernity. In any case, what many American Jews experienced in those anxious weeks before June 6, 1967—a time worth recalling now as our government provides hostile Arab states with offensive weapons—was the imminent possibility that three million Jews might be annihilated. Fortunately, that prospect of catastrophe proved to be founded on an inadequate assessment of the capability of the Israel Defense Force vis-à-vis the surrounding Arab armies. In the Arab surprise attack of 1973, however, it seemed, at least during the first days of the war, that the destruction of the state of Israel and a large part of its inhabitants might be within the reach of Egyptian tanks and Syrian rockets; and ever since, the thinking of Jews about their own historical condition has located it with increasing frequency between the threat of total destruction in the past and the danger of total destruction in the future.
This heightened emphasis on the Holocaust has been evident both in new institutions, to which substantial financial resources have been devoted, and in the more transient artifacts of popular culture. The late 70’s saw the publication of a spate of novels on the Holocaust, a subject that had been touched on only exceptionally and obliquely during the vogue of American Jewish writing a decade earlier. (An instructive index of changing times in this regard is provided by the Fall 1980 issue of the quarterly Judaism, which offers a group of three articles on the Holocaust in American fiction. Two of these pieces attempt to show that not only Malamud’s The Fixer but also his earlier novel The Assistant and Arthur Miller’s Focus are somehow really “about” the Holocaust, as though reference to genocide were now the touchstone of authenticity for all postwar fiction written by Jews.) The televised dramatization of Gerald Green’s Holocaust in the spring of 1978, on four consecutive evenings of prime time, has proved to be only the first in a parade of such programs. This fall, Arthur Miller’s concentration-camp drama, Playing for Time, was shown, with the vocal PLO supporter Vanessa Redgrave as a Jewish victim; a new television production of The Diary of Anne Frank has been aired; a dramatization of The Wall, John Hersey’s novel of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, is also in preparation; and the network offices are no doubt buzzing with ideas for other barbed-wire extravaganzas.
Meanwhile, between the televising of Gerald Green and of Arthur Miller, the President’s Commission on the Holocaust was established in the fall of 1978. The Commission, chaired by Elie Wiesel, made a tour of the death camps and of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem the following summer, and concluded its task with a series of recommendations to the President for the national memorializing of the Holocaust and the implementing of the lessons of conscience it should teach. It is not impugning the high seriousness of the Commission’s distinguished members to suggest that this, too, was in one respect a media event, and was perhaps chiefly conceived precisely as that by those in Washington who made it possible.
Outside the busy arena of the media, research, teaching, and publication on the Holocaust have been increasing apace, and the funding to support these activities is apparently generous. There are now half a dozen or more Holocaust research centers in this country, including Zachor, the National Holocaust Resource Center in New York, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles (I shall return to these later). There are at least three regular publications devoted to Holocaust concerns, one academic, one political, and one focused on public relations. A recent survey shows 93 courses on the Holocaust currently offered at American and Canadian colleges and universities; in nearly half these institutions, the course in question is the only one of any sort given on Jewish history or culture. Temple University has a full-fledged graduate program in Holocaust studies within the field of religion. I do not have an exact count of professorships in Holocaust studies, but private donors to American universities have shown an alacrity for endowing chairs in this subject before all other areas of Judaica.
Since one may readily sense a querulous note in my report of these developments, let me hasten to say that I do not for a moment question the importance of a deepened and more detailed historical understanding of the Nazi effort to destroy the Jewish people. The Holocaust, as the proponents of these various new research programs have argued, has been the central ghastly event of our century and an awesome watershed of Jewish historical experience. Given its abysmal significance, not only are we obliged never to forget what happened, but we have a moral imperative to try to understand to the best of our limited capacity the causes of this unprecedented enormity, its mechanics, its consequences, and perhaps even (if that is really possible) its concrete reality for the victims. We surely need the work of serious historians like Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Yehuda Bauer, and Raul Hilberg; and, as in other areas of culture, intrinsically important activity may derive a certain unexpected advantage from the groundswell of a vogue: an exemplary piece of historical inquiry like Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews (1975) might not have gotten the audience and the critical attention it did had it been published earlier.
The new wave of interest in the Holocaust, then, might be described as the epidemic excess of a necessity, and some of what is being done at least in part through its impetus may help achieve the sort of painful knowledge of the past with which we cannot dispense. Nevertheless, I would suggest that serious distortions of the Holocaust itself and, what is worse, of Jewish life occur when the Holocaust is commercialized, politicized, theologized, or academicized—all of which processes seem to be occurring today in varying degree and manner. Since we have just touched on the burgeoning of Holocaust studies on American campuses, let me comment first on the problems involved in the assimilation of this subject by the academy. From that issue, I shall go on to the crucial, potentially explosive question of the political ramifications of focusing on the Holocaust, with a brief sidelong glance at theology and commercialism.
To begin with, it should be noted that a topic or event, however momentous, is not an academic discipline, and that perspectives are skewed when, for budgetary or political reasons, a topic is made into a discipline. We do not have, and certainly should not have, academic majors in World War II or in slavery, and the same should be true for the Holocaust, which needs to be studied in the larger disciplinary perspective of modern European history and Jewish history. The establishing of Holocaust studies as a discipline or at least as a central sub-discipline also has grave consequences in the allocation of scarce academic resources. Although some of the specialists in the field have proclaimed their conviction that it is as important to study how the Jews lived as how they died, that is not the direction in which a good deal of new funding is channeled. One should recall those forty or so institutions of higher learning where a student may be instructed in the various phases of the Final Solution but has nowhere to turn in the curriculum to find out what the Haskalah was, how a page of Talmud reads, or who Judah Hanasi might have been.
In the past twelve months, American university presses—another sector of the academy seriously hampered by budgetary restrictions—have published three books on the literature of the Holocaust, Edward Alexander’s The Resonance of Dust1 Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s By Words Alone,2 and Alvin H. Rosenfeld’s A Double Dying;3 and I am aware of at least three more book-length studies of this general topic now in progress. Each of these three recently published volumes has its distinctive virtues (as well as certain drawbacks I will mention momentarily), but the nagging question of distribution of human and financial resources persists. For in this same period—and indeed, a good deal longer than that—no book in English has been published on modern Yiddish or Hebrew literature. One wonders if the larger social and cultural purposes of scholarship are better served by pondering the literary refractions of mass murder or by undertaking, say, a critical biography of Sholem Aleichem.
Still another underlying problem with the academicization of the Holocaust is the unhappy effect of naturalizing the horror by making it part of the curriculum. Lionel Trilling described a closely related process when he observed in Beyond Culture how the university study of radically disturbing modern writers like Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Kafka had domesticated the rage and terror they expressed, converting those anguished attitudes into the bland pieties of a new intelligentsia. Yehuda Bauer, the Israeli historian of the Holocaust, has made much the same point in a trenchant comment on his own teaching experience: “I can testify myself to the ease with which you can describe murder and then turn it into a seminar paper.” Of the three recently published studies of Holocaust literature, the one that comes closest to this pitfall is Sidra Ezrahi’s By Words Alone. Hers is the most patiently researched and comprehensive of the three books (the other two are really collections of critical essays), and though she does make intelligent discriminations, even distinguishing good from not so good in this multifaceted literature of catastrophe, there is something a little chilling about the taxonomic impulse (of course, much academic work is necessarily taxonomic) that subdivides the various reactions to genocide into documentation-as-art, “concentrationary realism,” survival literature, mythologizing literature, and so forth.
The effect of this classifying procedure is to distance the actual events while at the same time assembling from them a nightmarish gallery of horrific images. It is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of offering a critical representation of a long series of representations of an ultimate obscenity, and the Alexander and Rosenfeld books are not entirely free of this sense of anthologizing horrors while trying to understand a “new order of human consciousness” (Rosenfeld) or “the historical situation of the Jewish people” (Alexander). Rosenfeld and Alexander, the former attuned to the fine modulations of poetic expression, the latter interested in the political implications of his subject, convey the horrors embodied in the texts they discuss with a certain eloquence lacking in Mrs. Ezrahi’s more academic prose, but perhaps eloquence itself may also be an inadvertent betrayal of the dead, literary criticism’s peculiar version of that academic domestication of murder which Yehuda Bauer evokes.
The academic aspect of Edward Alexander’s study is perhaps most evident in the amount of space he devotes to summarizing exposition of the fiction and poetry and diaries he considers, something about which he himself expresses uneasiness in his preface but which he feels is necessary because of the relative unfamiliarity of many of the works to American readers. The ultimate aim of Alexander’s project, however, is decidedly unacademic, for it openly uses these literary responses to genocide in order to conduct a passionately engaged argument about the present condition—he calls it a “desperate” one—of the Jewish people. Though he devotes a chapter to theological construals of the Holocaust, the “lesson” of the European catastrophe as he sees it is fundamentally political and starkly unambiguous: the world wants to destroy the Jews, and the only reasonable response is the most alertly militant Zionism. There are elements of this position that seem to me misconceived, though it is actually closer to a sane inference from the awful facts of the Holocaust than the other main positions that have been assumed.
Recent attempts to appropriate the Holocaust form a broad spectrum. There is a militantly particularist Right, with which I would associate Alexander; it includes such organizations as the Americans for a Safe Israel (an American support group for the Likud in Israel) in which he is active, and the Jewish Defense League. The antithetical counterpart is a radical universalist Left, focused in a quarterly publication called The Generation After. In the middle of the spectrum, with manifestly greater numbers and greater financial resources, is the group around Irving Greenberg’s Holocaust Resource Center, which publishes the magazine Shoah (the name is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust). The emphases of this centrist group are more frequently theological and academic than political, but its members characteristically try to strike a balance between universalism and particularism, defending Jewish claims of persecution while pleading for a “politics of conscience” that will protest genocide or the denial of human rights wherever they occur. Several members of the Shoah circle were recruited for the President’s Commission on the Holcoaust and its supporting staff and advisory board.
The relations among these three groups can most readily be seen in how each conceives the kind of historical occurrence represented by the Holocaust. For the Shoah circle—which includes Alvin Rosenfeld and Elie Wiesel as well as Irving Greenberg and the theologian Emil Fackenheim—it is a unique Event (the capital letter is a frequent usage) in historical time, like Sinai; and no less than the great desert theophany, it confronts us with mysteries to brood over. The Generation After, which like Shoah prints its title over a photographic background of barbed wire, is so far from conceiving the Holocaust as a unique Event that it insists the Holocaust in fact has happened many times, and is probably about to happen again.
The contributors to The Generation After, whose allegiances are with the “progressive Jewish movement” among college students, with radical feminism, the anti-nuclear movement, and the Third World, are apprehensive of a new fascism in America that will try to destroy the Jews and others, but they give a peculiar weight in their outlook to the others. Holocausts thus are seen to have overtaken the Gypsies, homosexuals, American Indians, and a variety of other groups that have stood in the way of the “socioeconomic interests” of capitalism. (One writer actually equates the Gatling gun, which he supposes to have been devised for the purpose of massacring the Indians, with the Nazis’ Zyklon B gas.) Wiesel, the President’s Commission, and the Shoah group are roundly castigated for their establishment politics. Although one vehement critic of the entire Holocaust vogue, Arnold Jacob Wolf, has objected to it because he fears it will turn Jews into chauvinists and reactionaries, The Generation After vividly demonstrates that Jews will let the Holocaust make of them whatever they like. This journal, as it announces under its title, is “committed to the lessons of the Holocaust,” and, in a world imagined as a continuing proliferation of holocausts, the chief of those lessons is an unswerving universalism, involving a firm stand against all genocides, “including,” as one contributor confidently puts it, “those perpetrated by the U.S.”
The group around The Generation After is small and in itself politically insignificant, but its predisposition to universalize the Holocaust is shared by large numbers today—and, indeed, such universalization may well be the precondition for the new marketability of the Holocaust in the mass media. I suspect that William Styron’s arresting if flawed novel, Sophie’s Choice (1979), would not have enjoyed the popular success it did if it had not placed such stress on the idea that the Holocaust was not exclusively or perhaps even primarily a Jewish affair.
The most egregious and also ominous instance of the universalizing tendency in recent months was provided by the ineffable Vanessa Redgrave. In assuming the role of a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz, given her notorious public association with both the PLO and the Libyan center for international terrorism, she was of course implicitly conveying the idea that the Palestinians were the new Jews, that she could play a Jewish victim precisely because she was identified with the Palestinians.
But the paths of universalization have still more tortuous turns. The CBS production of Playing for Time recruited extras to take the parts of Auschwitz prisoners from women living in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area who had gone through the Three Mile Island nuclear scare. It is not clear whether Miss Redgrave was the originator of this brilliant idea, but she publicly defended it in terms that the contributors to The Generation After would readily understand: “These women knew they had been treated exactly as fascism had treated the people they were playing.” Such pernicious nonsense is hardly surprising from a member of the Workers Revolutionary party, but it is disquieting to see it endorsed in the mass media, as Jack Kroll did (Newsweek, September 29, 1980), justifying this promiscuous extension of the concept of Holocaust in the following language: “Perhaps we who smugly know that bumbling bureaucrats and lying politicians in a flawed democracy are not ‘exactly’ like fascist monsters have reached the point where our admirable liberal or conservative nose for such nuances [sic] inhibits our social energy.” Heaven help us from the “social energy” that would be released by this sort of appropriation of the model of Nazism to explain democratic realities.
In contrast to the proliferation of holocausts imagined by the Left and its sentimental fellow-travelers, for the Right there is only one Holocaust, but it is not a unique Event to be pondered, as it is for the theological-historical Center, because it has not really stopped happening. The Jewish Defense League’s slogan, “Never again!” is essentially an ellipsis for something like: never again will we allow the process of murder working against us on all sides to achieve the success it did in the Nazi years. Edward Alexander’s formulation is instructive: “The Holocaust . . . let loose against the Jews a primordial energy of destructiveness that has by no means spent itself. The more I read of the novels, poems, memoirs, and diaries discussed in the essays that comprise this book, the more I felt I was reading not of a past finished and dead but of one continuous (though not, of course, identical) with the total form of our present life.”
Threatened by a still pulsating energy of destructiveness, the Jews on the Right have no dependable allies. The Jews on the Left, surrounded by socioeconomic interests promising ever new holocausts, are naturally allied with Gentile progressives (a new managing editor of The Generation After is identified as “a Ukrainian-Polish-Italian non-Jew”). The Jews in the Center, contemplating the awesome revelation of Auschwitz, are joined not by non-Jews but by Christians, some of whom, in the pages of Shoah and elsewhere, grapple with the far-reaching consequences of the Holocaust for Christian theology.
Let me suggest that any effort to make the Holocaust the ultimate touchstone of Jewish values, whether political or religious, is bound to lead to distortions of emphasis and priority, or worse, because of the staggering enormity of the event itself, which surely has connections with earlier disasters and subsequent dangers faced by Jews, but which is also different in kind from them. The shrilly ideological distortions of the Left need no further comment; the complicated and variegated potential for distortion of the Center is a topic to which I shall return by way of conclusion; the distortion engendered on the Right needs to be distinguished carefully from that part of its position which is a necessary political inference from the facts of the Holocaust.
After the terrifyingly easy slaughter of millions of defenseless European Jews, it is painfully clear that a prerequisite for Jewish existence is a physical homeland where the means and initiative of defense will be in the hands of the Jews as a sovereign people. The degree of power a small nation can exert is obviously limited in a world governed by vast global forces and subject to oil blackmail. Nevertheless, Jews cannot now contemplate divesting themselves of whatever modicum of power they can manage to wield. One hardly needs to be associated with the Zionist Right to reach this conclusion. The Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, a vocal figure on the Left in Israel and a vehement opponent of many Begin policies, puts this political consequence of the Holocaust in the following sharp terms: There once was, he tells his American lecture audiences, a Jewish “shadow state” that in many essential respects far surpassed the present state of Israel. This shadow state, which extended over a large part of Central and Eastern Europe, had several million citizens; its own rich language, Yiddish; a flourishing theater, press, and educational system; elaborate institutions of self-governance and social welfare. All that it lacked, Oz concludes, was a couple of thousand tanks and perhaps an atomic bomb or two; and because of that, it was utterly destroyed.
The difference between this position and Edward Alexander’s is the difference between recognizing after the Holocaust that we live in a dangerous world and must act accordingly, and imagining that Jews everywhere (and especially, of course, in Israel) are confronted with “a primordial energy of destructiveness,” which amounts to a mythologized version of the pragmatic political perception. To be sure, Alexander notes that the forces threatening Jewish survival today are continuous rather than identical with Nazism, but the effect of such Holocaust-centered thinking is to introduce at least a faint undertone of panic into political discussion by superimposing the images of past murderers on present adversaries. Any Israeli government can make concessions to the various Arab states or to the Palestinians only with the greatest wariness, acutely conscious of the practical dangers each concession might entail. But to invoke the Holocaust as the supreme paradigm of the historical experience of the Jewish people is to preclude the idea of political bargaining and concessions, for every potential advantage granted to one’s opponent, whatever might be given in exchange, will be seen as a paving stone on the road to extinction.
The Holocaust is really no guide to the Zionist political enterprise for the simple reason that even without the background of genocide, the dangers confronting Israel would be just as imminent and the means required to deal with those dangers just as evident. The project of establishing Jewish sovereignty in Palestine was begun decades before the Final Solution, and if we can imagine for a moment a Jewish state without the occurrence of the Holocaust, its struggle for survival would not have been very different. Even if such a state were a fifth the size of Israel today, by the harsh logic of conflicting nationalisms, it would still be faced with implacable Arab resistance, reviled as an alien wedge in the Arab heartland, and threatened with terrorism and invasion to which it could only respond with constant armed vigilance. As things are, consciousness of the Holocaust is hardly what motivates the Israeli soldier to fight, and it is difficult to see how it provides any really useful point of orientation for Zionist policy or even, I would contend, for Zionist ideology.
There are, however, two related aspects of the threat to Israel that have been aggravated by the accomplished fact of the Nazi mass murders; and even if they do not fundamentally alter the intrinsic political predicament of a Jewish state in the Middle East, it is well to keep them soberly in mind. First, the general awareness that Jewish millions have within recent memory been so easily slaughtered makes the very idea of wiping out the Jewish people more imaginable—and for some, I suspect, perhaps actually more acceptable. (One may even be permitted to wonder whether all those televised images of gaunt, helpless Jews on their way to the ovens touch viewers with sympathy or rather stir on the shadow-side of their minds inchoate desires to see the job finished that the Germans began.) If the annihilation of the Jews has become a prospect that can be somehow contemplated, what often accompanies such contemplation, as a psychological defense mechanism against the guilt it might arouse, is a violent twisting around of the historical terms of genocide: the Israelis are cast as Nazis, the Arabs as their innocent “Jewish” victims. This brutal distortion, of course, has been abundantly exploited by Arab propaganda and has been virtually endorsed by the United Nations. It has made Israel’s international stance more precarious, and it is enough to put any Jew on the defensive, though such use of the vocabulary of genocide by Israel’s determined enemies should not lead to a mirror-reversal in which a perfect “continuity,” as Edward Alexander would have it, is seen between Nazi pathology and Arab hostility.
In any case, the dominant Center of the spectrum of American responses to the Holocaust, as I have already noted, has been less concerned with politics than with theology, and the problematic nature of the link between religion and the memory of genocide deserves comment. The most influential thinker in religious and academic circles preoccupied with the Holocaust has been Emil Fackenheim. His intellectual enterprise over the past decade has been directed toward creating a theology of Jewish survival after Nazism that would embrace all self-affirming Jews, including those who profess no belief in God. What he claims all such Jews hear is a “commanding voice” from Auschwitz that tells them they must persist as Jews, lest they grant Hitler a posthumous victory.
This notion has been variously criticized for its conceptual fuzziness and for the way it displaces a God of life commanding life with a horrendous focus of death commanding life in a sense, but without a revealed Torah to define life’s meaning and purpose. One thing that must be said in Fackenheim’s defense on this point is that his survivalist theology does succeed in articulating a vague but powerful impulse felt in various ways by a large part of the Jewish people since 1945. In the face of all those terrible murders, many Jews, whatever their ideological commitments, have been moved by a strong resolution to continue as Jews, and Fackenheim as a thinker is deeply in touch with this feeling.
What I would object to, however, about Fackenheim’s position is the way it coopts Jewish secularity, transforming every contemporary decision to go on as a Jew into an ultimately theological vocation. It seems to me a suspect transformation, but it is characteristic of the large Center group, for whom in the final analysis both theological reflection on the Holocaust and academic inquiry into it are ways of working out issues of Jewish identity, so that the religious blurs into the secular, the existential into the scholarly. On this murky issue of genocide and Jewish identity, Jacob Neusner has shrewdly observed (National Review, August 3, 1979) that the television series Holocaust was the Jewish equivalent of the televised Roots for American blacks—a way of feeling ethnic distinctiveness, of rescuing out of a “heritage” of unspeakable suffering a kind of perverse collective pride. In a more recent article (Reconstructionist, April 1980), Neusner aptly generalizes on this whole process: “What we have done is to make the murder of the Jews of Europe into one of the principal components of the civil religion of American Jews.”
It should be self-evident why this new ethnic fellowship in victimhood is unacceptable. For three millennia the Jews have been a people holding a belief in a grand though dangerous historical destiny dictated by its covenant with God. It is true that this people intermittently underwent defeat as a national entity and murderous persecution as a minority, but suffering was never really made the rationale for its existence. Even when martyrology has been introduced into the liturgy—as in the verse-narrative of the ten sages killed in the 2nd-century rebellion against Rome, which is part of the Musaf prayer for Yom Kippur—there is a final emphasis on a transcendent if inscrutable purpose served by such deaths. The recent European dead, however, were for the most part victims, not martyrs, trapped in a vast technology of mass murder, with no sense of purpose, very often with no sense of being Jews altogether. (To be sure, a small minority of the victims of the Nazis must have had a consciousness of themselves as religious martyrs, just as there must have been mere victims among the martyred Jews of earlier periods, but there is a drastic difference in proportion between the two orders of historical experience.)
When, as frequently occurs these days, the traditional Yom Kippur martyrology is replaced with memoirs of the death camps and ghettos, the quest for relevance in effect leads to ensconcing in public worship evocations of sheer horror. I do not want to suggest that the memorialization of the recent European catastrophe has no place in Jewish liturgy, but the institutional centering of a victimization so unprecedented as to resist meaning may be more than anything else an appeal to Jewish masochism, an attempt to base collective identity on a sense of dread or—if we are utterly honest about these matters—on the special frisson of vicariously experiencing the unspeakable, in all the material comfort and security of our American lives.
Irving Greenberg, according to Newsweek, envisages a Jewish religious future in which we will eat the rotten bread of Auschwitz or the potato peelings of Bergen-Belsen, as now we eat bitter herbs on Passover, in a ritual reenactment of past suffering. One respects the seriousness of Green-berg’s intentions, but the prospect he conjures up is a perversion of historical Judaism. On Passover we eat both bitter herbs and matzah, “the bread of affliction,” as highly stylized invocations of a suffering which is no more than the first moment in a joyous process of national liberation, the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The nature of the Holocaust does not allow any such assumption of the hideous affliction into hope or triumph. Only by violent wrenching can the destruction of European Jewry be “justified” as the first stage in the birth of the state of Israel. The only real exodus from the camps was in smoke.
The taste of Bergen-Belsen as a rite of Jewish identity amidst American affluence is pursued in a different style by the Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the West Coast counterpart to Greenberg’s Holocaust Resource Center. The Wiesenthal Center is a quintessentially Los Angeles version of this new “civil religion” of American Jewry, and it will be a useful concluding example because it illustrates how a peculiarly American mode of boosterism and organizational know-how can be incongruously yoked with the memorialization of mass murder. The cover of Response, the publication of the Wiesenthal Center, is mercifully free of barbed-wire designs. The left-hand top margin of its first page is carefully imprinted in Hebrew boldface with the abbreviation for the Aramaic rubric, bisayata dishemaya, “with the help of God.” The Center staff seems largely run by clean-shaven Orthodox rabbis in three-piece suits, surrounded here in the photographs by sleek-looking donors, sympathetic Senators, and movie stars. Those columns of Response not dealing with fund-raising activities are commendably devoted to current questions like Nazi war criminals still enjoying the benefits of American citizenship, pressures against CBS’s showing of Playing for Time with Vanessa Redgrave, and the threat to the survival of the Falashas in Ethiopia. The real vision, however, of the Wiesenthal Center is embodied in a multimedia project for which funds are still being solicited. The technical dimensions of the project must be read to be believed:
This multi-screen, multi-channel sound, audiovisual experience of the Holocaust will utilize a 40 foot wide and 23 foot high screen in the configuration of an arch, three 16mm film projectors and a unique Cinemascope lens, eighteen 35 mm slide projectors and pentaphonic sound (five source), all linked to a central computer which will control all functions simultaneously. It will be a definitive educational medium on the subject.
Definitive, one might say, except for the omission of a computerized, convector-current olfactory unit to waft about in seven presequenced patterns the odor of rotten bread, potato peels, and scorched flesh. It is hard to know what should be regretted most about all this: the abysmal lack of faith in the human imagination to reconstruct the nature of evil from the printed page or even from the photographed image; the mindless delight in all the intricate toys of technology that money can buy; the disparity between the wretched reality of the anus mundi in Silesia and this glitter and dazzle and pointless profusion of means in sunny California. I do not suppose that the Wiesenthal Center multimedia project is typical of the whole flurry of American Jewish activity around the subject of the Holocaust, but I do think it is an extreme revelation of an underlying direction of this activity. Mustering all the riches of American electronic gimmickry, the conceivers of the project above all want to make the Holocaust, as they say, an “experience,” to sell to the millions. The ultimate aim is not to ponder or remember or understand the Holocaust but to simulate it, and through that simulation to create what can never be created in this spurious manner, a sense of identity.
In a dozen different ways, we falsify our lives as Jews by setting them so dramatically in the shadow of the crematoria. This sickly taint of genocide spreads farther than one might imagine in contemporary Jewish thinking. Thus, A. J. Heschel, who since his death in 1972 has been made into American Judaism’s leading candidate for canonization, has been praised (by Jacob Neusner, among others) for celebrating the spiritual treasures of East European Jewry instead of being obsessed with its annihilation. But in 1965, at the Jerusalem home of a prominent historian of anti-Semitism, I heard Heschel announce that after the Holocaust, no Jewish parent had the moral right to raise his child as a Jew—unless, that is, he could do it out of the conviction that he was bringing the child into an eternal covenant with God—because he might by that conferral of Jewish identity simply be preparing another victim to be slaughtered.
Any such notions, I think, must be strenuously resisted on the most compelling moral grounds, and nothing could illustrate more strikingly how our existence is warped by being viewed in the dark glass of the Holocaust. We can never put out of our minds what happened to our people in Europe, but their reality is not ours, and we are entitled to impart to our children whatever seems good and whole and precious in our lives as Jews without constantly peering in terror at imagined future vistas of boxcars and bayonets. We are entitled, in other words, to the simple substance of normalcy, free from the mesmerizing vision of murders past and potential. No one has stated this with more persuasive succinctness than Jacob Neusner: “The fact is that the living live. The choice is about the future, not the past.”
1 Ohio State University Press, 256 pp., $15.00.
2 University of Chicago Press, 262 pp., $15.00.
3 Indiana University Press, 210 pp., $17.50.