In “Auschwitz and the Professors” [June], Gabriel Schoenfeld distorts my words, takes quotations out of context, and puts them into interpretations that bear no relationship to my ideas. All in all, his article is a malicious and reckless attack on my work and on the work of other scholars. To imply that I “assign co-responsibility for the catastrophe [of the Holocaust]” to Jewish men and Nazis is a claim so vile as not to warrant a reply. No one who has conscientiously read my work or heard me speak could arrive at such an outrageous conclusion.
Mr. Schoenfeld demonstrates ignorance about the study of the Holocaust as well as ignorance about the development of the study of women and gender. It is important to note that Holocaust scholarship has evolved to take into account the different experiences of children and adults, rich and poor, religious and secular, as well as women and men. Together with age and class, sex and gender are universal categories—being in one category or another always has consequences. As I point out in my article, “The Split Between Gender and the Holocaust,” in the collection edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust:
Jewish women and men experienced unrelieved suffering during the Holocaust, but Jewish women carried the burdens of sexual victimization, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, killing of newborn babies in the camps to save the mothers, care of children, and many decisions about separation from children. For Jewish women, the Holocaust produced a set of experiences, responses, and memories that do not always parallel those of men. As Pauline [a survivor] said, “Everything else is the same. But there are certain things that are different.” If in the gas chambers or before the firing squads all Jews seemed alike to the Nazis, the path to this end was not always the same for women and men.
The study of women in the Holocaust is a legitimate and important field of research; the feminists who study and write about women during the Holocaust are serious and committed. To serve his own political agenda, Mr. Schoenfeld attacks the legitimacy of the field, and, in the process, trivializes the human experience of victims in the Holocaust.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
As a former director of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research institute, permit me to comment on Gabriel Schoenfeld’s disturbing article, “Auschwitz and the Professors.”
The Holocaust is taught in many universities, colleges, and community colleges, even secondary and intermediate schools throughout the United States. I do not know how many of these classrooms Mr. Schoenfeld has visited, but I have visited many on each level and I have attended conferences on the Holocaust for teachers and scholars throughout the world. The Holocaust is taught with fear and trembling, with reverence for the subject and respect for its victims almost everywhere I have been.
My colleagues do not undertake their teaching lightly. The “unhappy effect of naturalizing the horror” that Robert Alter warned of two decades ago in connection with academic studies of the Holocaust has not occurred. Indeed, the magnitude of the horror makes its naturalization impossible.
I suspect that Mr. Schoenfeld knows that Harvard’s failure to appoint a professor to the chair of Holocaust studies had nothing to do with the academic excellence of the candidates and everything to do with the ideological composition of the search committee and the academic politics of the Cambridge campus. And COMMENTARY readers should have been so informed.
In fact, Harvard never seriously interviewed one of the best candidates for the chair. Its final offer to have the Holocaust scholar Saul Friedländer deliver some lectures hardly fit the definition of an endowed chair and was properly rejected.
I did not know that Debórah Dwork was a feminist scholar until I read Mr. Schoenfeld’s article. I did know that her two books on the Holocaust were precisely that, books on the Holocaust. Children With a Star was published by Yale University Press and was well reviewed in the professional literature, hardly the marks of an academic slouch. And Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present, which she co-authored with Robert Jan van Pelt, is an original and excellent study of the largest of the Nazi death camps. I did not detect then and cannot detect now any feminist overtones in this work. I did detect then and do detect now excellent scholarship, the mark of true professionals.
We must be reading different books or reading the same books quite differently. Mr. Schoenfeld seems to catalogue the sins of some feminist scholars with a blatantly ideological agenda. I believe that the essays in the Ofer-Weitzman volume, Women in the Holocaust, demonstrate that a study of gender can offer some insights into the unique experience of women in the Holocaust, but I also believe that gender mattered little in comparison to one’s Jewish identity. Some essays in the book are better than others, some more informative, some more radical, and some quite balanced. Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman invited both ardent feminists and those who felt that such perspectives were essentially irrelevant to the study of the Holocaust. In their book, all viewpoints were represented—I think quite fairly.
I sense that Mr. Schoenfeld is quite harsh on my former colleague, Joan Ringelheim. She is a feminist scholar, true enough, and proudly so. But she is employed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as director of education because, among her other fine qualities, she is known to be a fine teacher and an excellent manager of educational projects. I worked with her when she directed the Museum’s oral-history department and in the planning of the Museum’s permanent exhibitions.
Although there were many levels of checks and balances in the process of vetting the content of the Museum’s exhibitions, Joan Ringelheim deserves a significant share of credit for the accuracy and balance of the presentation. But her views on women and the Holocaust did not prevail in the creation of the Museum: witness the critique of the Museum offered by Ms. magazine and Joan Ringelheim’s own critique of the Museum’s permanent exhibition.
But whether one agrees with her views or not, one must concede that without Joan Ringelheim’s work, the issue of women’s experience itself would not have been raised and the general consensus of the field would not have emerged.
I believe that Mr. Schoenfeld lacks faith in the integrity of the academic study of the Holocaust that has respect for its craft, fear and trembling for the event it studies, and a sensitivity for its victims.
While berating the ideological disfigurement of the Holocaust, how is it that Mr. Schoenfeld omits all mention of the ideologies of the Right that led to the debacle at Harvard? Would it be fair to ask if he might have an ideological agenda masked behind his views?
Los Angeles, California
Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman:
Gabriel Schoenfeld has grossly distorted the serious scholarship in our book, Women in the Holocaust. If scholars do not study the Holocaust, it will be forgotten. And if scholars do not pay attention to the unique testimonies of women survivors, they will be forgotten—or their experiences will be assumed to have been identical to those of men. But they were not.
It is important to emphasize that we are not asserting that women’s experiences during the Holocaust were totally different from those of men. That would be as false and misleading as to argue that their experiences were identical to those of men. Of course the Nazis were trying to kill all Jews. But there were many instances where survivors’ experiences were influenced by their gender, and it is only by understanding the experiences that were unique to women—as well as those that were relevant to all Jews—that we can provide a complete account of what happened.
In the introduction to Women in the Holocaust we point to four systematic sources of gender differences during the Holocaust. The first was the prewar roles of Jewish men and women. Both men and women underwent profound crises, but for opposite reasons: men lost their work and with it both their economic security and their status; women, by contrast, had to cope with a new and growing burden of domestic work.
A second source of differences arose from the fact that Jews believed, at least in the beginning, that the Nazis were “civilized” and would not harm women and children. As a result, most Jewish families gave priority to husbands, sons, and fathers in formulating their plans for migration, hiding, and escape, while women and children remained at home; but they were not safe there, and often became the victims of sweeping arrests.
A third set of structural differences was imposed by Nazi edicts dictating different regulations, work requirements, and sanctions. The most notorious such policy was the targeting of pregnant women for immediate death in the concentration camps.
Finally, men and women reacted differently to their progressive victimization—from their initial responses to danger in the early years of the war; to the new roles that women assumed during the ghetto period when men faced greater dangers; to their different experiences in hiding, passing, and in the Jewish underground; to their different coping mechanisms in the concentration camps. For each of these subjects there is a detailed historical analysis in our book.
The portraits of women in our book show us their individuality, strength, and humanity—and deepen our understanding of the Holocaust. For Gabriel Schoenfeld to characterize this serious scholarship as “feminist consciousness-raising” is both false and misleading.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
George Mason University
As a Holocaust scholar and survivor who has devoted more than twenty years to the research and teaching of the subject, I read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article with interest. I agree with him that both academic research and teaching of the Holocaust are not consistently of the highest quality, and I would welcome improvements. That is precisely why I fully support Debórah Dwork’s statement that it is “appalling” that Harvard failed to establish a program in Holocaust studies, and am delighted that the Center for Holocaust Studies she heads at Clark University has been gaining in recognition.
I wish Mr. Schoenfeld had been aware of Debórah Dwork’s scholarship, covering a wide range of publications, including works on children and Auschwitz. I would also like to inform Mr. Schoenfeld that her participation in the negotiations with the Polish government was motivated by a strong desire to protect the historical sites of both Auschwitz and Birkenau from commercial encroachments and abuses. I am familiar with her program at Clark University and feel that a visit to it might have changed Mr. Schoenfeld’s opinion.
Finally, I want to emphasize that I am honored to have my article included in the excellent book edited by Dalia Ofer and Leonore J. Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust. Perhaps Mr. Schoenfeld could refrain from placing all research about women into the same category.
In view of his almost wholesale condemnation, I wonder whom Gabriel Schoenfeld would appoint as appropriate guardians of this field. Does he have in mind journalists? Perhaps people with strong political agendas?
University of Connecticut
Robert Jan van Pelt:
Reading Gabriel Schoenfeld’s misogynist rant against some of the recent developments in Holocaust research and education, I found it simply offensive to see the work of a group of women scholars reduced to the benighted emanations of a witches’ sabbath. Mr. Schoenfeld found at least some magnanimity when discussing the work of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Steven T. Katz, whom he characterized as “serious scholars.” But his good will obviously ran out when discussing the scholarship of women.
It is, for example, easy to mock Debórah Dwork’s attempt to raise the possibility of a “gendered analysis” of the Auschwitz death camp after two-and-a-half pages of selective, decontextualized quotations from conference proceedings. It would have been more worthwhile to mention that her work on Jewish children during the Holocaust is recognized by all in the field as truly path-breaking.
As Debórah Dwork’s co-author of a standard work on the Auschwitz death camp (Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present, winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the Spiro Kostof Award), I contend that she should be given more respect when she addresses the position of women in Auschwitz, struggles with very real questions concerning the future of the Auschwitz memorial site, or succeeds in establishing an extraordinary center of graduate study of the Holocaust at Clark University. But in his article Mr. Schoenfeld denied Debórah Dwork and her female colleagues the benefit of the doubt given to male scholars.
What remained was pure caricature.
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article might have posed some significant questions for the study of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, his annoying, very selective use of “evidence” to make his case ignores any substantive or informed analysis.
What Mr. Schoenfeld fails to do is cite the best of the Holocaust scholars and writers, including Debórah Dwork, whose work is meticulously documented and carefully sensitive to the issues of popularization and clichés. Where are Lawrence Langer, Geoffrey Hartman, and Raul Hilberg in his article? Where are Christopher Browning (he manages to slip in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) and Martin Gilbert? Does Mr. Schoenfeld mean to suggest that Saul Friedländer, among the most respected and thorough scholars in the field, is “simply spreading jargon, ideology, and distortions both monstrous and trivial”? Where, too, are the works and words of Primo Levi, and even Yehuda Bauer, who obviously does not now cling to his earlier warnings against “Holocaustology”? I suspect that Mr. Schoenfeld is a random consumer of Holocaust books; his article offers not the slightest clue that he is an informed one.
Mr. Schoenfeld has chosen some of the most egregious examples of misappropriation of the Holocaust. Each of us involved with Holocaust studies worries interminably about such travesties. When Alvin H. Rosenfeld wrote his article “The Americanization of the Holocaust” [COMMENTARY, June 1995], he, too, selected some of the most blatantly offensive and ridiculous examples of academic and nonacademic tripe.
Yet here is a classic case of wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater: the answer to such abuses of common sense, sensitivity, and good academic research is not the abandonment of the project. It is, rather, to keep such caveats as we can draw from them constantly in focus and to speak and write as honestly and clearly as possible.
Mr. Schoenfeld attacks Joan Ringelheim but does not disclose her very important contribution to oral history in her essay, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research,” in Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. The essay suggests directions for oral histories to proceed, broadening the questions and probing more deeply into some of the possible differences between the experiences of men and women during the Holocaust.
There is no point in arguing the case for Holocaust studies. It has become a respectable part of history and literature curricula, taught in interdisciplinary ways, with caution and constant awareness of the pitfalls that loom at every step of the way.
University of Michigan
Rondall R. Rice:
Gabriel Schoenfeld seriously distorts the structure and teaching style of the course on the Holocaust given at the United States Air Force Academy, and misrepresents the manner in which the Academy prepares America’s future officers and leaders.
Although not so noted, his information came from “The Holocaust Course at the United States Air Force Academy,” an article by a former history instructor, Major Edward Westermann (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 1996). Mr. Schoenfeld’s quotations are taken out of context and are wholly inappropriate, especially his assertion that the Academy’s course “rates first among its eighteen history-department offerings.” Westermann clearly noted that out of the eighteen history offerings, the Holocaust course rated second in cadet critiques—specifically, in how the students liked it and how it challenged them intellectually. Mr. Schoenfeld also clearly represents what he calls the course’s “role-playing exercises” as being trivial, and he seems to allude to them as enjoyable activities.
The role-playing exercises were written (not cadets acting out roles). The cadets were asked to write four essays, each representing a dilemma faced by different perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. (I might also note that history courses nationwide use such written exercises.) In one of them, perhaps the most important exercise for officers-in-training, cadets tackled the ethical decisions faced by German reserve police battalions in Poland in 1942. In another, they were required to confront the debate over the bombing of Auschwitz by placing themselves in the U.S. State Department in 1942; this debate is especially timely in an era when air power has been used to stem ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East.
Not only does Mr. Schoenfeld take Westermann’s quotes grossly out of context, he relies on an article that covered the 1993 course offering. As course chair for this past semester’s offering, I did not have the cadets write essays from a first-person historical perspective. However, we continued to engage them in discussions analyzing the decision-making and situational pressures faced by the Judenrat (the ghetto Jewish council) and the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, among others. These lessons were integrated into philosophical discussions of “war, morality, and the military profession” and the ethics of following orders.
United States Air Force Academy
Contrary to what Gabriel Schoenfeld says about my work, I have repeatedly and unambiguously stated that women’s behavior in Auschwitz and other camps reflected gender-specific, family-oriented habits—habits they learned prior to the Nazi era in their roles as women whose primary responsibilities centered on homemaking and nurturing.
In “Lessons Learned from Gentle Heroism: Women’s Holocaust Narratives” (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 1996), I wrote that “friendships, bonding, nurturance, and other permutations of caring can hardly be said to be genetic and exclusive characteristics of women.” In the Ofer-Weitzman anthology, I stated again that “such bonding was not exclusive to women, but [that] it is difficult to find consistent evidence [from memoirs] of men’s caring to the extent that women did.”
Elsewhere, I have argued that women and men experienced “different horrors within the same Hell” and that these differences were often a function of the fact that women were vulnerable to the Nazis in ways specific and exclusive to women. In a review-essay, “From a World Beyond: Women in the Holocaust,” I explained that “while Nazi policy in regard to the destruction of its enemies was not gender specific, Nazi practice was” (Feminist Studies, Fall 1996). Nowhere in my work have I “joyfully announc[ed]” anything about the barracks in Auschwitz. Nor have I ever suggested that I “coded” Holocaust memoirs. Indeed, I leave that methodology to sociologists and other social scientists; I am in literature as well as women’s studies.
Most scholarship about the Holocaust reflects sincere and successful attempts to respect the victims and survivors as individual people, not “variables, case studies, or gendered objects,” as Mr. Schoenfeld falsely accuses. He ought to hold himself to the same standards of reason and integrity that he requires of academics, feminist or otherwise.
There is no doubt that Holocaust studies, or “Holocaustology” as Gabriel Schoenfeld would have it, has become institutionalized in many American Universities. Undoubtedly, the rush to establish the field has revealed many problems, even some issues that border on kitsch. An undergraduate major in Holocaust studies seems to be rather obsessive, and I believe most academics would still cast their vote for a traditional major, with perhaps a course and independent study about the Holocaust as the curriculum warranted it. As acting director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, let me note here that our Center does not have an endowed chair and students cannot major or even minor in its courses.
Mr. Schoenfeld’s cynical approach to the Yale program in Genocide Studies suggests the naiveté of many who maintain the uniqueness of Jewish destruction without understanding other real genocides: Native American, Armenian, Roma-Sinti, and contemporary slaughters in Bosnia and Rwanda. To be sure, discourse about AIDS, battered women, and African-American slavery in the same breath as the Holocaust is a distortion.
At bottom is the political issue of how the Holocaust affects the Israeli sense of memory and the peacemaking process. John K. Roth’s nomination to direct the Holocaust Museum’s research institute raised the question of whether Israelis can behave like perpetrators of the past. Sadly, Roth made the mistake of telling the truth, which may have served to disqualify him from a position in which he would have had to ask hard and difficult questions, not to affirm the obvious.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Schoenfeld’s article has already been distributed widely in Europe by Holocaust-deniers as evidence that supports their own demented claims.
University of Minnesota
We, as teachers, scholars, and researchers, reject Gabriel Schoenfeld’s thesis in his article, “Auschwitz and the Professors,” and affirm that serious scholarship on the Holocaust within the university is both appropriate and necessary. Indeed, the vast body of knowledge that is the result of scholarship on the Holocaust has increased national and international awareness and understanding of this seminal event in the history of the world. Study of the Holocaust, especially in institutions of higher learning, is characterized much more by responsible scholarship than by ideological or self-serving approaches. Like other moral persons, we do not accept the exploitation and trivialization of the Holocaust in any sense. We, therefore, deplore Mr. Schoenfeld’s malicious and unfounded attack on the academic pursuit of the Holocaust.
Center for the Advanced
Study of Leadership
University of Maryland
University of Michigan
Center for Holocaust and
University of Minnesota
Montgomery College, Maryland
[This letter was also signed by 25 other individuals.—Ed.]
John K. Roth:
The Holocaust, an unprecedented and catastrophically unique event, should provoke fear and worry. Its awesome magnitude ought to make us shudder. Unfortunately, Gabriel Schoenfeld’s attack on Holocaust research and pedagogy detracts from those moral concerns. It does so by casting unwarranted suspicion on scholars, teachers, and institutions whose work, in fact, supports sound understanding of Holocaust history and appreciation of that event’s implications for the present and the future.
As a scholar who has been deeply involved in teaching, research, and writing about the Holocaust for more than a quarter of a century, I know that some pedagogy and scholarship are better than others. Nevertheless, the picture painted by Mr. Schoenfeld makes Holocaust studies scarcely recognizable to me. After more than 30 years in academic life, I can honestly say that the scholars and teachers I know—the number is large and representative of the field—are passionately dedicated to historical accuracy, significant teaching, and responsible writing. More specifically, and owing to the solemn nature of the event itself, Holocaust scholars and teachers typically reject jargon, shun ideology, and attempt to avoid distortions and facile comparisons. Scholars and teachers in the field separate the wheat from the chaff much better than Mr. Schoenfeld implies.
One can share Mr. Schoenfeld’s concerns about standards, but there will not be much worthwhile teaching and scholarship—and in the long run not much vital memory of the Holocaust—unless schools, colleges, universities, endowed chairs, research centers, museums, publishers, and other educational institutions provide encouragement and support for the important work that lies ahead. This work must concentrate on the particularity of the Holocaust, for the evil—and the good—exists in the details. Therefore, study about what happened to women is legitimate and necessary.
Some years ago, the students in my own Holocaust courses (in which women are often the majority) drove home this point for me by asking questions about women during the Holocaust years. Not knowing how to answer them, I did my homework. One result was Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, a volume I edited with Carol Rittner. Although Mr. Schoenfeld mentions this book, there is no evidence that he studied it with any care. Drawing on survivor testimony and the insightful reflections of Joan Ringelheim and other responsible, pioneering scholars, Different Voices takes a position that is representative of most teaching and scholarship about women in the Holocaust.
Again, one can share Mr. Schoenfeld’s concern that study about women in the Holocaust must meet the highest standards, but his anxious essay reads too much like a wholesale condemnation of scholars who are doing key work in an area that is basic, serious, and still lacking the regard it deserves. The good news is that current teaching and scholarship about the Holocaust, including the work about women, meet the standards Mr. Schoenfeld sets. The bad news is that his article twists and obscures that fact. It does more harm than good.
Claremont McKenna College
In an otherwise stimulating and important essay, Gabriel Schoenfeld unfortunately slights the magisterial scholarship of Steven T. Katz. By tarring him with the same brush as those who subject the Holocaust to “victim studies” and “gendered analysis,” Mr. Schoenfeld blurs Katz’s true contribution. In The Holocaust in Historical Context, Katz trenchantly and thoroughly investigates the other genocides of history and, on the basis of these comparisons, concludes that the Holocaust was unique: never before had one nation embarked upon an ideological program to eliminate another.
To be sure, as Mr. Schoenfeld notes, Katz’s use of obscure mathematical formulas often intrudes upon his writing. Yet at a time when relativizing the Holocaust by insisting it was but one atrocity in a long chain of others has surpassed Holocaust-denial as the major threat to understanding, I find myself eagerly anticipating the appearance of future volumes in Katz’s project.
Bronx, New York
Gabriel Schoenfeld has pointed out some of the ways that academics can obscure the subjects they are supposed to elucidate. As such, his piece is more succinct and more amusing than many other essays—and volumes—deconstructing the modern university. Still, in his denunciation of Holocaust studies and its attendant chairs, symposia, museums, and modes of analysis, Mr. Schoenfeld does not center on one fundamental question: should there be chairs of Holocaust studies?
Mr. Schoenfeld is not enamored of the social-scientific approach. “The very language in which the murder of six million Jews is discussed,” he complains, is “in no way distinguishable from the language of agricultural macroeconomics or the sociology of chimpanzees.” OK—he does not enjoy reading jargon. But that in itself does not rule out Holocaust studies any more than it rules out macroeconomics or inquiry into animal behavior. Similarly with multiculturalism, gender studies, and touchy-feely victim studies. To condemn Holocaust studies as a whole because some scholars play in this area misses the mark.
Mr. Schoenfeld quotes Robert Alter: “A topic or event, however momentous, is not an academic discipline.” On the contrary, it seems to me there is often good reason for making a “topic or event” into a discipline. The Renaissance, American studies, the Bible—all topics, all momentous, all good disciplines. He also cites the “sense-deadening phenomenon” of what Alter referred to as “naturalizing the horror.” I agree this is a problem; but it is also the challenge.
My university has just appointed its first permanent chair in Holocaust studies. Joshua Zimmerman, the incumbent, is an articulate historian of Eastern Europe who will relate this “momentous event” in all its intricacy to our students: the intellectual, spiritual, and occasionally biological heirs of so many destroyed in the event. As part of the academic process, it is the job of professors like Zimmerman to examine and analyze events—and to explain them to the rest of us. The same argument against “naturalizing” the horror of the Holocaust could be and has been made against studying the Bible, the Talmud, or medieval Jewish thought with the tools of modern analysis. Would Mr. Schoenfeld really accept the consequences of this general line of reasoning?
Dean, Yeshiva College
New York City
William F. S. Miles:
“Auschwitz and the Professors” appeared at a rather propitious moment for me, just as I was being offered my own university’s Holocaust chair. For reasons that echo Mr. Schoenfeld’s own arguments, I hesitated before accepting. It is truly unseemly to profit, professionally and otherwise, from the Holocaust. Rather than declining such an appointment out of principle, however, is it not preferable to proceed with it as best, and as respectfully, as one can? I am, at any rate, beholden to Mr. Schoenfeld for pointing out the pitfalls (and minefields) that endanger the field of “Holocaustology.”
Gabriel Schoenfeld recommends that “scholars who still study and teach about the Holocaust in a serious way” take up arms against the “genderologists” and other propagandists who have battened upon the murdered Jews of Europe. But this is easier said than done, for some of the physicians Mr. Schoenfeld would summon are themselves in need of healing.
It was, for example, not only the egregious Debórah Dwork who thought that inviting Yasir Arafat to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was a wonderful idea and derided the move to cancel that invitation as “morally unconscionable.” The eminently serious and respectable Deborah Lipstadt, who teaches the history of the Holocaust at Emory University, argued, in January of this year, that the museum would become “a superfluous institution” if it did not “educate” people like Arafat, and urged that one of this century’s major war criminals be welcomed at the museum “with all courtesy and respect.”
More recently, both Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning, whose books represent the condition to which Holocaust scholarship should aspire, allowed their resentment of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s scanting of their work to provoke them to a deed far more shameful than the academic jargon that Mr. Schoenfeld objects to in Goldhagen’s work. They endorsed Norman Finkelstein’s vitriolic attack on Goldhagen as a Zionist agent. Finkelstein’s febrile lucubrations on Israel are on the level of Noam Chomsky’s, whose professed acolyte he is. And Finkelstein’s essay is one part of a book—A Nation on Trial—that is completed by another onslaught against Goldhagen by Ruth Bettina Birn, who must also be reckoned a “serious” Holocaust scholar since she is chief historian for war-crimes investigations in Canada.
Holocaust scholarship is in much deeper trouble than Gabriel Schoenfeld suggests.
Why should Holocaust studies be immune from the diseases that afflict the rest of academia? While one must writhe in agony at Gabriel Schoenfeld’s examples, one can hardly claim surprise that political correctness has spread to this particular field. “He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell. Why would Holocaust history not be redrafted to fit ideology?
Personally, however, I am an optimist. The enormity of the state-sponsored mass murder of the European Jews by a modern nation-state cannot and will not be glossed over by simplistic “isms.” It takes only one student to ask a radical feminist professor why so many women guards at the camps were fascist lesbians to destroy pathetic politically-correct intellectual constructs. They can teach whatever they want; facts and truth do not go away.
I deem myself rather “expert” on the Holocaust, having lived through it in Vienna. There is a German expression, “Schuppen fallen von den Augen,” that loosely translates as “veils fall from my eyes.” Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article, “Auschwitz and the Professors,” was precisely that kind of revelation for me. I had been totally unaware that a veritable Holocaust industry had evolved among real and pseudo “academics” busily dissecting any possible—as well as a few truly impossible—aspects of that event.
Silver Spring, Maryland
Herman F. Wolf:
Holocaust survivors are not amused by brazen efforts, such as the ones Gabriel Schoenfeld describes in his article, on the part of many so-called “scholars” to graft their pet projects onto the study of the Holocaust, even when they are totally unrelated to it. Take the suggestion by a feminist scholar quoted by Mr. Schoenfeld that there is a connection between Nazi “sexism” and the “exploitation of Jewish women by Jewish men”—this is not only sheer nonsense but shows disrespect for Holocaust victims, alive or dead.
As for scholarship, the late historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz contributed valuable and important works. Currently, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is attempting to explore what factors in prewar Germany led ordinary people to commit wanton murder without let-up for the duration of the Nazi period and then return to seeming normalcy afterward. This is a serious undertaking. But the chaff that now masquerades as Holocaust studies is unfit for human consumption.
Syracuse, New York
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article on the vulgarization of the Holocaust by all those miserable little ismpushers was like salve on a wound for many of us.
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s important article is written provocatively, and is meant to provoke. While one does not have to agree entirely with each and every statement, my overall impression is very positive. Mr. Schoenfeld has obviously done a lot of reading, perhaps more than have many of those he rebukes. The issues he raises are troubling, and, alas, very real.
The main point on which one might take exception is the article’s Americanocentrism. Contrary to the impression one might gain from Mr. Schoenfeld, much of the important research on the Holocaust is being conducted not in the U.S., and not in English, but rather in Poland and in Germany, in Polish and in German. German and Polish scholars are dealing with issues of greater significance than are some of the Americans described in “Auschwitz and the Professors.”
Director, Yad Vashem Archives
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s eloquent and, on occasion, hilarious “Auschwitz and the Professors” brought back vivid memories of my childhood and adolescence spent in postwar Poland. Substitute Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook for the Holocaust pseudo-science Mr. Schoenfeld cites, replace “feminist” with “working class,” and you end up with a rather accurate description of the excesses of ideology-infused education as I knew it. View the world in “gender” categories, and it will not differ much from the vision of those who once looked at it through the lens of “class origin.”
It would be wrong to suggest that there are similarities between the post-Stalinist institution I attended in Warsaw and modern American universities. There are not. There is, however, an indisputable lesson to be learned: when harnessed to a political agenda, scholarship ceases to be worthy of its name.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Before replying to individual critics, I want to extend the useful parallel suggested by Henry Dasko between the perversions of contemporary “Holocaustology” and the Marxist-Leninist folderol he was force-fed in the Communist Poland of his youth.
In the 1980’s, the decade during which I completed my doctorate in Soviet politics, a profound shift was under way in my field of specialization. An older generation of scholars, a number of them refugees from Communism and Nazism, was passing from the scene. Within the group of American-born specialists coming to the fore, many embraced fashionable new approaches to the study of the Soviet Union.
Some of these new scholars, acting out of frankly ideological motives, attempted to topple long-established verities by arguing, for example, that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was not a coup d’état but a “popular” uprising, that the Stalin era was not a period of terror and mass death but one of great “upward mobility,” or that the USSR under Brezhnev had evolved into something approximating a “pluralistic” society. Although at first these new doctrines made a great stir, a vigorous counterreaction soon set in as other scholars spoke out against the revisionists, argued with them in the professional journals, or refuted them in op-ed columns and opinion magazines. This struggle went on for a period of years, until (especially with the revelations that came out after the fall of the Soviet Union) the revisionists were forced either to back down or to adopt a sharply reduced profile.
In some respects, Holocaust studies has proceeded along a similar trajectory. As in the Soviet field, an older generation of giants is now passing from the stage. Lucy S. Dawidowicz died in 1990; Raul Hilberg and Leni Yahil are retired; Yehuda Bauer, Yisrael Gutman, and Saul Friedländer—all three of them with personal experience of Hitler’s Europe—are approaching retirement age. At the same time, a largely American-born breed of neorevisionist scholars has been gaining ground. But unlike in the field of Soviet studies, the work of this new generation has not been subjected to any sort of critical scrutiny or probing debate from within.
The case of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is the single large exception, and it is an exception full of implications for the current discussion. By any honest reckoning, Goldhagen’s scholarly sins are far less flagrant than the travesties I pointed to in “Auschwitz and the Professors”—and I say this as one who believes his work is seriously flawed. Why, then, has Goldhagen been flayed at every turn, while the egregious “genderologists”—to use Edward Alexander’s term for the feminist scholars—are honored and defended to the last by their colleagues?
My guess is that Goldhagen is paying the price for having openly violated the profession’s cardinal rule: do not speak ill of thy fellow Holocaustologian. In his best-selling Hitler’s Willing Executioners, he issued sweeping criticisms of almost every scholar who ever wrote a word in the pre-Goldhagen era. Unfortunately, these criticisms were often wide of the mark, as well as sneering in tone, and this, when added to the mortal sin he committed by expressing criticism at all, amounted to a triple crime that earned Goldhagen the status of pariah.
Nevertheless, the fact that other scholars, no matter what act of gross indecency they commit, are never so much as censured, while Goldhagen has been cast into the wilderness, reveals the perilous self-protectiveness that has taken hold in the field. For when honest and capable scholars fail to police their own profession, they end by discrediting themselves.
With this in mind, I want to address those of my critics who hint darkly that I was writing out of an unspoken political agenda of my own. They need not hint; I can state my purpose plainly. In “Auschwitz and the Professors,” I was hoping to set in motion the same kind of pendulum-effect whose action was so salutary in the field of Soviet studies. For if the stakes were high in that debate, revolving as it did around grave distortions of historical memory, they are scarcely less so here. Herman F. Wolf, himself a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, is right that what is being said these days goes beyond the disgraceful; the professors who are desecrating the memory of the fallen should be stopped in their tenure tracks.
Unfortunately, if the letters by the various “true professionals”—to use Michael Berenbaum’s term of self-praise—are any indication, this campaign will require a long march and many skirmishes. Things in the insular world of Holocaust studies are even worse than I had supposed.
Let me now turn to my critics, starting with Joan Ringelheim, who as director of education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum holds one of the most significant positions in the field.
Joan Ringelheim charges that my article constitutes “a malicious and reckless attack on [her] work”; it supposedly “distorts [her] words, takes quotations out of context, and puts them into interpretations that bear no relationship to [her] ideas.” She cites only one instance, however, and it is an example neither of distortion nor of recklessness. Here, for the record, are the words I quoted from her essay in the Ofer-Weitzman anthology Women in the Holocaust (1998), together with the sentences surrounding them:
It has been difficult to confront the fact that Jewish women were victims as Jewish women [emphasis in original], not only because some Jewish men exploited Jewish women, but also because Jewish men could not protect women and children from the Nazis. In other words, it has been too difficult to contemplate the extent to which gender counted in the exploitation and murder of Jewish women, and the extent to which the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in a tragic and involuntary alliance. Men could and did oppress women sexually, and women were aware of that possibility.
In context or out of context, the words mean what I said they meant.
One assertion by Joan Ringelheim I have no intention of attempting to rebut is that “the feminists who study and write about women during the Holocaust are serious and committed.” Indeed, her own serious commitment to feminism is the most important fact about her. To judge by her footnotes, apart from what she draws from the standard English-language literature (she cites no European-language sources), many of her ideas appear to come from tracts like Feminist Revolution (1975), Radical Feminism (1973), Subject Women (1981), and studies like Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science (1983), in addition to Ms. magazine.
Drinking deeply from this particular gourd, Joan Ringelheim proceeds to graft onto the Holocaust every modish cliché imaginable about male and female behavior, and then to “theorize” about what it all means for feminism. Nowhere is this exercise pursued more avidly than in “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research,” which appears in Different Voices, the collection edited by John K. Roth. My correspondent Sidney Bolkosky singles out this essay as a “very important contribution” to the field of oral history and reprimands me for failing to “disclose” its existence to readers. But what he omits to say is that, although it begins by recapitulating interviews with female Holocaust survivors and concludes by posing some questions for further research, and although it offers an appendix with statistics of male and female mortality in the Lodz ghetto, sandwiched between these two sections is a lengthy excursus, taking up fully one-third of the essay, that addresses a different set of concerns entirely. Here—in context—are a few characteristic passages:
While women’s consciousness, “herstory,” culture, and so on became the standard by which to understand and judge the world, there was confusion about whether the quintessential woman—the most typical or representative woman—was to be a woman of the past or a new woman of the future. The confusion resolved itself in a psychoanalytic mode: the past is the future. Then struggles arose about which woman of the past would serve as the model. The result was that we did not emerge with a consciousness, let alone a politics, that produced genuine solidarity with all women, though we did advance different claims to superiority. Lesbian separatism may be the most important example politically and motherhood the most egregious expression of the kinds of chauvinism (even nationalism) that developed. . . .
. . . Liberals say that their discourse includes everyone, and they mean that they are concerned about white Anglo-Saxon Protestants; cultural feminists say that they consider all women, but they refer only to lesbians, and/or mothers, and/or straight women, and/or S/M lesbians, and/or university women, and/or middle-class women, and/or women against pornography, and/or any number of others. While cultural feminists speak about a kind of universal woman, in fact they privilege some women over others. This imitation of, or connection to, liberalism is hazardous. . . .
Can we so blithely reclaim and make right what has caused so much oppression without some careful scrutiny of our motives and politics? Can Jews reclaim the language of “kike”; or lesbians, “dyke”; or blacks, “nigger” without retaining some of the negativity that infests and infects the oppressors’ use of those words, let alone the institutions of which such language is only a part?. . .
The valorization of oppression damages not only our politics but our research. We want to justify our valorization of such beliefs and practices so much that our critical faculties become quiescent when we discuss these questions. The claim of female superiority is not at issue so much as the nature of gender differences and the kind of woman who best exemplifies them. . . .
The archaeological perspective that we have had on women’s culture must be reexamined. Why do we take this point of view? How do we want to use it? Against what are we fighting? What new world are we making? Does our work sustain or even reinforce oppression? Are we articulating ways to understand and combat oppression? How does our work further the liberation of women? And if it does not, in what sense is it feminist?
And so on, and so forth, and so on and so forth.
Beneath the babble, there is actually a clear statement of an agenda here. That agenda is not the historical understanding of the Holocaust. It is, rather, the “liberation of women,” as Joan Ringelheim conceives it. In this connection, what are we to make of the remark of Michael Berenbaum that “many levels of checks and balances” succeeded in keeping Joan Ringelheim’s beliefs from having any tangible effect on the content of the Holocaust museum? Even her supervisors, it seems, are discomfited by what she represents.
For his part, Michael Berenbaum seems to think Women in the Holocaust by Ofer and Weitzman is praiseworthy because “all viewpoints were represented” in it, not only “ardent feminists” but those who disagree with them. But are we dealing here with scholarship or with a Democratic-party caucus? My criticisms of the Ofer-Weitzman book revolved not around the question of its representativeness but around the way it distorts and obscures understanding of the Holocaust, and I cited specific instances to show what I meant. It is wholly typical of the way “true professionals” conduct discussions these days that Mr. Berenbaum resolutely declines to enter into a discussion of those specifics, confining himself instead to generalities.
And to irrelevancies. Mr. Berenbaum chastises me for not discussing the battle fought at Harvard over the university’s endowed Holocaust chair. Frankly, I do not know what he is driving at. The source of Harvard’s difficulties is not a subject on which I had anything useful to add, never having discussed the matter with any of the committee’s members and not knowing anything more about Harvard’s confidential deliberations than what I had read in the New York Times. Evidently, Mr. Berenbaum knows quite a bit more, but even while he reproaches me for not clueing readers in, he refrains from telling us what it is. What is the name of the mystery scholar, for example, who, according to him, Harvard never interviewed? Was it he himself? Was it Debórah Dwork, who has said that Harvard came out of the affair “stinking like a fish”? Just when things get interesting, Mr. Berenbaum seals his lips.
In my article I noted Robert Alter’s worry that making the Holocaust part of the curriculum would have “the unhappy effect of naturalizing the horror.” Mr. Berenbaum assures us that is simply not so. In the countless classes he has visited at every educational level, the subject is taught with “fear and trembling”—a phrase he uses twice in his letter and incessantly in his scholarly work.
From what I have seen and read, I tend to doubt the accuracy of this picture. But even if Mr. Berenbaum is right, and teachers and professors are indeed quivering at their podiums, and students crying into their notes, is this not just the flip side of what Alter cautioned against, calling it, memorably, “the special frisson of vicariously experiencing the unspeakable, in all the material comfort and security of our American lives”? Despite Mr. Berenbaum’s blithe assurances, the question of how to introduce the Holocaust into the curriculum remains unresolved.
Along with Michael Berenbaum, Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman decline to engage in an exchange of views, charging instead that I have “grossly distorted the serious scholarship” in their anthology. But their lengthy and basically unexceptionable lecture makes not the slightest effort to cite any of my alleged distortions or to address a single one of my objections to their book. A pattern of evasion is becoming evident here.
Like a number of even more indignant writers, Nechama Tec takes me to task for slighting the scholarship of Clark University’s Deborah Dwork. In both her books, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (1996, co-authored with Robert Jan van Pelt) and Children With a Star (1991), Debórah Dwork does indeed make a genuine and original contribution, and I should have said so. But I was focusing on something else: namely, the tasteless boasting and narcissism of the handouts she has written for her center, and her own ready descent into the cant of gender studies. To that I would now add, as Edward Alexander has reminded us, her even more troubling intervention on behalf of Yasir Arafat. Is it really “morally unconscionable” to oppose an official invitation to the Holocaust Museum of a man with the blood of so many Jewish children on his hands?
Like Deborah Dwork, Nechama Tec, too, is a scholar of standing; indeed, she is fully aware of the twaddle being written and taught by others. In a letter early this summer to the Wall Street Journal, she spoke out against “feminist zealots” and those “propelled by extreme feminist views” to interject “political agendas” into Holocaust studies. In the light of these invigorating words, it is all the more incomprehensible to me that she should now decline to utter a word of criticism beyond the modest admission that “both the academic research and teaching of the Holocaust are not consistently of the highest quality.” This sentence deserves a Pulitzer Prize for understatement.
Robert Jan van Pelt charges that I have written a “misogynist rant,” reducing women scholars to the “benighted emanations of a witches’ sabbath.” Sidney Bolkosky, more reasonably, claims that, although he worries “interminably about . . . travesties” and about the “blatantly offensive and ridiculous examples of academic and nonacademic tripe,” my own effort is vitiated by my “annoying” and “selective” use of evidence. Aside from the fact that I do in fact mention some of the scholars whom Mr. Bolkosky accuses me of ignoring, and that I single out for praise Saul Friedländer, whom I stand charged with maligning, my purpose—again—was not to smell the flowers but to call attention to the weeds. Like all my critics, Mr. van Pelt does not want to get mixed up in an actual discussion of these weeds. I have already indicated why I think that may be so. For his part, when it comes to some of the scholarship now sprouting, Mr. Bolkosky seems unable to distinguish between weeds and flowers at all.
The sense of mission evinced by Captain Rondall R. Rice of the U.S. Air Force Academy is admirable, but I found his complaint rather curious, and his intensity even more so. The Holocaust course in question, he writes, was rated not first out of eighteen courses but second, and I was wrong, he says, in “seem[ing] to allude” to the course’s role-playing exercises “as enjoyable activities.” And yet, according to the article by Edward Westermann that Captain Rice and I are both drawing on, the facts accord precisely with what I wrote: “The course was judged first in evaluation methods in regard to knowledge, thinking, and enjoyment for all graded work” (emphasis added).
As for the role-playing exercises themselves, whether oral or written, they are ridiculous. To ask cadets to ponder the “ethical decisions” faced by members of Nazi “reserve police battalions” in Poland in 1942 is to make a comedy out of a tragedy. As Christopher Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have both shown, the moral life of those serving in these units did not exactly revolve around the daily drawing of Kantian distinctions. The “ethical” question wrestled with day in and day out was: should I just kill this Jew, or should I torture him first?
Of course, the wartime relationship between armed forces and civilians is an essential subject for military education, but there are better and worse ways to educate. I am glad to learn from Captain Rice that under his chairmanship the role-playing approach has been discontinued even as he persists in defending it.
Do I owe an apology to Myrna Goldenberg? I wrote that she “joyfully announced the discovery of ‘feminist values’ ” in the barracks of Auschwitz. She denies having “joyfully” announced anything. I accept her qualification: it would have been more accurate to say simply that she discovered “feminist values” in the barracks of Auschwitz.
At any rate, both Myrna Goldenberg and the Israel-bashing Stephen Feinstein have each affixed their signatures to still another letter to COMMENTARY, joining with more than two dozen other Holocaustologians who “reject” my thesis and “affirm that serious scholarship on the Holocaust within the university is both appropriate and necessary.” If these self-described “moral persons” had actually read my “malicious and unfounded attack on the academic pursuit of the Holocaust,” they would have noticed that while I oppose the establishment of separate academic centers, and—wonder of wonders—stand against the teaching of nonsense, I am unequivocally in favor of serious research and teaching about the Holocaust in a university setting. In fact, I regard it as a crucial task and have never suggested otherwise. But the style of argumentation employed by the Group of 29—hortatory, self-righteous, vacant—is, alas, yet another signpost showing just where things stand. I hope this homely document will help persuade Norman Adler that, compelling as his questions are in theory, the creation of a separate discipline called “Holocaust studies” has already, in practice, unleashed a plague.
Finally, there is John K. Roth, whose missive was one of the first to arrive at COMMENTARY in response to “Auschwitz and the Professors.” At the time, all I knew about Mr. Roth was that he was a Christian theologian at Claremont McKenna College in California who had edited one of the feminist collections (Different Voices) I had cited in my article. I was hardly aware that he was slated to assume a leading position as the director of research at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and while I had studied the essays in Different Voices, I had not paid particularly close attention to Mr. Roth’s own work.
As is well known, Mr. Roth has since become an object of heated controversy. Readers of the weekly Forward and, following it, national daily newspapers were treated to an op-ed Mr. Roth had contributed to the Los Angeles Times in 1988 in which he drew a direct comparison between what the Nazis had done to the Jews in the countrywide pogrom known as Kristallnacht a half-century earlier and what the Israelis, according to him, were now poised to do to Palestinians. “Kristallnacht happened,” he wrote,
because a political state decided to be rid of people unwanted within its borders. It seems increasingly clear that Israel would prefer to rid itself of Palestinians if it could do so. . . . As much as any other people today, they are being forced into a tragic part too much like the one played by the European Jews 50 years ago.
Though Mr. Roth assures us in his letter to COMMENTARY that Holocaust scholars “attempt to avoid distortions and facile comparisons,” here was not merely a facile comparison, but an outrageous one. As the weeks went by, moreover, it emerged that Mr. Roth had a long habit of playing fast and loose with the Holocaust, abusing his status as an “expert” to draw all sorts of comparisons between Nazis and things that had nothing to do with Nazism. Here, for instance, were his words after Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980:
I watched Jimmy Carter concede even before the California polls closed. In doing so, I could not help remembering how forty years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism . . . to send the world reeling into catastrophe that virtually annihilated the Jews of Europe.
Statements like these suggested to many people that Mr. Roth might be unfit for the job he had been selected to perform, and a number of figures in public life called on him to step aside. So he finally did, though not before he had received an outpouring of support from his fellow Holocaustologians and not until after the museum’s governing board had voted in mid-June, with only one lonely nay vote, to endorse his appointment.
In light of what has been revealed about Mr. Roth, his supporters, and the Holocaust museum itself in the course of this controversy, I am, needless to say, less than reassured by the flat and unsubstantiated assertion in his letter that “scholars and teachers in the field of Holocaust studies separate the wheat from the chaff much better than Mr. Schoenfeld implies.” We have had quite a glimpse by now into the kind of separating the Holocaustologians engage in, and it gives more cause for alarm than ever about how the next generation will come to remember the murder of Europe’s Jews.
I thank everyone who has written, but especially Norman Adler, Edward Alexander, Steven Bayme, Gilbert Borman, Henry Dasko, Barbara Lerner, Yaacov Lozowick, William F. S. Miles, Eric Reisfeld, and Herman F. Wolf.