Holocaust without End

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sixty-six years after the end of World War II, the Holocaust remains one of the central puzzles of human history. For Jews, the imperative is clear: to remember and to encourage others to remember. But remember what? Has the earnest dedication of both Jews and non-Jews to seek the meaning of the event and absorb its lessons ended by emptying it of meaning and lessons alike?

That is the question raised by an important new book, The End of the Holocaust. Its author, Alvin Rosenfeld, is a professor of English and Jewish studies at Indiana University who in the last years has devoted himself to the study of anti-Semitism, especially in its literary and cultural manifestations. In his judgment, the Holocaust has been universalized into a set of vague abstractions about human brutality, degraded into kitsch, Americanized into tales of uplift and redemption, and turned into a weapon against the Jews themselves. In short, the Holocaust has been undone. Whether we have reached the end of it is another, even darker question.

The very definition of the Holocaust has been grist for both debate and manipulation. Does the term refer exclusively to the Nazi murder of six million Jews or, as Simon Wiesenthal argued, the murder of eleven million including Poles, Russian prisoners, gypsies, and countless others? New analytical categories have also emerged, expanding the dramatis personae beyond perpetrators and victims to encompass survivors, rescuers, resisters, bystanders, and still others. Meanwhile, the sheer vastness of the Nazi homicidal enterprise—its implication of all of European civilization along with its seemingly infinite depths of brutality and perverse creativity—steadfastly remains beyond intellectual, emotional, and moral comprehension.

In these circumstances, it was perhaps understandable that the living would reach for ways to narrow the focus, searching for hope or triumph amid the despair, or deliberately looking away to clutch at normalcy. But was it also necessary that the Holocaust assume its place as a phenomenon that could be arbitrarily and fallaciously likened to disparate other phenomena, and in the process forfeit its specific meaning?

Rosenfeld points to the Diary of Anne Frank as a paradigmatic empty vessel. Rather than a murdered Jewish teenager, Anne Frank was made into a universal symbol of hope and uplift, her story routinely analogized to that of other plucky teens under stress. Garson Kanin, who directed the 1955 play based on her book, compared her with Peter Pan and the Mona Lisa, "forever adolescent . . . a shining star." Her death, Kanin observed, "doesn't seem to me a wasteful death, because she left us a legacy that has meaning and value to us as you look at the whole story."

But what is Anne Frank's "legacy"? It has been articulated in terms of the need to overcome the dangers of racism and homophobia, the need for tolerance and kindness in human relations, the need for the "international community," whatever that is, to prevent recurrences of mass murder, and so forth. In the meantime, as Rosenfeld calmly puts it, the "image of the emaciated disease-ridden girl lying dead amidst the human waste of the camp latrine, then dumped into a huge hole that served as a mass grave, forms no part of the cherished 'legacy' of Anne Frank."

When it comes to the "Americanization" of the Holocaust, Rosenfeld sees a confluence of factors at work. They include historical ignorance, an admirable revulsion against the idea of genocide, and a need for "closures that are optimistic and affirmative." In, for example, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), Jews recede into the background while a morality play unfolds between two Germans, the good rescuer Oskar Schindler and the evil Nazi officer Amon Göth. Real Jewish suffering is a kind of plot device, required only to move the story to its uplifting conclusion.

Nor are non-American treatments all that different, though they can be worse. The original German translator of the Diary of Anne Frank systematically elided the story's German and German-Jewish resonances. Even so, Rosenfeld writes, Anne's story "broke through to German readers as almost nothing previously connected to the war had been able to do." And yet, along with breaking down the barriers to self-examination, the tale of this de-Judaized victim also offered absolution to German readers.

With reality itself having been rendered secondary, irrelevant, or vanishing, other values and messages come to the fore. For many European readers, the Holocaust mutated into another sort of morality play: a kind of crucifixion, in which the suffering of the Jews became amalgamated into the drama of Christian redemption.

From this initial but quite radical distortion, it was but a matter of steps before the Jews would be denied their perceived "monopoly" on victimization and then scolded for their stubborn insensitivity to the sufferings of others. Some European states, unhappy with the Jewish emphasis explicit in the commemoration known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, have pushed to replace it with a comprehensive day of "Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism."

Writing of himself in the third person, the survivor Jean Améry noted: "Others judge and condemn him for continuing to bear his grudge. They resent his resentments, feel victimized by being reminded of his victimization." Rosenfeld also cites the quip of the German Jewish writer Henryk Broder to the effect that "Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz."

Indeed, the Jewish "fixation" with the Holocaust is itself now blamed for a host of evils, from Jewish ethnocentrism and lack of empathy to justification for Israeli territorial expansionism. In the meantime, demagogues like Louis Farrakhan demand acknowledgment that "their" Holocaust was "a hundred times worse" than the Jewish one, and Anne Frank is depicted in a Palestinian keffiyeh. The very term "Palestinian Holocaust" is perhaps the supreme example of theft, turning a unique genocide of Jews into a cudgel with which to beat the Jews for their alleged responsibility for another, wholly fabricated genocide.

Rosenfeld does have his saving counterexamples: in particular, literary artists who have written, as he says of Elie Wiesel, in order "to wrench [the] victims from oblivion. To help the dead vanquish death." In addition to Wiesel, his list includes Améry, Primo Levi, and Imre Kertész. In their works, personal experience and literary talent combine to perpetuate memory and guard against the twin temptations of oblivion and distortion, whether well-meaning or, as is so often the case, meretricious.

For the most part, however, Rosenfeld's fine study reinforces the impression that the Holocaust is simultaneously expanding and contracting. More books are published every year, academic programs multiply, every decent-sized American city has its "Holocaust memorial," and some even have "Holocaust and Human Rights Councils." Increasingly, all these tend to cast off the need for knowledge of historical reality in favor of therapeutic banalities that, as Rosenfeld puts it, "look to the Holocaust chiefly for pragmatic and didactic reasons, as a catalyst for moral education and social action." 

At the same time, actual repudiation of both history and memory proceeds apace, while, mostly from the Islamic world, there issue daily calls for renewed genocide against the Jews and the "Nazi" state of Israel. Rosenfeld sums up by writing that Auschwitz is both "a warning from the past and, to some, a coveted possibility for the future." In that terrible sense, the Holocaust has no end.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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