Saturday, June 16, 2007

Two Books About Holocaust

The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick

Novick's book is not a history of Holocaust, it is the history of reception of Holocaust, specially in America. It basically tries to answer the question, why is it that at the turn of the millennium, after more than fifty years of the historical event and thousands of miles from its site, the Holocaust has come to loom so large in the American national consciousness. How it has become the mainstay of Jewish collective consciousness and identity and how it shapes their and in turn American relationship to Israel. In the process it paints a damning picture of Jewish leaders and organizations and the whole rhetoric of Holocaust commemoration. He doubts if Holcoaust has any "useful" lessons and "whether the prominent role the Holocaust has come to play in both American Jewish and general American discourse is as desirable as most people seem to think it is." Not many people will agree initially with his statements but in the end he has amassed such a weighty mass of evidence in his support that his arguments look irrefutable. The book is also saved by its tone which is always scholarly and subservient to sober facts and arguments which saves it from becoming just another anti-Israel polemic. In fact he has little time for all the talk of "the Israel Lobby" and the "jewish neocons" and other conventional left wing objections related to the topic.

Novick starts with the immediate post war years and shows how holocaust was completely marginalised at that time. Jews didn't want themselves to be identified as victims and they were more eager to be assimilated into the mainstream American society. The most important reason however was the cold war which made American find common cause with Germany in order to denounce Russia. The cold war ideologues argued about the theories of totalitarianisms and claimed the communism and nazism were "basically the same." He also mentions the broadway and hollywood adaptation of Anne Frank's diary which expunged all the Jewish references from the original work and instead emphasised universal "message" of the book.

The turning point in the Holocaust reception came in the late sixties and early seventies when Israel was involved in wars with its Arab neighbours. Although the dangers to Israel were highly exaggerated, there was a general feeling among the jews that another Holocaust was just around the corner. The Jewish leaders also exploited the fact that Americans, both Jews and Gentiles, didn't do enough to save the Jews the last time. After that Holocaust vocabulary became inextricably linked to the unending travails of Israel and middle east conflicts.

He also discusses the establishment of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in detail. In particular he points out how jewish leaders lobbied to turn it into an institution dedicated exclusively to Jewish suffering. Elie Wiesel comes across as a less than admirable figure in the end. Apparently he and other people involved with the museum lobbied against the inclusion of the Armenian genocide by claiming that "they want to steal our holocaust" to which Novick adds that "Jews are the permanent gold medalists in the Olympics of victimization."

Personally I completely agree with Novick when he shows his impatience with people who see Holocaust in some mystical religious sense. People like Elie Wiesel for example who thinks that the only proper response to holocaust is that of "awe" and any attempts at rational explanation and historical comparison and analysis is morally wrong, even blasphemous. This is just plain nonsense, even insulting to so many victims of other historical atrocities. Novick's other claim that it has no "useful" lesson for us, I find less palatable. Again there are people who will draw their banal lessons from the holocaust and even more reprehensible is the tendency of vicariously identifying with the victims and wallowing in the sentimentalism of it all. But having said that it still remains one of the most extreme events in human history and it deserves to be understood and remembered. For me personally, the main interest is in the way it negates the idea of moral and political progress, and even the very idea of European culture and civilization in the way slavery , imperialism and other atrocities do not.

In conclusion I think it is a brilliant and very provocative historical survey and a very courageous and admirable one, specially in the way he approaches such a sensitive topic without devolving into ready-made anti-semitic or chauvinistic arguments. Some very good articles about the book from The Nation, Village Voice and an excellent discussion on Slate.


The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian by Raul Hilberg

Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jews is considered to the be one of the foundational work of the academic discipline of the Holocaust studies. Hilberg was born in Vienna where he spent his childhood. His parents emigrated from Vienna just before the Anschluss, German annexation of Austria. Most of his relatives were not as lucky and they were killed in the Holocaust. This is his autobiography but those who, like me, are looking for personal reflections about why he chose this discipline and his thoughts on the subject will the disappointed. He seems to be like a model of a mono-maniacal and obsessed scholar and researcher whose entire life is sublimated into the subject or at least that's the impression one gets from reading the book.

After a brief matter of fact prelude about his childhood and family life in Vienna and his experiences as an American soldier in Germany he jumps directly to his main subject - how he came to write his Holocaust book. As discussed in detail in Peter Novick's book too, the fifties and sixties were not the ideal time for the book to the be published and he had to struggle for almost a decade before any publisher agreed to bring it out. The most controversial part of his thesis was the fact that he chose the German bureaucratic documents as the main primary sources for his history and as a result in his book jews remained faceless and anonymous victims. He was also extremely critical of the role of Jewish leaders and his conclusions that it was their accommodation and cooperation with the Nazi bureaucracy that made the whole murderous system so efficient, which was most unpalatable for the publishers and critics in general. In fact Hannah Arendt cites his book many times in her Eichmann in Jerusalem and comes at similar conclusions, which was again highly controversial.

The general tone of his book is sobering and very bitter. He was repeatedly accused of accusing Jews of having a "ghetto mentality", "a collective death wish" and that they "went to death chambers like sheep." He never really tackles any of these accusations in detail, just brushes all of them in exasperation. In the end I kind of agreed with the assessment of the reviewer who called it "that rarity of a contemporary autobiography that is too short." It is one of those books where you look for what is not said, what is absent. It is that reticent and reserved in tone. Readable and interesting but mostly inconsequential I think. By the way, there is an unforgettable interview of him in Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah. Here is a clip in which he talks about the diary of Adam Czerniakow who was the administrator of the Warsaw ghetto. Hilberg also edited his diaries about which he talks in this book too.


Anubha said...

What's so "reprehensible" about identifying with Jews killed in the Holocaust?

Alok said...

By "identification" I meant a feeling of a shared victimhood. It is often used as a source of false comfort and consolation. It is sentimental and it trivializes the suffering of those who were killed.

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