"The Holocaust in American Life" and "The Americanization of the Holocaust"

Two books ask how -- and why -- a European catastrophe became central to American culture.

Published June 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In a great historical irony, America has become the center of Holocaust culture. With a particularly American genius, a nation defined by "it can't happen here" optimism has learned to make what cynics term Shoah Business pay. Americans crowd Holocaust museums, pat themselves on the back for producing important yet commercially successful films and flock to classes that take them step by step down the twisted road to Auschwitz. Is this a good thing? To many of those who have the Holocaust ever in mind, it is: Never again, they reason, will Jews anywhere stand by passively and let night fall. But to others, this fascination bespeaks an unhealthy sense of victimization, a horrific merger of kitsch and death or a club with which to cudgel competitors: You think you've suffered?

No one has traced the roots of this complex phenomenon as forcefully as Peter Novick in "The Holocaust in American Life." In the United States, he argues, "memory of the Holocaust is so banal ... precisely because it is so uncontroversial, so unrelated to real divisions in American society." Although the tangled skeins of contemporary culture lead him in too many directions (so that when he gets to the present day his argument loses some of its shape), Novick escorts us through the past 50 years with compelling clarity and outrage. Treating the Holocaust as a collective memory that has been put to different uses at different times -- as opposed to a trauma that was repressed until it could be held back no longer -- he makes clear how recent and contingent Holocaust consciousness truly is.

In the 1950s, for instance, the Holocaust had no existence separate from other war-borne horrors. Jewish organizations focused on assimilation, and the Cold War mandated a generalized totalitarianism as the enemy. "It was an inappropriate symbol of the contemporary mood, and that is surely one of the principal reasons that it stayed at the margins," he writes. Since the 1970s the Holocaust has moved to the center of American culture, and Novick's fundamental point is that this new position is as appropriate to the contemporary mood as universalizing interpretations of Anne Frank were 40 years ago.

Assailing the most sacred truisms of contemporary Holocaust consciousness will surely win Novick plenty of enemies. For instance, what is there, precisely, to learn from the Holocaust -- that the murder of 6 million Jews in the 1940s was bad? Although the duty of future generations to grasp the Holocaust's transcendent truths is something that gets repeatedly invoked, awareness of the Holocaust has done little to prevent new atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere. Most visitors to Holocaust museums take out with them exactly what they brought in. "Awe and horror when confronting the Holocaust ... are surely appropriate, " Novick concludes acidly. "Yet no matter how broadly we interpret the word 'lesson,' that's not a lesson -- certainly not a useful one."

Many will find this book an outrage, an instance of self-hate, perhaps even a threat to American Judaism; Novick courts such reactions with prose that throws itself in the face of convention. Demolishing the myth that international guilt made the creation of a Jewish state easier, he writes, "It's likely that [this] notion simply appeals to some people's moral and aesthetic sensibilities." At times he closes off debate too easily -- he dismisses Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's arguments in "Hitler's Willing Executioners" in half a paragraph, and the still-debated complexities of the Allies' failure to bomb Auschwitz don't get their due. Yet as a whole his research is so formidable, his arguments presented so carefully, that one is hard-pressed to argue back.

The same cannot be said of the anthology "The Americanization of the Holocaust." In her introduction, editor Hilene Flanzbaum accepts with a refreshing lack of dogma the notion that "the imprint of a multicultural but predominantly Gentile America" will inevitably flatten -- but also broaden -- American Holocaust consciousness. Hence the Christian symbolism in "Schindler's List" -- for example, the title character often backlit or haloed, as the savior of the Jews -- can be defended as a means of making that story comprehensible in an American framework. Yet the collection never coheres enough to consider that question at length. Walter Benn Michaels, the eminent literary critic, seizes the occasion to sketch the differences between new historicism and deconstruction. Andrew Furman, after opening with a wide-gauged approach to the topic, focuses his discussion of Holocaust fiction on one little-known writer. Amy Hungerford's analysis of "Maus" never puts its theoretical reading to wider social use. Far too many of the contributors play in the mass-cultural sandbox in ways that too often devolve into minor academic games; we leave most of the essays feeling that one corner has been sifted exhaustively, but without much sense of how the whole field of study might develop.

The best of these writers seek to discover how Americans talk about the Holocaust by actually going to the people. Particularly strong are Alan Steinweis on teaching the subject to Nebraskans and Henry Greenspan on how we interpret survivor testimony. Contributions by James Young and Jeffrey Shandler should point readers to their own important works on this topic. And Andrew Levy's persuasive examination of the semiconscious way NikeTown has appropriated Nazi iconography opens some deeply troubling questions about just how banal we have let evil become. But this collection, with its overriding focus on representations, leaves the reader unsatisfied. It feels flimsy and unhelpful in working out how to think about the Holocaust today, especially next to Novick's commanding wall of social-historical data in "The Holocaust in American Life" -- a landmark in the field that will be required reading for anyone considering how this catastrophe came to occupy center stage in American culture.

By Jesse Berrett

Jesse Berrett is a historian and critic in San Francisco.

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