The Book Club

The Holocaust in American Life

Dear James,

Peter Novick states his concerns clearly in the opening paragraph of his book: “why in 1990s America–fifty years after the fact and thousands of miles from its site–the Holocaust has come to loom so large in our culture”; 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.”

These are good questions. And I’m basically sympathetic to Novick’s contrarian attitude that there is more confusion than clarity in the rhetoric of Holocaust commemoration in American public life. He’s right that it’s far from obvious that there are any clear or useful “lessons” for most Americans to learn from popular representations of the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis–an absolutely negative event, whose continuing fascination lies largely in its absolute extremity. And he’s right to doubt that it’s “good for the Jews” to become fixated on Holocaust victimization as a cornerstone of individual or collective identity, much less to exploit it as a basis of moral or political authority.

That said, I found Novick to be much better at challenging and debunking the muddled moral and historical thinking of others than at making a cogent argument of his own. This is largely due to the fact that, while he offers a detailed survey of the voices he disagrees with, he does not give much space to Holocaust thinkers or writers he finds sympathetic–and there are any number of people out there, even in America, who have made any number of the points he is after, often with great passion and eloquence. But Novick appears eager to be perceived as a pioneer and a crusader, and his survey of the well-trodden territory he is arguing over suffers for it.

Still, Novick’s frustration with Holocaust discourse is well worth heeding. He is a historian, exasperated by the distortions to which the representation of the historical event of the Holocaust has been subjected by the transformation of that history into “collective memory,” and I think he’s at his best when describing the mechanisms of that transformation: how the Holocaust went from what he calls “the margins” of American public life in the decades after the war, to “the center”–literally, enshrined among the memorials of our nationhood in the federally funded museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Novick’s basic questions are: Why here? Why now? So he reaches back to the beginning, to show how little the Holocaust–the Nazi extermination of the Jews, as distinct from the other horrors of the Second World War–was discussed during the ‘40s and ‘50s, even by American Jewry. (At the time, as he points out, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the escalation of the Cold War weighed much more heavily on people’s minds as the obvious legacies of the war that had to be lived with.) It was only in the ‘60s, as is well known, with the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and then the Six Day War, that the Holocaust began to be discussed as the defining legacy of the century that it has now become for much of the Western world.

The reasons for the relative quiet that originally surrounded the “memory” of the Holocaust and for the shift that led to what Novick calls its “centering” are, of course, myriad and complex, and subject to diverse interpretations. Novick claims to be working the whole canvas, but his primary focus is on how some professional Jews in America–that is, officers of Jewish communal organizations, Jewish intellectuals, and pundits–sought to understand, utilize, and at times baldly exploit the legacy of the Holocaust according to their various social and political agendas. This struck me as at once the chief strength and the chief weakness of the book. For Novick is right in identifying the promotion of Holocaust consciousness and the debate about the use and abuse of the Holocaust legacy as an essentially Jewish affair. Yet at the same time he fails to explain how–as he also claims–this Jewish concern succeeded in acquiring a central place in the general American discourse. In fact, he never really demonstrates his premise that the Holocaust “looms so large” throughout American life.

To be sure, there is an awful lot of Holocaust talk in our culture, high and low, and a lot of this talk is cheap, most of it is fairly mindless, and much of it is downright stupid. Against this state of affairs Novick’s chief complaint is hard to contest–that in the process of popularization as a “collective memory” for all Americans, the actual history of the event and of its representation has been bowdlerized, exploited, and trivialized, to the point that the “memory” itself becomes useless. After all, what does it mean to “remember” something of which you have no direct experience and no real historical knowledge?

So, James–I saw that you were quoted in an article on this book in Time, saying, “Peter is a very good historian and he wants to close the gap between the knowledge of historians and of the public. And to that I say, ‘Great, and good luck.’ ” You make him sound like a curmudgeonly scholar bucking the inevitable tide. But should we just say, “Whatever,” to the fact that millions of Americans a year now visit the Holocaust museum on the National Mall in Washington–while there still isn’t a memorial there to American slavery, or even any plan to erect one?

Your turn.