Remembering Corrie ten Boom: 4-15-11
Faith groups enrich life: 4-18-11

A Holocaust book for today: 4-16/17-11

Over the last five or six years I have read several dozen Holocaust-related books, much of that reading in preparation for writing They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn.

End-of-Holocaust Except for Raul Hilberg's magnificent and definitive three-volume history of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews, I'm not sure I've read a more important book than The End of the Holocaust by Alvin H. Rosenfeld (pictured below).

This remarkable new work of scholarship -- written in accessible language and not in obscure academese -- is exactly the Holocaust book the world needs now. Indeed, it could not have been written before now because it is about now and how the specificity of the Nazis' gruesome, unprecedented and nearly successful genocide against Europe's Jews is being lost today, turned into mushy metaphor, unplugged from its historical roots. Which is, in essence, what the author means by the "end" of the Holocaust.

I'll give you Rosenfeld's own words toward the end of the book that sum up his cogent argument:

"(F)ar from being fixed, the memory of the Holocaust is beset by an array of cultural pressures that challenge its place as a pivotal event in modern European and Jewish history. There are those who deny the Holocaust ever happened, minimize its magnitude and consequences, appropriate and instrumentalize the power inherent in its words and images, or invert, distort, deflect, and trivialize its meanings. Others are more positive, even idealistic, in their wish to make meaning of this history and apply what they take to be its 'lessons' to contemporary social problems, but their efforts to universalize the Holocaust sometimes result in overlooking or diluting its distinctive featuers. Still others, exhibiting signs of Holocaust fatigue and Holocaust resentment, have simply had enough talk about the Holocaust and want greater distance from it. And then there are those who employ Holocaust references polemically in a bitter, ongoing ideological and political struggle against the State of Israel (they have their counterparts in certain defenders of Israel who also invoke the Holocaust recklessly and irresponsibly). Taken together, these ways of treating the catastrophe visited upon the Jews have the effect of altering the representational shapes and moral weight of Holocaust memories. Two or three generations from now, it is likely that the term 'Holocaust' will still be in circulation, but as a historical referent it may no longer bring so vividly to mind the events that it still is capable of conjuring today, especially among those who were subjected to its horrors and survived to tell about them.

". . .late in their lives a number of the most compelling survivor-writers suffered an anguished sense of futility regarding the value and impact of their work. Some recent trends.  . .would add to their gloom. They lend credence to the notion that something like 'the end of the Holocaust' is beginning to come into view."

Rosenfeld, director of the Indiana University Center for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, takes us on an exhaustive journey through the way that Holocaust history is changing -- degenerating, really -- before our eyes. As he notes in his epilogue, some of what this means is that a second Holocaust, one that would take place in Israel, now is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Rosenfeld is especially poignant when he reviews the ways in which the story of Anne Frank and her famous diary have been "Americanized" by a culture that much prefers happy endings even when such endings distort the truth. The author notes that this young Jewish victim of Nazi atrocities now seems hardly to have died at all as she has become a metaphor for hope in the face of a universalized sense of "man's inhumanity toward man." Alvinrosenfeld

Rosenfeld also walks us through the ways in which such Holocaust writers as Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész eventually came to feel that their efforts to educate people about the truths of the Holocaust and to preserve memory have been, if not futile, then nearly so. He quotes what he calls Kertész's "severely deterministic position: 'Nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz."

Indeed, the suffering perpetrated on Jews in the death camps continues to live in the souls and memories of those who somehow avoided the Nazi-mandated death. It's that reality and the reality of the genocide itself that so many people now wish to avoid. But if those realities gets softened or turned to metaphor or in any way diluted, the possibility of a second Holocaust increases.

We now are nearly 66 years past the end of World War II, and yet the truth is that we still have no exhaustive explanation for how a highly cultured and civilized nation, Germany, collapsed morally, perpetrating genocide against Europe's Jews and murdering millions of others, including  Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and people deemed "life unworthy of life" who had various handicaps.

This lack of a full or even plausible explanation seems astonishing, but nonetheless it is true. And because we don't really understand what went so terribly wrong, we don't know how to keep something similar from happening again. In the end, that's the harsh but necessary message I have carried away from reading this book.

Last summer Rosenfeld and I made up a two-person panel to discuss antisemitism and other related subjects at the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which met at Indiana University's Bloomington campus. He described to me then a bit about his work on this book, and I have been anxiously awaiting it since then.

It has been more than worth the wait. Indeed, this book is a sobering triumph of scholarship and insight.

* * *


The year after the deadly fire at the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas, I went there to try to understand what happened. I wrote a longish series of articles in The Kansas City Star outlining the series of grievous mistakes federal authorities made in trying to deal with this group of religious people who had lived in or near Waco for decades. You can find those pieces in my first book, A Gift of Meaning. For this year's mid-April anniversary of the Waco disaster, CNN has done this intriguing report about some of the Branch Davidian survivors, including Sheila Martin, one of the people I had spoken with for the series I wrote. What I still find painful today is that this whole disaster could have been prevented had the authorities in charge spent even 15 or 20 minutes speaking to the religion staff at nearby Baylor University. Those folks had studied the Branch Davidians for decades and could have told authorities to avoid the approach they wound up taking -- attacking them in their Mount Carmel home. I hope law enforcement authorities study what went wrong at Waco and learn from it.


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