The End of the Holocaust
by Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Indiana, 328 pp., $29.95
This book fills the reader with gloom and rage, in nearly equal measure. The heart sinks, the mind reels, in contemplating the variegated assaults on Holocaust memory that Alvin Rosenfeld describes, analyzes, and seeks to throw back. They come from poets likening their divorce proceedings to Auschwitz, from scribblers of the “Holocaust-and-me” school like Anne Roiphe, for whom “God became the God of the Holocaust” in “the year of my puberty.” It comes from “progressives” like Phillip Lopate, who thinks the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy whereby “one ethnic group tries to compel the rest of the world” to follow its political program and monopolizes all that beautiful Holocaust suffering which other groups would very much like, ex post facto, to share.
The “end of the Holocaust” was foretold by survivor-writers like Jean Améry, Elie Wiesel, Imre Kertesz, and Primo Levi. They feared that the inevitable forgetting would be exacerbated by deliberate distortions, flabby sentimentality, the wheedling voice of “common sense” that Hannah Arendt found lurking inside the “liberal” cells of every mind, ruthless politicization, and do-gooderism, i.e., confusing doing good with feeling good about what you are doing. Survivors themselves are now the targets of polemical desperadoes like Norman Finkelstein, Peter Novick, David Stannard, and Avishai Margalit. They castigate Holocaust memory and scholarship as instruments of a vast diabolical plot, and allege that Jews grieve over their dead only for political purposes.
Rosenfeld shows how a large number of the 250 organizations around the world that now conduct Holocaust-related programs are as likely to abet the theft of the Holocaust as to oppose it. Mark Steyn, similarly, has observed, “The people who run liberal Jewish groups are too blinkered to have grasped a basic point, which is that the principal beneficiaries of the Holocaust have been Muslims.” The nimbleness of apologists for Palestinian irredentism in latching onto the coattails of Jewish history and exploiting Holocaust guilt with allusions to “the Auschwitz of Arab refugee camps” and “the Palestinian Anne Frank” provoked the philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff to remark, “No one thought it a sign of mental disorder when Farouk Kaddoumi, a high PLO official, stated that ‘Israeli practices against Palestinians exceed the Holocaust in horror.’ ”
Rosenfeld traces the distortion and degradation of the Holocaust since World War II ended. He shows how popular representations have usually worked to dull rather than sharpen moral sensibility about the Jewish debacle. He documents the baneful influence of the cult of victimization, especially the intense competition for the mantle of victimhood, and how it has diverted attention away from the actual victims of Nazism. The meaning of Raul Hilberg’s categories—Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders—has been radically transformed by (mostly American) sentimentality and mindless optimism, by (mostly leftist) political machinations, and by (broadly ecumenical) religious obsessions.
Specifically American distortions include the need to teach cheerful and positive “lessons,” which become lessons in what the Holocaust does not teach because they blow out of all proportion the actions of rescuers, or “righteous Gentiles.” Forgotten is Aharon Appelfeld’s dictum: “The Holocaust is not epitomized by the greatness of these marvelous individuals’ hearts . . . because . . . the saviors were few, and those who betrayed Jews to the Nazis were many and evil.” Rosenfeld tells in detail the story of how Anne Frank’s diary was first travestied by Broadway and Hollywood, then bowdlerized by German translators. In America, the spiritual anemia of Broadway and the dishonesty of people like Garson Kanin created a bogus image of a young woman who was cheerfully optimistic, believed above all that “people are really good at heart,” and was “happy” in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. The manipulations of the Anne Frank story also obliterated her Jewish identity and gave Germans, in particular, a convenient “formula for easy forgiveness” of the crimes of their countrymen.
Later chapters deal with survivors who became major literary figures permanently bound to their horrific experience of the camps. Some of them, most notably Améry and Levi, became victims of Auschwitz long after they appeared to have survived it: They took their own lives. Perhaps they had concluded that the full truth of Auschwitz might never be known or, if half-known, would be distorted. They were particularly disappointed by the refusal of Germans to confront their past honestly, and they despaired over the resurgence of Jew-hatred in Europe, especially on the political left, which turned Holocaust images into the tool kit of the new anti-Semitism, the pariah people into the pariah state. They knew there would be virtually no retribution; they feared there would be no memory; but they rarely foresaw the possibility of a second Holocaust.
That possibility is, by now, what Goethe would have called an open secret: visible to all, yet recognized by few, like the German scholar Matthias Küntzel, an astute observer of Holocaust deniers in Europe and Iran: “Every denial of the Holocaust contains an appeal to repeat it.”
Edward Alexander is the author, most recently, of Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: And Other Stories of Literary Friendship.