Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust
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The American Indian Quarterly 24.3 (2000) 353-380



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Dare to Compare:
Americanizing the Holocaust

Lilian Friedberg

For several centuries now, men of the white race have everywhere destroyed the past, stupidly, blindly, both at home and abroad. . . . The past once destroyed never returns. The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes. Today the preservation of what little of it remains ought to become almost an obsession. We must put an end to the terrible uprootedness which European colonial methods always produce, even under their least cruel aspects. We must abstain, once victory is ours, from punishing the conquered enemy by uprooting him still further; seeing that it is neither possible nor desirable to exterminate him.

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind

The Dynamics of Denial: Uncle Sam's Willing Executioners

German-speaking Jewish writers have long felt comfortable expropriating images and analogies from the site of Native American identity in their literary imagination. 1 Today, a growing sentiment of sympathy for the "vanishing American" in Germany has upped the ante in the identity-appropriations game, and German-speaking Jewish writers now appropriate Native American identity in the attempt to inflect their own historiography with an added degree of moral currency on the landscape of a contemporary Germany still caught in the throes of denial concerning its own genocidal past.

In German-speaking literary circles, the examples of Else Lasker-Schüler, who stylized herself as an American Indian, and Franz Kafka's wish to be a "Red Indian" are well known. George Tabori's 1990 stage production of the Jewish Western Weisman und Rotgesicht wittily pitted [Jewish] white man against [partly Jewish] red man in a verbal duel in which the protagonists exchange a hilarious blow-for-blow account of injuries and insults suffered by the victimized [End Page 353] populations they represent. But the phenomenon of conflating Jewish and "Indian" identity is not unique to foreign-language publications. As Seth Wolitz points out, in his discussion of Weisman und Rotgesicht, this "tradition of spoofing Jewish-Indian interrelations . . . reaches back to a Yiddish playlet, Tsvishn Indianer." 2 This 1895 play, "Among the Indians, or The Country Peddler," as its translator states, "is not an anomaly, but rather a pathbreaker in a well-defined line of Jewish-American entertainment that leads to the films of Mel Brooks and others." 3 The American leg of this lineage includes Eddie Cantor's redface minstrelsy in Whoopie! (1930) and Woody Allen's Zelig (1983). Fanny Brice sang herself to stardom with "I'm an Indian," and Bernard Malamud's The People provides a classic example of the phenomenon.

Most recently perhaps, Raphael Seligmann has gone on record stating that the Jews are "the Indians of Germany." 4 That this statement begs the question of identifying "Uncle Sam's willing executioners" seems, however, of minimal concern to the Jewish community in America and abroad. In fact, when the time comes to put the Shoah on the other foot and parallels are drawn between atrocities experienced by the American Indian population over a five-hundred-year period and those experienced by the Jewish population of Europe in the twelve-year reign of Nazi terror, the knowledge of self-described "Jewish Indians" recedes into the recesses of repressed memory. In a seditious reversal of national identity politics, Lucy Dawidowicz charges those who would dare to compare with "a vicious anti-Americanism." 5 Rabbi Irving Greenberg, founder of the Holocaust Resource Center and first director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission, has described the comparison of the Nazi Holocaust with other acts of genocide as "blasphemous." 6 In The Holocaust in American Life, Jewish historian Peter Novik describes the way in which any attempt to compare is dismissed as a "felonious assault" on truth and memory. 7

In the pathological dynamic of genocidal histories, the perpetrator culture invariably turns its gaze to the horrors registered in the archives and accounts of the "other guys." 8 This is why Holocaust studies in the United States focus almost exclusively...