Sometimes it seems as though works of Holocaust remembrance can’t appear unless accompanied by debate over their appropriateness—consider, for example, the extended controversies surrounding Roberto Begnini’s recent film Life is Beautiful and Berlin’s new Holocaust monument. Indeed, these as well as other movies and memorials, not to mention the museums, plays, novels, telecasts, memoirs, and the like that engage this subject, raise a host of issues that provoke discomfort for many observers. For some, the very number of Holocaust representations raises questions about priorities and proportion of interest. For others, the grand scale of many of these efforts provokes concern about the appropriateness of the investments made in them—not only of money, but also of time and energy. Lurking behind these are anxieties about Jewish influence (too much?) and Jewish cultural security (too little?), and there are disquieting concerns about proprietary rights to the Holocaust as “cultural capital.” Still others are troubled by the inability of these representations to live up to lofty expectations—often amounting to a morally transformative experience that will do nothing short of altering human consciousness and behavior for the better—or by the failure of Holocaust remembrance to be immune to the whims of politics, aesthetics, or public opinion.
For several decades Holocaust representation has been a subject of ongoing public debate the likes of which has, perhaps, no rival. Scholars of literature, art, and film have made Holocaust remembrance a leading subject in the larger study of memory culture. At the same time, a growing number of historians, political scientists, and others have turned attention from their primary work as scholars of the Holocaust period to reflect on its public representation. Tim Cole joins their ranks with his book Selling the Holocaust, and, like most of those preceding him, he’s upset by much of what he sees: history is being “bought, packaged, and sold,” and this, it seems to go without saying, is no good thing. So disturbing is the phenomenon that has come to be known as “Shoah business” that Cole feels compelled to distinguish at the outset between the Holocaust of history and the “Holocaust” of myth.
This is, of course, not a new approach. (Indeed, the insistence on writing “Holocaust” in quotation marks, as a sign of its phenomenologically suspect nature, has its precedent in Jacob Neusner’s 1981 book Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust,” Zionism, and American Judaism.) Indeed, for the most part Selling the Holocaust repeats arguments made by other perturbed scholars over the past two decades. Like many of his predecessors, Cole conceptualizes history and memory as adversarial forces. This is a problematic approach on more than one count: To begin with, it assumes a hierarchical distinction between the history and memory, with the latter being measured against the standards of the former. Cole argues that the “Holocaust” of myth did not appear until the 1960s (in fact, the sort of phenomenon that he terms “myth” was [End Page 154] already well underway during World War II), and that this is an inherent distortion (“abuse,” “trivialization,” “universalization,” “sanctification,” and so on) of an essen tialized actuality. Such an approach not only makes problematic assumptions about history but also fails to appreciate the enduring appeal of making myths (whether about the Holocaust or other historical events) or to acknowledge the legitimacy and value of such efforts as cultural enterprises in their own right.
Cole approaches the “selling” of the Holocaust through six case studies, centered around three people (Anne Frank, Adolf Eichmann, Oskar Schindler) and three sites (Auschwitz, Yad Vashem, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.). These are in themselves familiar subjects for this discussion, and much of what Cole offers iterates earlier work. His first chapter, for example, largely retraces Alvin Rosenfeld’s 1991 essay, “Popularization and Memory: The Case of Anne Frank,” which faults the public embrace of the young diarist as disproportionate and improperly universalized in its popularization, especially on stage and screen. Cole doesn’t discuss...