- Holocaust, American Style
In an important essay, "The Americanization of the Holocaust," Alvin H. Rosenfeld refers to a series of studies undertaken by the American Jewish Committee [End Page 354] investigating defference in what people know about the Holocaust across several countries. Not surprisingly, the studies showed that Americans, compared with other Western national groups, had the least amount of historical grounding in the events of World War II. Paradoxically, however, the studies also suggested that Americans, while knowing very little about the Holocaust, nonetheless seem to care about it the most, deeming it something "essential" to understand.1 This paradox is central to apprehending the contours of the cultural production of the "Holocaust" on American soil. How is such supposedly uninformed "care" grounded in the work of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others engaged with the construction of the popular memory of an unwieldy constellation of events occurring over fifty years ago on distant shores, events we have come to call the Holocaust? If Americans' limited historical awareness comes largely from popular culture (which it does), it is necessary to examine that cultural output in the context of the ethos in which it is produced and received. This examination reveals—again, not surprisingly—that the American way of appropriating the Holocaust involves, to categorize most generally, universalizing, relativizing, moralizing, and idealizing. I quote Rosenfeld at some length:
"The Holocaust" is in the process of being transformed from a proper noun to a common noun, a semantic switch that signifies an important conceptual and ideological transformation as well. As a result, language that hitherto has been employed to refer primarily to Nazi crimes against the Jews is now frequently applied to social ills and human sufferings of diverse kinds. . . .
It is part of the American ethos to stress goodness, innocence, optimism, liberty, diversity, and equality. It is part of the same ethos to downplay or deny the dark and brutal sides of life and instead to place a preponderant emphasis on the saving power of individual moral conduct and collective deeds of redemption. Americans prefer to think affirmatively and progressively. The tragic vision, therefore, is antithetical to the American way of seeing the world, according to which people are meant to overcome adversity and not cling endlessly to their sorrows. Because Americans are also pragmatic in their approach to [End Page 355] history, they are eager to learn what "lessons" can be drawn from the past in order, as many are quick to say, to prevent its worst excesses "from ever happening again". . . .
The Holocaust has had to enter American consciousness, therefore, in ways that Americans could readily understand on their own terms. These are terms that promote a tendency to individualize, heroize, moralize, idealize, and universalize.(122-23)
It is in this context that Americans think about the Holocaust. Is this a cheapening of the seriousness, even sanctity, of the experiences of Jews during World War II, an unholy appropriation of the memories of those who lived, suffered, and died in "that time and place"? If it is true, as Rosenfeld argues, that "it is almost a general requirement of American cultural engagement with the Holocaust that audiences not be subjected to unrelenting pain" (126), has the Holocaust itself become sanitized, repackaged in easily disposable and digestible servings smacking of American consumerism? Or are the American versions of the Holocaust...