- Understanding the Shoah: Review Essay
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 13, Number 4, Summer 1995
- p. pp. 68-73
- View Citation
68 SHOFAR Summer 1995 Vol. 13, No: 4 READERS' FORUM Perspectives on The Holocaust in Historical Context Editor's Note: We received a brief paper from Drs. Roy and Alice Eckardt commenting on what they see as inaccuracies in Steven Katz's book, and we asked Professor Katz to respond. Since we also received a review of the book in question, we thought the three would make an interesting intellectual "package.» We welcome additional comments from readers on this subject or any other. Understanding the Shoah: Review Essay by Zev Garber Chair ofJewish Studies los Angeles Valley College The Holocaust in Historical Context:. Volume 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age, by Steven T. Katz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 702 pp. $49.95. In his debut volume in the study of the Holocaust in historical context Steven T. Katz appended nearly 100 pages of bibliography in -English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and a variety ofEuropean languages, averaging over forty titles a page, a number determined not by Shoah qua Shoah but by topic necessity. Katz's determination to assert that "The Holocaust [is] phenomenologically unique" calls attention to the iconic status of Judeocide during World War II, as well as the absurdity of Western culture in packaging mass death. What can be more ill-advised, after all, than an assembly-line thinking that compares the Shoah with all other events of mass murder and says that they are of-equal status in portraying man's inhumanity to man? The catastrophe of state-sponsored technologically administered mass death, Auschwitz, Katz implies, is the inimitable symbol Readers' Forum 69 of annihilation in our times (to be discussed in forthcoming volumes) and by scholars of ages gone by, the focus of the volume under review. .In a pluralistic society in which we don't know our neighbors; let alone what constitute civil liberties and moral choices, the' face ofgenocide wears familiar masks. Whether we believe that "gynocide spawns genocide " or talk of manumission as the model of the Nazi-imposed Jewish forced labor under a hideous slogan like "Arbeit macht frei" or dwell on "hidden" and forgotten Holocaust(s), we are constantly constructing from our worldviews not only tragedies but also carefully crafted Shoah-Iaced relationships. Katz's The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age dutifully examines the history behind the state of affairs, and suggests that thoughcrosscultural-ethnic-gender-racial-religious explorations may contribute to our understanding of genocide, they do not explain the unique intentionality of the Shoah. Professor ofJewish History and Thought in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University (on leave) and author ofHistoricism, The Holocaust, and Zionism: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought and History (New York and London: NYU Press, 1992), Katz approachesone can even say packages-his subject with a mix of tedious labor, which is in the best tradition ofJewish historiography-conceivably inspired by the acumen of his late teacher, Salo Baron, Z"L (Columbia University)-and defensive enthusiasm. For example, in speaking of why medieval Christendom diabolized the Jew, Katz writes in the stirring cadences of a Yom Kippur piyyut (devotional poem): Fea~ of disease, fear of pollution, fear of the unseen, 'fear of the unknown, fear of uncontrollable powers, fear of demons and monsters, fear ofwitches and wizards, fear of the malignant forces of nature and supemature, fear of devils and fallen angels, fear of sin, feat of theological corruption, fear of ' theological untruth, fear of sexuality both licit and suppressed, fear of self, fear of psyche, fear of primal needs and their outer manifestations, fear of economic competition and its consequences, fear of political defeat and conquest-all this and more was projected onto "the Jews." (p. 278) In 1979, at the University of Notre Dame (September) and at the University of Rochester (December), Katz proposed his agenda on why the Shoah is unmatched in history, of which a more extended version is unveiled here. To show that "[t] he Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized poliCy, to annihilate physically every man, women, and child belonging...