A leading scholar of both the Holocaust and the American Jewish experience, Deborah E. Lipstadt has written a volume that delves into the nexus between the two. Holocaust: An American Understanding employs a transnational approach to reflect on both historical narratives and historiographic debates, offering a variety of insights about the “American-ness” of what otherwise appears to be a European story. In doing so, she tackles a variety of disciplines, guiding her readers through sections devoted to how developments in history, literature, theology, political science, and sociology all coalesced into a complex American narrative of the Holocaust.
Lipstadt frames seventy years of academic, cultural, and popular understandings of the Holocaust through an Americanist lens. Lipstadt questions the view that “the machinations of the Jewish community” (p. 4) inspired heightened American awareness of the Holocaust. Instead, she argues that scholars must “take into consideration broader developments in both American society at large and in the more narrow confines of the American Jewish community” (p. 4). In her view, America’s evolving memory of the Holocaust “tells us as much and sometimes more about America and the broader contours of American culture and society than it does about the event itself” (p. 4). Lipstadt undertook the project to learn “what did and does this event mean to Americans” and how do “Americans contextualize it within the orbit of their own history” (p. 5).
The volume’s three chapters are organized into subsections offering short overviews of the important moments that shaped Holocaust knowledge and consciousness in the United States. The concise book reads easily and should prove a vital primer for undergraduates as well as lay readers. Many authors have covered the topics Lipstadt summarizes, but this is the best overview, packed with detail and weaving together larger themes that monographs cover with difficulty: how America and Americans developed their ideas about the Holocaust; how Jewish history can be informed and guided by secular history; and how our very definition of Jewishness depends upon the larger cultural context in which we live.
In chapter 1, “Terms of Debate,” Lipstadt explores the origins of Holocaust studies in the United States. She opens with the creation and popularization of the word “Holocaust,” crediting [End Page 126] both Philip Friedman and Raul Hilberg. Unlike the later popularization of survivor testimony, Lipstadt recounts how American Jewish organizations (and individuals) once marginalized these witnesses. Engaging literature and film from 1947 to 1962, she describes how Jews and non-Jews did, however, reflect Holocaust stories in various parts of American popular culture.
Chapter 2, “State of the Question,” opens with a lengthy discussion of Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial. Drawing upon her 2011 book-length treatment, Lipstadt recounts “an intellectual maelstrom from which the field of Holocaust studies has not yet quite emerged” (p. 48). She follows with a survey of writers, scholars, and directors who leveraged the Holocaust “to shed light on an array of American issues, including discrimination against women, nuclear war, racism, poverty, slavery, suicide, and even failed marriages” (p. 57).
In the 1960s and 1970s, American interest in the Holocaust grew, drawing both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Identity politics, especially in the African American community, motivated American Jews to explore their own group identity. Integrating scholarship on the social protest movements of the era, the rise of Black Power-inspired activism, and the work of theologians such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Lipstadt traces the “shifting theologies” that emerged “in the wake of Auschwitz” (p. 64). Spurred by young activists such as Arthur Morse, author of While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, Jewish young people refocused anti-establishment activism onto new targets.
With the activization of American Zionism after the 1967 Six-Day War and the birth of the Soviet Jewry movement as expressions of American Jewish identity politics, the Holocaust became a critical marker for American Jews. Other sections of chapter 2 include reviews of television, especially the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust; the fierce debates among scholars...