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Shaping Holocaust Memory

From: American Jewish History
Volume 88, Number 1, March 2000
pp. 127-132 | 10.1353/ajh.2000.0021

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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 127-132

The Holocaust in American Life. By Peter Novick. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 373 pp.

In the beginning, Americans did not center the Holocaust in their consciousness. The annihilation of Europe's Jews under the swastika during 1939-1945 went unmentioned in the postwar Hollywood film Gentleman's Agreement (1947), which linked genteel anti-Semitism to other prejudices that threatened the country's values. A Broadway production in 1955 of The Diary of Anne Frank, eventually the most widely read book in the U.S. about the Holocaust, stripped that document of even its marginal Jewishness and had audiences exit with the heroine's cheery curtain line: "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart." Only academics appreciated Raul Hilberg's magisterial The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). In 1964, New York City's Arts Commission rejected the design for a Holocaust memorial from survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, in part because the great metropolis had to ensure that "monuments in the parks...be limited to events of American history."

A half century after World War II, all has changed.

In 1978, NBC's nine-and-a-half-hour miniseries Holocaust drew close to 100 million viewers. Upon receiving the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1985, Elie Wiesel publicly implored President Reagan not to visit a German military cemetery where Waffen SS members were buried; Wiesel, the charismatic survivor voice soon to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, would also be honored with throwing out the first ceremonial pitch of the New York Mets' 1988 home season. Thousands stream daily through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, erected next to the National Mall in 1993. That same year, Schindler's List won seven Academy Awards, going on to earn almost $100 million by 1997. Holocaust memorials and centers dot the landscape; commemorative services are ubiquitous. Publications of myriad sorts about the subject, from commercial and university presses alike, find a welcome audience. College courses on the Shoah (now the commonly known Hebrew term) regularly draw large numbers, and it is required study in many a high school and even elementary school curriculum.

While Americans currently invoke the Holocaust as a moral paradigm - the symbolic measure of evil - American Jews have come to view it as the emblematic Jewish experience. In 1959, Hollywood's version of Anne Frank's diary drew praise from the director of the Jewish Film Advisory Committee, who commended the movie's universalization of suffering: "It could very easily have been an outdated Jewish tragedy by less creative or more emotional handling - even a Jewish 'Wailing Wall,' and hence regarded as mere propaganda." By sharp contrast, the 1997 American Jewish Committee survey of American Jewish opinion revealed that 94 percent of respondents believed that Jews should "keep the remembrance of the Holocaust strong, even after the passage of time." Respondents to a similar survey two years later, asked to cite the importance of several factors to one's Jewish identity, cited the Shoah more than anything else, above religious observance or the State of Israel.

What accounts for this remarkable transformation, which has turned the Holocaust from historical fact into world view?

Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life deftly shows how the Cold War alliance between the U.S. and Germany, coupled with Jewish fears that an emphasis on victimhood would hinder integration into American society, led to the early marginalization of the Shoah. The Eichmann trial (1961) and Hannah Arendt's controversial articles about it in The New Yorker first sparked discourse about Hitler's Final Solution as a singular barbarism, while the systematic murder of European Jewry offered a powerful rallying cry in defense of embattled Israel from the 1967 Six-Day War onwards. American Jewry's mounting concerns ever since the early 1970s about assimilation, coinciding with an increase in the public's celebration of ethnic difference and survivorship in general, further solidified for Jews the Holocaust's hold in "the Victimization Olympics" so prevalent in America. Other groups, ranging across the political and cultural spectrum, have utilized the Holocaust for their own ends.

Provocatively...



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