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Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 169-179



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Response to Lederhendler and Lang

Peter Novick


I am, of course, pleased that Eli Lederhendler had so many complimentary things to say about The Holocaust in American Life. In my response I'll "accentuate the negative": concentrate on points of disagreement in the interests of a fruitful engagement.

Lederhendler has two major criticisms of the book. First, he believes that I underrate the influence of the Holocaust on American Jewry in the late 1940s and early 1950s; he suggests that there was "a subterranean Holocaust awareness in early postwar American Jewish life that bears a closer look than Novick is prepared to give it."

The question really is not one of "subterranean awareness," because awareness (that is, knowledge) of the Holocaust was universal among American Jews, as was awareness that but for the accident of parents' (or grandparents') immigration, they would have shared the fate of European Jewry. Rather, it is a matter of how central or marginal this was to their consciousness. The investigation of this sort of thing is (to put it mildly) difficult, because it has to be based on indirect evidence, on inference, and on what might be termed "informed intuition." My low estimate of the salience of Holocaust consciousness in those years squares with the impressions of contemporary observers, whom I cited in the book. I cited as well a number of published symposia in those years in which Jewish participants were invited to talk of what had shaped their thinking and about the grounds of their Jewish identity. The fact that, in these symposia, the Holocaust was almost never mentioned seemed to me very suggestive (though not decisive) in judging its private salience. Although I emphasized that the absence of much Jewish public discourse about the Holocaust did not mean the absence of discussion "around the kitchen table," I registered my belief [End Page 169] that the public and private realms were not altogether separate; it seemed likely that, if there had been a lot of private discussion, this would have been reflected in more public discourse. I noted as well that a good deal of private discussion reflects, or is in reaction to, things said in public. Public discourse about a subject, I said, sends positive messages about discussing it in private; the absence of such discourse sends the opposite message.

I then made an observation that may be relevant to the differences between Lederhendler's evaluation of postwar attitudes and my own. Such negative signals, I wrote, were "least likely to be followed by those whose families immigrated relatively recently, or those living in densely Jewish neighborhoods, or those with a strong traditional Jewish identity." Early in his review, Lederhendler tells us that these characteristics precisely describe his own background. I am sure that when drawing, as we all do, on his own experiences, Lederhendler, like all conscientious historians, did some "compass correction"--considered the extent to which his intuitions in this matter may have been a reflection of a background way above the American Jewish average with respect to Holocaust awareness. I tried to make allowance for my own background, in which the sociological predictors of Holocaust awareness may have been slightly (though not, I think, very much) below average. Perhaps Lederhendler, in reaching what is inevitably in considerable measure an intuitive judgment in this matter, made insufficient compass correction for his own background. Or perhaps I did. I still think I'm right . . . but maybe not.

Lederhendler's second major criticism is that, tacitly if not explicitly, I exaggerated the importance of Jewish organizations in the promotion of Holocaust consciousness, that I devoted too much attention to them. In retrospect, with some distance from the writing of the book, I think he is right about this. (He would also be right if he said that, in my treatment of the earlier years, I spent too much time on the ways in which Jewish organizations devoted themselves to discouraging Holocaust consciousness.) My plea is guilty . . . with an explanation.

If readers look at what I said explicitly about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2028
Print ISSN
0021-6704
Pages
pp. 169-179
Launched on MUSE
2001-08-01
Open Access
No
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