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American Literary History 13.3 (2001) 499-529
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Jews Without Memory:
Sophie's Choice and the Ideology of Liberal Anti-Judaism
D. G. Myers
1. Sophie's Place
Sophie's Choice has been ranked among the 100 best novels of the twentieth century (Lewis E1). Though it is a striking effort to write a modern tragedy, its historical importance owes little or nothing to its literary quality. William Styron's novel was a pioneering dissent on the Holocaust, a forceful challenge to prevailing opinion. Belonging to the second wave of Holocaust fiction in America, it was published in 1979, the same year as Philip Roth's Ghost Writer and Leslie Epstein's King of the Jews. Just the year before, NBC's miniseries Holocaust reached an audience of 120 million and Jimmy Carter also established the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which would lead to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to the museum's historian, these highly public events of 1978 "signaled that the Holocaust had moved not only from the periphery to the center of American Jewish consciousness, but to the center of national consciousness as well" (Linenthal 12). If the term had not been corrupted by neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust, Sophie's Choice--along with The Ghost Writer and The King of the Jews--might appropriately be labeled revisionist accounts. Together they express irritation with the uncritical public reception of the Holocaust, which propelled its movement to the heart of the culture in the late 1970s. Each novel sets out to épater les piétistes. Roth's fantasy that Anne Frank survived the war to become a creative writing student in America dispels the aura of sanctity surrounding Hitler's most famous victim; Epstein's portrait of a ghetto dictator punctures the assumption that under the Nazis every Jew was an innocent victim; and Styron's novel [End Page 499] about a Polish Catholic woman who survived Auschwitz only to die tragically in America puts under interrogation the claim that the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish catastrophe. Styron aims to show that some Christians (in his phrase) "suffered as much as any Jew" (237). 1
Of these Sophie's Choice is the most important, because it is the most explicitly ideological. Styron does not merely dissent from the orthodoxy of the "uniqueness thesis" (as it has come to be known); he delivers an elenchus, a strong rereading of the Holocaust which goes beyond challenging the predominant view to reverse it. Nor does Styron attack an ideology made of straw. The common opinion of most Jewish scholars and writers, including Yehuda Bauer, Arthur A. Cohen, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Emil Fackenheim, Sir Martin Gilbert, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Steven T. Katz, Lawrence L. Langer, Deborah E. Lipstadt, and Cynthia Ozick, is that the Holocaust was unique. 2 And in two ways. It was distinguished by the Nazi intention of totally eradicating the Jewish people, who were in this respect its unique victims--the purpose and whole reason for the Holocaust--and historically it was without precedent, without sequel. As Otto Friedrich says in the preface to his Kingdom of Auschwitz (1994), the very title of which suggests the uniqueness of the death camp, it was "the worst that had ever happened" (viii). Styron vigorously criticizes Jewish scholars and writers for this "narrow" and specifically Jewish interpretation. In its stead he advances a universalist, even metaphysical interpretation, understanding the Holocaust as the embodiment of absolute evil, which threatened humanity as a whole. The Jews may have been (in his phrase) the "victims of victims," but they were not the only victims of Nazi evil. To claim exclusive victimhood is to deny and even add to other peoples' suffering. The lesson of the Holocaust is that uniqueness is victimization, whether practiced by Germans or Jews. To remember the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish catastrophe is to be Jews without memory.
Although it is usually classified as a Holocaust novel, then, Sophie's Choice is not about the Holocaust as such. Its subject...