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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 273-286

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"But Wasn't it Terrific?": A Defense of Liking Life is Beautiful

Hilene Flanzbaum

A friend of mine, a professor and a poet, who is married to the son of a Holocaust survivor, told me this story: in 1993, she decided not to see Schindler's List. She was, she reported, sick of the hype surrounding the release of the film, and tired of Hollywood's banal treatment of the Holocaust. But her father-in-law and his friends, all survivors, would not stop bugging her. Every time they saw her, they told her to see it. Finally she succumbed. The next time she saw her father-in-law and his friends, she queried them indignantly: "Why did you tell me to see it? It wasn't good; it wasn't anything like that." "Of course not," her father-in-law replied, "but wasn't it terrific?"

I know other stories like this. In 1998, I gave a lecture on the Americanization of the Holocaust at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Several survivors and children of survivors were in the audience and during the discussion period, when we began to talk about the 1978 television miniseries "Holocaust"--one of the most infamous examples of the Americanization of the Holocaust--the discussants, as usual, condemned it. The conversation continued in this predictable fashion until the middle-aged son of a survivor, an historian for the Museum, confessed "that his mother loved it." When questioned about how that could be the case, when obviously the program was so reductive and unrealistic, he replied that "his mother loved anything that dealt with the Holocaust, that she was just glad to see it in public view."

This prickly interaction between audience and critic, survivor and non-survivor, regularly recurs in the public sphere, and points to a complex and unhealthy dynamic in the reception of Holocaust art. In another more public example of this discord, Abraham Foxman, the president of the Anti-Defamation League and a survivor, publicly defended Life is Beautiful as "an important contribution to our understanding of the lessons of the Holocaust," while many film reviewers--not survivors--condemned the film because in one reviewer's words: "It is not a valid depiction of the Holocaust." 1

The reactions of survivors to artistic representations of the Holocaust ought to be instructive to us, not necessarily because they "witnessed" [End Page 273] it, but because they suggest a practical approach to a topic that has become hopelessly intellectualized and dangerously politicized. How can we account for the fact that survivors appreciate both the great preponderance and the wide variety of representations of the Holocaust, while professional critics grow increasingly intolerant and rigid, believing it to be their ethical duty to protect the image of the Holocaust? Because they feel a moral compulsion to preserve the memory of the genocide in its most authentic form, many critics position themselves as "caretakers," observing an etiquette that, in this writer's view, is based on conventions that have outlived their usefulness.

Contemporary Holocaust etiquette stipulates verisimilitude and a commitment to exposing each scrap of the grim reality so that audiences can fully comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet the attitudes of survivors and the dissension between them and the critics reveal that this attachment to verisimilitude is futile and hopelessly misguided. The past twenty years have given rise to a growing number of professional critics who cleave to this notion of authenticity above all else. In the reception of the mini-series "Holocaust," of popular films such as Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful, and of dozens of other popular representations of the Holocaust, one question eclipses all others: how close did it come to documenting the atrocity of the actual event? The answer, of course, is always "not close enough," for to claim otherwise is not only an obvious falsehood, but also a transgression of Holocaust etiquette's cardinal rule. How could a non-survivor...


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