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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 373-375
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Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (The Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies), Alan Mintz (Seattle; London: University of Washington Press, 2001), xiv + 208 pp., cloth $30.00, pbk. $18.95.
In contrast to Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein, who have argued that Holocaust memory in America has been promoted primarily by Jewish organizations and survivors to advance their respective interests, Alan Mintz focuses on "the pivotal role of popular culture in spreading awareness of the Holocaust from the Jewish community to the larger American nation" (p. x). He selects four motion pictures—The Diary of Anne Frank,Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, and Schindler's List—as examples of the impressions Americans have about the Holocaust and concludes by asking how Holocaust memory is constructed today by the various "interpretative communities" of the United States (p. 172).
Mintz distinguishes between two conflicting examples of Holocaust representation. As opposed to the "exceptionalist model," he favors the "constructivist model," which perceives historical events—even unprecedented ones such as the Shoah—through existing political and religious categories. To reconstruct how the genocide appeared to its victims, constructivists rely on diaries and papers left by those facing the Nazis. These documents refract the ordeal of the Jews through the assumptions made by the groups operating within the ghettos. For Zionists, Nazi racial policies proved their critique of Jewish emancipation and provided a spur to resistance and aliyah. For Jewish communists, the Jews served as scapegoats for monopoly capitalists discrediting revolutionary movements during the Depression. For Bundists, Jews constituted a separate nationality in Eastern Europe, struggling for cultural autonomy and for economic equality to guarantee their security. For the Orthodox, the "Final Solution" was either preparation for the Messianic Age or punishment for secular Jewry's abandonment of belief. Mintz cites David Roskies's The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (1988) as a paragon of constructivist scholarship that understands Jewish responses to the Holocaust as either religious or ideological rationales for why Jews are repeatedly persecuted.
The exceptionalists—who use primarily postwar memoirs and interviews to support their ideas—view the Holocaust as a paradigmatic event that defies traditional modes of comprehension and representation. In their eyes, the death camp epitomizes the unique attempt at state-sanctioned mass murder, which distinguished the Final Solution from previous persecutions of the Jews. The Nazi extermination of European Jewry leads exceptionalists, for example Lawrence Langer, to conclude that the only lesson to be wrested from the event is "the defeat of hope and the victory of meaningless death" (p. 50). To impose more uplifting significance on it is to gloss over its nihilistic intent. This bleak view challenges any attempt to render the Holocaust accurately in conventional artistic, cinematic, or literary forms. The act of popularizing it in an America unscathed by its ravages is bound to betray the full extent of its horrors. [End Page 373]
Mintz applies the constructivist model to his readings of the aforementioned movies because it substantiates his conviction that "the Holocaust will always be enlisted for ulterior purposes and that the destruction of European Jewry will always be perceived through an American lens" (p. 82). Mintz characterizes the period between the Holocaust and the 1961 Eichmann trial as one of silence; yet his discourse on the book, stage, and screen versions of The Diary of Anne Frank belies this assertion. To be sure, Anne's Jewishness was minimized and her diary edited for universal appeal. Yet the diary was not the only Holocaust-related text to resonate with Americans during the decade. John Hersey's The Wall (1950), Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Whitney Harris's Tyranny on Trial (1954), and Leon Uris's Exodus (1958) also sold well. Moreover, Jeffrey Shandler has documented that many television documentaries, dramas, and programs about the Holocaust were broadcast during the 1950s. The same was true for movies such as The Juggler (1953), Me and the Colonel (1958), and Verboten (1958...