- The Warsaw Ghetto in American Art and Culture by Samantha Baskind
BY SAMANTHA BASKIND
UNIVERSITY PARK: PENN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2018. 328 PAGES. $44.95.
Samantha Baskind's The Warsaw Ghetto in American Art and Culture offers a profound, broad-ranging, multimedia analysis of American responses to the armed Jewish uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw from Passover eve, April 19, to May 16, 1943—a resistance, as is often pointed out, that lasted longer than the defense of Poland and almost as long as the Battle of France. Baskind examines American cultural responses ranging from a radio drama broadcast in June 1943, only weeks after the defeat of the insurgency and the killing or scattering of the Jews who had suffered and fought in the Warsaw Ghetto, to present-day visits to the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial. The book generally follows the chronological unfolding of those responses, with chapters focusing on In the Presence of Mine Enemies (1959) and other television plays by Rod Serling along with Millard Lampell's theatrical adaptations (1960 and 1964) of John Hersey's seminal novel The Wall (1950); Leon Uris's bestselling novel about the Warsaw Ghetto, Mila 18 (1962), in relation to his prior novel Exodus (1958) and its film adaptation (1960) about the armed conflict leading to the founding of the State of Israel; the late paintings (1990s) of Samuel Bak (b. 1933), a child-survivor of the Vilna Ghetto; and the comics of Joe Kubert, from the early 1970s to his graphic novel Yossel: April 19, 1943 (2011). In each case, Baskind judiciously adduces related materials, whether contemporaneous texts, parallels, and precedents from the history of art, later images attesting to the impact of the principle works under study, or "paratexts" (a term she borrows from literary theorist Gerard Genette), such as the [End Page 252] dust jackets of Uris's novels. And in each case, too, Baskind provides insightful interpretation grounded in meticulous research and supported by detailed, elegant, and illuminating visual analysis.
Baskind herself comes to reflect in her "Epilogue" on the work that she has undertaken through a discussion of the USHMM in which she remarks, "Resistance efforts and rescue [. . .] are part of the last chapter of a Holocaust narrative that—especially in the American context—needs to end on a more positive and uplifting note than in actuality" (248, her italics). The interjection delineates neatly the context and indeed the goal of the book: not a history of events in Warsaw (Baskind clearly anticipates readers who are already familiar with conditions in the ghetto and the course of the armed uprising), but rather a critical assessment of the process of Americanization to which those events have been submitted.
In emphasizing the word "needs," Baskind also signals the motor driving that process, which had also been her starting point. The fundamental need is historicized in the first chapter by bringing to the fore the presupposition to which the Warsaw Ghetto uprising responds in the words of some of its participants and most of its subsequent representations, namely, the cultural stereotype that Jews were not fighters. In a world at war as a consequence of exacerbated nationalism, all but universally articulated through the idealization of a militant virility and especially as the willingness to sacrifice oneself in battle, as George Mosse discussed long ago in Confronting the Nation (1993), there was a corollary to that premise: those who do not fight lack dignity and have no place among the nations. It is a small and heinous step from such views to the inference that the Holocaust was the Jews' own fault—implausible, but not infrequent. Adorno thought it necessary to assert, in "Education after Auschwitz" (1967), "It is not the victims who are guilty, not even in the sophistic and caricatured sense in which still today many like to construe it." And still today, former presidential candidate and current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration Ben Carson took that step in proposing a "'what-if' scenario," as Baskind refers to Kubert's fantasies (224), when he suggested that if...