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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 474-478
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Rethinking the Holocaust
Rethinking the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. 335. $29.95, cloth.
At the second International Conference on the Holocaust and Education, held at the Yad Vashem Heroes' and Martyrs' Memorial authority in Jerusalem, Yehuda Bauer challenged the current generation of Holocaust scholars to move beyond the "memorialization" of the event to a study of its effects. This put Bauer in a difficult position: at the time he was the Director the International Institute for Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem, which for the nearly forty years since its founding has served as a reminder and a warning that Jews should never again be the objects of a Final Solution. In Bauer's address (and in Rethinking the Holocaust), he insists that we need to move beyond memory and "to rethink the categories and issues that arise out of the contemplation of that watershed event in human history" (ix). But this will be harder than he thinks, given Bauer's position as a historian (and a fairly traditional one at that). Despite positioning himself as an outsider in Holocaust debates—he often begins paragraphs with phrases like "contrary to what many of my colleagues think"—and in spite of the round criticism he levels at as diverse a cast of characters as Zygmunt Bauman, Daniel Goldhagen and the Lubovitcher Rebbe, a lot of the work being done on issues surrounding the Shoah and the Final Solution has moved beyond where Bauer would like it to go.
This is not to say that the book does not provide a good deal of food for thought. Using mainly secondary sources, but relying also on some of his own primary research collected over the years in books like Jews for Sale? and American Jewry and the Holocaust, Bauer reconsiders some of his earlier positions, and some of those reconsiderations are rather surprising. For example, while he criticizes Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners for a certain amount of scholarly myopia, he reverses his earlier position and praises Goldhagen's thesis for forcing scholars to reconsider the blurry line between "bystander" and "perpetrator," a challenge that Saul Friedlander has taken up in the first volume of his Nazi Germany and the Jews. Bauer also reverses his position on resistance, suggesting his earlier definition of resistance—"any group action consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters"—was too narrow. It ignored smaller, individual acts (what he calls amidah, literally "standing" or "standing up for") that sanctify life rather than work actively against certain destruction, either personal or political. There are other instances—his nod in the direction of women's studies as a method for understanding the difficult position of women in leadership positions, either in the resistance or with the Jewish Councils, is notable if weak—and all suggest that [End Page 474] Bauer, who has been working on the history of the Holocaust for over forty years, is trying hard to move in a new direction and away from the memorial impulse. (It's no surprise, then, that he tells us that he kept his work on this book a secret to nearly all his colleagues at Yad Vashem; they above all will be uncomfortable with his retreat from old and familiar positions: Jews resisted their fate, the state of Israel is the guarantor that no future Holocausts will occur, and the Final Solution was the direct result of a virulent and not-quite-dead central European antisemitism, among others).
Bauer's reconceptualization of Holocaust scholarship rests on two main theses, which he advances in the early chapters of the book, and then weaves through later chapters in which he reconsiders the work of several scholars (among them Goldhagen, Friedlander, Jeffrey Herf, and Goetz Aly) and several lines of research (on gender, on the relation between the Holocaust and new theodicies, the role of resistance and its place in the establishment of the Jewish state in...