Monday, June 29, 2009

Silence after the Holocaust

In the letters section of the latest Commentary, a time-honored intellectual debate is rejoined. Was there or was there not a “two-decade silence” about the Holocaust in the years following the defeat of Hitler’s Germany?

The phrase belongs to the Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz, who declared that the period from 1945 to 1965 should be known as “the two-decade silence.” “Not until the mid-1960’s, twenty years after World War II, did the Holocaust become a central topic in Jewish religious thought,” he wrote.[1] In her new book We Remember with Reverence and Love, Hasia Diner counters that the postwar “silence” is a myth. American Jews responded to the Holocaust in all sorts of ways. Only in comparison to “the undertakings of the later period,” which are fundamentally different in kind and scope, can the early responses be dismissed as “silence.”

Nonsense, scoffs Jonathan Tobin, who reviewed Diner’s book in the April issue of the magazine. For two decades there was no “memorial culture” in the U.S. Only with the “sea change in American Jewish life” that occurred in the ’sixties and ’seventies, when American Jews became politically active “on a host of issues—most prominently Soviet Jewry and support for the State of Israel”—did the Holocaust become central to Jewish thinking.

Thus Tobin recapitulates, perhaps without being fully aware of it, the argument of Peter Novick’s polemical and deeply flawed account of The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Novick begins his book by asking “how Americans became so ‘Holocaust conscious’ ”—asking “why now?” and “why here?”—and ends by blaming the Jews. The Holocaust has “loomed ever larger in American culture,” he explains, because it has proven politically useful to the Jews. It has become “the central symbol of oppression and atrocity,” because the Jews have “defined themselves as the quintessential victim community.” They “were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics,” and the Holocaust was their ideological equipment of choice.[2]

Both Tobin and Novick agree that political motives were behind the flowering of Holocaust commemoration in America. They differ only in whether they approve of the politics. Tobin celebrates the “Jewish activism” of the ’sixties and ’seventies, saying that it provoked American Jews “to think seriously and draw conclusions about the Holocaust in a way that they had never done before.” Novick laments the fact that they were thinking about the Holocaust at all, saying that it has led American Jews to abandon their longstanding commitment to “the more equal distribution of rewards which had been the aim of liberal social policies.”[3]

Although I share Tobin’s politics, in this dispute I side with Diner. In her letter to the editor, she points out that it is ahistorical to hear a “two-decade silence” simply because the early responses do not compare to the later.

The historical error is that the current situation is specified from the outset, and the Holocaust’s reception in America is read backwards from the present. All the different ways in which the Holocaust was represented and remembered are melted down and absorbed into a single dominant image (a “memorial culture” for Tobin, a “Victimization Olympics” for Novick). The earlier period is found wanting (Tobin), or preferred for its deeper commitment to political liberalism (Novick), because it is being judged by criteria altogether different from those that were applied during the period itself.

What is ignored is that the idea of the Holocaust also has a history. Rather than inquiring into that, scholars have simply taken for granted that the Holocaust has always meant what it means now. But the meaning of history is never given. Events do not dictate how they are to be interpreted; they await men and women to give an account of them. What is now called the Holocaust is the product of interpretation, and it has changed over time. It is a distinct and particular version of events, which arose at a specfic stage in history, took shape gradually, and eventually eclipsed its historical rivals. Instead of being passed over in a two-decade silence, the Holocaust was tossed by a two-decade fitfulness of interpretation, a period during which no version commanded enough assent to get the full attention of the culture, until finally one version came out on top.

Let me give an example. One of the first American novels to witness the Holocaust was Irwin Shaw’s 1948 war novel The Young Lions. Late in the book, a U.S. infantry company enters an unnamed death camp. The smell, “beyond the tolerance of human nostrils,” reduces the soldiers to silence. The dead are “sprawled at the gate and behind the wire,” and the surviving prisoners are unable either to smile or weep at the arrival of their liberators, because they are “too far sunk in a tragedy which had moved off the plane of human reaction onto an animal level of despair. . . .” But these are as nothing compared to what awaits Michael Whitacre and Captain Green inside the barracks:

In the murky air, pierced ineffectually here and there by the dusty beams of spring sunshine, Michael could see the piled, bony forms. The worst thing was that from some of the piles there was movement, a languidly waving arm, the slow lift of a pair of burning eyes in the stinking gloom, the pale twisting of lips on skulls that seemed to have met death many days before. In the depths of the building, a form detached itself from a pile of rags and bones and started a slow advance on hands and knees toward the door. Nearer by, a man stood up, and moved, like a mechanical figure, crudely arranged for the process of waking, toward Green. Michael could see that the man believed he was smiling, and he had his hand outstretched in an absurdly commonplace gesture of greeting. The man never reached Green. He sank to the slime-covered floor, his hand still outstretched. When Michael bent over him he saw that the man had died.[4]This can hardly be described as silence about the Holocaust. Shaw explicitly offers it, in fact, to break the silence that the American soldiers are reduced to by the horror of the camp. What does remain silent, within this scene, is the experience on the other side of the wire—the experience of the “scarecrows in tattered stripped suits,” whom later Holocaust writers would teach the world to call Muselmänner. Shaw does not know their later name, cannot begin to imagine their experience, and out of respect for the limits of human knowledge and imagination, he confines himself to the G.I.’s reaction. And I am not sure that the attempt can be described as a complete failure, even in comparison to the later successes of Holocaust literature, because Shaw reaches for something beyond the immediate sensory reaction:The center of the world, something repeated insanely and insistently in Michael’s brain, as he kneeled above the man who had died with such ease and silence before their eyes, I am now at the center of the world, the center of the world.Although it would be too much to claim that Shaw anticipated how the Holocaust would become “the central symbol of oppression and atrocity,” it is clear that he was grasping for the words to establish what would later become common knowledge.

The charge that American culture in general and American Jews in particular maintained a “two-decade silence” about the Holocaust is just what Hasia Diner says it is—a myth. An earlier generation was not silent about the Holocaust, but merely constructed its meaning differently.

[1] Eugene B. Borowitz, Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide, 2nd ed. (West Orange: Behrman House, 1995), p. 188.

[2] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 1–2, 194–95.

[3] Novick, p. 183.

[4] Irwin Shaw, The Young Lions (New York: Modern Library, 1982), p. 140.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The post-war wave of translations from Yiddish also had a memorial function. The Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Stories, for example, first appeared in 1953. It's dedicated "To the Six Million." Not so silent.