On the Bookshelf
Who owns Holocaust history?
Whose history is the history of the Holocaust? Given the exponential proliferation of books on the subject, it might be simpler to ask whose history isn’t the history of the Holocaust. David Engel offers up an astonishing answer to that very question in Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust (Stanford, December). Scholars trained in Jewish history, Engel notes, have usually not concentrated on the Shoah, strangely enough. Instead, they have mostly left the field to their peers trained as specialists in German or modern European history, such as Raul Hilberg, who proclaimed that since the genocide was “a German deed,” “the perpetrator’s perspective was the primary path to be followed” in his research. Engel explores the causes and consequences of this situation and examines a few salient exceptions among Jewish history specialists who have, in fact, focused on the khurbn.
Some Jewish historians had no choice but to focus on the Holocaust, because they lived and died in it. Led by Emanuel Ringelblum, a team of historians within the Warsaw Ghetto assembled an astonishing set of testimonies, documents, and photographs, which they preserved in buried milk cans to be unearthed after the war. For a sense of the variety and scope of the materials contained within the archive, readers can consult The Warsaw Ghetto Oyneg Shabes-Ringelblum Archive: Catalog and Guide (Indiana, December), edited by Robert Moses Shapiro and Tadeusz Epsztein, with an introduction by Samuel Kassow—while those more interested in the tale of the archive’s production and preservation should seek out Kassow’s important Who Will Write Our History? (2007).
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While Engel points out a surprising gap in Holocaust historiography, no one could call the overall amount of energy devoted by contemporary scholars to the Holocaust insufficient. Indeed, industrious historians are busily slicing up the enormity of the genocide into smaller and smaller chunks—narrowing their foci to one year, or city, or perpetrator—producing works that can at least aspire to comprehensive treatment of their subjects. Giles MacDonough describes a single eventful year in 1938: Hitler’s Gamble (Basic, November), for example, and if the book sells well, the author can be sure that at least six potential sequels (1939, 1940, 1941, etc) await him. Hans Safrian concentrates on one particularly assiduous Nazi (and his hardworking underlings) in Eichmann’s Men (Cambridge, January), while novelist and author of the acclaimed Lawrence and Aaronsohn (2007) Ronald Florence hones in on a single chilling episode from Eichmann’s career in Emissary of the Doomed: Bargaining for Lives in the Holocaust (Viking, January): Eichmann’s 1944 offer to trade the lives of a million doomed Hungarian Jews for 10,000 military trucks, which forced Joel Brand, a Hungarian Jew, into the awkward position of presenting this Faustian bargain to the Allied nations and Jewish organizations. Meanwhile Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation (Chicago, December), a collection of essays edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schutz—and, like Eichmann’s Men, translated from the German—focuses on the city called home by a third of German Jews before the Nazis seized power. In each case, the narrowed focus helps these volumes cover their subjects effectively.
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Other authors, in documenting the Nazis’ influence outside of Europe, reach beyond the traditional confines of what we think of when we think of the Holocaust. Jeffrey Herf, who has published before on the Nazi propaganda machine, turns to the Middle Eastern and North African diffusion of the Third Reich’s messages in Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale, November). Herf unearths Arabic radio broadcasts produced by the Germans and explores the continuities between European anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s and the Judeophobia of contemporary fundamentalist Islam. The attempt to understand the links between these two poisonous, brutal ideologies also animates Boualem Sansal’s novel The German Mujahid (Europa, October), translated from French by Frank Wynne. In it, two Algerian brothers grapple with their German father’s war crimes as an officer with the Waffen SS, as well as with the rise of fundamentalist Islam in their French ghetto and in Algeria itself.
Such comparative, synthesizing approaches to Judeophobia reach their zenith, perhaps, with Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, January), a 1,200-page tome covering virtually all historical instances of Judeophobia, whether perpetrated by pagans, Christians, Soviets, or Muslims. Technically anti-Semitism dates back only to the 19th century—that’s when the term was coined—but Wistrich, director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University, seeks the sources of this hatred throughout history.
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Is it too late now for Holocaust restitution? The ongoing trial of John Demjanjuk reminds us that many people abjure the notion of a statute of limitations on the Nazis’ crimes. Efraim Zuroff, for example, whose new book Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave Macmillan, November) was reviewed by Tablet’s Adam Kirsch a couple of weeks ago, hunts down aged Nazis today in the hopes of convicting them before they die of natural causes. In Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s (Wisconsin, October), historian Michael Marrus addresses the questions raised by financial reparations for Holocaust survivors. How much money would it take to redress the suffering of a single survivor, let alone the senseless destruction of a third of the world’s Jewish population?
Alongside legal and financial means of recourse, some seek to respond to the Holocaust through art. After Representation?: The Holocaust, Literature, and Culture (Rutgers, November), the latest of many academic studies of the ethics and aesthetics of representations of the genocide, includes contributions from some of the most impressive and influential academic thinkers on the subject, including Berel Lang, Geoffrey Hartman, James Young, and Sara Horowitz. Does the composition of rich and powerful literature by survivors, and by those meditating on the catastrophe from afar, provide as much comfort to the living or the dead as tracking down perpetrators or doling out reparation monies? Whether it does or not, and for better or worse, publishing books about the tragedy seems still to be among the most widespread responses to the it.