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Faustian Bargain

The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering

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The U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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Alvin Rosenfeld is a brave man, and his new work is courageous. The book is called The End of the Holocaust, and it is not reluctant to take on the unexamined pieties that have grown up around the slaughter, and the sentimentalization that threatens to smother it in meretricious uplift.

The real “end of the Holocaust,” he argues, is the transformation of it into a lesson about the “triumph of the human spirit” or some such affirmation. Rosenfeld, the founder and former director of the Jewish studies program at Indiana University, which has made itself a major center of Jewish publishing and learning, is a mainstream scholar who has seen the flaw in mainstream Holocaust discourse. He has made it his mission to rescue the Holocaust from the Faustian bargain Jews have made with history and memory, the Faustian bargain that results when we trade the specifics of memory, the Jewishness of the Holocaust, and the Jew-hatred that gave it its rationale and identity, for the weepy universalism of such phrases as “the long record of man’s inhumanity to man.”

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The impulse to find the silver lining is relentless, though. Suffering and grief must be transformed into affirmation, and the bleak irrecoverable fate of the victims must be given a redemptive aspect for those of us alive. In fact it’s an insult to the dead to rob their graves to make ourselves feel better. One recent manifestation Rosenfeld has shrewdly noticed is the way there has been a subtle shift in the popular representation of the Holocaust—a shift in the attention once given to the murdered victims to comparatively uplifting stories of survivors, of the “righteous gentiles,” of the scarce “rescuers,” and the even scarcer “avengers,” e.g., Quentin Tarantino’s fake-glorious fictional crew.

Rosenfeld is not afraid to contend with the fact that, as he writes, “with new atrocities filling the news each day and only so much sympathy to go around, there are people who simply do not want to hear any more about the Jews and their sorrows. There are other dead to be buried, they say.” The sad, deplorable, but, he says, “unavoidable” consequence of what may be the necessary limits of human sympathy is that “the more successfully [the Holocaust] enters the cultural mainstream, the more commonplace it becomes. A less taxing version of a tragic history begins to emerge, still full of suffering, to be sure, but a suffering relieved of many of its weightiest moral and intellectual demands and, consequently easier to be … normalized.”

Normalized? The Holocaust as one more instance in the long chronicle of “man’s inhumanity to man”? Rosenfeld’s book offers a welcome contrarian take on the trend. Yes, we’ve had enough, as Rosenfeld points out, of museums that cumulatively obscure memory in a fog of well-meaning but misleading inspirational brotherhood-of-man rhetoric. We’ve had enough of films like the execrable Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful and the well-intentioned but misguided Schindler’s List, with its sad lack of self-awareness that a happy ending, celebrating a Christian rescuer and some lucky Jewish survivors, is woefully off base. We’ve had enough of phony-memoir love stories, and we’ve had enough of the way a genuine tragic heroine and victim of Nazi death camps like Anne Frank is mendaciously turned into a spokeswoman for the “goodnesss of man.”

What we haven’t had enough of is a careful consideration of the implications of the Holocaust for the nature of human nature. As George Steiner told me (for my book, Explaining Hitler), “the Holocaust removed the re-insurance from human hope”—the psychic safety net we imagine marked the absolute depth of human nature. The Holocaust tore through that net heading for hell. Human nature could be—at the promptings of a charismatic and evil demagogue, religious hate, and so-called “scientific racism”—even worse than we imagined. No one wants to hear that. We want to hear uplifting stories about that nice Mr. Schindler. We want affirmations!

And the fact that it was not just one man but an entire continent that enthusiastically pitched in or stood by while 6 million were murdered: Doesn’t that call for us to spend a little time re-thinking what we still reverently speak of as “European civilization”? Or to investigate the roots of that European hatred? How much weight do the Holocaust museums give to the two millennia of Christian Jew-hatred, murderous pogroms, blood libels, and other degradations? Or do they prefer to focus on “righteous gentiles” in order to avoid offending their gentile hosts?

And for all their “reaching out” and “teachable moments,” how much do the Holocaust museums and Holocaust curricula connect the hatred of the recent past with contemporary exterminationist Jew-hatred, the vast numbers of people who deny the first, but hunger for a second, Holocaust? It’s a threat some fear even to contemplate—the potential destruction of the 5 million Jews of Israel with a single well-placed nuclear blast—a nightmarish but not unforseeable possibility to which Rosenfeld is unafraid to devote the final section of his book.

It’s something I speculated about in the Tablet Magazine excerpt from my book How the End Begins. It’s something spoken of eloquently by Imre Kertész, one of the writers Rosenfeld wishes to rescue from the “end of the Holocaust.” (Only two novels by this Hungarian survivor of Nazism and Stalinist oppression, a 2002 Nobel Prize winner, have been translated, a situation I would like to formally petition some serious-minded publisher to remedy forthwith.)

“Before Auschwitz,” Kertesz writes, “Auschwitz was unimaginable. That is no longer so today. Because Auschwitz in fact occurred, it has now been established in our imaginations as a firm possibility. What we are able to imagine, especially because it once was, can be again.” I wonder what our dedicated affirmationists who once disdainfully mocked concerns about a second Holocaust would say to Kertesz.

But no one wants to hear about such grim implications anymore. In a way, who can blame them? Why let the dead have so much power over us? How do we decide how much mental space the Holocaust should occupy? What do we owe the dead? Rosenfeld is on a lonely mission to prevent their disappearance into the maw of generalized human tragedy.

It’s been said before and it’s probably far too late to make a difference, but to me the process began—the process of the de-natured representation of the murder of 6 million—with the near universal acceptance of the word “Holocaust” for Hitler’s exterminationist crime. I’m speaking for myself here, not Rosenfeld, though inspired to express my anger by his eloquent despair. But it cannot be denied that the use of the word “Holocaust”—a Greek-derived word for a religious ritual, a sacrificial offering to the gods that is wholly burnt to ashes—is a lamentable formulation that is an attempt to vaguely sacralize and rationalize mass murder. It gives to the frenzied bloodthirsty slaughter an aura of dignity, religiosity—bestowed not on the victims but to the slaughterers. It’s problematic not because of its pretentiously classical Greek derivation, but because it seeks to give a monstrous crime a transcendent meaning with a vaguely salvific, even redemptive tone.

A burnt offering! Remind me who “offered”? I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s too late now—though I wince every time I feel compelled to use the term, a choice that goes to the deepest ramifications of Rosenfeld’s thinking: It is unbearable to live with the naked, uninsulated, unpunished horror of it all without some phony affirmation. So we clothe it in the fake gravitas of Greek and the fake piety of ritual. Whatever you choose, do not gaze upon the horror without some semantic scrim to veil its monstrousness. Worse is the impulse to somehow make what happened consonant with a religious worldview when in fact, to my mind (and here, again, I’m not speaking for Rosenfeld), the Shoah calls into question the religious interpretation of history. The image of the all-powerful, loving, protective—and interventionist—God that Jews pray to. The one we’re so special to.

Of course to some Jews there are no questions, no problems. You are aware I’m sure of the pronouncement of a former chief rabbi of the Sephardic Shas movement in Israel, who called the murder of 6 million Jews God’s righteous punishment of secularized European Jews for straying from Orthodoxy into modernism. That Hitler was not evil but rather “the rod of God’s anger.” But even for those believers who don’t stoop to such obscenity there seems a necessity to absolve God of Hitler. To those who still pray and praise Him as the living protector of His beloved Jewish people: Was He just a little busy during those six years from 1939 to 1945? Other things on His plate? Or it was “part of God’s plan” to—what plan was that exactly? To establish the State of Israel? What an ingenious plan! Didn’t He have any others on hand?

The question remains for believers who still offer up those prayers to the God who is their shepherd: Where was God during those years? And please don’t tell me—in the latest “sophisticated” rationalization theodicy, the one you hear from very modern rabbis—that “God was in the camps,” in every act of goodness and self-sacrifice by the inmates there. It’s a formulation that takes from the brave desperate inmates the credit they deserve for their acts and gives it to Someone who was not there. Wouldn’t it have been better if God had been in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, slitting the throats of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich? What an inglorious bastard He would have been.

Sometimes I think the Jewish people who still pray to this God, praising Him for all He’s done for us, have acceded to a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which they will find any excuse for their heavenly captor’s acts or lack thereof.

Again, I’m sure Rosenfeld would disavow any such sentiments provoked by his book in malcontents like me. But it is one of the virtues of his book, his discussion of how the Holocaust has been sentimentalized to death, that it can fire you with fresh anger at an act that repeated exposure to diminished versions of can dull. I’d guess most people are weary of the subject and would rather not think about it. That’s the true “end of the Holocaust” and Rosenfeld is determined not to let us off the hook.

Consider the Faustian bargain that Holocaust museums in America have so often made with the non-Jewish majority: The survivors and eyewitnesses of the Holocaust are dying, and the only way to get Americans to care about the destruction of the Jews, the only way we will get a (nearly) front row seat on the National Mall in Washington for our Holocaust museum, is by convincing Americans that the Holocaust can be a “teachable moment” in America’s uplifting struggle against intolerance. Rosenfeld calls this bargain “the Americanization of the Holocaust,” and even though he’s on the executive committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum he’s not happy about the tendency.

In discussing, for instance, the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance (the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Holocaust museum), he says that “by situating the Holocaust within a historical framework that includes such quintessentially American experiences as the Los Angeles riots and the struggle for black civil rights, both of which are prominently illustrated, the Museum of Tolerance relativizes the catastrophe brought on by Naziism in a radical way. America’s social problems, for all their gravity, are not genocidal in character and simply do not resemble the persecution and systematic slaughter of European Jews during World War II.” It’s a critique I first saw articulated by Jonathan Rosen in a 1993 New York Times op-ed called “The Misguided Holocaust Museum” back when the museum on the Mall was first opening. At first I was surprised, but then I was persuaded, at least to a certain extent, by Rosen’s impassioned dissent from the conventional wisdom.

And of course there is the difficult question of how one compares such tragedies. Why not a Cambodian genocide museum? In what ways are the Cambodian, the Armenian, and the Rwandan genocides similar and different from the Nazi genocide? If the Rodney King riots do not deserve being placed on the same plane shouldn’t the casualties of slavery in America, an institution that killed the bodies and murdered the souls of those who survived, count just as much?

There’s an argument that it’s a politically savvy heuristic strategy to unite with other sufferers against the murderous haters rather than set our suffering apart. And Jews have a strong record of concern for the sufferings of others. Solidarity! But Rosenfeld is on a mission not to allow the differences of the identity of the Jewish victims to disappear, and he is both a moral thinker and an astute cultural critic.

I first came across his work when I was writing Explaining Hitler, preparing to interview one of the most brilliant historians of our age, H.R. Trevor-Roper, whose biography of Hitler (Hitler: The Last Days) set the tone for envisioning the Fuhrer for decades after the war. Trevor-Roper was feared for his venomous, devastating attacks on fellow historians, but Rosenfeld found the flaw in Trevor-Roper’s analysis of Hitler. In his book Imagining Hitler, which was a study of mainly fictional and film visions of Hitler, Rosenfeld picked up on the language Trevor-Roper used to describe Hitler, as a mystical, numinous, spell-binding, virtually occult figure. Rosenfeld essentially blamed Trevor-Roper for falling under Hitler’s spell himself in his prose and thereby planting in the collective imagination of his millions of readers a superhuman vision of Hitler that precluded rational analysis of why he succeeded—and failed.

I’ll never forget the moment I gingerly brought up Rosenfed’s critique to Trevor-Roper face-to-face at a parlor in London’s Oxford and Cambridge Club. It was an awkward moment. I think he realized there was some truth to it, and it had gotten under his skin.

And Rosenfeld reminds us that even stories of survivors are not necessarily triumphs over evil. His chapters on Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, and Elie Wiesel include accounts of suicide and anguish despite survival. Rosenfeld deserves honor for having preserved their truths in all their brutal honesty.

My own feeling is that the end of the Holocaust will not come from Holocaust denial, or Holocaust affirmation kitsch, or even dissolution in universalism. It will come in what I’ve called “Holocaust inconsequentialism”—the sequestering of the Holocaust from history. One saw it not long ago in an article by a prominent British intellectual who claimed Menachem Begin should have been “ashamed” to invoke the Holocaust when he announced the 1981 Israeli raid on Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. Begin said he did it because he was thinking of the million infants killed in Hitler’s Holocaust and the responsibility he felt never to allow it to happen again. Our British intellectual harrumphed and said Begin shouldn’t have made such an inflammatory connection. But in fact such connections are what historical consciousness is about.

There are only two points in this valuable book I found myself questioning. First is Rosenfeld’s citation of a typically portentous pronouncement from Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah:

“ ‘To portray the Holocaust,’ Claude Lanzmann once said to me,” Rosenfeld writes, “ ‘one has to create a work of art.’ ” This is one of those profound-sounding decrees Lanzmann is given to. Only artistes like Lanzmann are qualified, not the humble survivors themselves, for instance. One could argue exactly the opposite of Lanzmann, in fact—and it seems to me the thrust of Rosenfeld’s book is that unmediated testimony is a higher form of Holocaust discourse. Artistic license can lead to corruption of the truth. To Life Is Beautiful.

One cannot deny the importance of Shoah, nor can one deny the self-importance of Lanzmann, who, as I point out in Explaining Hitler, misunderstands and distorts one of the key statements of Primo Levi about Auschwitz—the one in which Levi quotes an SS man declaring to him: “Here,” in the camps, “there is no why.” Lanzmann turns this brutal Nazi reproof into an esthetic commandment for Jews, against investigation or interpretation. Against asking why. Lanzmann tells post-Holocaust Jews we must follow the orders of an SS man. It is an inconsequentialist attempt to cut the Holocaust off from human inquiry.

This is “mystification of the Holocaust,” as the influential Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer calls it, that is of a piece with treacly affirmationism.

The other point I don’t disagree with so much as think it’s been made too often. It has to do with Rosenfeld’s critique of the misuse of Anne Frank’s legacy. Yes, it’s true she’s become an instance of the Faustian bargain: the need to give non-Jews a way of relating to the Holocaust that doesn’t make them feel too bad about human nature. Hence the focus on a single sentence in her diary: “In spite of everything, I believe that people are good at heart.”

Yes, it’s true, as Rosenfeld puts it, that this sentence, written before her capture, may well not be the way the real Anne Frank felt once her family had been betrayed and she had been taken by the Nazis. As Rosenfeld puts it, “surrounded by the dead and dying of Auschwitz and later herself a victim of the deprivations and diseases of Bergen-Belsen [where she died, probably of typhus] it is doubtful that such a passage from the diary represented anything close to what Anne Frank must have felt at the end.”

I would agree with Rosenfeld that the case of Anne Frank has been a particularly striking instance of affirmationism occluding the ugly truth with fraudulent uplift. And yet I feel this wasn’t her fault, she shouldn’t be written out of the story because people take away the wrong lesson from it. The number of recent attacks on the misuse of that one “goodness at heart” line have begun to seem like an attack on her. Let poor Anne alone already. Is it such a crime that a child in Japan or South Africa comes to awareness of the Holocaust through Anne Frank? Better they be ignorant? That’s the choice the Faustian bargain forces us to make.

Don’t blame Anne for the Faustian bargain. Do read Rosenfeld to understand and struggle with it.

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Shalom Freedman says:

Ron Rosenbaum is to be commended for this review. And Alvin Rosenfeld to be commended for the book he has written on this kind of misuse of the ‘Shoah’ by the ‘affirmationists.’ The hard truth of the Shoah’s horrors has been made into pablum including by those who would deny the dangers facing the Jewish people and especially Israel today.
Rosenbaum should perhaps have made another point about the Shoah when talking about it in relation to other mass- murders and tragedies. One element of the uniqueness of the ‘Shoah’ is that the Nazis aimed to kill every Jew on earth, to completely eliminate the Jewish people. Listen today to some of the jihadists preaching from mosques in Gaza and throughout various parts of the Muslim world and one will hear of a similar genocidal preaching.
Those leaders of Israel then including Begin ,in referring to the Shoah in connection with his destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor, are not propagandists but hard- boiled realists who have to confront and deal with horrible threats. Consider today Ahmadinejad ,Nasrallah and others who single out the Jewish state and would destroy it.
Certainly the lesson -that the worst kind of horror can happen in history- is one the Jewish people and especially its leaders, are justified in keeping foremost in their consideration.

Agreed about all that universalist holokitsch, but the author wants to eat his cake and have it, too. He wants the Shoah to be seen as particularly Jewish, and he also thinks the gentiles need to be educated about particularly Jewish suffering and vulnerability.

But why should we even expect gentiles to care about our catastrophes, especially in America where they had nothing to do with them? No disrespect, but I don’t care all that much about the Armenian genocide, and I’d get pretty annoyed if Armenians were trying to shove their lessons down my throat. Let’s mourn our own loss ourselves and not push the goyim to join in.

I just ordered the book on the basis of this review. However, I find it interesting that many of the same points about the manipulation of the Shoah are made by Norman Finkelstein in some of his work. Yet Finkelstein is vilified and Rosenfeld is not, at least not yet.

Regina Kessler says:

I agree completely with the views expressed in this essay. In fifty years, thirty million Poles will believe that their great-grandparents rescued three million Polish Jews; the word “Jew” will disappear from the explanatory signage at the Auschwitz exhibits, and the state-sponsored Nazi genocide will be attributed to a global concept of ‘intolerance’ rather than to the insanity of militaristic anti-semitism.

I am the daughter of a Jewish WWII GI who was among the liberators of Nordhausen Concentration Camp. I only learned my father had witnessed a camp after his death. Wanting to understand his silence and trauma, I found and interviewed over ninety other liberators. The great majority of those veterans were Jewish, because they were the ones who responded to my request.

I discovered tremendous trauma that terrorizes them and reverberates through their families. I discovered among these Jewish veterans an utter loss of faith in God which explained a great deal about my own ambivalence towards my Judaism.

Last January I published Gated Grief, a book about the trauma of the liberators. Jewish book fairs did not invite me, as “no one wants to hear about the Holocaust anymore.” I learned that most book fairs include only one book on the Holocaust. Only a handful of Holocaust museums have invited me to speak, and the ones that have are largely staffed by nonJews. Even this magazine showed no interest in the subject of my book, which, ultimately, is how, through the GI liberators, the Holocaust has disfigured American families.

It is the attitude of American Jews towards the Holocaust, towards their responsibility for carrying its history forward, that troubles me more than the attitude of nonJews. Americans Jews seem determined to believe they stand outside of the horror and need not let it darken their lives.

Without denying anything written in this heartfelt and important essay, I would like to add (I hope not defensively) that I have “taught” the holocaust to children through the lens of righteous gentiles–not to sugar coat the event, or to avert their gaze from the horror–but rather to give them a model in the event that they are ever faced with an opportunity to stand against anti-semitism. In fact, I don’t know any other way to teach the holocaust to children.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

Grief is very personal. When I loose a deer person of mind my grief and pain is only mine. How can I expect somebody else to feel the way I feel? It is not natural. I lost my maternal grandfather my uncle his tween sister her husband two children in the horrors of German savagery. The people of Poland the Catholics the Pope of Rome all celebrated the extermination of the killers of Jesus, the Jewish carpenter.
It is also true that the more you repeat a statement the less serious it becomes. It is a standard routine of humor.
But let people know about the Holocaust and the horrors, and also the public trial of Adolf Eichman as it was, was to let Jews know that they have to be always prepared to defend themselves. The enemies of the Jews are always ready at any moment to kill Jews. There are many Gentiles that are our friends, but only the Jews can defend themselves.
Thus grief is very personal and private. Danger is always present. I am hyper sensitized to anti-Jewish prejudice and ever ready to defend myself.
Rationalizing about nazism like Hana Arendt did, and all the bunch of books do today about the Holocaust, and all the bunch of deniers are not in my league of attention and discourse. They are as enemies of mine and the Jews as nazi Germany was. as the Catholic Church was and is, as Jihadists and Islamo Fascists are. Only myself and extrapolating only Israel can defend and protect themselves.
After all it is human nature, it is so simple, hate and violence seldom and rarely reason and peace.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

To Leila I would confess that I avoid any dwellings on the Holocaust. It gives me pain outrage desperation , all that I do not need. I have seen the pictures of skeletons over skeletons of the concentration camps, of the thousands upon thousands of little empty shoes. What is there to read accounts of the barbarity savagery and inability to defend yourself that these books describe? This is masochism that I try to avoid.

Shalom Freedman says:

I do not take exception to Ron Rosenbaum
s words in the following paragraph.

“Where was God during those years? And I repeat please don’t tell me—in the latest “sophisticated” rationalization theodicy, the one you hear from very modern rabbis—that “God was in the camps,” in every act of goodness and self-sacrifice by the inmates there. It’s a formulation that takes from the brave desperate inmates the credit they deserve for their acts and gives it to Someone who was not there. Wouldn’t it have been better if God had been in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, slitting the throats of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich? What an inglorious bastard He would have been.”
I do not take exception to the words, but I would not have written them. Why? First, because the tradition of questioning and challenging God, and the lack of justice in the world, and the fact that the innocent suffer and the evil often get away with it is asked throughout the Jewish religious tradition. The question and the challenge pervade Tehillim and of course the Book of Job.
They are the question and the challenge many generations of Jews who were subject to horrible sufferings asked and asked again.
This is not a satisfactory answer. But the answer of praying and trusting in God is the answer many Jews gave in the past and give now.
I would strongly distinguish this answer from the formulaic ‘justifications’ of the kind Rosenbaum rightly condemns.
However as one of those who prays to God and needs God and in some sense trusts God ( However irrational that Trust may seem in time, and no doubt will in one sense certainly be proven in time) I am reluctant to make the kind of wholehearted condemnation that Rosenbaum makes.
I live then in that strange and contradictory situation of questioning and being even at times angry at God while at the same time hoping God will be as God has too also been in the past for the Jewish people a God of blessing and compassion.

Geduldig says:

And what is the consequence of this attack on inconsequentialism? If you tie the anecdote about Begin with the dire mention of a nuclear attack on Israel then our memory of the horrifying exceptionalism of Jewish history–our sense that our fate has been different–means that we have to get the Iranians before they get us.

Rosenbaum–and maybe Rosenfeld–is in danger of missing the difference between theological Jew-hatred and political anti-semitism, which is to say, to forget the political purposes and ends of anti-semitism. To miss this is to grant the Shoah a theological aura, one that it doesn’t deserve and one that is dangerous to maintain, because it begs the difference between what is secular (that is, historical) and what is not.

Shalom Freedman says:

One final comment on this article. Rosenbaum rightly indicts Western civilization and Europe for its evil actions and indifference during the Shoah. He quotes George Steiner to the effect that the Shoah shows us that human nature may in fact be beyond the pale of hope, may in fact be in essence ‘darkness’.
Rosenbaum seems to imply that that lesson is somehow forgotten today. But Rosenbaum himself has written about the process of demonization and delegitimization which is happening in regard to the state of Israel. Consider the spectacle at the United Nations less than a month ago. The overwhelming majority of the world’s nations applauded the historical falsifications and omissions of one- time Shoah denier Abbas. The great majority of the nations have repeatedly wrongly condemned Israel. The folly, stupidity, indifference, ignorance, apathy, deceitfulness, dishonesty, cruelty of mankind are so broadly in evidence in the world that one wonders how anyone could be surprised by them. And Jewish history is filled with so many cruelties one wonders why it takes even something so vastly horrrific as the Shoah to bring someone to awareness of this truth.
One more point. The Shoah does teach to my mind a simple basic truth. The Jews should have no illusions. A part of humanity or humanity as a whole even could do away with us. The lesson of defending ourselves which is one central justification for the state of Israel is thus it seems to me painfully obvious. That many in Israel have learned the lesson is to my mind admirable. That even Learning the Lesson may not prevent the next disaster is realism. What is shameful however to my mind is when our fellow Jews whether in Israel or in the Diaspora blame us for thinking this might happen , and blame us too for taking actions in our defense to prevent this.

If I understand Mr. Rosenbaum’s thesis the Holocaust is just one horrific example of man’s inhumanity and should be remembered within a universal context. That, of course, is a noble aspiration, but as a Jew, I would prefer to remember it as something specific to Jews, about Jews, and as a horrendous crime against Jews. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow creatures is a given. History is full of stomach turning events. But the Holocaust as it has come to be known is a crime against Jews and should be remembered as a crime against Jews, however it is couched, in whatever form it takes, memorialized, sentimentalized, or whatever.It should never be generalized and absorbed into any other context. It should be burned into the historical memory forever and anon.

brynababy says:

Mr. Adler, I believe that what you say, is exactly what Rosenbaum said.

What a tremendous essay.

If there had been fewer economic success stories among American Holocaust survivors and their children, there in all likelihood would be a much smaller Holocaust industry. But the fact is that there were people like Jack Tramiel, who started Commodore Business machines, among other endeavors, and gave the world the Commodore Pet computer, although he had little formal education himself. There were people like Sherry Lansing, who at one time was the head of Paramount Studios. Her mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany. They could afford to give generously and many did. Unfortunately, there have been no similar economic miracles on a grand scale in other refugee communities.

I actually enjoy watching many of the Holocaust themed movies, with the righteous gentiles, the surviving heroes and all the kitschy themes. Many were based on true life stories, as unbelievable as Solomon Perel’s story was (“Europa, Europa”). Some like “La Rafle” and the short film “Spielzeugland” brought me to tears.

I am not a religious Jew by any means and have not attended a High Holidays service in almost a decade. I guess my beliefs run closer to Shalom Auslander’s (the comment box on his latest essay “Sorry God” does not work), but I don’t eat bacon. There are enough healthier foods out there and I don’t mean kosher hot dogs. Both contain nitrates which are cancer causing agents. I guess the documentary “Trembling Before God” soured me on traditional Judaism. I’d rather take my chances with tolerant gentiles than with fundamentalist Jews who consider me an abomination.

The article deserves scorn — in particular comments like

>>“Before Auschwitz,” Kertesz writes, “Auschwitz was unimaginable. That is no longer so today. Because Auschwitz in fact occurred, it has now been established in our imaginations as a firm possibility. What we are able to imagine, especially because it once was, can be again.” I wonder what our dedicated affirmationists who once disdainfully mocked concerns about a second Holocaust would say to Kertesz.<<

Not only were Soviets & in particularly Soviet Jewish leaders up to the eyeballs in mass murder, ethnic cleansing, & genocide by the time Hitler took power, but the Zionist leadership had already imagined the genocide of native Palestinians by the early 1880s.

There is one simple truth that Holocaustniki fail to face & that renders programs such as headed by Rosenfeld pure intellectual dishonesty & academic garbage.

Jews have been out of control since the 1850s.

Not only did the Jewish policy of Nicholas I impel Russian Jews into criminality like smuggling, kidnapping, prostitution, & white slaving from the 1830s onward, but from the early 1850s they also become highly involved in sabotage, revolutionary violence, & targeted assassinations.

Although pogroms break out against Jews after Czar Alexander II's assassination, in which Russian Jewish women played a leading role, Jews continued to develop increasing wealth & to advance socially although not as fast as they wished.

Despite such achievements Jewish disaffection grew maybe because Czarist law generally excluded Jews from the government bureaucracy. By the 1890s they had become even more prominent in revolutionary leadership & violence.

When the Russian Revolution broke out, Ashkenazim were at the forefront of the Red Army & mass killing. Because Jews & especially Ashkenazim were a transnational group with transnational politics, Jewish criminality spread worldwide.

Any Holocaust discussion ignoring the Jewish context is pure crap.

Fascinating piece.

Typo in third chunk in paragraph beginning “I first came across his work …” — “Hiter” for “Hitler.”

The Holocaust is the most researched genocide in history. Yet, no event in history is exempt from the misguided, if not mendacious efforts of historians, novelists, film-makers and teachers. Each has his or her own perfidious motivation. Even the well-meaning history teacher clouds the reality of the Shoah with imprudent intentions. Only documentaries submit a shadowy and grainy glimpse of the veracity of the Holocaust. My own novel about the Holocaust delivers an impossible conclusion, dealt to the kind reader with a dash of wishful thinking and a shadow of hope for Judaism’s future.

The Holocaust was endless apprehension, incessant brutality, eternal damnation and absolute humiliation. As the words emptied themselves from my brain, they cascaded into oblivion, a pastel image of the bright and forceful terror of reality. Even the Primo Levy’s and Eli Wiesel’s vision gives us but a shadow of the terror.

Are we forever diminishing the reality of the Holocaust with our books, films and classroom lesson plans? Or, did we ever capture the unimaginable terror of history in the first place? Is Holocaust fiction inappropriate? Are contemporary Holocaust films nothing more than a whitewash of reality? Are we unwitting accomplices in the destruction of our ancestor’s terrifying end?

In an attempt to preserve the pure horror of the Shoah, have we done a grave disservice to history and our ancestors by offering any glimpse of hope? Can the recollection of survivors ring true today as anything more than a contemporary regurgitation of a reality unspoken and unwanted? And if so, how can we accurately preserve the events of the Shoah for our progeny? Will our best legacy remain those grainy black and white images of a gentle Jewish woman holding a child underneath the arm-length Lugar of an SS officer, gun pointed at her head? Is the little girl in a red overcoat from the black & white Shindler’s List the best explanation that we can produce? What happened

    Habbgun says:

    What happened is that the secular world was shown to be false as it always is and those who always trust in it have little to gain from remembrance. Religious Jews carried on Judaism and honor the struggles of those who kept their faith even in the camps and after liberation. The ability to believe even faced with such horror is an individual victory that can’t be enshrined in some kind of museum. It is a living thing passed on to later generations, who remember and use it to find strength in their own challenges.

andrew r says:

On the one hand, Rosenbaum’s essay is perfectly understandable. It’s also a trainwreck of incoherence. Two false dichotomies stand out as unbearable.

For one, I do not accept “man’s inhumanity to man” as a commentary anymore than Rosenbaum. But my objection is from a different approach. Placing atrocity as a result of human nature, as if we are all potentially that bestial, ultimately covers up and absolves the perpetrators. Most people have never done anything like the German military and Nazi paramilitaries did between 1936-1945.

That said, removing the Shoah from universalism into Jewish particularism is no less odious. Both narratives locate the cause of the industrial mass murder in the upward curve of persecution the Jews experienced in Europe. The other victims of the German extermination campaign disappear – and the lack of mention of the Romani who were also sent to the gas chambers is galling. Handicapped Germans were the first to be exterminated, which also doesn’t mesh with the memory of this being a singular crime against Jews.

Which leads to the second false dichotomy, between ‘rationalizing’ and remembering mass murder. You can’t capture on paper the psychological process of Hitler, yet attempting to explain the social process doesn’t mean dignifying it with rationality.

If you really want to prevent another perpetration of industrial mass murder, don’t place your faith in those who trade in it. Yes, the Jewish state of Israel is one (and just one) example, namely through its aerial bombing campaigns on Gaza and Lebanon.* The best hope is an alternative to the economic system of mass production itself.

* Tough.

    Habbgun says:

    Oh please. That is just the kind of treacly crap that this article seeks to point out. Just because you have some kind of Marxist viewpoint doesn’t mean you have a clever insight. In fact it is a hackneyed viewpoint. Hayek clearly demonstrated how socialist philosophies like Nazism (yes fascism is leftist) and communism are prone to great inhumanity. It is not mass production that grounds down people it is individuals turned into robots of the state or the individual that is supposed to be the apotheosis of the state that grounds down people. The sad part of the Holocaust is that the Holocaust museums are aids to the state in coming up with slogans like intolerance is bad. To be used and then discarded when no longer hip or needed.

    We have not learned the value of freedom and individualism which are part of the message of the Jewish heritage. We follow great men who were free shepherds not the self declared great like Pharaoh. Rather than remind Jews and others of this heritage we instead believe silly bargains and sad displays have meaning. Good stuff for those who have these tired Eurocentric viewpoints of great centrally run societies but sad for the rest of us.

    The so-called Palestinians allied themselves with the Germans in WWII, ethnically cleansed the Lebanese Christians in southern Lebanon and were thrown out of Jordan. You care about them because the Left finds common cause with them due to their early Fascist alliance. That is injustice to humanity.

P. Sydney Herbert says:

Leila Levinson: I used to be a social worker in a church funded counseling service. After a seminar on Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (then a fairly new concept)the chaplain approached me. He told me he had recurring nightmares after liberating a camp, and it was the deciding factor in his decision to become a priest.

I can imagine 100 years from now a Broadway Musical on the Holocaust.
If the liberation of France can be on Broadway, so can the Holocaust.

This is a fascinating article which brings up many important points to consider about how we memorialize, teach, and communicate about the Holocaust (or Shoah – in deference to Mr. Rosenbaum’s distaste for the word Holocaust). I viscerally understand society’s wanting to find and promote the righteous, the heros, the triumphs of spirit, the instances when people reaffirmed their faith in God and in humankind. I, too, want to put on my rose-colored glasses when I am exposed to the Holocaust narrative. And yet I can’t.

This April, for National Poetry Writing Month, I have posted a Holocaust-related poem every day on my Holocaust Remembrance blog – My initial impulse was to amplify the voices of hope, leaving readers with a feeling of beauty and optimism emerging from despair. Good luck with that! Not much “treacly affirmationism” in the stanzas that emerge from victims and survivors of the Shoah. Instead, what you will read, are haunting, gut-wrenching accounts of violence, degradation, disruption, pain, murder, suffering, and loss. As Elie Wiesel said when reflecting on survivor Primo Levi’s suicide, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.” I have learned that Anne Frank, the poster child of hope, lost her will to live after suffering in the Concentration Camps and discovering that her family had been murdered. So much for her inspirational, feel-good, highly quotable belief that “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart”. We forget that her next line was “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” Less rosy, harder to swallow, especially knowing that she would soon experience confusion and misery at Auschwitz, sickness and death at Bergen-Belsen.

These words of the poets and writers and the images of the artists that tell the brutal truth are indeed important, if not crucial, to include in our remembrance efforts. I agree with Mr. Rosenbaum that we must struggle with this tension, and with Mr. Rosenfeld that we, meaning all of humankind, must not be let off the hook.

batiya says:

So if I read this essay correctly:

–No one gets to be let “off the hook”, either about the truth of the Holocaust or the way in which we take it into ourselves today;

–God was NOwhere to be found during the Holocaust, anyone who insists that God was there is deluding themselves, and to insist that God was “in the camps” or anywhere else is to deny a deep — and terminal — pain of grief for those who understand the true nature of the destruction and loss;

–If God was indeed nowhere, then there’s a very real probability that God is nowhere today, and that religion really is nothing more than an opiate for masses who can’t handle the truth of the Holocaust: basically that human beings are capable of unspeakable evil to specific groups of people and that the non-Jewish parts of the planet seem to continue to have it in for the Jews.

Wow. If this is really what’s at the heart of this essay, then why be Jewish — or really, a person of ANY faith — at all? What’s the point if the outlook is that we could all just kill each other in the end? The bleakness of the human race this view suggests is probably why we try to “sugercoat” or otherwise “obscure” the Jewishness of the Holocaust — because not to do so is going to make one suicidal quickly. Sorry, call me weak if you like; but I’m not willing to live in a world as hopeless as all that.

I rarely lose my breath when reading journalism, but here he goes and has done it again: Ron Rosenbaum’s article slices dices and scalpels our minds, challenging us to suffer and live an examined life. I sent this to so many acquaintances yesterday, having missed it upon publication two years ago. The contumely that has resulted is manifold. I stand by his guns.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck has written a very interesting book where he views human evil as a mental illness, as a psychological disorder; the book is called People Of The Lie, and it is by far the most outstanding work of psychiatrical literature I have ever seen. I believe this book might help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the evil of Adolf Hitler, and other evil people in the world ( for there apparently quite a few.)

According to Scott Peck, evil people would prefer to blame others rather than take responsibility for their own faults and failures. They tend to come from very unpleasant, disrespectful, abusive families (even when the abuse is only verbal); a person apparently becomes evil when the massive sense of abandonment, distress, fear, guilt and humiation they grow up with becomes so great, that a person turns inwards, hiding away the agony they feel from the world, denying the guilt and pain within themselves.

Peck’s book is named “People of the Lie” because everything about evil people is a lie; they keep up a facade of normalcy in order to fool others as well as themselves into believing that they are actually good persons, and they are concerned with appearing as morally upright as possible so as not to be identified as evil; such persons are so terrified of someone figuring out that they are evil, it would be (for them) like being shot. Peck argues that the evil thus live with levels of terror known to few. They are apparently filled with vengeful motives and hatred for good people, who have qualities such as honesty, compassion, openness, integrity, mercy, and so on, which evil people lack. And so whenever the evil encounter a good person with such qualities, it shows the evil up for what they are; it reveals themselves to themselves. It makes them feel weak and stupid. And since nobody likes to feel weak and stupid, the evil thus reach out and attempt to tear down that good person for making them feel that way.

(Continued from above)

Evil people are immensely confusing individuals. They go out of their way to be confusing, in order to control and deceive others. They tend to seek out positions of authority in order to make themselves appear legitimate and respectable, so that they can work out their vengeful motives against others and appear blameless while doing so. They often appear to be immensely prideful, arrogant people, appearing to derive a perverse pleasure from fooling others into believing them to be good individuals. Though deep down they themselves have zero self esteem, evil people disguise this aspect of themselves so well that it is difficult to tell that this is the case.

According to this theory, evil people are very common in society, and are masters of disguise; very hard to detect. You likely meet them every day, at work, church, the supermarket, school, and so on. Peck’s belief is that roughly 2 to 3 percent of the population is evil, a small, but significant minority. And he further believes that psychology up till now has missed out on identifying evil as a disorder (a very rigid, regimental disorder) because most psychologists and psychiatrists have bought the facade; evil people claim they have no problems, and almost never seek out therapy, unless only for the most twisted of motives. The evil flee the light of self-examination, and it is quite impossible to help someone who will not concede that they have a problem. One cannot change what one does not acknowledge.

Evil people are often confused with psychopaths and sociopaths, since both can be highly manipulative, bullying, and are often accomplished liars. However, evil people are most certainly not sociopathic or psychopathic. Though the evil tend to behave with remarkable insensitivity toward their victims, they themselves are immensely empathetic, sensitive people; Overly-sensitive, in fact, is how Scott Peck classifies them.

(Continued from above)

Psychiatrist Scott Peck believed he could detect no limit in those he identified as evil people as to how far they were willing to go when working out their vengeful hatreds upon others, if given the opportunity and freedom to do so. The evil appear to have a limitless black lake of hatred to draw on which never runs dry, which seems to go much further in explaining the Holocaust than anything else; psychopaths and sociopaths are often just insensitive to others; evil people actively HATE others, locating within them the cause of their own pain and suffering. And when they victimize people, the evil are merciless, because they are transferring upon others the evil which they deny and flee from within themselves; they feel they are punishing evil, and their cause is a righteous cause. This further likely explains why the Nazis continued to exterminate the Jews right up to the very last moment on Hitler’s own orders, even when it was clear that the Nazis had lost the War; only hatred could account for such vicious dedication, when there was no other clear or particular reason to do so; bottomless hatred for their victims.

Evil people tend to scapegoat others. They tend to pick victims, or particular types of victims, whom they hound without mercy until those people are either dead, or can somehow escape from the evil people themselves. The scapegoating of the Jews and others, seen from this theory, seems rather textbook from this view. Evil people are chronic scapegoaters, and once their primary victims are dispatched (or escape), they then pick someone else to victimize. Evil people don’t appear to visibly suffer from any guilt or shame for their actions (or much of anything at all), since in their minds they place all the responsibility for their wicked behaviour onto others; thus the evil most often can be identified by their victims. If the evil behave badly, why, then it must be someone else’s fault, and they blame their victims.


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Faustian Bargain

The singular horror of the Holocaust is being lost in exchange for enshrining rare moments of inspiration and universal narratives of suffering