HRS International

Holocaust and memory

An important new book contemplates the ways in which the Holocaust has been remembered – and the ways in which that memory had been distorted.

By Bruce Bawer

Anti-Semitism, that age-old European affliction which disappeared – or at least went underground – for a few decades after World War II, is once again resurgent. Israelis are now, in the eyes of many, the new Nazis, and Palestinians (or Muslims generally) are the new Jews. Just the other day, with only the U.S., Canada, and Palau abstaining, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution approving of the Human Rights Council’s monomaniacal preoccupation with Israel’s offenses, real or imagined.

The time, then, is ripe for The End of the Holocaust, an important and deeply sobering book by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. Why the “end” of the Holocaust? Well, for one thing, Rosenfeld recognizes that there are now more than a few people around “who simply do not want to hear anymore about the Jews and their sorrows.” Moreover, many of those who do the talking – and writing, and filmmaking, and so forth – about the Holocaust present a “less taxing” version of it that’s easier for audiences to bear. The result: a general public that lacks a true sense of the evil and magnitude of the murder of the Jews.

In Rosenfeld’s view, things have reached a serious point. But at the same time none of this is new. On the contrary, at the center of Rosenfeld’s book is his critique – which is nothing less than fascinating – of a process of transmogrification that began not long after the end of World War II and that is the foremost example of the kind of approach to the Holocaust that Rosenfeld is decrying. I am speaking of the widespread softening and sentimentalization of the Anne Frank story.

The first European reviewers of Frank’s diary considered it a grim read. One Dutch critic, for whom the book revealed “the real hideousness of fascism,” warned that the kind of inhumanity that had destroyed Anne Frank was still alive and well, and fretted for what the future held. But when the book came out in America, reviewers looked on the sunny side. The tone of the reception was set by Eleanor Roosevelt’s introduction, which focused on “the ultimate shining nobility” of Anne Frank’s spirit. In a similar vein, Newsweek’s review gushed that Frank’s “spirit could not be imprisoned or thwarted,” and the reviewer for the New York Times Book Review praised the book for its “poignant delight in the infinite human spirit.” As Rosenfeld notes, it was impossible to read Frank’s story as “uplifting” and not “harrowing” without “dehistoricizing her story.”

It was the 1955 play by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and the 1959 Hollywood film that made Anne Frank a household name. The play and film accomplished this by downplaying Anne’s and the other characters’ Jewishness (including Anne’s passionate statement that “we are Jews in chains”), omitting the darker passages of the diary (such as graphic descriptions of Nazi brutality and references to the gassing of Jews), and always emphasizing the uplift – making Anne, in Rosenfeld’s words, “more permanently optimistic, indeed all but indestructibly affirmative.” At the insistence of the play’s director, Garson Kanin, the playwrights replaced Anne’s probing reflections on Jewish identity and anti-Semitism with more general, “universalizing” (and insipid) comments about man’s inhumanity to man. In both the play and the movie, Anne’s line about people being “really good at heart” was placed at the end, and was presented not as tragically ironic or hopelessly naïve but as beautifully inspiring. “Thus sentimentality,” writes Rosenfeld, “is made to triumph over history…The harshness of the Holocaust was left behind, and in its place softer, more acceptable images of a young girl’s gayety and moral gallantry came to the fore.”

All of which is important because, as Rosenfeld underscores, Anne Frank is perhaps “the most famous child of the twentieth century.” It was “the figure of Anne Frank that helped to break the relative silence within American culture about Jewish fate under Nazi tyranny.” In the minds of millions, all of the children killed by Hitler have been reduced in the public mind to a single girl – Anne Frank. Her story, notes Rosenfeld,

is often the first story of that time that large numbers of people come to know; for many, hers may also be the last story of its kind that they encounter and the one whose images they are most likely to retain. It would be reasonable to surmise, indeed, that if people have read one book about the victims of Nazism, it is likely to be The Diary of a Young Girl. If they have seen one play and only one play [about the Holocaust], it is probably Goodrich and Hackett’s The Diary of Anne Frank….In short, the impact of Anne Frank on shaping the historical consciousness of vast numbers of people is almost inestimable.

For Rosenfeld, then, the transformation of The Diary of Anne Frank by Goodrich, Hackett, and others into a work of “feel-good sentimentality” is a distorting and destructive act which plays havoc with the truth of history. This metamorphosis is representative for Rosenfeld of a process that he calls the “Americanization of the Holocaust” – the relentless presentation of Holocaust stories “that turn upward at the end rather than plunge downward into the terrifying silences of a gruesome death.” Among the examples he offers up are the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust and the novel and film Sophie’s Choice. But his special focus is on the film Schindler’s List – which, as he points out, is primarily concerned not with the millions of Jews who died in the camps or the millions of gentiles who participated in their extermination, but with a “righteous Gentile,” Oskar Schindler, a Christian savior of Jews.

Rosenfeld contrasts works such as Schindler’s List with the darkly sober writings of survivors like Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Imre Kertész, who stare squarely into the Holocaust’s terrifying reality. Rosenfeld is to be commended for drawing attention to Améry, an Austrian who fled to Belgium in 1938, joined the resistance, survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen, and wrote several books about his experiences, only to be plunged into despair in the late 1970s by the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany among young left-wing “anti-Zionist” activists who called for death to Jews.

Like other survivors, Améry viewed his experiences in the Holocaust as obliging him to preserve and transmit his memories, but eventually came to doubt the ability of his testimony to effect meaningful change – and to be depressed by the unreliability of memory. In the end, despair won out: Améry died by his own hand in 1978. Levi, too, eventually succumbed to dejection, and for similar reasons; his death, in 1987, was also ruled a suicide. Wiesel, as well, has known hopelessness, asking in one essay if the entire enterprise of testifying has been worth it: “Nothing has been learned,” he asserts. But he has continued to write, driven by the slim hope that his message will be heeded, “if not today, then tomorrow.”

To be properly informed about the Holocaust – informed not just intellectually but emotionally – is to be haunted by an awareness of the depths of human evil that made the Final Solution possible. It is to understand at a profound level the need for a Jewish state and to appreciate that state’s determination to defend itself. And it is to recognize just how unspeakably obscene it is when leading European cultural figures – many of them the privileged children of societies that have never sufficiently acknowledged and done penance for their complicity in the Shoah – dare to mock or insult Jews and Israelis. These cultural figures think they are being clever, even virtuous, when they sneer at the Jewish people and the Jewish nation; in fact the degree of shame that they should feel for saying the obscene things they say is beyond calculating.

It is, in large part, precisely because the Holocaust has been so trivialized, coarsened, and commercialized over the decades that so many people today lack real awareness, real understanding, and real empathy for Jews and Israel. This state of affairs raises one question, however: if such trivialization and so forth is so distinctly American, why is it that Americans are, in fact, so much less anti-Semitic than Europeans and so much more supportive of Israel? Of course, we know at least part of the answer to this question: it is that many Europeans do n fact feel a deep guilt over the Holocaust – a guilt that, far from making them more sympathetic to Jews and Israel, has produced the opposite effect. Rosenfeld quotes a German businessman who told Améry with a straight face: “The German people bear no grudge against the Jewish people.” In fact that’s precisely the problem: many Germans, and Europeans generally, do bear a grudge against the Jews. If not for the Jews, after all, their consciences would be clear.

To read a book like The End of the Holocaust, or to listen to the painful testimony of a Levi or Wiesel, can be a dispiriting experience. One cannot help feeling that it is perhaps inevitable that the memory of historical catastrophes will be trivialized and coarsened – that it is perhaps inevitable that the masses will forget and that old prejudices will resurface. Indeed, even men and women of good will can be overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness in the face of the testimony of people like Wiesel. I vividly remember sitting in a pew of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine years ago and listening to Wiesel preach from the pulpit about the Holocaust and thinking (in a very American way): OK, I know all this, but what can I do about it?

That was before I moved to Europe, and before I discovered just how desperately needed the message of Wiesel and others is on the eastern shores of the Atlantic. The sad fact is that in a time when attitudes toward Jews and Israel – especially in Europe – seem increasingly to be informed by a determination not to know and not to remember, those of us who refuse to join the anti-Semitic chorus must face up to the need to speak up forcefully against this deafness to history. When prominent Europeans – people who are honored as cultural treasures – choose to revive the old European sport of demonizing the Jews, we must make it clear that with every word they speak, they are bringing moral disgrace upon themselves and upon every person, institution, and government with which they are connected. And we must hope that in doing so, we will make at least some difference.