Preempting The Holocaust

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Overview

Lawrence L. Langer, perhaps the most important literary critic of the Holocaust, here explores the use of Holocaust themes in literature, memoirs, film, and painting. Among the authors he examines are Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, and Simon Wiesenthal. He appraises the art of Samuel Bak, considered by many the premier Holocaust painter of our time, and assesses the "Holocaust Project" by Judy Chicago. He also offers a critical interpretation of Undzere Kinder, a neglected but important Yiddish film made in Poland after the war about Holocaust orphans.

Langer focuses his attention on a variety of controversial issues: the attempt of a number of commentators to appropriate the subject of the Holocaust for private moral agendas; the ordeal of women in the concentration camps; the conflicting claims of individual and community survival in the Kovno ghetto; the current tendency to conflate the Holocaust with other modern atrocities, thereby blurring the distinctive features of each; and the sporadic impulse to shift the emphasis from the crime, the criminals, and the victimized to the question of forgiveness and the need for healing. He concludes with some reflections on the challenge of teaching the Holocaust to generations of students who know less and less of its history but continue to manifest an eager curiosity about its human impact and psychological roots.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Eder
Langer's achievement is to insist obdurately that even the most terrible things said about the Holocaust do not plumb it....How valuable is the protest he...put[s] up.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Amy E. Schwartz
[Langer's] objection...is to the drawing of connections from the Holocaust to other matters....all efforts to find "meaning" of anykind in the Holocaust are intrinsically suspect and reductive, even questions about how we would act in similar circumstances.....[I]t is almost a relief, late in the book, to find Langer...drawing his own meaning... —WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Anyone teaching [the Holocaust] must be willing to confront behavior that cannot be explained by prior notions of why we do what we do," says author Lawrence L. Langer.

In this collection of essays, most of which were delivered at Holocaust conferences, Langer, author of the NBCC prize-winning Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, challenges our tendency to push aside the uniquely horrible reality of this event to make room for the uplifting, the rationalizing, the triumphal versions, whether or not they convey the truth. Describing the Nazis as mindless bureaucratic killing machines rather than sadistic murderers or insisting that the establishment of Israel in 1948 somehow makes up for the death of two-thirds of Europe's Jews are examples of our inability to deal honestly with a historical event that undermines all religious and humane assumptions about people's relations to one another and to God. Langer finds a disquieting truth in the work of Primo Levi, Samuel Bak, Cynthia Ozick and Art Spiegelman, but criticizes artist Judy Chicago's Holocaust Project and theologian Tzvetan Todorov's writing for seeking falsely to universalize the experience of the Holocaust, thereby distorting and reducing it. "There is simply no connection between our ordinary suffering and their unprecedented agony, nor do our trivial inclinations toward sin resemble in any way the minds that devised such terminal torture." Langer's own experience interviewing Holocaust survivors has profoundly branded him, and his deep sympathy and outrage on behalf of the innocent victims of humanity's most horrendous crime permeates these somber and alarming essays.

Library Journal
Most of the essays in this collection by award-winning Holocaust literary critic Langer were originally presented as conference papers, and several have previously been published elsewhere. Unlike "exemplarists" who try to pull something positive from the ashes of the Holocaust, Langer is a literalist who believes that the focus should not be shifted away from mass murder. He argues firmly that "we learn nothing from the misery" that we find there, and, indeed, suffering is an undercurrent that runs through all of the essays. Among the people whose work he discusses are Tzvetan Todorov, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, and artist Samuel Bak. One of the most interesting essays (published here for the first time) is a discussion of the various responses to Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower over the past 29 years. -- John A. Drobnicki, York College, CUNY
Lore Dickstein
For Langer, the Holocaust remains "an unforgivable crime" that is "beyond guilt and atonement"....Literary tragedies end in resolution, but for Laner the Holocaust is "a narrative without closure."
The New York Times Book Review
Amy E. Schwartz
[Langer's] objection...is to the drawing of connections from the Holocaust to other matters....all efforts to find "meaning" of anykind in the Holocaust are intrinsically suspect and reductive, even questions about how we would act in similar circumstances.....[I]t is almost a relief, late in the book, to find Langer...drawing his own meaning...
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Langer's achievement is to insist obdurately that even the most terrible things said about the Holocaust do not plumb it.
Kirkus Reviews
Langer, one of our most eloquent Holocaust scholars (Admitting the Holocaust), offers 11 essays that look mainly at the inadequacies of art in addressing this cataclysm. The lectures and occasional pieces collected in this new volume, written in the last three years, deal predominantly with cultural issues, ranging from the paintings of Samuel Bak (a survivor of the Vilna ghetto) to the Yiddish-Polish film Undzere Kinder (Our Children), from the moral question posed by Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower to the problem of teaching the Holocaust. Langer, like Bak, "insists on a tension between two narratives [of Jewish history]: a positive chronicle moving from Creation to Exodus and a negative one, beginning with round-ups and finishing with train voyages to a perplexing abandonment and final doom."

In his previous work, Langer has offered a convincing analysis of the events of the Holocaust as being beyond our previous categories of moral behavior and of the recollections of the survivors as existing in their own doubled narrative, "chronological" and "durational" time, as he puts it. The new book restates and refines the ideas of its predecessors, most notably Holocaust Testimonies (which won a National Book Critics Circle award), applying that work's insights to specific texts with incisiveness and intelligence. At a time when the daily newspapers are filled with renewed versions of genocide and atrocity, but also a time in which the last of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and their victims are dying of old age, this volume is a useful corrective to the foolish sentimentalizing of these events or their application as a hideously inappropriatelesson on the "triumph of the human spirit." As Langer himself points out dryly, "the Holocaust is a narrative without closure and with few cheerful endings." An essential work on one of the central historical moments of this century.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300082685
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/10/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 226
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Preempting the Holocaust


    The unshakable conviction that the Holocaust contains a positive lesson for all of us today unites the three figures whose ideas I plan to examine here. The intellectual, the artist, and the cleric, whom I will identify shortly, each unfolds a vision of that event consonant with his or her worldview. When I speak of preempting the Holocaust, I mean using--and perhaps abusing--its grim details to fortify a prior commitment to an ideal of moral reality, community responsibility, or religious belief that leaves us with space to retain faith in their pristine value in a post-Holocaust world.

    Although I find this strategy both misleading and presumptuous, I have no corrective vision of my own to provide, other than the opinion that the Holocaust experience challenged the redemptive value of all moral, community, and religious systems of belief. A life more shrouded by darkness than radiant with light--one inevitable bequest of the mass murder of European Jewry--is not necessarily a hopeless one, but only the least sensitive among us could celebrate a return to absolute normalcy after such chaos. Indeed, another major legacy of that event is the defeat of the words that try to describe it, since after such abnormalcy our very definitions of the normal seem flaccid and weak, while a generic term like "chaos" cannot begin to portray the moral and spiritual anarchy of those grievous times.

    Let me begin with a concrete detail, because I am convinced that all efforts to enter the dismal universe of the Holocaust must start with an unbuffered collision with its starkest crimes. Recently I was watching the testimony of a survivor of the Kovno ghetto. He spoke of the so-called Kinderaktion, when the Germans rounded up all the children (and many elderly) and took them to the nearby Ninth Fort for execution. The witness was present in the room when an SS man entered and demanded from a mother the one-year-old infant she was holding in her arms. She refused to surrender it, so he seized the baby by its ankles and tore the body in two before the mother's eyes.

    Whenever I hear stories like these, which unfortunately are not exceptional but illustrative of hundreds of similar incidents, I react with the same frozen disbelief, partly because of the intrinsic horror of the episode but also because it violates my sense of how life should and might be lived. I try to imagine the response of those in attendance--the mother, the witness, and the killer--but even more, I ask myself what we can do with such information, how we can inscribe it in the historical or artistic narratives that later will try to reduce to some semblance of order or pattern the spontaneous defilement implicit in such deeds? Where shall we record it in the scroll of human discourse? How can we enroll such atrocities in the human community and identify them as universal tendencies toward evil inherent in all humankind?

    Well, we can't: we require a scroll of inhuman discourse to contain them; we need a definition of the inhuman community to coexist with its more sociable partner, and in their absence, we turn by default to more traditional forms of expression. The results may be comforting, but what price must we pay for such ease? The alternative is to begin by accepting a reality that escapes the bounds of any philosophy or system of belief that we have cherished since our beginnings, and to pursue the implications of this unhappy admission wherever they may lead. Consider, for example, this fragment of testimony from a former inmate of Auschwitz and Plaszow:


We never knew ... who would come back from roll call. Those who were "selected" for the "action" had to first dig their graves, then after stripping and placing everything they were wearing on the ground (in proper order: clothes on one side, underwear on the other), they had to kneel at the edge of the ditch and wait for the bullets in the back. Bullets that the Germans made the Jewish "leaders" of the camp pay for. Economizing on ammunition meant that the work was often botched, and cries rose from the ditches for hours after the execution. During large "actions" things moved too fast. There was no question of burying the bodies, they were simply covered with sand, so you could no longer tell whether you were walking on bones that were old or recent. Everything happened so fast that you didn't even have time to see your mother or sister vanish. We were no longer capable of suffering, or of being scared or surprised. Death is only frightening to the living. We hadn't been that for a long time.


    It is fearful enough to have to outlive the death, or more exactly the murder, of those one loves, some of whom have been buried while still breathing. But it is equally agonizing to have to outlive one's own death, as this witness insists she did, embracing an anguish beyond suffering that lifts her experience out of the realm of the familiar and deposits it in a limbo whose boundaries have yet to be dearly defined. We have the option of accepting the Holocaust as an event in quest of a concept to contain it or a language to express it, a phenomenon alien to our usual patterns of speech or belief; or we can assume that it only threatens but does not subvert the virtue, the vision, and the lovingkindness that my intellectual, my artist, and my cleric affirm. They do so as they venture to face the Holocaust with a universalizing vocabulary and imagery that never troubles to ask what it might mean to be dead while one was still alive. Which path we choose to follow depends on a complex tension between the stable instincts of our nature and a reality that tramples on those instincts with a contemptuous disdain.

    "If we fail to master the past," writes Tzvetan Todorov in Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, echoing both a famous German formulation and an overquoted aphorism of George Santayana, "it may master us." But it is not some abstract force called "the past" that the Holocaust challenges us to master; it is the mass murder of European Jewry. it is an SS man tearing a Jewish infant in two, or the German and Lithuanian murderers at the Ninth Fort in Kovno not even bothering to learn whether their victims were all dead before they ordered them to be covered with sand. How one goes about "mastering" such atrocities, as one of the murderers, or as a surviving member of the burial detail, or even as a detached reader today, I have no idea; I don't even know what "mastering" means in this context. But I suspect it doesn't help much to secrete such moments beneath a blanket of bland and evasive phrasing. What one faces when one faces the "extreme" of genocide is less important to Todorov than the assurance that moral life was still possible in the camps for both victims and murderers in spite of what went on there. He is not much interested in the specific agonies of the victims or the precise brutalities of their killers. He prefers instead to rescue both from the precincts of extremity and return them to the landscape of what he calls ordinary situations.

    Todorov admits that many who outlived the camps and ghettos have written and spoken eloquently if bitterly about the selfish ways of behaving forced on them by the need to stay alive. But he is unwilling to accept this as a prevailing or even a requisite norm. It may seem odd that as recently as 1991 an intellectual as renowned as Todorov still finds it necessary to confirm the possibility of moral life even in the concentration camp (especially after Terrence Des Pres had defended the same idea so eloquently in The Survivor fifteen years earlier); I suppose, given the history of our indecent century, the impulse to defend the decency of the human species must surface periodically as ballast against the darker view.

    But when such an effort is based on a dubious opposition between ordinary virtue on one hand and what Todorov calls "the principles of immorality expressed by the survivors" on the other, the resultant dichotomy leads us astray and blurs the tangled issue of who behaved how and why. Polarities, of which Todorov is unduly fond, quickly disintegrate in the atmosphere of a place like Auschwitz. For example, I have never heard a single survivor refer to the "principles of immorality" that governed his or her conduct in the camps. This locution is Todorov's invention, designed to strengthen a contrast between moral and immoral that may never have existed. He admits--and he really gives the game away through this admission--that "as a project, interpreting evil appeals less to me than understanding goodness." As a result, he devotes most of his considerable intellectual energy to recovering the human, in both victims and their oppressors, from the midst of the inhuman, and then expanding the circle of those reassured to include his readers, and himself.

    Todorov's book is one of three recent examples of universalizing the Holocaust that I am addressing in this inquiry. What happened in Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia--Todorov speaks of them interchangeably--might have been done to, or done by, all of us. Experience, he says, is a contest between ordinary virtues--he labels them decency, caring, and the life of the mind--and ordinary vices--fragmentation, depersonalization, and the enjoyment of power. The Holocaust was little more than a drastic example of this modern conflict, and once we understand that, we will be in a better position to combat the totalitarian form of suppression of which the Holocaust was a not so singular example. This is a concise summary of Todorov's argument.

    And where does all of this lead us--or lead Todorov? Well, it leads him to some extraordinary statements, and some even more extraordinary conclusions. Imagine their impact on the uninitiated reader, in search of authoritative accounts of the Holocaust. For example: "It is worth noting that the great majority of survivors have fallen victim to depression or trauma. The rate of suicide among this group is abnormally high, as is the prevalence of mental and physical illness." Or: "Life in the camps had been arduous in the extreme, and precisely because of this there had been something exalting in it [elle a quelque chose d'exaltant]. After the intensity of this experience, everything seemed colorless, futile, false" (263, 266). If the unexamined life is not worth living, what are we to say of these unexamined obiter dicta?

    "Camp inmates," Todorov asserts--he seldom refers to Jews--"were made to know the far limits of human experience; it became their duty to humanity to report, in all honesty, what they saw and what they felt, for even in the most horrible experience there is some possibility for mankind's enrichment [un enrichissement]; only total oblivion calls for total despair." Because many victims were still alive at the end of the war, obviously we are not dealing with total oblivion. Hence the truth of their ordeal as they transmit it should not only enlighten and instruct but also enrich. One truth of their ordeal is as follows: A doctor at Mauthausen, in training as a physician for the front with an SS unit, liked to amputate the arms or legs of Jews to see how long it would take them to bleed to death. After all, this would be useful medical information for his subsequent military career. And once, when he was not thus professionally engaged, showing admirable initiative, because he clearly was not ordered to do this, he took two young Jews from an arriving transport, killed them, cut off their heads, then boiled the flesh from the skulls, which he used as desk trophies for himself and a colleague. After the war, he married another doctor and together they set up a gynecological practice in Germany. How this confirms Todorov's theoretical conviction that even in the most horrible experience, there is some possibility for humankind's enrichment must forever remain a mystery to most of us--though in a gruesome sense, it does ratify his opinion that "no life is lived in vain if it leaves behind some trace of itself" (96).

    I suppose anyone can excavate from the rubble of mass murder a piece of testimony to support his or her philosophy or system of belief or critical point of view. Many of us who explore the terrain of atrocity are occasionally guilty of that. But not at the price, one hopes, of distorting the truth. Nothing is more threatening to the integrity of the historian than to allow facts to play him or her false for the sake of a thesis. Yet this is the trap Todorov succumbs to through his unempirical approach to the Holocaust. "To know, and to let others know," he proclaims, "is one way of remaining human" (97). But the rhetorical force of this idea so consumes his energy that he neglects the accuracy of the details that presumably lead to such knowledge.

    So committed is Todorov to the notion that a bureaucratic system was responsible for the murder of the Jews rather than a collection of individuals who were enthusiastically pledged to destroying them that in one crucial but damning instance the forest blinds him to the real contribution of the separate trees. He designs a chain image to suggest the fragmentation of the killing process in Auschwitz. Each link leads impersonally to the next, beginning with Hitler, who of course makes the initial decision; followed by Reinhard Heydrich, "who never sees a single suffering face"; next comes the policeman, "who merely carries out a routine order to arrest and expedite" (but never, presumably, to tear Jewish babies in two); then we have the turn of Adolf Eichmann, whose "purely technical job" is to see that the trains leave and arrive on time; after him is Rudolf Hoss, the commandant, who oversees the emptying of the trains and the transfer to the gas chambers; and finally, Todorov concludes, "the last link: a group of inmates, a specialized commando that pushes the victims into the gas chambers and releases the lethal gas [et verse dedans le gaz mortel]." Before we have recovered from this breathtaking and infamous error, the author feels obliged to add to our knowledge: "The members of this commando are the only people who kill with their own hands." And now that we have been enlightened with the information that the only people literally involved in the murder of Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz were Jews themselves, we are relieved to learn that "they quite obviously are victims themselves, not executioners" (153).

    Now how was this mistake possible, and what lies behind it? Certainly no malice, overt or covert: Todorov's tone is compassionate throughout. But the most elementary student of the Holocaust knows how Zyklon B was introduced into the gas chambers; how could Todorov have been guilty of such a lapse? If his aim had been to represent atrocity during the era of the Third Reich, he would have been more scrupulous in his research. But his intent from the beginning has been to universalize the event we call the Holocaust, implicating all of humanity as potential participants in genocide. There is a bizarre logic to his blunder that highlights the danger of any effort to schematize mass murder; it fits in with his earlier admission that "what interests me are the banal sources of exceptional actions, the ordinary attitudes that could make `monsters' of us, too, were we to have to work in a concentration camp" (140). Primo Levi felt that such issues were irrelevant; we were victims, he said, and the Germans killed us. The rest was distracting speculation. History is not written about what other men and women might have done but did not.

    One of the guilty parties in this confusion about truth is language itself. As long as we regard the Holocaust as an "exceptional action" instead of naming its specific inhuman content, we face the danger of losing contact with its reality. Todorov does not traffic in atrocities but is devoted to the ideal of "the common membership of all in the human community." This in turn leads to a reverse principle, which he offers with equally fervent conviction: "the fear one can feel in discovering that evildoers are not radically different from oneself" (225, 279). If by evildoers we mean the Germans and their collaborators who tore babies in half, buried (or burned) human beings alive, or, as in the case of the Mauthausen doctor, "operated" them to death, then we may be excused for believing that in some dimension they are radically different from oneself, though this need not be a statement about personal virtue or an explanation of a kind of behavior we may never understand. Indeed, the humble admission that we may never understand the conduct of the people we hide behind the name of perpetrators could turn out to be the most exasperating legacy of all from the multitude of crimes clustered under an abstract rubric like genocide.

    Exasperation, of course, is not a very fruitful legacy, and perhaps this is why in the end Todorov chooses to distinguish between literal and exemplary memory. Having exhausted the historical roles of the functionalists and intentionalists, we may now turn to their successors, the literalists and the exemplarists. For Todorov, literal memory of the atrocities of the Holocaust, narratives of the unique painful ordeal of individual survivors, spreads "the consequences of the initial trauma over all the moments of existence." The results may be "true," but they are not very useful, in the sense that they create no new unity, no avenues for pursuing the future with fresh vigor and hope. Thus, Todorov confesses, literal memory is a "potentially risky endeavor" (258).

    But there is another way of approaching the "recovered event," as Todorov calls it, and that is paradigmatically, through exemplary rather than literal memory, and this, he insists, is "truly liberating." Since it is a view of the Holocaust shared by my artist and cleric, too, it is worth dwelling on for a moment. Why literal memory is a potentially risky endeavor Todorov does not say, but presumably he means that it may lead us into a dark cave of disenchantment from whose shadows we may never entirely escape. This is not a cheerful prospect--but neither was the murder of European Jewry. He is much more explicit, however, about the value of exemplary memory, which goes by the name of justice and involves "generalizing from the particular and applying abstract principles to concrete offenses." Anyone reading his book will see how easily this definition allows him to gloss over the concrete offenses for the sake of a higher principle. The exemplarists can only tolerate the Holocaust if it can be used as "an instrument that informs our capacity to analyze the present.... Only then can we tell ourselves that, at least from the viewpoint of humanity, the horrible experience of the camps will not have been in vain, that it contains lessons for us, who think we live in a completely different world" (258, 259).

    Todorov has given me a label: in the sphere of memory, I am a literalist, `not an exemplarist. I feel no impulse, not the slightest, to reclaim meaning from Holocaust atrocity or in embrace a Lincolnesque rhetoric seeking to persuade us that "the horrible experience of the camps will not have been in vain." There is nothing to be learned from a baby torn in two or a woman buried alive. But Todorov does unwittingly provide some helpful insight into the motives and strategy of my second example of preempting the Holocaust, Judy Chicago, the title of whose work Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light gives us an unsubtle glimpse of the trajectory of her thought.

    Chicago, too, is an exemplarist; she could not conceive of a Holocaust project subtitled "From Light into Darkness." But her antecedent agenda is quite different from Todorov's. "My interest in issues of gender certainly prefigured my interest in the Holocaust," she admits, following this with a more dubious pronouncement that nonetheless gives us a further clue about what led her to venture into the realms of mass murder: "Most people," she writes, "have not paid any attention to the fact that the architects of the Third Reich were all men." Any inquiry that begins with a fixed premise and then seeks evidence to support it risks lapsing into a blinkered view of history. We shall have to see whether Chicago's belief in a link between patriarchy and mass murder, masculinity and Nazi ideology, entices us into further darkness, or greater light.

    Judy Chicago's Holocaust education is enormously instructive, since she is perfectly frank about the tabula rasa of her mind as she began her investigation. It may surprise us to learn that a grown woman, an artist, was "ignorant" of the Holocaust as recently as 1985, but because she was not alone in her oblivion--millions of Americans share her unawareness--it would not be fair to charge her with anything more than a negligence of history. And her procedure for trying to remedy the defect is commendable: she watches Claude Lanzmann's Shoah and survivor testimonies, reads a library of standard Holocaust works (though her judgment here is sometimes questionable), and together with her photographer husband visits many sites of the disaster. Her initial response is far from trivial; indeed, to anyone who has tried to initiate students into the subject, it is both honest and familiar:


After a while, I realized that some of my basic assumptions about people and the world were being profoundly challenged by the information I was encountering. I had always trusted people and believed the world to be a relatively fair and just place. Of course, I knew that terrible events happened, but I tended to see those as isolated phenomena. Confronting the Holocaust brought me face to face with a level of reality beyond anything I'd experienced before: millions of people murdered, millions more enslaved, millions made to suffer, while the world turned its back on the implementation of the Final Solution. I couldn't take it all in; it was too painful, and I was a long way from understanding what it meant about human beings and the world in which we live. [8]


We seem to be encountering the incipient deconstruction of a natural idealist. At this point, two roads diverge in a yellow wood, one the potentially risky path of the literalists, the other planted by the exemplarists with what Todorov calls lessons that "can all be evaluated according to certain universal rational criteria that underlie human dialogue." Judy Chicago hardly hesitates in her decision, pursuing the latter with an evolving enthusiasm that betrays her unwillingness to surrender a prior commitment to universal criteria and human dialogue.

    Instead of considering the possibility of disjunction, of rupture between familiar forms of violence and the explosive savagery of the Final Solution, Chicago intuitively seizes on connections--a true exemplarist. "I began to perceive," she admits, "that the unique Jewish experience of the Holocaust could be a window into an aspect of the unarticulated but universal human experience of victimization." Now this is a perfectly admissible analytical approach, but it creates a problem to which exemplarists have found no satisfactory solution: how to express the universal human experience of victimization while honoring, in Chicago's words, "the particularity of the Holocaust as a historical event." The answer is that in this respect exemplarism is a self-defeating strategy. You cannot honor the particularity of the Holocaust in its uniquely Jewish features if your basic intention is to use it to illustrate the universality of suffering and evil, and make it into a bridge toward the creation of "a new global community based on shared human values." Distinctions evaporate amid the ardor of reformist zeal: "To me," Chicago confesses rather early in her investigation, "one of the most important aspects of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust is that it provides us with a graphic demonstration of the vulnerability of all human beings and, by extension, of all species and our fragile planet as well." There are those, however, who might find more than a touch of the trivial in linking the fate of the spotted owl or the ozone layer to the doom of European Jewry.

    Perhaps visionaries like Todorov and Chicago who have programs for "creating a more peaceful and equitable world" should resist the temptation to include the Holocaust in their agenda--but the fashion is upon us, and no effort to co-opt mass murder for noble ends can be simply dismissed. Do we ignore, or at least distort history when we agree, as Chicago does, that the "fact of patriarchy" made the Holocaust possible? She admits frankly that feminism is the philosophical framework "that provides the underpinnings for the Holocaust Project," and we need now to ask where this leads and what insights into the Jewish catastrophe it supplies.

    As it turns out, Chicago's education in Holocaust matters only assumes the formality of impartial historical inquiry, because her feminist beliefs color her conclusions from the beginning. There is absolutely nothing wrong with regarding "reverence for the feminine as an essential step toward the humanization of the world," but when the price we pay is a reductive misrepresentation of everything that doesn't agree with this position, then analysis becomes a matter of finding the proper file drawer and label for Holocaust discourse and commentary withers into a mere system for classification. Citing only Elie Wiesel as an example, Chicago concludes that "most Holocaust literature written by men ... almost invariably stresses the uniqueness and mystery of the Holocaust," whereas, in the opinion of a single woman survivor whom she quotes, "focusing on the female experience of the Holocaust helps us move toward, rather than away from, an understanding of our human connectedness and helps repair the human fabric of community" (10, 11). The notion that "connectedness" in representing Holocaust experience is primarily the property of a single sex and not a dual-gendered thing ignores the familiar male bonding between Primo Levi and Alberto, Elie Wiesel and his father, Vladek Spiegelman (in Maus) and various camp inmates, Viktor Frankl and his barrack-mates when he restores their flagging spirits with an all-night reassuring harangue. I am speaking not of a dispute between patriarchy and feminism but of the need to multiply the voices we hear, and to go on multiplying them, before we conjure up gender differences that will withstand authoritative scrutiny. And this Judy Chicago has not done.

    The aesthetic stance of the Holocaust Project also requires appraisal, because it reflects a problem that Chicago shares with many others who enter the realm of Holocaust darkness in pursuit of light. Responding to a reading of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, she writes, "Being so graphic scares me, as it has to do with letting go on a level beyond what I've ever done before. Moreover, I'm afraid that what I'll create will be ugly." Mass murder is never pretty, so this would not be a problem for an artist willing to be guided by her material instead of needing to examine it selectively for data to verify her thematic concerns. As part of her scholarly investigation, Chicago also reads Yitzhak Arad's study of The Operation Reinhard Death Camps but can only manage forty-five minutes a day. Then she takes a furlough: "I've stopped reading for a while; that book on the Nazi killing operation at the extermination camps really depressed me" (26, 89). This retreat is characteristic of the exemplarist position, and we encounter it again and again; apparently, woman's search for meaning in the Holocaust, like man's, must surmount the merely depressing if it is to transcend the literal horrors and leave us with a more consoling vision.

    Chicago's demurral is an honest admission; not many can tolerate a daily diet of atrocity. But Arad's work is not about moral life in the concentration camps any more than it furnishes evidence for a rivalry between patriarchy and sisterhood in Treblinka. Its theme is the murder of Jews in mobile killing vans and gas chambers, and even the most stalwart among us might find it depressing. Nor is Chicago alone in responding by needing--not only wanting, but needing--to find a way out of its darkness back into light. Exemplarism was born of this psychological impulse to uncover in the spiritual economy of the world some reassuring lesson to neutralize the depressing fact of mass murder.

    If Jewish experience in the Holocaust can be made to "stand for" something else, some "larger human experience," whether a testimony to the integrity of the moral self, as in Todorov, or, in the case of Judy Chicago, a positive statement about the human condition in general, then the intolerable might seem more tolerable through the sheer invocation of patterns or analogies. Whatever the intention, the result is to dilute or diffuse the particularity of mass murder. And indeed, the quest for connections is an essential ingredient of the Holocaust Project, though some might question the worth of the comparisons it leads to: "I began to wonder about the ethical distinction," Chicago writes, "between processing pigs and doing the same to people defined as pigs." A moment of reflection on how the German military cherished their horses and dogs might have forestalled this effort to establish a link between animal rights and human slaughter. But her view grows more all-encompassing as she continues: "What is the relationship, for example, between what happened to the Jews and the extermination of the Aborigines in Australia or the Native Americans?" (58, 96). The drift toward the universal is anything but accidental; its sources lie in the fear and depression that the material itself initiates.

    Perhaps with a certain amount of naivete, Chicago discovers what the creative imagination has to face when it enters the vestibule of Holocaust atrocity: "Making art about a subject as overwhelming as this one is turning out to be is going to take an exceedingly long time. But I don't want to spend too many years on such dreadful material--it takes all the joy out of life!" (62-63). This is in fact a genuine challenge to anyone crossing the frontier that separates Holocaust landscapes from ordinary space. We all find our own beacon to guide us into this eclipsed terrain. But like Todorov, Chicago seems willing to complete the journey only if she can return exalted--and able to exalt us--by the adventure. And this she resolves to do through her vision in the Holocaust Project.

    The technique Chicago and her husband devised for presenting this vision is ingenious, and if her talent as a painter had been greater and her universalizing impulse more restrained, the effect might have been truly impressive. She knows that Holocaust art must be rooted in the veracity of the subject, so the decision to include photographs of places like Treblinka in the final panels reflects an original and potentially powerful design. But her goal is not the kind of insight into the enigmas of atrocity that art can generate; "painting," she insists, "can provide a means of transformation." Why so much Holocaust commentary must have a cause to plead or a campaign to launch is not entirely clear to me, but I suspect it has something to do with the dreadful nature of the subject. For Chicago, what begins as a Holocaust Project ends up as a philanthropic scheme: to be included, photographs may not be too horrific, and the measure becomes "what the aesthetic limits are in terms of what I can and cannot transform." (50, 135).

    Art thus plays hostage to humanitarian zeal: the culminating work in the series, painted on vividly colored stained glass, is called "Rainbow Shabbat," and depicts the beginning of a Sabbath meal. At one end of the table, a Jewish woman is about to bless the candles; at the other end, a Jewish man raises the kiddush cup. The seated guests, most with an arm on a neighbor's shoulder and a smile on their faces, include a white priest, an African, an Asian, an Arab, and some children. Beneath the table, a cat and dog lie peacefully together, reminding us that animal abuse is one of the many atrocities in contemporary society for which the Holocaust is a precedent. If we have ever been uncertain about the agenda of the project, small panels containing Stars of David at either end of the tableau cement its intent; they contain Yiddish and English versions of a prayer to embrace us all: "Heal those broken souls who have no peace and lead us all from darkness into light." No one could quarrel with this sentiment, but for a context like the Holocaust, it does not begin to address the question how to heal. In my copy of Chicago's text, the Yiddish is printed upside down (it was corrected in subsequent printings), as if some mischievous spirit of contradiction afloat in the Holocaust universe wished to sabotage her plan, in her words, "to transform these images of intense human struggle into a visual atmosphere of hope and integration" (163). That life goes on after death is by now a platitude; that death may also go on after death seems a plight beyond the range of the exemplarist imagination.

    I turn now to the last advocate for an exemplarist position, and in many ways the most difficult one to deal with--the Christian theologian Franz Jozef van Beeck. In 1992 he delivered a talk at Cornell University called "Two Kindly Jewish Men: A Sermon in Memory of the Shoa," which initiated a Jewish-Christian dialogue whose echoes will close my analysis--and, I hope, clarify some of the distinctions I have been examining. In a letter before delivering the sermon, van Beeck admitted to his friend the Jewish theologian and scholar Eugene Borowitz--one of the two men to whom he eventually dedicated his talk--"that my sermon was the first piece I have ever written on the Holocaust myself, and that I had hardly ever discussed it in depth with anybody, Jew or Gentile." This does not necessarily mean that his comments are superficial, because they emerge from years of silent pondering on the subject. Yet they also spring from years of eloquent speaking on Christian issues, and the influence of that kind of discourse, the particular idiom that verbalizes its convictions, testifies to the deficiency of certain language for analyzing the Holocaust when it is imposed on the topic with little consideration for its adequacy.

    Like Todorov, who confessed to being more interested in good than in evil, and Judy Chicago, who admitted that her universalist tendencies determined her approach to the Holocaust, van Beeck has a fixed initial position that colors his response to the murder of European Jewry: "I have never," he concedes, "been able to feel raw rage or indignation at the Holocaust and its atrocities; I often used to wonder why." Perhaps this attitude is a consequence of his genuinely kind nature; perhaps it is a failure of imagination. In any event, when Father van Beeck speaks of Hitler as "a little man with a shrill voice and a large ego and a murderous theory," one begins to wonder whether a failure of imagination may not indeed be part of the problem. Monstrous deeds require monstrous words to conjure up if not the inhuman monsters who did not create them, then at least the inhuman human beings who did. A commitment to personal restraint and decency, however admirable, is a powerful antidote to both.

    There is an imagery that dramatizes the assault of mass murder on the integrity of the individual self, and one that universalizes the impact of that assault and transforms it into what Father van Beeck calls "the fellowship of the suffering and the long suffering." Maybe a sermon is an inappropriate form of discourse for approaching the Holocaust, since its style seems consciously tailored to minimize atrocity. Is it either consoling or illuminating to hear that we live in a world "where goodness and virtue will never quite succeed in being victorious"? Is it unfair to inquire whether we have moved one inch beyond Job when we are told that we also live in a world "in which unjust suffering borne in patience is not infrequently a sign of intimacy with God"? Radical division is simply impermissible to the kind of thinking that, as this particular form of Christian discourse does, wants to see spring from the ruins of the Holocaust "hope for a humanity renewed by kindness" (178, 182).

    Different imagery, however, leads in different directions. Through an odd coincidence, the other person to whom Father van Beeck dedicates his sermon is named Paul Davidowits, a Holocaust survivor whose story I happen to know well because I have written about it in Holocaust Testimonies. Paul D.--the name under which his testimony is classified--tells of a Greek Orthodox priest in his native Slovakia who agreed to supply false certificates verifying that certain Jewish families had converted to Christianity before 1938 (thus exempting them temporarily from deportation), provided parents were willing to have any children in the family baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith. Paul D.'s parents agreed to his baptism and received the false certificates.

    This part of his narrative rouses in Paul D. the memory of a dream or vision he had shortly afterward, which he recalls in vivid detail: "I'm on a meadow, and there are Jewish kids playing around me. And at one point they move away from me, and I am alone on this meadow. And God appears before me. And he's a mountain. And God holds in his hands an axe. And he just goes [raising his hands], takes the axe over his head, and with a full swing splits me in half. And I just break [gesturing] into two." At this juncture the interviewer, obviously an exemplarist in training, inquires, "Jew and Christian?" to which Paul, a confirmed literalist, replies: "I think it's more like killing me. Like punishment. It doesn't feel like Jew and Christian. It feels like annihilation." Then he adds, "I tried to be Christian, but it didn't work."

    Paul D.'s parable of a cosmic rift that throbs with division rather than union or communion reflects a further split within his self. Filtered through his awareness of future events, his dream foretells the fate of the Jewish children playing nearby (for whom being a Jew didn't help any more than trying to be a Christian did), as well as of his own shattered identity in its futile task of finding a "self" that might help him to survive. His memory of his dilemma during those critical years accents killing and annihilation, not reconciliation--in himself, with his fellow Jews, or the God of Jews and of Christians.

    It is a bitter bequest from a threatened life, and it sits uneasily on the consciousness as we return to Father van Beeck's plea to his Jewish brothers to close "the cosmic gap between the death-camp operators and their Jewish and other victims." Does Eugene Borowitz point to an imperishable breach between attitudes, two ways of approaching the legacy of the Holocaust, when he insists that he can not speak "of compassion and mercy without an equal emphasis on the imperative of pursuing justice"? Justice here is more than an abstract concept, because it invokes crimes in the past that will not tolerate amnesia. Compassion and mercy, by contrast, summon us into a future harmony, what van Beeck envisions as "the actual embracing of all human persons, even if we have to overcome deep, deep revulsion to do so." His position is not that different from Tzvetan Todorov's or Judy Chicago's: all three seek an affinity between what van Beeck calls "humanity acquired by enduring human cruelty and humanity acquired by experiencing human compassion."

    Nowhere is the poverty of words more evident than in the attempt to portray the deeds of the Germans and their collaborators through expressions like "deep revulsion" and "human cruelty." The impulse toward universalization here infiltrates vocabulary itself, and the best way to puncture its pretensions is by juxtaposing it with an episode of atrocity and asking ourselves what "enduring human cruelty," can possibly mean, for the victims or ourselves, in its presence. Near the end of his exhaustive re-creation of his ancestral village in Poland, the shtetl of Konin, Theo Richmond uncovers some testimony that describes the fate of the Jews of that town and its vicinity. It is in a protocol taken by the Soviets a few months after war's end from an eyewitness to the slaughter, a Polish Catholic and member of the underground who was forced by the Gestapo to gather the clothing and belongings of the victims. I am convinced that any analysis of a promising moral and spiritual condition, both in the camps and in post-Holocaust society, remains flawed unless it works through and not around the details of such moments as these, refusing to preempt them for the sake of a larger ideal. They may leave us aghast, but they support the belief that voyagers to the haven of exemplary behavior risk running aground unless they set sail in the vessels of Holocaust atrocity.

    The witness, who after his gruesome task in the woods of Kazimierz Biskupi, was sent to Mauthausen and its subcamp at Gusen, describes two pits in a clearing, the larger one covered on its bottom by a layer of quicklime. Then he continues:


[The Gestapo] ordered the assembled Jews to strip--first those who were standing near the large pit. Then they ordered the naked people to go down into both pits and jump into the larger pit. I could not describe the wailing and the crying. Some Jews were jumping without an order--even most of them--some were resisting and they were being beaten about and pushed down. Some mothers jumped in holding their children, some were throwing their children in, others were flinging their children aside. Still others threw the children in first and then jumped in.... This lasted until noon and then a lorry came from the road and stopped on the path by the clearing. I noticed four vat-like containers. Then the Germans set up a small motor--it was probably a pump--connected it with hoses to one of the vats and two of them brought the hoses from the motor up to the pit. They started the motor and the two Gestapo men began to pour some liquid, like water, on the Jews. But I am not sure what the liquid was. While pumping, they were connecting hoses to the other containers, one by one. Apparently, because of the slaking of the lime, people in the pit were boiling alive. The cries were so terrible that we who were sitting by the piles of clothing began to tear pieces of stuff to stop our ears. The crying of those boiling in the pit was joined by the wailing and lamentation of the Jews waiting for their perdition. All this lasted perhaps two hours, perhaps longer.


Nothing we hear from well-intentioned commentators like Tzvetan Todorov about moral life in the concentration camps, or from Judy Chicago about the light of human community emerging from Holocaust darkness, or from Franz Josef van Beeck about the "fellowship of the suffering and the long suffering" or closing "the cosmic gap between the death-camp operators and their Jewish and other victims" can silence the cries of those hundreds of Jews being boiled to death in an acid bath. There is simply no connection between our ordinary suffering and their unprecedented agony, nor do our trivial inclinations toward sin resemble in any way the minds that devised such terminal torture. Literalist discourse about the Holocaust--and I must stress that I am speaking only about the Holocaust--leads nowhere but back into the pit of destruction. At least it has the grace to acknowledge that we learn nothing from the misery it finds there.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
1 Preempting the Holocaust 1
2 Legacy in Gray: The Ordeal of Primo Levi 23
3 Gendered Suffering: Women in Holocaust Testimonies 43
4 The Alarmed Vision: Social Suffering and Holocaust Atrocity 59
5 Landscapes of Jewish Experience: The Holocaust Art of Samuel Bak 80
6 Two Holocaust Voices: Cynthia Ozick and Art Spiegelman 121
7 The Stage of Memory: Parents and Children in Holocaust Texts and Testimonies 131
8 The Inner Life of the Kovno Ghetto 146
9 Undzere Kinder: A Yiddish Film from Poland 157
10 Wiesenthal's Sunflower Dilemma: A Response 166
11 Opening Locked Doors: Reflections on Teaching the Holocaust 187
Notes 199
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