My Holocaust Problem

If we cannot speak of it—though speak of it we must—how do we remember what happened to the Jews of Europe?


I did not read Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Nor have I read Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, or David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews, or, for that matter, any of the hundreds of well-received books about the fate of European Jewry between 1941 and 1945. With the exception of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, none of the survivors’ accounts of the German atrocities have found their way into my hands. Incredibly, I have never so much as glanced at The Diary of Anne Frank, and except for inadvertently viewing a few minutes of Claude Landsmann’s Shoah, I’ve also managed to avoid just about all of the documentaries that touch on the subject. I have, of course, been confronted by photographs of rounded-up Jews and footage of the camps when they were “liberated,” a word that seems bitterly inappropriate when applied to the lagers. And finally, I regret to say, I saw Schindler’s List, a film that despite its good intentions and air of somber rectitude seemed so slick and manipulative that it transformed meaningless death into a story for sentimentalists and children.

My reluctance to examine the historical evidence does not stem from any reasoned position and should not be taken as a reflection on those—Jews and non-Jews alike—who immerse themselves in these materials. If such reluctance has any significance, it is that my family, like countless others, fell under the heel of the German boot: All four of my grandparents were either murdered or died in a concentration camp; my father was interned in a Russian labor camp, and his youngest sister was one of a handful of fighters who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. So you might say I am either entitled, or not entitled at all, to keep my distance from such knowledge.

Nor is my aversion typical or atypical of the children of survivors. I know a dozen such children, themselves now middle-aged men and women, some who want to learn as much as possible about what happened to their parents and grandparents, while others prefer to avert their eyes. As for survivors themselves, most in my experience no longer try to repress their memories. On the contrary, they regard those memories as an obligation to speak out. They also watch the films, read the books, and attend the memorials honoring the Jewish dead. There is nothing strange perhaps in the fact that survivors tend to be less squeamish than their children when revisiting the words and images that both consecrate and desecrate their lives. It is, after all, who they are. To them, America, despite having been their residence for more than half a century, has never really become home; it has remained on some level an alien, if hospitable (and sometimes unintelligible), country that has never truly taken the place of the platzes and boulevards, the shtetls and ghettos of the world they knew as children.

That world is gone: the world of youth movements, children’s sanatoriums, and meetings of the Bund or the Hashomer Hatzair, with their impassioned debates over the pros and cons of socialism, communism, and Zionism. As for us, their offspring, born or raised in America, the cities and villages of Eastern Europe—Lodz, Wilna, and Kraców—are place-names only. We may learn about the plays our parents saw, or the books they read, or the songs they sang, but it is doubtful that we will ever understand what has been lost. It’s like wanting to taste the bread they ate, or hear the sounds of the Hoyf (courtyard) where they lived, or smell the odors of the shops where they bought their butter and fish. Had Hitler killed 30,000 or even 300,000 Jews, that world would have endured. But it was precisely this possibility that Hitler meant to eliminate.

Although a number of Jews did manage to survive, their world did not. More than villages and neighborhoods disappeared, more than the intangible awareness of familiar experiences was forever denied the living; a language—and everything a language signifies—was altered. After the war, Yiddish could never again be an unselfconscious form of expression; it, too, was now out of time; it, too, was something that had survived. Although children and adults may still learn to speak and read Yiddish, it is a different language from that spoken by my parents’ generation. For us, Yiddish is made up of words; it is not a way of thinking and being, although at the same time it is a language that summons up the poignancy of a life and a culture irretrievably lost. And make no mistake, such knowledge is a burden. Insignificant though this burden is compared to the one carried by my parents’ generation, it has acquired an almost congenital identity, as if we’d been born with a wound received by our ancestors.

One could, it is true, ignore it and adopt a way of life that has nothing to do with what happened. There may be, there probably are, children of survivors for whom English poetry or baseball takes precedence over recent history. Still, for those who do not turn from self-knowledge, a prosaic lesson awaits: We are all, in one way or another, victims of our parents, so the question becomes: How do I accommodate what they and those like them suffered? In other words, How do I remember?

This should not suggest that there is a shortage of reminders. There are Holocaust Studies, Holocaust books, Holocaust movies, Holocaust museums, and even Holocaust walking tours. According to James Young’s The Texture of Memory, “nearly every major American city is home to at least one, and often several, memorials commemorating aspects of the Holocaust.” That seems hard to credit, though the word’s ubiquity can hardly be denied. And I have a problem with the word, as I have a problem with any word or phrase whose meaning is eroded by endless repetition. The more sophisticated the society, the more shorthand synonyms it musters to express the inexpressible. Indeed, I suspect that a more primitive civilization validates the right of noncommunication and is naturally respectful of what cannot be spoken of. Instead of trying verbally to encapsulate a calamitous event, a North American Indian or Inuit might refer to it as “that which cannot be spoken of without sorrow and despair.”

And then there is that number, “the six million.” Said enough times, it becomes more a mantra than the actual fact of six million human lives snuffed out. Said enough times, it makes the millions of non-Jewish dead seem less significant. Furthermore, six million did not die. It was 100,000 more or 200,000 less than six million. Odd how simple it is to round off so many thousands of people. But we do it because even if we had a more accurate count, it would be too cumbersome to say “five million eight hundred and twenty-six thousand, three hundred and four”; and, anyway, that figure would be only less unreliable and obviously far more difficult to remember.

How do we fathom it when numbers take the place of human beings? How do we move individually from six human beings to six million? One way to understand it is to look around and regard the members of one’s own family: parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, each with his or her own face and facial expressions, mannerisms, distinctive laugh or sneeze, and odd or conventional ideas. Now multiply these dozen or so people by 500,000. Does the loss sink in? Or imagine if each one of the 6 million were a tiny razor cut on your skin, how many such nicks would it take before you’d be a raw exposed mass of nerves and capillaries? Ten thousand nicks? If so, that’s one six-hundredth or 0.167 percent of those who died.

If we cannot speak of it—though speak of it we must—how do we remember it? Which is tantamount to asking: How do we understand it? The murder of millions may have no more meaning than the stupid malevolence of human beings, but there is also a compulsion to transubstantiate the reality of being rounded up and slain, to justify the idea of wholesale acquiescence. It is said they went like sheep, and I, for one, see nothing shameful in being rounded up like a sheep when one has no forewarning, or, if forewarned, no belief in the prospect of butchery, or, if belief, no natural proclivity or the means to defend oneself. Why should these people of the shtetl believe they were important enough to be killed en masse? The enemy this time was not a bunch of drunken Cossacks bent on flogging, burning, or rampaging; from such vicious thugs one knew enough to hide or flee. But from the Germans? From the state? Why should the state demand the slaughter of a people? And not being able to grasp it, many Jews initially, at least, and unthinkingly, aided their murderers.

It is not the Jewish response that is incomprehensible but the German enterprise. When imagining pogroms, which are the violent outbursts of an oppressed lower class looking for scapegoats, and which might be viewed almost as an eco-ethnological hazard, like living near a volcano (I say this without overlooking the moral culpability of Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, and Lithuanians), we recoil but sense in such violence the nature of the beast. But what are we to make of the systematic extermination of an entire people by a military power whose greatest concern was for the well-being of its executioners (hence Zyklon B and Jewish labor to spare the sensibilities of German soldiers)? Except for the fact that it happened, it doesn’t even seem possible.

Part of its incomprehensibility, of course, derives from a cultural bias. That it happened in Western Europe in the modern era and was carried out by a civilized people is an abomination so troubling that it puts the lie to humanness itself—it throws the moral world into disarray. To think about it and not flinch, to imagine what it must have been like—if one is not predisposed to accept divine providence—is to sneer at the very idea of God. Therefore, we try to make the Final Solution into something else, a part of God’s plan, a necessary step for the creation of Israel, and we confer upon the dead the mantle of martyrdom. But in truth it is a story with no meaning and very few martyrs (Arthur Ziegelbaum, who committed suicide in London to call attention to the gas chambers, and Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat, who preferred suicide to sending more Jews to the gas chamber, being two notable exceptions). These millions of human beings did not die for a cause; they died because they were there and because they were Jewish.

And there was, and there is, no sense to it. Such wholesale suffering without purpose is obscene, which is why Theodor Adorno’s oft-quoted phrase about the moral implausibility of poetry after Auschwitz rings true. Yet it is a truth without practical relevance, since the living have no choice but to articulate what they learn from history. Art does not stop where morality ends, nor does it simply take up where morality falters. Art and Auschwitz may appear to exist in separate universes, but both, in fact, are part of human nature, despite each one’s inability to shed light on the other. Novelists and filmmakers may try, but any attempt at an aesthetic rendering of Auschwitz, so it seems to me, can only alter the experience. As Irving Howe pointedly observed, there is an “intolerable gap between the aesthetic conventions and the loathsome realities of the Holocaust.” What seems more essential—indeed what is incumbent upon us—is not to transfigure what happened. We should seek neither to make sense of it nor invest it with a higher purpose nor assign blame to anyone except the Germans and their helpers. The Holocaust, which required the cooperation of thousands and the conscious indifference of millions, simply reveals that the human heart still beats in the inhuman breast.

Perhaps I should acknowledge at this point that my own family has always been wary of the commemorative functions surrounding the Holocaust. Official displays of grief make them uncomfortable. Memory—to state what is not always obvious—is personal, and therefore public testimonials, no matter how well-meaning, possess an air of inauthenticity; they smack of state-approved history, of a reality that citizens are supposed to believe. The fact that the events in question happened, and happened in the manner presented, still does not dispel the sense that one is being told what to remember and what to feel. “There’s no business like Shoah business,” children of survivors say with chilly humor. Indeed, the conspicuous proliferation of books, films, museums, photographs, and artifacts—not to mention the solemn and tremulous visits to the sites of the lagers and the exhibitions of shoes, gold fillings, dust from the ovens, and railroad cars— have assumed the trappings of a secular religion, whose sacred objects are an analogical counterpart to Christian iconography with its splinters from the cross and its shroud of Turin.

One must be careful where reverence is concerned. In “The Joys and Perils of Victimhood,” a wonderfully discerning essay in The New York Review of Books (April 8, 1999), Ian Buruma cautioned not only that these mementos are in danger of becoming kitsch (an “expression of emotion which is displaced”) but that the authenticity of memory itself is at risk when identity is so closely bound up with ancestral suffering. Buruma asks the right question: “What is going on when a cultural, ethnic, religious or national community bases its communal identity almost entirely on the sentimental solidarity of remembered victimhood?” For one thing, what is going on is that Jews, for reasons both emotional and political, have turned the Holocaust into a hallowed icon and, by so doing, have encouraged other minorities to look for their own holocausts, the better to shore up their communal identities. For Buruma and other commentators, this is an unhealthy and ahistorical form of self-definition: when the calamitous event takes center stage, history itself is gradually subverted.

Much of this soul-searching about the implications of Holocaust remembrance was occasioned by the publication in 1999 of Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life. Novick, let it be said immediately, dislikes the idea that no greater suffering than the Holocaust has ever been visited upon a people, and he disapproves of the aura of sanctimony that began to surround it in the early 1960s. In fact, the genocide needed time to become the Holocaust. At first, survivors spoke of it in whispers and only among themselves. And when a memorial was suggested in New York City a few years after the war ended, prominent Jewish organizations demurred, claiming it would represent “a perpetual memorial to the weakness and defenselessness of the Jewish people.” But after the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 and Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, the observance of the genocide gradually emerged as a civic duty. Secular and assimilated Jews were now able to embrace a legitimate Jewish identity by defining themselves through an awareness of great suffering. Analyzing Israeli secularism, Tom Segev observed in The Seventh Million: “Emotional and historical awareness of the Holocaust provides a much easier way back into the mainstream of Jewish history without necessarily imposing any real personal moral obligation [such as actual religious belief would entail]. . . . The ‘heritage of the Holocaust’ is thus largely a way for secular Israelis to express their connection to Jewish heritage.”

If all this was simply a means to get closer to one’s heritage, it would not be so bad. But such expressions of kinship have unfortunately become like a victimization sweepstakes: the more one beats one’s breast, the more one can lay claim to being authentically Jewish. The point at which a feeling of victimization becomes trivial is hard to define, but we know it when we hear it. It occurred when Woody Allen invoked his knowledge of survivors’ accounts to explain how he was able to cope with the scandal involving his relationship with his girlfriend’s adopted daughter. It occurred when Clarence Thomas resorted to the word lynching in characterizing his treatment at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee. By wrapping themselves up in dire historical precedent, Thomas and Allen succeeded only in trivializing the suffering of African-Americans and European Jews.

Needless to say, it isn’t the survivors themselves who need to bring up the Holocaust to feel Jewish, but their children and grandchildren, who, as if to compensate for not having been born earlier, now take pains to make sure that the lagers will never be forgotten. Unhappily, it is but a small step from compulsory remembrance to vigorous marketing—from such flagrant examples as PR releases for “Never Forget” galas to the changing of Primo Levi’s title from “Se questo è un uomo” (If This Is a Man) to Survival in Auschwitz. Not a large transgression, one might think, but isn’t the English title really a deliberate and audacious deception intended to sell books? Moreover, the aura of piety and privilege that attaches to survivors does not necessarily sit well with survivors themselves—not because they wish to put the Holocaust behind them, but because it all begins to seem self-serving, and even exculpatory, as though it may forgive them their sins. There are plenty of survivors, for example, who look askance at fellow survivors who they believe are making hay out of the Holocaust. Apparently, the high fees, limos, and three-star hotels some of these spokesmen request when speaking about their experiences do not go down well. “Es shmekt nisht” (“it smells wrong”), the others say.

Memory in the service of a national or ethnic cause is a two-edged sword. People have a right to make sure that the evils suffered by their parents and grandparents are not forgotten, but might there not be, in fact, a loss rather than a gain in understanding when testimonials to the Holocaust are forced on the public? This constant exposure, these excessive demonstrations of suffering do not always have the desired effect. To non-Jews, it may appear that these memorials and mementos have become nothing more than a point of pride for Jews, a means of self-congratulation. And though the “we suffered, we were there” Whitmanesque incantation may strengthen the bond among Jews, it has the effect of making everyone else an outsider.

There is something else to consider: the presumption that these conferences and memorials demonstrate the persistence of memory in anything other than a ceremonial sense. The occasional ritualistic display of grief is all well and good, but how many of those who participate later set aside a minute to mourn the dead? I know that my own American-born Jewish friends spend little time or emotion reflecting on what was lost. I am not suggesting that they ought to do more or that the Holocaust should color their lives—far from it. To suffer more would be to give the Germans and their helpers an even greater victory. All I am saying—and I am sorry to say it—is that there is a fundamental difference between those who are close to what happened and those with no familial connection to it.

Jews, as Jews well know, spend an inordinate amount of time and print discussing who is and who is not authentically Jewish. Orthodox Jews look askance at reform Jews; secular Jews have no truck with the Hasidim. I myself used to think that Jews who could not converse in Yiddish weren’t really Jewish, just a kind of watered-down version, no matter how often they went to shul. For the children of survivors, the question is irrelevant. If secular, we are not only Jews, we are, in a manner of speaking, second-generation Jews, as if the German atrocity was so extraordinary that it put a stop to ordinary time and began a new consciousness of reality. Our birthright is a combination of shame, grief, and anger—with anger, I hope, being the dominant emotion. Why do I say this? Because one has a right to resent not only the death of people but also the birth of the memories that were forged in the camps—because what was lost in the camps besides so many lives was the potential for an uncomplicated happiness in the survivors and,
to a lesser extent, in their children.

But how do we express this sense of loss without implying that we, as a people, are more deserving of the world’s attention (and sympathy) than others who have experienced great suffering? Asking such a question does not mitigate the horror, nor does it diminish the special nature of the barbarous German undertaking. There was something special about the Holocaust, not in the numbers of dead but in the very determination to achieve those numbers. An entire race of people had been condemned to death by a klatch of German bureaucrats. This brooks no dispute. Yet somehow the literal and terrible truth of so much death must be rendered without plaintiveness, without kitsch, and without that sense of privilege that suffering seems to bring forth. In this respect, the interviews with survivors conducted by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and Steven Spielberg’s own archival project of establishing a permanent record of survivors’ accounts, are worthy endeavors. Emotionally, however, this essentially private record of grief and memory is not sufficient for those who wish to remember in a more public way. How, then, shall we remember communally? More to the point, how do we ensure that memory does not become overly virtuous?

One thing we might do is remember not only how the living died but how they lived. To take the full measure of what the Germans did, we must learn about what was lost: the ordinary and the humdrum, the pleasures and peculiarities of home and work, all the taken-for-granted routines that once made up life in a city, village, or shtetl. We ought to familiarize ourselves with the modulated voices, the accords and discords, the diversity of opinion disseminated in letters, diaries, books, and plays (by 1939 there were around 20 Yiddish newspapers in Poland alone). Not one kind of Jew was destroyed, not one voice, or one accent, or one perspective, but a rich and vibrant culture and everything that culture contained and might one day have contained. There is a tendency, I think, when the numbers of the dead are so great, to feel that a monolithic entity has somehow fallen over the edge of the earth. The Jews of Europe were not just short, dark-haired people in sepia-toned photographs, wearing long coats and funny caps or babushkas. They were that, of course, but they were also much more; to believe anything else is a grave inaccuracy.

My aunt, who rarely spoke of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, had hoped that we would remember something else as well. In the few pages that she wrote about the uprising, she called attention to those who were not lucky enough to die fighting, but who for years lived under the German occupation, conducting “a stubborn and harsh battle to stay alive in the ghetto, a struggle to preserve their humanity.” She thought we were already overlooking those who foraged for food to feed the children, who set up makeshift hospitals and schools, who actually managed to put on plays and concerts— until the first Aktions and deportations began.

There is a flat stone in New York City’s Riverside Park, near 83rd Street, embedded in pavement and encircled by iron grating. Not particularly imposing, the site draws little attention, and most people pass by without stopping. But afternoons of April 19, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the stone, or der shteyn as it is known, hosts a gathering of survivors and their children. Seventy, perhaps 80 people attend, a fair number of them in their 80s and 90s. There are five or six speeches, some in English, some in Yiddish; afterward, white roses are handed out and strewn over the rock. At the end, those who know the words sing “The Partisan Hymn,” and then everyone goes home. It is an unobtrusive ceremony in an out-of-the-way spot— and yet it seems more authentic than the grand and crowded demonstrations that take place in halls and synagogues, attended by dignitaries and politicians. At der shteyn, people do not come to visit the past, they come because they remain part of the past.

Yet even here something is amiss. Engraved on the stone are these words: “THIS IS THE SITE FOR THE AMERICAN MEMORIAL TO THE HEROES OF THE WARSAW GHETTO BATTLE, APRIL–MAY 1943, AND TO THE SIX MILLION JEWS OF EUROPE MARTYRED IN THE CAUSE OF HUMAN LIBERTY.” Not a sentiment one wants to dispute, and yet—and yet the words are not strictly true. To be a martyr, one has to sacrifice oneself for a cause, and the ghetto fighters did not fight because they believed in liberty; they simply chose how they would die. As for the others, the vast number of others, death came because they had no means of escaping it. More human lives than one can imagine were first damaged, then expunged. An entire way of life was destroyed. Why say more than that?

I am not proposing a valediction forbidding representation, I am suggesting only that memory need not be virtuous, and that the proliferation My Holocaust Problem
of Holocaust paraphernalia does not necessarily remind us of what is gone. While scholarly books and serious documentaries about the Holocaust are invaluable in learning about what happened and why, a certain kind of excess breeds indifference; and even this essay may be in some measure a form of betrayal. There is a part of me that feels that whatever I say for public consumption somehow cheapens the suffering of those who died and those who survived. If I have any justification for writing this, it is because I promised my father that I would present his alternative to the pomp and circumstance of remembrance. My father’s idea is that Jews have a standard text, something short and simple, an agreed-upon narrative developed over time, like the Megillah recited during Purim, which would be read aloud on April 19, when families and friends gather privately to remember. They would gather not to honor the dead or resolve that it must never happen again, but simply to remember who it was that died and what it was that died with them.

Postscript: In the end, no matter what writers write about, they write as writers, not participants. The discipline required to shape and arrange sentences keeps the brutal and messy facts at bay. This was made clear to me about a month or so after I began working on this piece. Quite by chance, I happened to catch on television the end of a documentary about the war against the Jews. There was graphic footage of Jews being shot in a ditch, of people arriving in Auschwitz, and of bodies being burned on the ground when there were simply too many for the crematoria to dispose of. The faces of the children were uncannily like the faces of children I had played with when I was a child. I wanted to turn away, but I didn’t. Although I would never have made a point of seeing this documentary, now that I was watching, it seemed both wrong and cowardly to turn away. In truth, it seemed imperative that I not turn away. I owed it to the murdered to watch. They suffered, and so should I, if only as a witness.

The question of degree—how much, to what extent, and how often do we remember?—may never have an adequate answer. After all, it is within parents’ rights to protect their children not only from the gruesome footage but from the knowledge of what it represents, since such knowledge makes the uncomplicated idea of God and meaning difficult to comprehend. If the life of the mind is a series of steps involving the progressive loss of innocence, beginning with the realization that one is not the center of the universe and ending with the thought that the universe itself has no center, surely there is no need to accelerate a child’s journey toward awareness of the programmed horror that the German military conceived for the Jews. People will come to such knowledge on their own, or they won’t. I am not sure that the examined life requires the contemplation of what happened to the Jews. All I am sure of is that because those who perished had no choice about dying, we, their descendants, have no choice but to remember.

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Arthur Krystal is the author of four books of essays, most recently This Thing We Call Literature. He has been a contributor to the Scholar since 1982.


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