The Impact of the Holocaust in America: The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Volume 6

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The Impact of the Holocaust in America: The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Volume 6, edited by Zev Garber. W. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press for the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, University of Southern California, 2008. 230 pp. $25.00.

Not long ago I was present at a meeting of Holocaust scholars at Yad Vashem discussing contemporary research among graduate students and young lecturers. "Almost none of them are actually dealing with the Holocaust these days," sighed one of the senior historians, himself a Holocaust survivor. "If they study history, they write about the impact of the Holocaust after the war. If they study memory, then they usually choose something about Holocaust representation in the arts. And if they deal with comprehension then they end up writing about post-Holocaust philosophy, theology or education. No one deals any more with the actual event which brought about the impact, the memory, the philosophy or the education!" he moaned.

Although all of us present understood and empathized with what he was saying a few reminded him that it wasn't only the lack of knowledge of European languages or the difficulty of traveling for long periods to archives throughout Europe that was drawing scholars towards topics of post-war impact and aftermath. And it wasn't only young scholars who were drawn towards these topics. "Every Man is close to Himself," states the author of Ecclesiastes, and so, many scholars were drawn to writing about their present, the impact of the Holocaust on the world in which they lived in the recent past and in which they live today. This choice in no way diminishes the importance of the Holocaust or detracts from its horror; instead it provides an additional perspective to the tremendous depth and scope of its impact, showing how it continues to affect various aspects of our lives today in countries far away from the killing grounds or even those who had been under Nazi domination.

The most recent volume of the Casden Annual Review, The Impact of the Holocaust in America, is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Ten articles, most of which were based on papers delivered at the Association of Jewish Studies conference held in San Diego in 2006, provide the reader with a broad vista of topics, all related to how the major Jewish cataclysm of the twentieth century affected various areas of thought, action, education, media, economy, theology, sociology, and history in the United States.

Although all the articles are worthy of note, I will focus on three which were of particular interest to me and I think are especially deserving of further discussion. The first is Beth Cohen's excellent analysis of the survivor's first years in America. Based on the research for her book on the subject, Case Closed, Cohen paints a vivid picture of what life was really like for some of the 140,000 European Jewish refugees who resettled in the United States between 1946 and 1954.

Citing poignant case studies of families who were brought from Europe to the United States during the immediate post-war years, Cohen depicts the complex and often multifaceted process through which "refugees" became "new Americans." It would still take years before they could be identified publicly as "Holocaust survivors," she shows us, and meanwhile, to their American-Jewish relatives, to the organizations that cared for them, and to the Jewish community in general they were often just "poor refugees," some with severe emotional difficulties which they were unable to overcome in the war's aftermath. Cohen paints a very different picture than that described in most existing studies regarding the life of Holocaust survivors in America, primarily because she concentrates on the immediate post-war years, those in which various survivors who came to America were still quite far from being success stories. …