"In the Beginning There Was No Holocaust"
Linenthal, Edward, Humanities
IN THE SPRING OF 1945, THE WORLD TRIED TO IGNORE the gruesome images of the Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated by Allied troops.
"In the beginning there was no Holocaust," writes historian Raul Hilberg. "When it took place in the middle of the twentieth century, its nature was not fully grasped."
Even for hardened combat veterans, the reality of what they saw was almost unimaginable. They felt, wrote historian Robert Abzug, "an almost unbearable mixture of empathy, disgust, guilt, anger, and alienation." The urge was to distance themselves from the horror and turn away from what seemed the futile task of communicating it to a war-weary American public. Consequently, what came to be known as the Holocaust in the immediate postwar years was often indistinguishable from the millions of noncombatant casualties caused by bombing, epidemic illness, or starvation. It was considered by most as simply part of the horror of war.
The implications of what had happened were too threatening for public analysis and the underlying guilt for not having done more was too great for many Americans to contemplate. Forgetfulness became a strategic ally in the postwar crusade against the Soviet Union. West Germany became a symbol of a miraculous transformation to democracy and a bulwark against Soviet aggression. Remembering the Nazi past was considered a needless complication in the struggle to win the Cold War.
Even in the American Jewish community, the Holocaust was virtually invisible. "The American Jewish suburban community," writes historian Deborah Lipstadt, "was concerned with manifestations of unity and not diversity, universalism and not particularism. They were more concerned about acting as Americans than as Jews." Jews did not want to be seen as victims, and assimilation meant agreeing with American foreign policy toward Germany. Survivor memories were of another place and another time. Survivors generally wanted to turn away from the horror they had lived through and build a new life.
Shards of memory existed, but did not make up a whole story. The rubble of the death camps was material evidence of the killing and these would become places of pilgrimage for American and Israeli Jews. But they did not emerge as sites for remembering until the Holocaust was seen as a distinct event.
There were official documents-an archival memory-- and survivor testimony. Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, survived the war in Warsaw by passing as a Christian. He was active in the Jewish underground and witnessed the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. He came to America in 1946 and later recalled: "Our first years were hard. Every time we heard car tires screeching, we froze.... We even had to adjust to the ringing of doorbells. For us the echo of the old world of fear and death reverberated many times a day.... For years we were alone. Our fellow Jews regarded us as 'green'-the newest immigrants. Americans treated us as refugees. 'Forget the past,' we were told; 'it can only hurt you.'"
The events of the Holocaust began to seep into public consciousness. "I couldn't be a Jew in the same way after the Holocaust," said Rabbi Irving Greenberg. As a Fulbright scholar in Israel in 1961 and 1962 he read about the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Heroes and Martyrs Memorial Authority in Jerusalem, the central institution for Holocaust memory in Israel. Upon his return to Yeshiva University in New York, Greenberg spent two years trying to gain approval to teach a course on the Holocaust; he succeeded only when he agreed to call the course "Totalitarianism and Ideology in the Twentieth Century."
In 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel provided a public forum; more than a hundred survivors gave their testimony. For American Jews, writes Dorothy Rabinowitz, the trial was "a galvanizing force, bringing them face to face with emotions theretofore repressed, with events whose full scope and reverberations had been kept, rumbling, beneath the surface of consciousness."
The Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel brought the Holocaust to the surface again. In mobilizing the army in May of 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser called for the annihilation of Israel. "Terror and dread fell upon Jews everywhere," says Jewish scholar and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. "Will there be another Auschwitz, another Dachau, another Treblinka? ... In those days many of us felt that our own lives were in the balance ... that indeed all of the Bible, all of Jewish history was at stake, the vision of redemption, and the drama that began with Abraham." It was, says Heschel, "the collapse of complacency."
After Israel's military victory, complacency did not return. "Never Again" was heard not only from the Jewish Defense League, but also from many American Jews, who reached into their pocketbooks. The restoration of access to the ancient Temple wall in Jerusalem was a reason to celebrate for many. For Israelis, at least, the outcome of the Six-Day War provided a satisfying resolution to what religion historian Jacob Neusner has called "the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption." The Holocaust could not be considered an event, argues Neusner, until an act of redemption had taken place. "The point at which the myth ... becomes compelling is the moment at which the redemption appears to be credible, not 1948 ... but 1967."
During this time, until the end of America's military involvement in Vietnam in 1975, Holocaust vocabulary had been used by the antiwar movement in the U.S. Some radical protestors called the nation "Amerika," but even more moderate peace marchers carried signs that Rabinowitz says "referred as a matter of course to Auschwitz, to Himmler, and to Eichmann ... for prominent among the themes debated during and after the Eichmann trial was the issue of individual conscience: whether the individual had a duty to refuse obedience to a system that perpetrated crimes against humanity."
During the war, mainstream Americans heard terms like "genocide" and "race war" to describe American activity in Vietnam. The Holocaust provided people an example of evil seemingly unlike any other, against which this nation's-or any nation's-actions could be measured.
Hilberg believes this explained the growing popularity of Holocaust courses among university students in the 1970s, when he started teaching them at the University of Vermont. Why, he asked himself, was the subject so popular? "After the disorientation of Vietnam," he argues, "they wanted to know the difference between good and evil. The Holocaust is the benchmark, the defining moment in the drama of good and evil. Against this single occurrence, one would assess all other deeds. And so, memorialization began in earnest, that is to say it became organized."
1978 was a turning point for Holocaust consciousness in this country. In Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago-based Nazi group threatened to march through a community that included Jewish Holocaust survivors. The survivors promised to halt the march by any means necessary, to protect their community from the contamination of the Nazi uniform and flag. The event brought the principle of free speech into conflict with common decency.
The same year saw the formation of the Office of Special Investigations, whose purpose was to bring Nazi war criminals living in the United States to trial for possible deportation. Its first director, Allan Ryan, characterized this work as different from other forms of Holocaust memory. Rituals and physical memorials were "retrospective in nature," he said. "There is nothing retrospective or abstract about OSI's work; real people are investigated, placed on trial, stripped of their citizenship, deported."
On April 16 through 19 in 1978, NBC aired a nine-and-a-- half-hour miniseries called The Holocaust. Approximately 120 million people watched it and fierce debate raged over the show. Critics attacked it as an example of the obscene trivialization of the Holocaust in popular culture. Elie Wiesel characterized the show as "an insult to those who perished and to those who survived." Time's Lance Morrow criticized the intrusion of commercials. He noted that in one scene Adolf Eichmann complained that the stench of burning bodies made it impossible for him to enjoy his dinner. Immediately following, a character in a Lysol commercial informed a housewife that she had odors in her kitchen.
Others believed that the television show was almost singly responsible for awakening interest among people ignorant of the events. Film historian Judith Doneson wrote, "people in Idaho, North Dakota, New York-- throughout the United States-were now initiated, albeit in a simplified manner, into the world of the Nazi genocide against the Jews." Irving Greenberg argued that the inevitable vulgarization of commercial television was preferable to the previous decades of "indifference, silence, and even shunning of survivors."
President Carter announced the creation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust in 1978. The commission would spend the next fifteen years working to create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was a difficult process, filled with political tensions and divergent visions. But within the year it opened in 1993, the museum had nearly two million visitors at the rate of about five thousand per day. The Holocaust had moved not only to the center of American Jewish consciousness, but to the center of national consciousness, too. It had become a story worthy to include in the official canon of American experience.
THE LIFE OF A SHTETL
Ejszyszki, Lithuania, had been home to Jews since the eleventh century. In September 1941, all but twenty-nine of its four thousand Jewish residents were murdered by German soldiers. The town was the childhood home of Yaffa Eliach, who survived and eventually emigrated to the United States, where she became a professor of history at Brooklyn College. Yaffa and her family had hidden in a friend's pig shed during the German occupation. At the end of the war, she and her older brother Yitzhak smuggled photographs from their grandparents' photography studio by hiding them in their shoes and strapping them to their bodies. In 19 79, Eliach became a member of the commission to plan the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She began documenting the Jews of Ejszyszki after a trip to Europe with the commission. Eliach collected images from other survivors, victim's families in America and Israel, and discovered photographs that had been buried in the ground for safekeeping. In all, she amassed more than six thousand photographs- 1,032 are displayed together at the United States Holocaust Memorial museum, showing prewar Jewish life in Ejszyszki.
Edward T. Linenthal is professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. This article is reprinted from his book PRESERVING MEMORY: THE STRUGGLE TO CREATE AMERICA'S HOLOCAUST MUSEUM, (C) 2001 Edward T. Linenthal. Printed by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. Linenthal is also the author of THE UNFINISHED BOMBING: OKLAHOMA CITY IN AMERICAN MEMORY. He received NEH grants to do research in these subjects.…
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Publication information: Article title: "In the Beginning There Was No Holocaust". Contributors: Linenthal, Edward - Author. Magazine title: Humanities. Volume: 24. Issue: 1 Publication date: January/February 2003. Page number: 42+. © Superintendent of Documents Jan/Feb 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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