Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

CHAPTER 1: Historical Consciousness and the Americanization of the Holocaust

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

CHAPTER 1: Historical Consciousness and the Americanization of the Holocaust

Article excerpt

Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, this history continues to be the subject of a seemingly endless and ever swelling stream of books, movies, plays and documentaries. In this context, the traditional insistence on the Holocaust's unspeakable and unrepresentable nature has come to sound increasingly problematic and untenable. As James E. Young writes, "[r]ather than seeing metaphors as threatening to the facts of the Holocaust, we must recognize that they are our only access to the facts, which cannot exist apart from the figures delivering them to us."1 Consequently, the critical challenge no longer lies in erecting boundaries against the Holocaust's representation, but in studying and understanding the many and diverse ways in which it has been represented. In this respect, it is striking that among the very many representations of the Holocaust, a disproportionately large number, and, in fact, many of the most widespread and influential ones, are American representations. Yet the us clearly is a special context for Holocaust memory. After all, the Holocaust did not take place on American soil, nor were Americans its victims-aspects which are important factors in, respectively, European and Israeli discourse on the Holocaust. And yet, the Holocaust has become a salient landmark, figuratively as well as literally, in American memory culture. With the rise of memory studies and the awareness it brought of the ways in which images of the past are shaped in popular consciousness, a host of scholars have set out to chart and analyze the nature and origins of Holocaust memory in the United States and to explain this memory's perhaps unexpected centrality. Consequently, there is no shortage today of scholarly literature on this theme; indeed, the numerous studies that have appeared in recent years range from fairly general histories to more specialized ones, and from abstruse literary criticism to discussions of popular and mass culture.2

Yet despite the wealth of available knowledge and scholarship, the nature of Holocaust memory in the United States remains bitterly contested. Symptomatic in this respect is the profound sense of discord that is inspired by the so-called Americanization of the Holocaust. This oft-used concept represents to many an objectionable process of trivialization and commercialization of Holocaust memory, whereas others consider it as the only way for Americans to come to terms with the Holocaust at all. A significant spokesman of the latter view is Michael Berenbaum, who, as Deputy Director of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Director of this museum's Institute of Advanced Holocaust Studies, played a crucial role in promoting the very idea of the Holocaust's Americanization. Berenbaum considers the Americanization of the Holocaust "an honorable task" that is about telling the history of the Holocaust "in such a way that it would resonate not only with the survivor in New York and his children in Houston or San Francisco, but with a black leader from Atlanta, a midwestern farmer, or a northeastern industrialist." Indeed, he argues that it is a way of telling this history in fundamentally American terms, which entails a reshaping of the history of the Holocaust in order for it "to participate in the fundamental tale of pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and human rights that America tells about itself."3 By contrast, literary critic Alvin H. Rosenfeld refers to the Americanization of the Holocaust with a sense of alarm and disgust, suggesting that one typological strand in this process is a "cult of victimhood" while another strand, "no less sentimental, derives from a seemingly opposite trait: the American tendency to downplay or deny the dark and brutal sides of life and to place a preponderant emphasis on the saving power of individual moral conduct and collective deeds of redemption."4 On one level, Berenbaum's and Rosenfeld's diametrically opposed views on the Americanization of the Holocaust reflect distinct differences in outlook and temperament, whereby the memory of the Holocaust functions as a kind of social-political and intellectual litmus test. …

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