THE END OF THE HOLOCAUST
By Alvin H. Rosenfeld
310 pp. $29.95
BETWEEN 1939 AND 1945, NAZI GERMANY fought two wars. One was a war of conquest against armed countries. The other was a war of annihilation against Jews. It lost the first war. In the main, it won the second. To be sure, not all of Europe's Jews were murdered; the Allied victory stopped Germany from being able to find and kill all of them.
We still remember the first war. As for the second, we failed to recognize its goal while it was being waged, for decades ignored it, and began to understand its focus and magnitude only in the 1970s, in large measure because of the popular NBC television miniseries The Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep. It was seen by many tens of millions of people in the United States and abroad, and magnified popular awareness of the Holocaust.
Since then, the public's consciousness of the Holocaust--its Holocaust memory--has been, in many ways, abused and degraded. That's why Alvin H. Rosenfeld wrote The End of the Holocaust, in which he considers both how the Holocaust should be remembered and how that memory has been, in its purity and detail, profoundly disfigured. The disfigurement of Holocaust memory has been a subtle process that has stretched out over decades. By describing that process so well, and by explaining so meticulously why it has been corrosive, Rosenfeld has gone far toward preserving our chance to learn something important from that immense event of irredeemable evil.
In this important book, Rosenfeld, a professor of Jewish studies and English at Indiana University Bloomington and one of the world's most distinguished scholars of the Holocaust, shows how the event has been universalized, trivialized, sentimentalized, and, in some ways, blotted out. And he shows how the horror of the Holocaust has been minimized and even disparaged by those who want the public to focus on their own historical traumas and are frustrated by the Holocaust's power to eclipse other tragic national experiences.
He understands that, for the public, the sources of Holocaust memory aren't history books, as numerous and documented as they may be. Few people read history. And relatively small numbers go to museums. Most learn about the Holocaust from television shows, movies, a few books they may read in school, and statements by political figures. Sometimes, these prominent sources misrepresent and even abuse what the Holocaust was, and therefore our memory of it.
During the past two decades, Hollywood films about the Holocaust--the most powerful source of our "knowledge" about that experience--have been, almost invariably, uplifting, optimistic, and affirmative. The most successful of them, Steven Spielberg's Schindlers List (1993), which won seven Academy Awards, dramatizes the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved eleven hundred Jews from certain death by insisting that he needed them to work in his factory. Schindlers List may have been well meant, but it shaped the public's memory of the Holocaust as an event that had redeeming features. The movie doesn't focus attention on the overwhelming reality of the Holocaust: Most Jews weren't saved by anyone, almost no Nazis were rescuers, and six million Jews were systematically murdered.
A different category of distortions that Rosenfeld catalogues are words that were once in the exclusive province of Holocaust discussions but have been repurposed for other causes. The word "Holocaust" has been applied by various public figures to the AIDS epidemic, abortion, and American slavery. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has attacked women's rights activists as "feminazis," and, at the other end of the spectrum, Betty Friedan wrote of women who aspire only to be housewives that they are "in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps. …