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. …