Holocaust: An American Understanding

By Lerner, Saul | Shofar, October 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Holocaust: An American Understanding


Lerner, Saul, Shofar


HOLOCAUST: AN AMERICAN UNDERSTANDING By Deborah E. Lipstadt. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

In 2001 Elie Wiesel said "this fiery memory remains and we, you and I, you and all of us, now are its very privileged custodians." Deborah Lipstadt has been one of the foremost custodians of the tragic memory of the Holocaust. Her exceptional scholarship has included such insightful books as Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (1986), Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993), History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2006), The Eichmann Trial (2011), and now, Holocaust: An American Understanding (2016), published as a part of Rutgers University's Key Words in Jewish Studies series. Each of her books has significantly advanced the study of the Holocaust and demonstrated Lipstadt's continuing role as a custodian of the memory of the Holocaust.

Lipstadt's deep scholarship on the Holocaust is illustrated in this thoughtful, interesting, and important study that effectively documents the evolution of the word "Holocaust" as a key critical word in Jewish studies. The book considers the Holocaust's impact on the United States and, in turn, the impact of America on the study of the Holocaust. Within some two hundred pages, Lipstadt divides her book into three themes: the first focuses on the period up to 1962, and traces both early Holocaust historiography and its impact on the development of the term "Holocaust"; the second is aligned with the impact of Holocaust studies on America, 1960s social and cultural happenings in the United States, and how these happenings impacted Holocaust studies; the third deals with increasingly critical recent scholarship of the Holocaust, with Holocaust deniers, antisemites, and others who have sought to trivialize the Holocaust and its significance.

In the World War II aftermath, Nazi "victims" (the initial descriptive term) sought to bear witness to their experiences-to help the world understand, to explain what had happened to them, and to encourage the hope of "never again." Their more appropriate identification became "survivors," but the phenomenon which they had survived had yet to be designated. The initial words depicting this phenomenon included khurbn (from "destroy") and "Shoah." There were numerous English equivalents, such as "catastrophe," "destruction," and others, but Lipstadt indicated that by the 1950s the term "Holocaust" was increasingly employed. The topic, however, did not attract much attention until the time of the Eichmann trial, when Israeli prosecutor Gideon Housner put numerous survivors on the witness stand to testify about 1933-1945 Nazi persecution and destruction of the Jews. The testimony focused world-wide attention on the Holocaust, and publication of Raul Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews (1961) provided a first comprehensive description of the deadly details.

The term "Holocaust" was increasingly used by scholars, including Phillip Friedman, the first important historian who, Lipstadt contends, relied on survivor testimonies, rejected the proposition that Jews marched unresistingly like sheep to the slaughter, and viewed the Judenrate or Jewish Councils as not invariably supportive of Nazi efforts at Jewish extermination. Much debate among historians of the Holocaust revolved around these three issues. Lipstadt briefly summarized such issues in the various positions of Raul Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews (1961), William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Bruno Bettelheim's The Informed Heart (1960), Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews (1975), Terrence Des Pres's The Survivor (1980), Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men (1992), and other publications. …

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