Alvin H. Rosenfeld

THE HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE. By Peter Novick. Houghton Mifflin. 373 pp. $27
SELLING THE HOLOCAUST: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History Is Bought, Sold, and Packaged. By Tim Cole. Routledge. 214 pp. $22.95

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2m 43sec

THE HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE. By Peter Novick. Houghton Mifflin. 373 pp. $27

SELLING THE HOLOCAUST: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History Is Bought, Sold, and Packaged. By Tim Cole. Routledge. 214 pp. $22.95

The crime we have come to call the Holocaust was not known by this name during World War II, and, in the years following the defeat of Nazi Germany, it did not receive the kind of public attention that it now attracts. These two books consider how the genocidal assault against the Jews became "the Holocaust" and assumed its present prominence in contemporary culture.

Novick, a University of Chicago historian, seeks to trace the development of Holocaust consciousness in the United States and to evaluate whether such awareness is "good for the Jews" and others in this country. Having read widely in the archives of major American Jewish institutions, he is at his best in showing how Holocaust consciousness evolved over time, shifting from the margins to centrality within both Jewish culture and certain sectors of American culture. As pivotal moments in this development, he correctly identifies the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. But with his predominantly American focus, Novick cannot explain why Holocaust consciousness developed in other countries as well.

Intent on exposing the Holocaust as a deliberately constructed strategy for shoring up American Jewish identity and mobilizing support for Zionist causes, he largely ignores less instrumental reasons why thoughtful people might feel compelled to take an interest in the Jewish catastrophe under Hitler. Where some might point to historical, religious, moral, or ethical claims on consciousness as legitimate prods to remember the Nazi crimes, Novick tends to see only the work of "Holocaust professionals" and other "promoters of Holocaust consciousness." That approach, far too cynical and reductive, pervades this book and detracts from its value.

Selling the Holocaust, the work of a young British scholar, is more derivative but also less tendentious. Cole’s comparative approach serves him well as he explains how the Holocaust has been represented in different ways in Europe, Israel, and America. Focusing on three figures (Anne Frank, Adolf Eichmann, and Oskar Schindler) and three places (Auschwitz, Yad Vashem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.), he demonstrates how little consensus there is about the proper presentation and ultimate meaning of this history. While portraying Jewish victimization at the core of their Holocaust narrative, Israelis tend to stress the heroic dimensions of Jewish resistance to Nazism, for example, whereas memorial institutions in the United States highlight the role of American soldiers in liberating the Nazi camps. But Cole’s title is unfortunate, as is his repeated use of the easily exploitable phrase "the myth of the Holocaust."

Both authors evince far more interest in the shifting images of the Holocaust than in the traumatic event itself, an interpretive strategy that, while understandable to a point, in the end reduces all history to its representations. It is true that the past cannot be understood apart from the forms that mediate it, but the pain of this particular past cries out for far more attention than it receives in either of these books.

—Alvin H. Rosenfeld


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