An interview with Alvin Rosenfeld,
Can we preserve the history, integrity of the Holocaust?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The Holocaust is “exploited for political or commercial gain,” engineered to “suit popular tastes and made into award-winning entertainments.”
The Holocaust is under siege. It is “exploited for political or commercial gain.” It is engineered to “suit popular tastes and made into award-winning entertainments,” and it is “embattled in ugly disputes about comparative victimization” – vulgarized, trivialized, contextualized. While some want to compare it to the plight of unborn children (abortion), others want to compare it to what has befallen the Palestinians.
Prof. Alvin H. Rosenfeld has placed himself astride the path of this out-of-control destructive tendency, attempting – as he writes in his book The End of the Holocaust – to articulate the “changing perception of the Holocaust within contemporary culture,” Rosenfeld is well-placed, as chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington and director of the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, to set the record straight.
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In an interview, he describes how this publication is a product of a lifetime of engagement with the subject.
“This book came from 40 years of reading Holocaust literature,” he says. “I’ve been writing on the subject for many years, but the deeper I go, the more I come to see a huge gap between how the Holocaust has been represented to the public in pop culture and other mass forms of dissemination, and what our best writers have said about it.”
Rosenfeld argues that many of these great writers, such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Jean Amery, “came to a sense of futility about their own work and a sense of despair. What was at the feet of that desolate feeling? I became convinced that it had to do with their perception that the Holocaust was being misrepresented and misunderstood. I set out to analyze this discrepancy.”
Levi died in 1987, and Amery died in the 1970s.
A good portion of the distortions of the Holocaust came after their deaths, so in fact they were concerned about a different distortion, one they saw in their own lifetimes.
“In both of their cases, what troubled them most of all was the response in Germany and the return of anti-Semitism, especially on the political Left,” says Rosenfeld. “Both of them identified with the Left, and they were surprised by [anti-Semitism’s] return.”
Emblematic of how the Holocaust can be distorted was the Bitburg affair. President Ronald Reagan planned to visit Germany in 1985, and he decided to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg that commemorated German war dead. This brought to the fore what Rosenfeld describes as “an extraordinary tension in historical awareness [and] moral evaluation” in America. Why should a US president pay respects to German war dead and ignore the Holocaust on a visit to Germany? But was this just a phenomenon of 1985? After all, a consciousness of the Holocaust has not diminished, and belief that the German soldiers were victims of the war has not grown.
Rosenfeld feels strongly that this is not the case: “Within Germany itself, the sense of victimhood has been developing very strongly over the last decades. While Germans in the main do acknowledge the crimes of the period, more and more, there has been a tendency to see themselves as victims, both of Hitler and of the firebombing campaign [by the Allies]. Some have gone so far as to call that a bombing holocaust. Reagan, in characteristic American fashion, wanted to put the past behind, to ‘move forward’ as Americans say. Reagan saw Holocaust memory as interfering with that relationship.”
The End of the Holocaust critiques “the steady domestication of the Holocaust [that] will blunt the horrors of this history and, over time, render them less outrageous, and ultimately less knowable.”
Is there a way to both communicate the history of the Holocaust to a mass audience and preserve its integrity? The author agrees that it is a tough question.
“My suggestion is for people to read the very best writers and see the very best films,” he says in the interview. “Pop culture gives us versions of the Holocaust, but the versions are often not as strong as the better accounts we have. We need to reconnect the Holocaust to history; it becomes disconnected in mass media and mass entertainment. I set out to describe and analyze the problem, but I’m not wise enough to come up with a solution.”
The problem of mass culture and the Holocaust inevitably brings up the controversy of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, which presents a fictionalized account of Jewish avengers who kill Hitler. Rosenfeld doesn’t object to this extreme fictionalization, noting that “it’s entertainment.”
One of the quintessential books dealing with the Holocaust is the diary of Anne Frank. But few are aware that Frank’s legacy was altered, partly by her own father, Otto, as Rosenfeld writes, “to place a preponderant emphasis on hope, peace and the advancement of tolerance.”
Pop culture consumers seem to prefer hope-driven narratives, but perhaps a greater dose of reality is necessary.
“Americans are ready to face up, to a certain degree, to crimes of the past, but they don’t want to feel that they can’t get beyond them. But we are talking about genocidal crimes of mass murder. It is difficult to look at that and come out with messages that are hopeful,” he says. “Americans require hopeful endings. Those who create Holocaust productions know that and do what is necessary to end on an up note, rather than a down note.
Schindler’s List is a very powerful film that has done a great deal to educate about the Holocaust, and it ends in a Catholic cemetery with the sun shining.”
Another of Rosenfeld’s themes is that “for most people, a sense [of] the Nazi crimes against the Jews is formed less by the record of events established by professional historians than by individual stories and images.” However, at the same time, he recounts all the abuses to which the Holocaust has been subjected by certain revisionist scholars, such as Norman Finkelstein. There is thus a paradox-driven tension: While mass media do not convey the perfect image of the Holocaust, they may sometimes convey a much better message than the distortions it has undergone at the hands of Hannah Arendt, Finkelstein, Ward Churchill and a long list of intellectuals.
The author thinks the central problem is that “Holocaust studies has become embattled. There is the notion that those of us who teach courses on the Holocaust are too parochial, as if there is something illegitimate even to treat the Holocaust by itself. They argue that it should be seen in the wider framework of genocide studies and racism. I deal with some of that in the book in the chapter called ‘The End of the Holocaust’... There are scholars who are saying the Holocaust must be relativized, contextualized, universalized. If we can do that correctly, it is for the good, but we certainly have the right to understand it in its own terms.”
Where the book most excels is in recalling certain cases that are indicative of larger trends. One of the most egregious of these is the way Frank’s Jewishness was removed from certain productions of her diary “to the point of deracinating her.” Furthermore, in a German translation, all references to her German-Jewish origins and the Germans as persecutors were removed. Rosenfeld explains that these changes are “known among some scholars, but it is not widely known... The diary that this young girl wrote is an important document.”
How the Holocaust is transmitted to future generations is important. Rosenfeld notes that “one of the issues I dealt with [in my research was] Holocaust memory, and how it is distorted and vulgarized. I am keenly aware that we are living in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism. One of the writers covered in the book who I knew personally was Primo Levi. In his last book, in the conclusion, he wrote[that] ‘it happened, therefore it can happen again.’ I found those words haunting – not that I expect a second Holocaust to occur tomorrow, but one must be aware that it can happen again, and one way to have that happen is to undo its original happening.”