The Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s destruction of the European Jews, took place far away from the United States where the Jewish population—about 3 percent—is a relatively small part of the total. By the 1990’s, however, this event loomed large in American life. Curious about that prominence and skeptical about its desirability, Peter Novick, an American Jewish scholar who is prize-winning historian at the University of Chicago, went to work on The Holocaust in American Life. As contentious and controversial as it is diligently researched and lucidly written, Novick’s unrelenting arguments debunk conventional wisdom about Holocaust memorialization in the United States. Persistently provocative, Novick’s polemical book makes enough unpopular claims to guarantee that debate about it will not end any time soon.
“Why now?” Novick asks about America’s growing consciousness of the Holocaust. Right off, his response advances an arguable proposition: Shortly after they occur, historical events are usually talked about the most; then they gradually recede from the spotlight. The Holocaust, he thinks, defies that trend. For twenty years after World War II, the Holocaust was barely named as such, let alone discussed much in the United States. From the 1970’s on, however, it became “ever more central in American public discourse.” A key reason for the Holocaust’s relatively late impact on the American scene, Novick contends, is that reference to “the Holocaust” as a distinct event is “largely a retrospective construction.”
Novick does not deny that the Holocaust happened. To the contrary, he stresses the reality of Nazi Germany’s genocidal attack on European Jewry. Therefore, he distinguishes between “the historicity of events” and “collective memory” about them. Awareness of the former, Novick explains, entails understanding historical events in their “messy complexity,” which involves “circumstances different from those that now obtain.” Following the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, Novick claims that collective memory, which he finds dominating Holocaust remembrance, may be “ahistorical, even anti- historical,” for it tends to simplify and mythologize history as “present concerns determine what of the past we remember and how we remember it.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Americans of all kinds memorialize the Holocaust, but when Germans were actually shooting and gassing Europe’s Jews en masse, American attention was understandably occupied by the overall course of World War II and especially the war against Japan in the Pacific. In government circles, let alone the public mind, nothing like contemporary awareness of the Holocaust existed. According to Novick, only in the late 1960’s, after the 1961 Israeli trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann increased Holocaust news, did many Americans consider the Holocaust as “a distinct—and distinctively Jewish—entity.” Even this American awareness was far removed from what the power of collective memory would make of the Holocaust during the next thirty years.
Unsatisfied, Novick’s curiosity relates one question, “Why now?” to another, “Why here?” How did awareness of the Holocaust, an event so distant from most American experience, take root in the United States at all? Novick responds that Holocaust consciousness in the United States would not have caught on apart from American Jewry’s self-interested choices. Far from a Jewish conspiracy to impose Holocaust consciousness on the United States, these choices, “shaped and constrained by circumstances,” were primarily about American Jewry’s “collective self-understanding and self-representation.” Nevertheless, despite the relatively small number of people who advanced them, those decisions became sufficiently powerful to affect a much larger American public.
Rejecting the often repeated theory that the Holocaust’s trauma was so severe that testimony about it was repressed for years, Novick stresses that the United States’ postwar attention to the Holocaust grew only when Jewish interests dictated that it should. Until the late 1960’s, the American “market” for Holocaust interests was small. True, American sympathy for the plight of Holocaust survivors helped to support the 1948 establishment of the new state of Israel, but, on the whole, American Jewish leadership saw no advantage in promoting widespread attention to the Holocaust’s horror. Doing so would underwrite an image of the Jew as victim, an outcome sure to create unwanted dissonance with the postwar American optimism shared by most Jewish Americans. Jewish promotion of Holocaust consciousness also would have conflicted with the American need to rehabilitate West Germany as a Cold War buttress against the Soviet Union. It followed that most of the recently arrived Holocaust survivors in the United States—Novick estimates that they numbered about 100,000— accepted the message that American Jewry would get along best if they kept their Holocaust experiences to themselves, put the past behind them, and got on with their new American lives.
Still underscoring that American Jewry’s interests led the way, Novick’s account continues by arguing that decisive changes in America’s Holocaust consciousness emerged from two Israeli wars—the...
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