The Holocaust in American Life

by Peter Novick

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

The Holocaust in American Life is a non-fiction book about how the Holocaust is discussed in public life in America, written by historian Peter Novick and first published in 1999. It is a somewhat controversial, provocative book, in part because it argues that there has been and is an excessive, unhealthy preoccupation in American culture with the Holocaust, which in turn undermines a truthful understanding of it.

Below are some key quotations.

It seems to me that the pretense that the Holocaust is an American memory—that Americans, either diffusely, as part of Western civilization, or specifically, as complicit bystanders, share responsibility for the Holocaust—works to devalue the notion of historical responsibility. (15)

Here, Novick seems to be arguing that, essentially, America should bear no guilt for the Holocaust, and that to feel guilt is a form of historical appropriation which distracts us from identifying and holding to account those who should legitimately feel guilty. In other words, by claiming guilt where there is no claim, we ease the burden of guilt upon those who should, and need to, bear it most.

If Jews did not figure prominently in contemporary accounts of Dachau, Buchenwald, and the other camps liberated in the spring of 1945, it was not because of malice or insensitivity, but because they did not figure that prominently among the liberated. (65)

In this quotation, Novick addresses the claim, made by many historians, that the journalistic coverage of the American liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 demonstrated an anti-Semitic bias. The accusation is that this coverage failed to highlight the fact that the the Jews were the most numerous victims of the Holocaust. Novick points out that, in the camps liberated in 1945, Jews were a minority. The camps in the East, where the Jews were a majority, were closed down prior to the arrival of Allied and American troops.

Whether the memory is of slavery, the Holocaust, or any of the other terrible events of human history whose scars do the work of the wound, the role of that memory in group consciousness has to be carefully considered. There is a sense in which Emil Fackenheim was right to say that for Jews to forget Hitler's victims would be to grant him a "posthumous victory." But it would be an even greater posthumous victory for Hitler were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust an emblematic Jewish experience. (281)

In this quotation, from the final page of the book, Novick suggests that the psychological scars left by the wound can be as damaging as the original wound and that we should, therefore, take great care when apportioning responsibility and guilt. We must avoid creating scars, and thus unnecessary damage, where there is no wound to heal. In the second part of the quotation, Novick argues that when Jewish people accept for themselves (or "ourselves"—Novick is himself a Jew) the exclusivity of the victim status which is encouraged by mainstream representations of the Holocaust, they, in so doing, "tacitly endorse" the evil behind the Holocaust. In other words, to forget or to marginalize the other victims of the Holocaust (e.g., gay people, the disabled, communists, Romani people) is to isolate Jewish people as separate and "other," or, as Novick puts it, as the "pariahs" that Hitler deemed them.

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