Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2000 /21 Shevat, 5760
It was not the myth that the Holocaust did not take place. It was a different myth entirely. And that is that the firm belief that the Nazi extermination of the Jews was a fact that no one knew about until the late 1960s or 1970s. One reason that the Holocaust must be remembered, I was told again and again, is that its memory was "suppressed" during the immediate post-war period.
Peter Novick, an historian at the University of Chicago, has an aggressively pop-psychological explanation for this phenomenon, involving the cold war, the transformation of enemy Krauts of 1945 into the gallant West Berliners of 1948, the white-bread 1950s you saw in "The Wonder Years," and, I think, Elvis Presley.
I kept saying to myself -- and occasionally to the people I spoke to -- the same thing: Do they think we're idiots? I was there! I lived in the 1950s!
And it wasn't true.
Even as a little boy, I, my parents, my little friends, the narrators of endless TV documentaries about World War II in which many of our fathers fought-we all knew about the extermination camps. There were charts in Time-Life Books about World War II that showed where the Jews were taken from. In my schoolyard in 3rd grade, in 1958, we little boys sometimes played cops and robbers but often played Nazis and Jews (to the paralyzed horror of the school authorities). The Diary of Anne Frank was a best-seller in 1952 and a hit play in 1955.
Later, the Eichmann drama riveted the world. And more subtly, but pervasively, the ordinary public expression of mild anti-Semitism in America -- a commonplace before the war -- had become furtive and marginalized. The reason was clear: Hitler had finally made it unfashionable to be an anti-Semite.
Locally, we knew about the Holocaust as well. When my friends' big brothers began to have bar mitzvahs, my mother and I would go to the local Conservative synagogue. The first time we went, she gasped. "Look at these old German Jews," she whispered. "They all used to go to my Temple when I was a little girl!" She had been in a Reform congregation in the 1930s (English only, Sunday services, "confirmation" not bar mitzvah) and was surprised to see so many of Sinai Temple's pre-war mainstays wearing shawls and praying in Hebrew. But she knew why they had switched: "They think that G-d let Hitler kill the German Jews as a kind of punishment for their extreme Reform, so they're running back toward Orthodoxy."
I could go on. There was no suppression of the Holocaust. How can we explain the willing refusal to believe, on the part of these learned and intelligent people, what was obviously the case? I believe there are two explanations, a hard one and a soft one.
The hard reason is partly a concoction, partly a useful self-deception, on the part of anti-Zionist polemicists, among whom must be included to some extent Mr. Novick himself.
These people wish to show that post-1967 Israel, guilty of defeating the neighboring Arab countries which invaded it, needed a myth of victimhood, and therefore dusted off the long-suppressed story of the Holocaust - which no one had heard of before-to distract the world's eyes from the oppression it was to visit upon its own Arab minority. And then there's a soft reason: narcissicism and self-congratulation --- to justify retroactively the mind-numbing repetitiveness of one Holocaust-remembrance project after another by claiming that, once upon a time, the world had forgotten or ignored this terrible event, and only the courage of a few politicians have brought it to the notice of an uncaring world.
But the persistence of the myth of the myth of the Holocaust does point out some of the problems with enforced Holocaust remembrance. How can we demand remembrance -- even of a great fact -- if we willingly distort the truth about a small fact? It's another demonstration of the sad fact that turning the Holocaust into a political cause makes the event harder to understand, not clearer.
In proposing a British National Holocaust Day, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, announced that his country must remember the Holocaust because "Millions have perished and millions more have been affected because of extreme nationalism." His choice of words is not accidental.
Mr. Straw is against genocides caused by nationalists, perhaps because his Labour Party is anti-nationalist. There have, of course, been many genocides during the bloody century just passed that were internationalist and collectivist in flavor-and they, by implication, are not to be remembered. Some might think that Lenin's 1918 program of "exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class" was an important forerunner of Hitler's terrible work. But it is still respectable to admire Lenin, as it was never respectable to admire Hitler, and therefore the Holocaust must be designated a purely "nationalist" crime.
Nevertheless, yesterday the British government announced that the 27th of January shall be "Holocaust Memorial Day." The Prime Minister hoped that in so doing, great practical consequences will follow: "I hope it will be a day when we reflect and remember and give our commitment and pledge that the terrible and evil deeds done in our world should never be repeated." No sooner was the announcement made-than the first protest arrived, from the British Armenian Community, which called the holiday "an insult to all other victims of genocide."
Welcome to the Holocaust
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.