Summer 2012

Remembering the Holocaust

– Walter Reich

Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi Germany fought two wars. One was a war of conquest against armed countries. The other was a war of annihilation against Jews.

Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi Germany fought two wars. One was a war of conquest against armed countries. The other was a war of annihilation against Jews. It lost the first war. In the main, it won the second. To be sure, not all of Europe’s Jews were murdered; the Allied victory stopped Germany from being able to find and kill all of them.

We still remember the first war. As for the second, we failed to recognize its goal while it was being waged, for decades ignored it, and began to understand its focus and magnitude only in the 1970s, in large measure because of the popular NBC television miniseries The Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep. It was seen by many tens of millions of people in the United States and abroad, and magnified popular awareness of the Holocaust.

Since then, the public’s consciousness of the Holocaust—its Holocaust memory—has been, in many ways, abused and degraded. That’s why Alvin H. Rosenfeld wrote The End of the Holocaust, in which he considers both how the Holocaust should be remembered and how that memory has been, in its purity and detail, profoundly disfigured. The disfigurement of Holocaust memory has been a subtle process that has stretched out over decades. By describing that process so well, and by explaining so meticulously why it has been corrosive, Rosenfeld has gone far toward preserving our chance to learn something important from that immense event of irredeemable evil.

In this important book, Rosenfeld, a professor of Jewish studies and English at Indiana University Bloomington and one of the world’s most distinguished scholars of the Holocaust, shows how the event has been universalized, trivialized, sentimentalized, and, in some ways, blotted out. And he shows how the horror of the Holocaust has been minimized and even disparaged by those who want the public to focus on their own historical traumas and are frustrated by the Holocaust’s power to eclipse other tragic national experiences.

He understands that, for the public, the sources of Holocaust memory aren’t history books, as numerous and documented as they may be. Few people read history. And relatively small numbers go to museums. Most learn about the Holocaust from television shows, movies, a few books they may read in school, and statements by political figures. Sometimes, these prominent sources misrepresent and even abuse what the Holocaust was, and therefore our memory of it.

During the past two decades, Hollywood films about the Holocaust—the most powerful source of our “knowledge” about that experience—have been, almost invariably, uplifting, optimistic, and affirmative. The most successful of them, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), which won seven Academy Awards, dramatizes the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved eleven hundred Jews from certain death by insisting that he needed them to work in his factory. Schindler’s List may have been well meant, but it shaped the public’s memory of the Holocaust as an event that had redeeming features. The movie doesn’t focus attention on the overwhelming reality of the Holocaust: Most Jews weren’t saved by anyone, almost no Nazis were rescuers, and six million Jews were systematically murdered.

A different category of distortions that Rosenfeld catalogues are words that were once in the exclusive province of Holocaust discussions but have been repurposed for other causes. The word “Holocaust” has been applied by various public figures to the AIDS epidemic, abortion, and American slavery. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has attacked women’s rights activists as “feminazis,” and, at the other end of the spectrum, Betty Friedan wrote of women who aspire only to be housewives that they are “in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.” When these words and images are used in such ways, they no longer evoke the seriousness they once had—thereby trivializing the Holocaust itself.

Still other distortions leach all meaning out of the Holocaust by equating the suffering of the Jews with that of their killers. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan, on a trip to West Germany, decided to visit a German military cemetery near Bitburg, though he was urged not to do so because it contained the graves of 49 members of the Waffen SS, which was involved in the mass murder of Jews and other populations and had been declared a criminal organization during the postwar Nuremberg trials. Reagan went nevertheless, saying that the SS “were victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” The visit was widely covered in the press, and the public was left with the impression that the SS had been victims no less than the Holocaust victims they’d helped kill. If the president of the United States could make such an equation, why shouldn’t the American public?

Rosenfeld’s most important contribution is his discussion of Anne Frank. It is, after all, that young girl’s diary—together with the play and the movie that were based on it—that, more than any other document of the time, has shaped the world’s sense of what the Holocaust was. Yet, as Rosenfeld masterfully shows—and as others before him have argued, most trenchantly the fiction writer and essayist Cynthia Ozick—the story of Anne Frank, in its various incarnations, was watered down and rendered universal and uplifting precisely in order to make it attractive and accessible to as broad an audience as possible, especially non-Jews. What people who read this story or see it performed learn about the Holocaust is profoundly incomplete.

Anne Frank, together with her parents, her sister, Margot, and a few other Jews, hid from the Germans in a secret apartment behind her father’s business office in Amsterdam, aided by a few trusted non-Jews. She began her diary in June 1942, when she was 13, and wrote her last entry in August 1944, just before the group was betrayed to the Germans and arrested. Soon they were sent to Auschwitz, where her mother starved to death. In October 1944 Anne and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they died of typhus in March 1945, just three weeks before the camp was liberated by the British.

Of all the apartment’s residents, only Anne’s father, Otto, survived. After Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam, Miep Gies, a non-Jew who had helped hide the Franks and had found Anne’s diary, gave it to him. Frank had it published in Holland in 1947, after which it was published, in 1952, in the United States and the United Kingdom. In 1955 it was adapted into a play that won a Pulitzer Prize, and then it was made into a movie. It has been translated into more than 60 languages and has sold more than 30 million copies. For decades, the diary has been the most widely read Holocaust-related document in the world. The Diary of a Young Girl—together with the plays, films, exhibitions, and school curricula it has spawned—has done more than anything else to shape Holocaust memory.

The problem is that the story of Anne Frank, as it has been passed down to us, has been partial and, as a result, misleading, leaving the memory of the Holocaust, for many, cleaner and shinier than the event really was. As Rosenfeld shows, Otto Frank, as well as those who wrote the play and brought it to the stage in 1955, wanted to shape Anne’s story so that large audiences could identify with it, admire it, and come away feeling inspired by it. The versions that resulted emphasized Anne’s buoyancy, optimism, and vivacity. Eleanor Roosevelt stressed the “shining nobility” of the human spirit that Anne’s diary reveals. Reviewing the book, Newsweek declared that Anne Frank would be “remembered as a talented and sensitive adolescent whose spirit could not be imprisoned or thwarted.”

As Rosenfeld helps us understand, the play’s writers, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett—successful Hollywood screenwriters who had written It’s a Wonderful Life—created this effect by taking liberties with Anne’s diary. They understated “the specifically Jewish aspect of her story and instead universalized her experience as the experience of suffering humanity in general.” Under director Garson Kanin’s guidance, according to one biographer of Anne’s father, “almost all references to Jews and Jewish suffering were erased.”

Reviewing the play, New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr observed, “Soaring through the center of the play with the careless gaiety of a bird that simply cannot be caged is Anne Frank herself. … Anne is not going to her death.” Another reviewer declared in the New York Post that the play “brought about the reincarnation of Anne Frank—as though she’d never been dead.” And Garson Kanin, writing in Newsweek in 1979, a quarter-century after he had directed the first stage production of the play, compared Anne Frank to Peter Pan and the Mona Lisa. Anne, he wrote, “remains forever adolescent.”

And that’s the image that endures of Anne Frank. In fact, in her last days, Anne and her sister, after they were transferred from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, were ravaged by typhus; they were, as one witness remembered, “two scrawny threadbare figures” who “looked like little frozen birds.” Margot rose from her bunk and fell dead. Anne confessed to the witness that, horrified by the lice and fleas, and hallucinating, she had thrown away her clothes. Later, Anne’s body was dumped into a mass grave with 10,000 other corpses. Unless we know these details, our memory of the Holocaust is wrong.

In his illuminating chapters on four Holocaust survivors—Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, and Elie Wiesel—Rosenfeld offers examples of those who have articulated the enduring meaning of the atrocity they witnessed and the compelling nature of Holocaust memory.

Améry committed suicide in 1978. Levi believed that the writer’s torture by the Gestapo and his victimization as a Jew in Nazi camps led to his death. “Whoever has suffered torment,” Améry once wrote, “will no longer be able to find his way clearly in the world, the abomination of annihilation will never be extinguished. Trust in humanity … can never be regained.” This is an accurate depiction of what the Holocaust was, and a reaction to it on which we prefer not to dwell. It’s hardly surprising that we choose instead to remember the inspiring words Anne Frank recorded in her diary before she was thrust into the heart of the Holocaust’s darkness, and which the Broadway play made famous: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Even if we learned the full extent of the Holocaust’s harsh and unexpurgated truth, it would be hard to absorb that knowledge—and harder still to retain it in the face of those who would abuse and trivialize it. For showing us how to remember the Holocaust, and how to recognize many of the ways in which its memory is being killed, we owe Alvin Rosenfeld a debt of immense gratitude.

Walter Reich, who holds the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Chair in International Affairs, Ethics, and Human Behavior at George Washington University, is a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a contributing editor of The Wilson Quarterly.

Reviewed: The End of the Holocaust by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 310 pp. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Ted Eytan