Let’s not sentimentalise the Shoah

We need to think carefully about how best to preserve memories of the Holocaust

By Eliane Glaser, December 11, 2008

In September this year, the best-selling crime novelist, Lynda La Plante, was accused of plagiarism after an Australian reader pointed out that passages in her 1993 novel Entwined appeared to have been lifted from a memoir written by the Auschwitz survivor Olga Lengyel in 1947. Stephen Smith, director of the Holocaust Centre, warned that “this is an example of how easy it is to use testimony purely because of its moral power”.

Earlier this year, Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: a Memoire of the Holocaust Years (an account of how a Jewish girl walked across Europe during the Second World War, hiding for a time with a pack of wolves) admitted that her story was false. First published in 1997, the book has been a tremendous commercial success: translated into 18 languages, made into a film in France and providing the inspiration for an Italian opera.

A spokeswoman for Véra Belmont, the French film director who adapted Misha, said: “No matter if it’s true or not… it’s a beautiful story.”

Her statement reminded me of the reaction by Deborah Lipstadt, the American historian sued for libel by David Irving, to suspicions, later substantiated, that Fragments by Binjamin Wilkomirski was a fake.

Lipstadt wrote in Forward magazine that, in the event of Wilkormirski’s memoir being untrue, it “might complicate matters somewhat, but [the work] is still powerful”.

How extraordinary that these allegations of faked and stolen Holocaust memoirs can provoke such different reactions: in some quarters outrage; in others equanimity. To me, this is a tell-tale sign of a deeper confusion surrounding the way we respond to the Holocaust.

On the one hand, there is the exhaustive cataloguing of the individual stories of victims and survivors. The World Jewish Congress, funded in part by Random House in the US, is running a Holocaust Memoirs Project to help publish survivor testimonies. “I want eventually to establish a principle that every manuscript should be published,” Elie Wiesel, the founder of the project, has said. Steven Spielberg and Yale University have between them videotaped over 50,000 testimonies. As the last generation of survivors dies out, we are encouraged to regard each particular testimony with something approaching religious worship.

On the other hand, there is a move from the unique to the universal: an attempt to learn lessons from the Holocaust that apply to us all; about survival, progress and tolerance. The ostensibly opposing statements of Smith and Lipstadt both regard Holocaust testimony in terms of moral and emotional “power”.

Both of these trends veer towards the anti-intellectual and the sentimental, privileging personal stories and transcendent “messages” over historical facts. James Ingo Freed, the architect of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, has said: “I don’t believe that you could ever understand the Holocaust with the mind. You have to feel it.” Holocaust museums and memorials have embraced wholesale the interactive style of curating, where visitors are encouraged to experience “what it was like” to be imprisoned in a concentration camp; or, in the case of Simon Wiesenthal’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, to walk through the museum’s “Tolerancenter”, to encounter a series of such “hands-on” exhibits as “It’s So Easy to Misjudge” and “Me… A Bigot?”

In short, we have made the Holocaust all about us. Yet we avoid looking too closely at the nature of our engagement, shrouded as it is in taboos, contradictions and unexplored psychological motivations. Instead of taking a good look at these, we simply increase the amount of commemoration.

In January, BBC1 will show a new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. The same month will see the opening of Defiance, a film starring Daniel Craig, and based on the true story of Tuvia Bielski, who led 1,230 Jews through the Belarussian forest after escaping Nazi-occupied Poland. Dozens of concentration camp memoirs are published every year; and the teaching of the Holocaust is enshrined in the school curriculum. In 2011, a new Museum of the History of Polish Jews will open on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.

The rationale for all of this appears to be self-evident, summed up in the ubiquitous cry: “Never again!” But Holocaust museums are torn between portraying Auschwitz as absolute horror, impossible to apprehend, and using Auschwitz to warn of escalation in conflict situations around the world. The museums also serve as an unwitting reminder that no amount of Holocaust education has prevented genocides from occurring in Rwanda, Darfur, Turkey, Srebrenica or Cambodia.

This lack of coherence suggests that it is not so much duty that compels us to remember the Holocaust, but desire. The further we are from Nazi-occupied Europe, as second, third, and fourth-generation survivors, and as those who have no real connection with it, the more we feel ourselves drawn towards it. As the American scholar Gary Weissman puts it in Fantasies of Witnessing, the Holocaust “does not threaten to overwhelm us with its horror; rather, it threatens to seem distant, remote, unreal”. Holocaust museums have been criticised for their resemblance to macabre theme-parks; but this is about more than the risk of entertainment. It is about a vicarious need to experience authentic suffering, to feel the pain of the victims at first hand.

This may seem counter-intuitive but is unsurprising in a culture that values victimhood as a mark of status. The success of “misery memoirs” (and the impulse to fake them) is evidence of that. Sadly, the more we put the victims on a pedestal, the more the deniers try to knock them down. In order to avoid these unintended consequences, we need to understand better our reasons for memorialising the Holocaust and the manner in which we do it. Let us approach Holocaust Memorial Day next month with our heads, as well as our hearts.

Eliane Glaser is a journalist, historian and author of Judaism Without Jews

Last updated: 11:42am, December 11 2008