Peter Novick’s 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life examines in great detail and with great insight — and great skepticism — how the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II came to loom so large in the cultural, social and political life of the United States.
After all, as Novick notes, none of the concentration camps was in this country, and no Jews living in the U.S. during the war were threatened. No Americans took part in the murders although some of the perpetrators moved here after 1945.
It’s easy enough to overlook this reality today when the Holocaust is a major touchstone for American Jews and non-Jews alike, but it hasn’t always been such. There’s been an evolution in the importance of the Holocaust in American consciousness.
It’s an evolution, Novick argues, that’s taken place mainly because of the perceptions and needs of American Jewry. Also important has been the perceived weakness or strength of Israel. And the loosening of ties among U.S. Jews. And the growing importance of the Jewish vote for all politicians.
Initially, American Jews were inhibited from talking about the Holocaust in public. There was a Cold War reason for this. The U.S. saw itself in a black-and-white battle against Communism as embodied in particular in the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics.
The fear was that talk of the Holocaust would remind Americans that the Soviets were the nation’s ally during the war. That wouldn’t be good for American Jews since the Soviet founders and leaders were often identified as being Jewish.
It was also feared that such talk would remind Americans of the unspeakable acts that the Nazis carried out on behalf of Germany. That wouldn’t be good for American Jews since, in the post-war era, West Germany was an essential ally to the U.S. and the West in the battle against Communism.
As a result, Novick writes:
These inhibitions…meant that to a considerable extent the Holocaust was a private, albeit widely shared, Jewish sorrow.
Then, in the 1970s, there was great fear among American Jews about Israel’s ability to withstand the military might of its many enemies. Would the nation that was founded to be a home for Jews be wiped off the map? Would Jews again be victims of another holocaust?
In the wake of the [October, 1973] Yom Kippur War American Jewish leaders were confronted with an agonizing problem, which was summed up by Leonard Fein, editor of the Jewish magazine Moment: “A complex fear has taken hold of us since October of 1973. Its roots lie in our renewed awareness of Jewish vulnerability, now widely perceived as permanent, perhaps even ultimate…”
In other words, Jews might feel comfortable in the United States, but Israel was facing a deadly threat.
The feeling among American Jewish leaders was that a way to counter the dangers faced by Israel and to boost support for Israel by the U.S. government would be to move the Holocaust to the center of the national consciousness.
Another factor came into play as well — the need for a central core of American Jewish identity.
The problem ironically was the waning of anti-Semitism. Many Jews felt so comfortable in U.S. society that they were assuming the cultural identity of Americans. Their ties to Judaism as a faith or even as a culture were fading. This was, Novick writes, frightening for the leaders of American Jewish thought.
Now, increasingly, American Jews came to see themselves as an endangered species, and searched for themes and programs that could promote Jewish solidarity and stem the hemorrhage of assimilation and intermarriage.
The flipside, though, was also true. American Jews might feel comfortable in a nation where anti-Semitism seemed to be disappearing. Yet, the Jews in Germany had felt similarly comfortable.
The result, Novick points out, was the development of a fortress-like mentality among American Jews:
“When I move to a new town,” writes a university teacher, “I give great thought to whom, among my gentile friends, I might entrust my children should that ever become necessary.” A prominent Jewish feminist: “Every conscious Jew longs to ask her or his non-Jewish friends, ‘Would you hide me?’ — and suppressed the question for fear of hearing the sounds of silence.”
The Holocaust, it seemed would always be “a private…Jewish sorrow.” Yet, if it became a national and international sorrow — if it became embraced as a lesson against bigotry and oppression — American Jews might feel safer.
Now the posture adopted by an increasing number of Jewish leaders — and embraced by a substantial segment of American Jewry — was one in which Jews defined themselves by their history of victimization and in which the Holocaust became the central symbol of Jewish identity.
The above summary of The Holocaust in American Life doesn’t do justice to depth and detail of Novick’s analysis and argument.
This book is an important pulling back of the curtain to examine how this particular American cultural manifestation came into being, as a cultural manifestation. Novick has shone a light on many obscure corners of the process. This book is essential to understanding what the Holocaust, as an American idea, means.
Yet, for all the skill and insight that Novick brings to this task, I’m not sure if he doesn’t fall short. I wonder if he is so focused on this process that he misses something broader that was happening.
I must be tentative about this because I am making this suggestion in the face of a magisterial work of historical scholarship.
Near the end of his book, Novick writes about how
the Holocaust became a screen on which people projected a variety of values and anxieties.
Lincoln the man and the idea
When I read that, I thought of Abraham Lincoln. Not Lincoln the person, but Lincoln the idea.
For the past century and a half, Lincoln has been a screen on which Americans have projected a seemingly endless array of political, social and cultural concepts. Both sides of the political spectrum hold him up as speaking for their point of view. He is the ultimate politician. He is the ultimate individualist. He is a man of faith. He is a man of skepticism. And on and on and on.
Lincoln as an idea is put to many uses, and almost all of them have some basis, more or less, in the reality of the man and his acts. None of them fully captures him. But, as Americans, we continue to try to see ourselves and our problems through the screen of Lincoln.
Lincoln the man did exist, and he did take actions, and he was of monumental importance to this nation. That can’t be denied. It is good for us to think about him and what he accomplished, and to think about what he and his ideas mean for us, even if we always want to view him in the context of our modern-day concerns and anxieties.
The Holocaust did happen. Six million Jews and millions of others died.
It is good for us to think about that horror and to try to understand what it means to us.
Novick seems to argue that, because the Holocaust rose as an American cultural manifestation through a wide range of forces, it is less worthy of attention.
I would argue that, regardless of the forces that brought it to such an important place in American thinking, it is a worthwhile subject to ponder, just as Lincoln is a worthwhile subject to think about.
Why, Novick would ask, is it good for us to think about that horror?
Because it is a fact. It did happen. People like us, more or less, were involved as victims and victimizers.
It has meaning. Above and beyond whatever forces pushed the idea into such prominence in our consciousness.
Patrick T. Reardon