In the topsy-turvy post-Holocaust world, genocide never ended and the Holocaust itself became a brand name. Yom HaShoah competed with Yom Kippur for mourners. A museum in Washington, D.C., doubled as a Jewish Mount Rushmore. And Anne Frank was adopted by every culture on earth as a metaphor for adolescence interrupted. Elie Wiesel, a precocious, sensitive boy from a remote region of Transylvania, ended up as a Nobel laureate, a worldwide celebrity, and an honored guest on “Oprah.”
Who would have imagined all that when the death camps were liberated in 1945?
Given the unnatural conditions of Auschwitz and its surreal aftermath, it’s difficult to predict what the next phase of Holocaust memory will look like, or, for that matter, whether the world will ultimately lose its memory, the Holocaust relegated to the dustbin of yet another forgotten history — or, even worse, distorted beyond recognition.
Memory is important, but not only for memory’s sake. It matters just as much what, exactly, is being remembered — indeed, whether it is even worth being remembered.
The tracks that led to Auschwitz were starkly linear and direct; after Auschwitz the post-Holocaust roadway couldn’t have been more circuitous. The trail that led out from hell was impossible to follow. Camps of displaced people replaced the ones built for death. A daring Exodus to Palestine made Jews no longer a mirage in the Middle East. And the diaspora spread quickly throughout the Western world like Chabad on crack. The Jewish undead covered their tracks and kept everyone guessing.
But all that camouflage and shame would, decades later, give way to full disclosure. In time the Holocaust would become hip — bizarrely fashionable, even. “Schindler’s List” — a Holocaust movie about a Nazi named Oskar that walked away with all of the Oscars — was viewed around the world as if it was one of the Ten Commandments. The museum in Washington generated waitlists and lines around the block more common to Disneyland than a place of research and reflection.
Holocaust memoirs become so ubiquitous that some people actually pretended to be survivors, absurdly making up stories about concentration camps and crematoria for the purpose of gaining admission to an exclusive club that no sane person would voluntarily wish to join. And actual survivors who had spent decades honoring an unofficial vow of silence suddenly sat in front of video cameras and shared their oral histories with anyone who had access to a CD-ROM.
And the biggest shocker of all: Germany, the catalyst and centerpiece of evil incarnate, rolled into the next century as Israel’s best and most reliable European ally. The British boycotted Israeli academics, rebuked its ambassadors and longed for the return of Lawrence to Arabia. Germany, meanwhile, went about its business like a wholly owned subsidiary of the Knesset. Survivors who refused German restitution in the 1950s, calling it blood money, must now be very confused.
Who could have imagined all that in 1945?
But today, 65 years later, the Holocaust has lost much of its luster and moral urgency. There are fewer Yom HaShoah commemorations and less overall sanctity. Nowadays 9/11 and global terrorism is how most people measure horror. The Nazis are as threatening as the Huns. Radical Islam with its bombings and beheadings is what animates today’s nightmares; gas chambers, like guillotines, are the torture devices of a bygone era.
The survivor community is dwindling just as their children are easing in and out of middle age. Those who emerged from the camps wretched but indomitable are today, naturally, more fragile. They resemble less a band of brothers armed with tattoos and superior survival instincts than simply a bunch of elderly Jews with aches and pains and quite ordinary causes of death.
At some point in the near future the survivors will be gone. All those slogans and signs — Arbeit Macht Frei and Never Again — will become muddled or, worse, will end up meaning the same thing; a freak accident of history that was always too hard to understand, too difficult to keep the facts straight.
When the gatekeepers and eyewitnesses are gone, will anyone feel guilt about all that amnesia?
The Holocaust already endured its denial. But today there is a new form of historical revisionism, a creepy do-over with Jews no longer portrayed as victims but rather as avengers, bloodthirsty not for the making of matzah but for the satisfaction that comes with revenge.
Quentin Tarantino’s recent film, “Inglourious Basterds,” has Hitler dying in a hail of bullets and fire and his Nazi officers scalped as if audiences had stumbled into the Wild Wild West where Jewish Indians carve swastikas into Nazis rather than get their own arms tattooed. Daniel Goldfarb’s play, “The Retributionists,” featured a postwar plot where Jewish vigilantes poisoned the bread supply in a German prisoner of war camp (if it’s not the matzah it’s got to be the bread) in order to even the score with Germany — “an eye for an eye,” one German for every Jew.
And in Edward Zwick’s “Defiance,” four badass Jewish brothers lead a community of Jewish commandos in the forests of Belarus. In this version of the Holocaust, the Jews return fire onto the Nazis.
Of course, some of these tales of Jewish vengeance were true (the Bielski brothers actually existed, although the fictionalized events depicted in Goldfarb’s play is better and more truthfully told by Rich Cohen in his book, “The Avengers”). Yet, the way most Jews died in the Holocaust seems to now be of lesser interest, neither as compelling nor as poignant as fictional Jews fighting back with singular, vengeful fury. (And why is Hitler consumed by flames preferable to the more cowardly way he actually checked out — by killing himself?)
Surely there were true stories of vengeance. Inside the barracks of liberated camps some Nazi guards who failed to escape ended up receiving a proper victim’s justice. On the streets of Paris many Vichy collaborators were introduced to score-settling French vigilantes. But, for the most part, despite the wish fulfillment of these Hollywood fantasies, there was actually very little Jewish revenge — surprisingly too little, in fact, given the enormity of Jewish death and the comeuppance that the Germans deserved.
For this reason, the world’s recent condemnation of Israel — whether in Gaza or southern Lebanon — in which Israeli self-defense is mischaracterized as unjustified revenge, is especially galling. Jewish vengeance, to the extent it exists, occurs largely on the silver screen and not in the Middle East.
Zionism is not Nazism — neither in ideology nor practice — and the persecuted have not become the persecutors. Hamas surely did not inherit the suffering of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. European Jews never launched rockets into Berlin or blew up pizza shops in Munich and never celebrated the death of German children. And Israel isn’t so traumatized by the past that it suffers from some acute form of transference, displacing its rage against the Nazis onto innocent Palestinians.
The fate of human kind is one of faulty memory. And the post-Holocaust era hasn’t made it easy by undergoing so many incarnations. The aftermath, admittedly, has been confusing. But that’s no reason to remember the Holocaust for the altogether wrong thing. n
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the author of “The Golems of Gotham,” “Second Hand Smoke,” and “Elijah Visible.”