Those who forget the past, George Santayana famously said, are doomed to repeat it. But is it possible to go overboard in terms of the history of the Holocaust? On last check, out of the 100 titles on Amazon’s list of bestselling Jewish history books, no fewer than 92 are related to the Shoah. A book on Jewish history, for the vast majority of both Jewish and non-Jewish readers, is a Holocaust book.
Carolyn Starman Hessel is the former director of the Jewish Book Council, which this month announced its annual awards for a wide range of Jewish books, both Holocaust and non-Holocaust related. She has been struck by the tremendous popularity of books on the Holocaust, especially in the young adult category, and she wonders if teenagers, especially non-Jewish ones, will “identify Judaism with the Holocaust and think that that’s the only thing that we write about.” But she doesn’t view the sheer volume of books on the Holocaust as crowding out other kinds of Jewish books.
According to Michael Berenbaum, who served as project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Everyone says that there’s Holocaust fatigue, but then new books come out and the fatigue vanishes.” Groundbreaking books on the Holocaust, like Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth” and Yaron Pasher’s “Holocaust Versus Wehrmacht,” are, he said, being released on an almost weekly basis, making it “impossible for me to keep up with my own field.”
The Holocaust lends itself to compelling narratives, Berenbaum reflected, because “people were facing matters of life and death on a frequent basis.” In addition, the Holocaust was “massively documented” by perpetrators, victims and bystanders alike — indeed, it was chronicled by two groups of people, Jews and Germans, who both, he noted, “believe in the written word.”
For Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, reading about the Holocaust “makes American Jews realize how fortunate they are to be in the United States.” He perceives that our society is, unfortunately, “more focused on the destruction of the Jews than on our creativity” even as the Holocaust itself “occupies a disproportionate space in the cultural productivity of American Jewish writers.” (He also observed that books about war are perennially popular; his new book, “Lincoln and the Jews,” which was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award, is doing especially well, along with his 2012 book on Ulysses S. Grant, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews.”)
Publishers actually often shy away from Holocaust titles. Michele Rubin, a former literary agent and now a freelance editor, said that publishers have for years believed that “Holocaust books are a tough sell” and that they will “sell only to Jews” — who, while they buy books at a higher rate than any other group, are still only a tiny fraction of the book-buying public.
Then again, Rubin said, Holocaust books quite often become so-called “tent pole” books that keep a publishing house afloat — the late Irene Nemirovsky’s posthumous “Suite Française” was one example, as was Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray,” which sparked protests at schools because some administrators and parents confused it with E.L. James’ blockbuster erotic novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Rubin called the Shoah a “cataclysmic, defining event that brings us the haunting lesson that democracies do not just wither and fade, but have to be murdered.” Especially for young adults, she pointed out, the Holocaust “taps into a kind of ‘Hunger Games’ scenario of survival in a world that’s out to destroy you.”
Sally Ann Drucker teaches Holocaust literature at Nassau Community College, where most of her students are not Jewish. “They tell me that they have been through trauma in their own lives,” she said, “and they want to read the literature of survival. They have experienced family break-ups, relatives who died young, illness, economic problems, abuse, emotional issues — these are often the reasons why they have not been able to leave home and go away to college.”
As the Holocaust recedes into the past and as its survivors continue to die out, it may be a good thing that interest in learning about the Shoah is as high, particularly among young people, as ever. Anti-Semitism is resurgent in many parts of the world, and the knowledge of the Holocaust is still shockingly low (a survey in Great Britain in 2004 found that almost half the adult population had never heard of Auschwitz!) But how much of the interest in reading a book about the Holocaust stems from a morbid fascination with death and destruction, and from a desire to view the Jew as victim?
And how many books about the Holocaust is enough?
Ted Merwin teaches religion at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” which just won a National Jewish Book Award.