Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Admitting the Holocaust
As we begin to settle into the 21st century, survivors of the Holocaust are gradually passing on. Every year, fewer and fewer witnesses are alive to give the next generation first-hand testimony of their experiences. Consequently, Lawrence L. Langer says we will be “shifting from what we know of the event (the history) to how to remember it (in our imagination and what we are prepared to admit there).” In his book, Admitting the Holocaust, Langer wonders how we will do this because he questions whether, after all these years, we have even admitted the Holocaust into our own national consciousness.
Admitting the Holocaust is a compilation of ten essays Langer has written over the last several decades. The essays cover a wide range of Holocaust issues. Essay titles include “The Literature of Auschwitz”, “Ghetto Chronicles: Life at the Brink”, “Memory’s Time: Chronology and Duration in Holocaust Testimonies”, and “The Americanization of the Holocaust on Stage and Screen”.
I found two themes from the book particularly thought provoking. First, Langer asserts that we have basically watered down the Holocaust in literature because we are uncomfortable with the event itself. We cannot understand how “something like that” could have happened. We are threatened with the idea that we live in “a world in which a relatively small number of men caused the death of so many millions while screening their crimes and remaining themselves unpunished and unreported (for the most part, even after their defeat).” It threatens our “mental comfort” because it is a “world deprived of ethical force, one in which power supplants human concern, and indifference to suffering prevails over practical compassion.” Not only does the Holocaust threaten our “mental comfort”; one could argue it challenges the foundations upon which human civilization rests. Since we cannot rationalize such an evil event, we tend to water it down.
Nazi Germany “plunged the world into moral chaos” but yet the study and the language of the Holocaust is designed to “console instead of confront”. We put up “verbal fences” between the atrocities of the Holocaust and what we are willing (or able) to face. For example, with the word, “liberation”, we see relief, celebration, and even for some, closure as we block out reality (the images); and in doing this, we “condemn only the victims to the memory of loss.” Words, then, are used which neutralize the event, distort the event, and even betray reality. There is a difference between death in literature and mass murder by Nazi Germany.
We have a tendency to try to smooth things over and continually look for ways to “cure” rather than “endure” even though Langer asserts “we must confess that the Holocaust was not an illness from which its ‘patients’ could be cured or a trauma from which victims ‘recover’. Alexandra Zapruder, in Salvaged Pages, refers to the “paradigm by which the Holocaust has been presented in America.” For example, many interpretations of young people’s diaries from the Holocaust, she says, “apply…a hopeful veneer, despite the fact…it obscures the irrevocable atrocity of genocide.”
Since we cannot admit the Holocaust into our consciousness, how can we adequately express it in literary terms? To deal with this, Langer turns to testimony from the victims and survivors as a way to make sure the next generation can capture the “thoroughly disruptive impact of that event.” With testimony and diaries (which he believes gives us a better view than retrospective accounts,) we can begin to “interpret various layers of memory through which the event was experienced by its victims and survivors.” (Alexandra Zapruder calls diaries “broken and unfinished fragments from the Holocaust”. She writes, “at best, for the survivors, they are a record of years denied; at worst, for the perished, they are all that is left from a single life that ended in brutality)."
Our “culture of consolation” must be discarded, for it no longer holds truth in the post-Holocaust era. We must look at the Holocaust’s “naked and ugly face” and acknowledge that “man does not (always) rise to his highest level in adversity and does not always make moral choices” - people are not always good. “The power of domination may be a source of ‘natural’ fulfillment or satisfaction as are charity and love for others.”
This leads to the second theme I found interesting. Langer seems to think that we may finally be ready to discard that "culture of consolation." Langer believes as our society becomes more accustomed to violence, “we are ready to deal more frankly with the grotesque and gratuitous atrocities (of the) Germans.”
He cites the film, Schindler’s List as an example of how attitudes are beginning to change. Langer calls the movie a “manageable version” even though he felt it “did not convey the terror or despair” (of the Holocaust) and did not disrupt our “mental comfort”. However, he points out Steven Spielberg did “eliminate the context of normalcy” from the lives of his victims and “created chaos rather than form” (unlike the movie Sophie’s Choice in which William Styron “pushes the violence to the periphery where it disturbs no one)."
The non-fiction film Shoah, which is a comprehensive testimony of the Holocaust by survivors, would probably be the “truth” Langer feels we need to address. Not only is it raw, graphic, and emotional true-life testimonies from those who experienced the Holocaust first-hand; but with these testimonies, it also illustrates the unraveling of the moral and physical world that we have been reluctant to acknowledge but may be ready to do so now.
What will happen when the names of people, places, and events begin to fade into our historical memory as we shift to how to remember the Holocaust? Langer finishes by saying, “every future generation will have to be educated anew in how to face the Holocaust.” We cannot do this with abstract figures like six million people murdered. Instead, he says, we must do it in graphic detail so it will make an “indelible and subversive impression” and keep the Holocaust from slipping into a “footnote” of history.
As a teacher who has taught the Holocaust for over sixteen years, I found this book a little disturbing. It made me question how and what I teach about the Holocaust. I will never know what it was like for victims and survivors, so have I, too, watered down the Holocaust? Have I emphasized “liberation” and “resistance” instead of focusing on those graphic details of survivors that Langer refers to? Have I contributed to certain attitudes towards the Holocaust that Langer says we must be careful of and constantly re-evaluate? (For example, the old idea that Jews were compliant, did not resist, and went like “lambs to the slaughter” thus, somehow, making them responsible for their own deaths).
The book made me think and I know I will approach the classes I teach in the future more carefully and be more aware of words, attitudes, and the message I am sending. But as educators, we must also be careful about how and when to teach the graphic details that Langer asserts we should.
Admitting the Holocaust made me even more aware of the fact that, in the near future, we are going to have the primary responsibility of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. I agree with Lawrence L. Langer when he says we must teach our students that the Holocaust may have been the “central historical moment of our time, perhaps of all time.”