Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Houghton MifflinThe Holocaust in American Life
Peter Novick
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999

Reviewed by:
Daniel Penner

Atherton High School
Louisville, Kentucky


To a Holocaust educator, Novick's book was significant in two different areas. One was its history of how the Holocaust evolved into American culture. The second led me to question the importance of teaching the Holocaust in an American school.

Between 1945-1961, the Holocaust was almost a hidden subject. Why? Novick gives three explanations. American survivors resisted bringing attention to their experiences in order to be more patriotic. Also, they were encouraged to look to the future and rebuild their lives. The third factor was the impact of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and Communism were America's enemies, not Germany and Nazism. 

So, starting in 1961, what brought the Holocaust to the attention of the American public? 1961 was the year of the Eichmann trial, an event that received international coverage. Support for Israel as a safe place for Jewish people was inspired by the Six Day War in 1967 and renewed in 1973 by the Yom Kippur War. In 1978, the NBC series "Holocaust" attracted 100 million viewers. In the years following, we saw movies such as "Schindler's List" and "Life is Beautiful" appear. Holocaust museums opened in Tampa, Los Angeles and Houston. The Holocaust was now widely accepted and a popular topic in our culture. 

The core of Novick's book dealt with his explanations of why the Holocaust became so important to the American Jew. I am Jewish. Was the awakening tied to the fear for the survival of Judaism in the United States? Was it to encourage support for Israel? To fight anti-Semitism? To unite American Jewry? 

These questions caused me to question my dedication to prepare and teach the Holocaust. Did it merit its place in the school curriculum? Had I overemphasized the content and lessons of the Holocaust? Thankfully, my conclusion was that my class does deserve its place in a high school curriculum. While I did agree in part with Novick, the responses and feedback from my students over the past six years convince me that my class is relevant and important. And, as world events constantly show, the memories and the lessons of the Holocaust need to keep its place in American education. 

Novick's book was both informative and thought provoking, two factors that make a book worth reading. Perhaps it has a limited audience. I believe, however, that educators should find reading The Holocaust in American Life to be worthwhile.


Return to Museum Fellowship Teaching Resources