Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Westview PressIs the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide
Alan S. Rosenbaum (editor)
Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Van Pilsum
Minnehaha Academy
Minneapolis, Minnesota


The highly controversial question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust is examined and discussed in this collection of essays edited by Alan Rosenbaum. As written in the foreword by Israel W. Charny, Rosenbaum, “clearly decided to allow all sides of the debate to speak in a wholly uncensored or even uncorrected way.” The contributors deal with this question of uniqueness of the Holocaust and with the definition of genocide itself, by examining other incidents of mass murder such as the destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Armenian genocide of the early 1900’s, the Atlantic slave trade and mass killings in recent years in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

While it may be impossible or even futile to attempt to come to some sort of decision on whether or not the Holocaust or any incident involving the murder of a particular group of people is unique or somehow different from other such incidents, the contributors, nonetheless, stir up a passionate and highly informative discussion on these human tragedies which have occurred and which continue to occur as this is written in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is both fascinating and disturbing to read the wide range of opinions on such a volatile and emotional subject. The reader clearly feels the frustration of some of the contributors such as Ian Hancock, when he claims in his article, "Responses to the Porrajmos: The Romani Holocaust" that, “It is abundantly clear that some historians see only what they want to see, that a very blind eye is being turned in the direction of the Gypsy history, and that where the Romani genocide in Nazi Germany is acknowledged, it is kept, with the fewest of exceptions, carefully separated from the Jewish experience” (page 40).

So many difficult questions arise and the gamut of opinions found in this astonishing and provocative book are a lesson in themselves. One needs to think deeply about the question of human suffering and decide if it is necessary or fitting to attribute uniqueness to the Holocaust. Does one simply say that all incidents of genocide have similarities and differences, yet none of them can be called truly unique? Should any of these dark chapters in human history be seen as the absolute worst possible example of genocide due to the shear numbers or to the tactics used by the murderers against their victims? Is the suffering of one different or more unique than the suffering of another? Can human suffering be compared at all? Perhaps the focus of our study of the Holocaust and other incidents of genocide, should, as Charny believes, “be dedicated to be a beacon of reverence and caring for all human life” (page xiii). 

This book is an important addition to any classroom discussion on human suffering and to any unit dealing with the Holocaust. It promotes deep and critical reflection on the most painful events in recent history. Students gain not only knowledge of the actual events, but also the ability to see varying opinions on such an emotional topic. 

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