The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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GUARDIAN 01.27.00

Holocaust chic
http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3955346,00.html

There's no business like Shoah business. Now New Labour wants to get in on
the act

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Thursday January 27, 2000

When that not-very-good dramadoc called Holocaust was showing in 1978, a
survey of American high-school children found that many of them believed
"Holocaust" to be a Jewish festival, like Hanukkah or Purim. That bleak
memory comes back with the news that we are to have an annual Holocaust day,
"a day when the country reflects on the terrible and evil deeds in the
world," in the words yesterday of Tony Blair.

This is the latest episode in a strange story: not of that appalling event
itself, but what has become of it since. For more than 10 years after 1945
there was a period of "denial", when the extermination of the European Jews
was undiscussed to a degree which is now hard to believe. Events, notably
the Eichmann trial and Israel's 1967 war, when it was thought that there
would be a second Jewish catastrophe, changed our consciousness. Today, the
Holocaust holds the centre of our attention, with varying consequences. One
was the war crimes bill. One old man has been prosecuted, another escaped to
Australia, and a third who stood accused has just died.

Then there is the increasingly weird libel action at the High Court, in
which David Irving is suing an American historian. Before the last election
the idea of a "Holocaust denial law" was floated with Tony Blair's approval.
Had it become reality, it is possible that writers like (allegedly) Irving
would face criminal prosecution.

Most striking of all is the boom in Holocaust museums. Washington's museum,
where the mechanics of mass-murder are made into what Ian Buruma calls "a
rather-too-pretty shrine", with cattle trucks and victims' shoes tastefully
lit. There are now such museums in hundreds of American cities, all part of
what Peter Novick calls, in the title of his important new book published
next month, The Holocaust in American Life. Another museum is in Berlin, and
there are plans for one in Manchester.

To sceptics, all of this is "the Holocaust industry", or Holocaust chic, or
even "Shoah business" (there's no business like ...). Those are harsh
phrases, but not unjust when one thinks of the worst examples. Ours is an
age when a Taiwan restaurant can decorate its walls with pictures of camp
inmates, and when, at the last Olympics the coach of the French synchronised
swimming team could announce a new routine "inspired by the Holocaust".
What's so curious about Holocaust consciousness is that timelag. To put it
in perspective, imagine that it was the late 1950s, the age rock'n'roll,
"never had it so good", Sputnik and beatniks. And then imagine that, at that
time, there was a hue and cry to prosecute men for crimes committed during
the Boer war. That is the same distance of time as between now and early
1940s, when the great murder took place.

Perhaps there was a case for a memorial day in the immediate shadow of the
murder, but why nearly 60 years' afterwards? There is, one must say,
something painfully Blairite about the idea. It reeks of gesture politics,
form rather than substance, words - "terrible and evil" - rather than
action. Perhaps Blair thinks Holocaust day will be a consolation to those
fleeing tyrannical per secution here and now, who will be denied refuge by
his government's asylum bill.

Some writers on this subject have warned of a possible antisemitic reaction.
If these things - war crimes bill, denial law, holocaust day - were
unarguably just, then calculations about malign side-effects would be
irrelevant. But that is not the case. Nor is it the case that critics of
those laws were racist bigots (or alternatively "self-hating", for the
Jewish critics).

And it is not true, either, that only crypto-antisemites, or timorous
assimilationists, or Trotskyite anti-Zionists, dislike the whole tenor of
"Shoah business". Whatever else Isaiah Berlin was, he was an acutely
conscious, self-affirming Jew and Zionist. And, in the words of his
biographer Michael Ignatieff, "he actively despised the Holocaust industry
and kept his distance from rhetorical invocations his people's horrible=
 fate".

So did Chaim Bermant, the writer and columnist for the Jewish Chronicle, who
died two years ago. He had grown up in a Latvian shtetl, and "could speak
with certainty of 22 members of my own family who were done to death". And
yet he too despised the industry. He disliked the fashion for Holocaust
museums, which gives "a perverse view of Jewish experience, perpetuates
Jewish fears, and has a pernicious effect on Jewish life". He criticised
both the war crimes bill and the proposed denial law, and would have been
contemptuous of Blair's Holocaust day.

So might Primo Levi, the noblest witness of Auschwitz, whose name is often
invoked by toilers in the industry, but who deplored the very word
"Holocaust". He had no illusions that human nature had been changed for
ever, that it would "not happen again", or that his own great books would
rid the world of what Tony Blair mawkishly calls terrible and evil deeds.

"I never like this expression Holocaust," Levi used to say. "It seems to me
inappropriate, it seems to me rhetorical, above all mistaken." That is not a
bad description of Holocaust day.

=95 Geoffrey Wheatcroft's last book, The Controversy of Zion, won an=
 American
National Jewish Book Award



LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - GUARDIAN ON WHEATCROFT

Holocaust day works
http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3955839,00.html
Friday January 28, 2000

Geoffrey Wheatcroft (Holocaust chic, January 27) believes that history has a
"shelf life" and that the Holocaust has outlived its sell-by-date. It is all
very well saying that this whole catastrophe should now be laid to rest;
there have been many attempts but it simply refuses to lie down - and there
are good reasons for this.

There is of course no real "Shoah business", as if those museums and
educational organisations concerned with the events of the Holocaust were
making money - quite the reverse. The impetus for commemoration and study
comes from the genuine historical imperative to record eye-witness accounts
of any event; this is now a race against time.

The government's proposed memorial day would provide an opportunity for
citizens of Europe to focus on historical European events which involve
universal issues affecting every nation and society. Under the proposals,
schools, communities and institutions will be invited to consider the
effects of casual discrimination, blind obedience to authority and the
creation of tyranny. In the light of a great many of the articles elsewhere
in yesterday's Guardian, it is wrong to suggest that we do not need help to
ensure these lessons are learned - at least until people feel it is okay to
forget.

Jane Clements Council of Christians and Jews CCJUK@aol.com

=95 The problem of why the Holocaust looms so large 50 years on, which
Geoffrey Wheatcroft sees as "curious", yields easily to a small amount of
consideration. Many survivor accounts date from recent years, because people
were unable to relive the memory until they had built some kind of normality
and put a generation of work and family between themselves and the
experience of living daily with death. Some who tried to confront their
memories in the three decades following the war, such as the writers Primo
Levi, Paul Celan and Jerzy Kosinski, found themselves trapped in a mental
anguish which led to suicide. Society at large has taken its time to digest
the realities. What is now happening is that the Holocaust is taking its
rightful place in history.

In the meantime, I don't think Geoffrey Wheatcroft and others understandably
embarrassed by the excesses of the Holocaust industry are going through too
much pain.

Gil Elliot London

=95 Would it not be more appropriate for the day to be called national
Holocaust and slavery day? The 2.6m African slaves that British shipowners
transported to the Americas not so long ago, and the continual worldwide
dangers of human abuse and exploitation, might then also be remembered and
acknowledged.

Prof Robin Wilson Puerto Madryn, Argentina ccbpat@infovia.com.ar

=95 No decent person would deny Jews proper commemoration for the Holocaust.
What opponents object to is its use as a symbol of Jewish victimhood and
thus as a justification for Israeli aggression and oppression.

If Jews and Israelis want to heal the wounds of their past let them strive
to properly commemorate the 1948 massacre at the Palestinian village of Deir
Yassin which, along with other coercions, signalled the dispossession and
exile of the Palestinian people.

Paul Eisen London dyr@eisen.demon.co.uk

=95 Am I alone in thinking that the announcement of Holocaust day sits
somewhat uneasily next to the row about letting in "too many" refugees, many
of whom have been persecuted in their homelands?

Noel Longhurst Sheffield


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