A tragedy tainted by the morose and trivial

Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide - The Holocaust Encyclopaedia
July 19, 2002

For two decades or so after the second world war, the topic of the Holocaust aroused little interest. Since the 1960s it has increasingly become the focus of attention at every level, from scholarly analysis to media trivialisation. A symptom of this continuing interest was a conference held in Oxford and London in 2000, under the title "Remembering for the Future 2000: The Holocaust in an age of genocide". These three very substantial volumes reprint the proceedings of the conference.

Twelve years earlier, in 1988, a conference had also taken place on the same theme: "Remembering for the Future: Jews and Christians during and after the Holocaust". Again three substantial volumes recorded the proceedings. By 2000 some of the future anticipated in 1988 had arrived. What changes had time brought? How did the 2000 conference relate to that of 1988 in terms of content? What stands out is the enormous amount of common ground. This applies particularly to Christian theology and to its teaching in relation to Jews and Judaism, stretching from the period of the Gospels to Luther and beyond. Both conferences were also concerned with the wartime role of the different Christian churches in France, Italy, Greece and Germany, and particularly with the role of the Vatican. Anti-Semitism was a common theme, as was the representation of the Holocaust in art, film and literature, although the second conference showed more interest in the message conveyed by monuments and memorials.

For all the recurrence of major themes, "2000" is far more than the repetition of "1988". A significant difference is the increased attention given to the issue of "Holocaust denial" and the lesser attention given to educational matters. The former is connected with the successful defence mounted by American academic Deborah Lipstadt against the charge of libel brought against her by rightwing historian David Irving. The second conference also makes clear the determination not to be taken unawares by any novel medium for the dissemination of anti-Semitism; thus this volume contains a paper on the use of the internet made by anti-Semites to circulate and inculcate their propaganda. New-style feminism has also been brought into the picture through a piece on "Resistance and gender". There are also various papers on the legal issues involved in the restitution of stolen assets and in the recovery of works of art looted by the Nazis and their sympathisers. At times, one feels, there can be few matters of concern to the contemporary world in which the Holocaust is not somehow involved.

This proliferation of Holocaust-related themes has brought with it two regrettable phenomena, both of which are touched on here. First, more than ever, recent Jewish history is becoming understood in relation to a supposed connection with the Holocaust. How, it is asked, does the former anticipate or prepare for the latter? A critical scrutiny of the past on these lines could indeed be fruitful and rewarding but not if a central concern is with seeking to identify the anticipation of disaster. In such a case, the consequence will be precisely that deplored by late Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits, to breed "a Holocaust mentality of morose dependency among our people, especially our youth". This was the thrust of Jakobovits's contribution to the earlier conference, which he complemented with the admonition that "we exist not in order to prevent our own destruction but to advance our special assignment"; Jews must not emphasise the essentially negative and indeed self-destructive concept of survival for its own sake.

Of course, it might be argued that to survive at all is in itself an achievement and needs no further support. But to extend to the past a concern with present-day suffering is certainly to weaken any desire for continuity with that past. Remembrance, far from creating the pre-supposition of the future, is thus seen to be destroying that very future. Edward Kessler's contribution, "A theology of Jewish-Christian dialogue for the 21st century", aptly points to "the danger... that by focusing solely on the Holocaust Jews and Christians will gain a distorted view. For example, a young Jew will construct a negative Jewish identity which without the positive side of Judaism will not be a value to be handed down over the generations."

The second danger that the proliferation of Holocaust-related themes entails is their distortion and even descent into the trivialisation fostered by commercial motives. In her discussion of "the war against memory" and what has become known as "the nativisation of the Holocaust", Isabel Wollaston makes precisely this point: it is not merely that different national contexts and emphases are increasingly determining the shape and content of memory but that they are succumbing to commercial interests exemplified in the growth of Holocaust tourism, such as trips to Auschwitz or tours of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, or that they are exploited for their entertainment value - the films Escape from Sobibor or Schindler's List , for example. In a deeply perceptive conclusion, Wollaston calls for "quality control" in the representation and commemoration of different versions of a variety of holocausts but not in such a way that plurality will lapse into relativism.

"It is not in our power to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous." This dictum of the 2nd-century rabbi Yardeni (earlier recalled by Norman Solomon) accounts perhaps for the relative absence here of Jewish theologians and in particular attempts at a theodicy. The nearest approach is a presentation by Gershon Greenberg of the writings of the Bratislava rabbi Shlomo Zalman Unsdorfer, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944. But Unsdorfer's attempt to account for the sufferings of the righteous ends in silence. This was "his response to doubt", Greenberg writes, "and this silence became his arena for faith".

In place of the rabbis and theologians, the work of Erich Fromm is drawn on, as a thinker who is unburdened with the need for a theodicy and is "naturalist" in his understanding of modern Jewry. A second such thinker is Hannah Arendt, also a naturalist. There is also reference to the work of Zygmunt Bauman. Their contributions to the understanding of the contemporary world are refreshingly empirical by contrast with that of the theologians, and one would hope that any future conference will take advantage of insights from thought of this nature. For the moment, although Julius Simon's exposition of Arendt's thinking makes a strong case for her understanding of "alienation" as a creative force, it is to Fromm and Bauman that are owed the most comprehensive insights into contemporary, or near-contemporary, socio-political structures.

Fromm's thesis of the "fear of freedom" as characteristic of certain crucial strata in modern society yields not only a key to the psychology of Nazism but also a historical perspective to the emergence of that psychology and, just as much, to the problems born of mass democracy and mass electioneering. Bauman, who is more sociologically oriented than Fromm, is discussed here by Ian Kershaw in the latter's plenary address to the session on genocide. This is a wonderfully balanced assessment. On the one hand, Bauman is lauded for his achievement in locating the Holocaust at the very centre of modernity, with its division of labour, concern for profit margins and productivity, bureaucratic systemisation of records, advanced technology and mechanisms of social control. But this is not the pattern, Kershaw points out, for those other attempted genocides of the 20th century - of the Armenians and the Tutsi in Rwanda, for example. In fact, Kershaw concludes that, looking to the future with an eye on the past, the German model may well prove to have been unique "and the least likely to provide the pattern for future genocide". Its value as a warning will be to that extent diminished.

Perhaps one can go further. As a starting point, consider the statistics in Helen Fein's piece, "Remembering for the present", which lists and documents eight holocausts between 1968-1973. Given their location in Paraguay, Iraq, Burundi, Sudan, Cambodia, they more than bear out Kershaw's argument that it is not necessary to be modern to commit genocide. But do they not also provoke the question: what good has remembering done?

In contrast to the plurality of Remembering for the Future : The Holocaust Encyclopaedia is firmly committed to the Holocaust as a phenomenon affecting Jews. The only exceptions are homosexuals and gypsies. It concentrates on "issues rather than personalities", to quote the editor. The more than 100 contributors, most of whom come from Israel and the US, have collaborated to create a work that will certainly meet the needs of the general public for a straightforward and accessible guide to the complexity of the Holocaust. A bibliographical essay usefully rounds off the individual entries.

Two features mark the work as a whole: let me explain the first in terms of the high degree of controversy that surrounds many of the issues dealt with. Some of these have been widely publicised, in Israel and elsewhere, by way of legal proceedings; a good example would be the Kasztner trial in Jerusalem in 1955. It is a considerable achievement therefore that matters of alleged collaboration or complicity between certain Jewish institutions and individuals and the Nazis are handled with compassion, delicacy and a sense of balance. The same virtues apply to the presentation of the activities of such bodies as the Union Generale des Israelites de France or the Joodsche Raad in Holland or the wartime Zionist leadership in Palestine.

The second distinctive feature is the length of the individual articles and their limited number. One feels that quite a few of the 6 photographs could have been dispensed with in favour of more information. As it is, however, the present disposition gives the work the overall character of a collection of chapters. For example, there are lengthy articles on the individual European countries and their respective policies and attitudes towards Nazism and German conquest. This allocation of material does entail some overlapping and repetition (when, for example, particular phenomena inside a particular country are discussed), but this design makes it possible for a general picture of the Holocaust to emerge. Reference to any further material is generally lacking, a defect only partially made good by the final bibliographical essay. This means that for those readers looking for detailed information, the value of this encyclopaedia is limited, but for those in search of an introductory guide its value is correspondingly enhanced. It stands alone as a wide-ranging, single-volume guide.

Lionel Kochan is an honorary research fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide

Editor - John K. Roth and Elisabeth Maxwell-Meynard
ISBN - 0 333 80486 4 (three volumes)
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £259.00
Pages - 2,976

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