On Ending the Era of Auschwitz


It was as part of a delegation meeting to discuss the future of the physical grounds and historical narrative of Auschwitz in 1992 that I first encountered the most radical thought about Holocaust remembrance that I had heard in many years. Walking the terrible terrain of Auschwitz with such notable Holocaust scholars as Richard Rubenstein, David Roskies and Alvin Rosenfeld, a Conservative rabbi broached the unspeakable: that instead of preserving and augmenting the Auschwitz site, thus reordering the Auschwitzs museum narrative of the story of Auschwitz – one that traditionally left unmentioned the particularity of Jewish suffering – Jewish leadership should invoke a statue of limitations on the memory of the Holocaust.

I was immediately struck by his proposal, which he whispered to me, nearly inaudible, out of earshot of the other delegates. When I asked for further clarification, he responded that a limitation on mourning was in strict accordance with Jewish law and custom. Like the memory of a loved one who has been lost, commemoration is essential and time-bound. Life goes on within tragedy and, over time, life itself must be prioritized. Death is not to overwhelm life, as is testified to by the traditional Jewish prayer over the dead, a prayer that never mentions death. In the case of a collective tragedy, remembrance must also be limited. Once the mourning period is passed, tragedy is invoked within the religious calendar as part of the larger cycle of Jewish history.

In the case of Auschwitz, the rabbi was clear: let the elements of nature and time reduce the physical state of Auschwitz to its natural terminus. And let Jewish life, in its liturgy, memory and culture, place the Holocaust in perspective. Do not force the remembrance or forgetting of Auschwitz. Let it remain and, over time, become distant. Let it be remembered and fade.

I recalled this incident as I reflected on a course I taught on the Holocaust last spring. The thought became particularly important in light of a re-reading of Emil Fackenheims To Mend the World, a book I required for a course on Jewish philosophy. All of this colored the way I read the much anticipated and controversial thesis of Peter Novick in his book, The Holocaust in American Life.

Reading Fackenheim, a Jewish philosopher born in Germany, who lived his adult life in Canada and is now in retirement in Israel, and Novick, an American-born Jew who is a historian of the Holocaust and director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Chicago, is like encountering two boxers at opposite ends of the ring. Fackenheim, as a philosopher and a theologian, interprets the Holocaust as a novum in history, one that interrupts and permanently alters world history. The horror of the Holocaust is impossible to bypass or transcend, and forever after Jewish identity is centered on the event itself. Remembrance and activity in light of the Holocaust is the only way to address the ontological rupture that the Holocaust represents.

More than Jewish history is at stake here. Christian, indeed world, history has experienced this rupture as well. A mending of this rupture can only take place within the support and solidarity of Jews and others for the empowerment of Jewish life, most completely in the formation and sustenance of the state of Israel. Anyone who doubts this rupture or the healing that Fackenheim proposes deepens the abyss that the Holocaust represents, in effect widens the gap between humanity and evil, even diminishing the possibility of speaking about God after the Holocaust.

Fackenheim is like a hammer on this point, as he devotes hundreds of pages to the rupture we inherit. And he is concerned as well, again in an overwhelming way, with the possibility that the Holocaust will be forgotten or evaded, twisted or trivialized. Hence the overly determined urgency of Jewish empowerment and Fackenheims desire to silence dissent, Jewish and non-Jewish, on the very issues that Novick, as a contemporary historian, finds central. In fact, Novick, in a decidedly non-philosophic and non-theological way, analyzes the Holocaust as instrumentalized by the heirs of the victims. Rather than an ontological issue, Novick sees the representation of the Holocaust as a cluster of ideas and politics mobilized on behalf of Jewish interests, including for the political support of the state of Israel.

Initially, Fackenheim and Novick are on different terrain, so that different references and fields of inquiry are to be expected. Yet the insistence of the arguments belies a fundamental symmetry of argumentation: after Auschwitz, what does it mean to be Jewish?

Fackenheim defines the answer in stark terms: be Jewish, support Israel, trust only in empowerment. Only then may the singular aspect of Jewish existence become clear. Trust only those who support these goals. Venture out only to further these ends. Novick is less bold in his own assertions, at least in the context of Jewish identity. Yet his argument holds a force of its own.

Novick is concerned that the Jewishness he was born within, or at least identifies with, a Jewishness that is aware of itself and seeks to be for others as well, is eclipsed by Holocaust consciousness and a professional class that has the Holocaust as its raison detre. His tracing of the rise of Holocaust consciousness conforms to this understanding. For many reasons, including both a tendency to see World War II as a shared tragedy and a desire to assimilate into a forward looking America, the early years after the war featured little distinctive Jewish speech about what later became known as the Holocaust. The Jewish establishment went along with this understanding and indeed tried to downplay any thought that Jews suffered in a special way during World War II. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, the Eichmann trial in Israel, Israels lightning victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and the rise of identity politics in the United States reoriented Jewish leadership, and ordinary Jews as well, to emphasize the particularity of Jewish suffering over against the suffering of others during the 1930s and 1940s. With that reorientation a new set of Jewish institutions were formed to promote this sensibility, institutions that have helped establish Holocaust consciousness as central to Jewish identity and, in a surprising way, central to American identity as well.

For Novick, unlike Fackenheim, this centrality is suspect. Rather than ontological and obvious, Holocaust consciousness combines deeply held feelings among Jews and is a form of manipulation for other issues that Jewish leadership considers essential. Rather than philosophical or theological reasons, Holocaust consciousness is pragmatic, reinforcing Jewish identity when it is waning on the issues that traditionally held Jews together, seeking to prevent an assimilation threatening to Jewish survival, and demanding uncritical support for an Israeli state that is hardly endangered and, over the years, increasingly controversial. In fact, Novick finds the Jewish community diverse in its sensibilities and is taken aback by the attempt of Jewish leadership to impose a regimented sense of what it means to be Jewish.

While a united Jewish world is presented to the non-Jewish world, internal Jewish politics are rife with dissenting opinions. Novick sees Elie Wiesel, a prime mover in Holocaust consciousness, as increasingly controversial for his evolving and almost Christ-like personae. There are those who want to analyze the Holocaust historically and in context and those who protest against the policies of the state of Israel vis-a-vis Palestinians. Instead of increasing isolation, many Jews feel accepted by the larger non-Jewish community in America, and these Jews seek to enjoy the fruits of American affluence unencumbered by a memory laden with political manipulations. In general, Novick sees the situation of American Jews in conflict with the increasing emphasis on Holocaust consciousness: rather than separate, isolated and threatened, the reality of American Jews is an almost unqualified acceptance and flourishing. That means diversity and dissent can be affirmed.

Fackenheim regards the lessons of the Holocaust as clear and rising to the level of a commandment, his now famous 614th commandment that emphasizes the refusal through weakness or a false sense of security to let Hitler ultimately triumph. Even the lessons of the Holocaust drawn by other Holocaust thinkers or professionals, for example never to be silent in the face of injustice or always to intervene to stop genocide, are for Novick ambiguous. The very thinkers who counsel speaking and acting against injustice during the Nazi era often fail to act in similiar situations today, and the activist tale of interventionist politics continues to be selective and tied to national and communal interest rather than altruism and sacrifice. In the former case, Novick cites the million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust as a warning against silence, but also is aware that millions of children die of hunger each year, the vast majority of which could be prevented. As for the latter case, American intervention against Iraq in the 1990s was decisive, but no action was taken in Cambodia in the 1970s or Rwanda in the 1990s.

Thus the lessons often cited for remembrance of the Holocaust for the non-Jewish world turn out to be lessons of realpolitik rather than a wider morality. In a provocative way, Novick asks whether Holocaust consciousness has, by emphasizing its particularity and extremity, diminished sensitivity to the suffering that can be addressed in the world without an appeal to apocalyptic sensibilities. Novick concludes his book with a warning to his own community. Referring to Emil Fackenheims 614th commandment, Novick writes: “There is a sense in which Emil Fackenheim was right to say that for Jews to forget Hitlers victims would be to grant him a posthumous victory. But it would be an even greater posthumous victory were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience.”

One ends Novicks book with a sense of gratitude for the work he has undertaken and the arena he has willingly entered. Though he is an established scholar at a venerable institution of higher learning, the emotional outbursts that have already greeted this book cannot help but reach him as a person. In some ways, the criticism of tone and manner that pervade this book – alternately critical and acerbic – is part of the struggle that has enveloped Jewish life over the last fifty years. Novick enters this struggle as a partisan, well equipped, to be sure, but no less a target.

Many Jews and non-Jews who read this work will leave Novicks analysis with a series of haunting and unresolved questions. I certainly am in this position. Having spent my entire adult life working on the questions of Holocaust and the future of the Jewish people, they remain for me as for many others. Is there a way back to the Holocaust before its institutionalization and manipulation? Can one ponder with sadness, anger, and reconciliation, the terrible tragedy that befell the Jewish people and indeed the human project in the event now defined as Holocaust? Can one think through the philosophical, theological and historical trajectory of Holocaust consciousness and retain both a fidelity to the dead and a critical spirit of inquiry and affirmation? Is it possible to speak of the Jewish dead as a bridge of solidarity to others who died during that tragic era and those who suffer today, including and especially the Palestinian people?

Novick encourages us to let go of the memory of the Holocaust as an exclusive and all-defining aspect of Jewish existence. He also encourages a deeper probing of Jewish anger and finger-pointing. As individuals and as a people, can we be so sure that we would sacrifice our very lives – and our familys lives – to save others as we so vehemently demand of Christians of the Nazi period? Have we not stood by silently while others have been displaced and cleansed from vast areas of land in what is now Israel? Do we defend the Palestinian right to share Jerusalem, indeed the Palestinian right to be fully integrated in the land of Israel/Palestine as we expected others to have demanded that same right and integration for Jews in twentieth century Europe? Novick calls for an intelligent understanding of the Holocaust and a humility in our accusations. Could that humility forged in suffering and complicity lend a new vibrancy to the Jewish witness in the world?

As Jews, we seem caught between the particularity of Fackenheim and the universality of Novick, between the religious vision of rupture and mending and the secular unmasking of ideology parading as morality. Christians are caught here as well: after attempting to unmask their own ideology where their witness to Jesus the Christ helped lay the groundwork for coercion and mass murder, they are faced with a Jewish leadership, especially in the ecumenical dialogue, that replicates this masking, albeit on a smaller scale and over a shorter period of time. In short as many Christians, in light of the Holocaust, have critiqued and abandoned Constantinian Christianity, Jewish leadership has adopted the vestiges of Constantinianism under the rubric of Holocaust consciousness. Though Novick nowhere uses this terminology, his book explores and is critical of the rise of Constantinian Judaism in the latter half of the twentieth century.

As part of the first generation born after the Holocaust, I have lived through this emerging Constantinianism. It is amazing how far we have traveled in little more than half a century, and the pace has exploded almost exponentially in last two decades. Who would have thought at the end of World War II that Jewish empowerment in America and Israel would emerge as a global force? And who then could have foreseen the alliances made by Jews in America and Israel that secure empowerment or the consequences of those alliances on the moral fate of Jews and the physical fate of populations that interact with the Jewish world? The face of Judaism and Jewish life has changed considerably in this short period and the future, charted by Fackenheim and Novick in different ways, seems bleak. This perhaps is the ultimate irony of this post-Holocaust journey. In a time of security and affluence we have in some significant ways lost our moral compass.

There is still time to right our course. To welcome Palestinians to full partnership in Israel/Palestine and to share Jerusalem as a joint capital of this evolving state could unlock the dynamic of Holocaust consciousness in a new way. Building bridges of solidarity has a way of attracting Jews and non-Jews alike to a religious and secular path that has given so much to the world. A renewed Judaism and Jewishness, one that places mourning in its proper perspective and is critical of its life in the world, can become a home again for many Jews who have left or been forcibly exiled from the Jewish community because of the Constantiniansim that Jewish leadership has embraced. Christians can then resume the reckoning with their history of anti-Jewishness and complicity in the suffering of others, along with Jewish partners who are likewise self-critical. The ecumenical dialogue which over time has become a deal of denial and evasion may blossom once again. The dialogue become deal may become a common witness to the possibility of humanity and a joint exploration of the question of God.

Perhaps in the end, Novicks secular language, couched almost as a plea, points to a deep religious need for Jews. The plea is simply put yet difficult to reach: it is time to end the era of Auschwitz as defining of Jewish life. Ending the era of Auschwitz carries many consequences, not the least of which is the possibility of an inner emptiness, in the loss of the very viability of Jewish belief and life. As I walked the grounds of Auschwitz and listened to the rabbi who called in a gentle and hushed voice for that end, I could not help but experience a void. For that suffering at Auschwitz has left an emptiness that can only be uncovered and explored with a brutal honesty and with a risk that comes when the mask of empowerment and bravado is removed. Novick rightly tells us that Holocaust consciousness is part of this mask as well, and he also points the way beyond it through a critical retrieval of our history, but without defining the destination.

The destination cannot be Israel or America, for they are nation-states with their own agendas and self-interests. And for the majority of Jews, the destination cannot be found outside of these nation-states as if we live outside of history. We as Jews come after the Holocaust, but we also come after the illusory promises of Israel and America. And we cannot find our way alone, only with others who realize that the promises they have been handed are also illusory.

Mr. Marc H. Ellis is University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.