In a Universe of Ghosts

New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America

by Dorothy Rabinowitz
Knopf, 242 pp., $8.95

One splendid evening last July I was sitting in a tourist-ridden outdoor café in Florence, talking with a friend about the recent Entebbe rescue. At the next table sat a wiry, middle-aged American woman nervously smoking Gitanes and nursing a bright red drink. Apologizing for having overheard our conversation, she asked if she could join us, pleading loneliness for the company of “literary New York Jewish intellectuals.” At once she began to talk about herself, in a random and defensive way, as if to assure us that her life had not been nearly so mismanaged as her worn features might imply, and her account had an unsuspected charm. (“I once had a mother-in-law, and her son, not the one that I knew….”)

But there were other things on her mind. She wanted to talk about Auschwitz. She remembered a review which Irving Howe had written of Lucy Dawidowicz’s book, The War Against the Jews, whose title just then eluded her—it was soon clear that what culture and opinions this woman possessed were derived from the pages of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. But she couldn’t recall a thing Howe had said. Had I seen it? And so began a rather macabre conversation.

I tried to change the subject; it wasn’t exactly my idea of a casual chat, and I had anyway come to Florence to consider Massaccio, not Maidanek. But she would not be deterred. Weren’t all those pictures of the concentration camps awful? How could it have happened, and what did it mean? I said that I wasn’t sure. Had six million Jews really perished in the camps? Only four million had, I replied, and the other two million in local massacres and from starvation. We ate sandwiches. Did I know any survivors? I did. How had they survived? I told her that that was a long story. But she wasn’t interested in a long story. She wanted to know if I had an answer and, in the same breath, if I had a match. She mumbled something about Seven Beauties and was silent. The waiter brought our check. Then she smiled, with that delusive look of achievement which comes over a face after an edifying therapy session. “I think it’s wonderful, you know,” she said. “Just wonderful.”

What was wonderful—so I presumed—was that even on a summer day in Italy, amid the frescoes and the Fiats, Jews could still come together to wrestle with the great tragedy of their people. Of course she was right. We had inherited the same problem. And it was surely a wonder—if that is the word—that the extermination of the Jews of Europe has not been forgotten, and is not likely to be.

Still I was disheartened. A pilgrim to Florence, she was no more than a tourist to Auschwitz. Her talk of it had been so convivial, so alarmingly free of struggle. She cared nothing for history. The camps were for her a means for organizing her own personality,…

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