The Uses of Hell

More than fifty years after it took place, the Holocaust seems to have a larger presence than ever in American life. News stories about long-delayed discoveries of Nazi crimes and lawsuits brought by victims and survivors are reported on the front pages of the daily papers. In several states, the teaching of this somber subject is mandated by legislation. Politicians enjoin us to preserve the memory of the tragedy and to heed its message. Directions for observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, have been distributed throughout the American military establishment. Since its opening in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has been the best-attended museum in US history. At the same time, the word “holocaust” is used to refer to such far-flung phenomena as environmental destruction, the availability of abortions, and the oppression of Cubans by Fidel Castro.

How has one of history’s most terrible and complex catastrophes met this strange fate? How has it become both the object of official homage and a shorthand for atrocity? And what are the sources of the American fascination with this essentially European tragedy? These are some of the questions Peter Novick raises, and controversially answers, in his important new book, The Holocaust in American Life.

Of course, the Holocaust was an event of profound importance, whose nature demands our attention and response. But Novick is not the first commentator to be made uneasy by the distinctive preoccupation with that catastrophe in the US. Various observers have from time to time raised doubts about the authenticity of ritualized remembrance and the depth of putative identification with the victims of the Nazi extermination. Others have been disturbed by the disparities between the nature of the event and the kinds of interest it has aroused: the tourism and commercial activity that have grown up around concentration camps, the voyeurism discernible in the widespread popularity of Holocaust imagery, the simplification and vulgarization of Holocaust themes in numerous books and films. Recently, discussion of such questions has become more open, perhaps as the exploitation of Holocaust events has become more flagrant. Several recent books, such as Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler by Tim Cole and The Americanization of the Holocaust, a collection of essays edited by Hilene Flanzbaum, subject various manifestations of the Holocaust cult to close scrutiny.

But in The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick has made the most sustained and challenging criticism yet published of these sensitive matters. His book belongs among the Holocaust studies that concern themselves not with the primary history of that event, but with the character and quality of later reactions to it. Novick’s approach differs in two crucial ways from other inquiries into his subject: first, he emphasizes the political uses and implications of Holocaust memory in America; and second, he recognizes that this memory has by now accumulated its own, heretofore largely ignored, history.

His argument is easily summarized, although its elaboration is highly intricate. The widespread preoccupation with …

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