The Holocaust has long loomed large in the American imagination, but in recent years it has come to seem ubiquitous, with Holocaust-related symbols and slogans infiltrating political discourse, flooding social media, and even spilling over into the streets. Politicians, provocateurs, and protesters of various kinds have cast themselves as Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. President Trump’s disgraced national security adviser Mike Flynn claimed last year that Republicans were being marched to “death camps.” Opponents of vaccine and mask mandates have sported yellow Stars of David. And then there are those who admire and identify with the Nazis directly. Marchers in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, displayed swastika flags and pins and threatened Jews. A participant in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol wore a sweatshirt emblazoned “Camp Auschwitz.”
The Shoah is an equally prominent presence in cultural life. Thoughtful new explorations of the topic from the likes of Ken Burns and Tom Stoppard have recently premiered on television, on Broadway and off; books about the Holocaust and/or the Nazis regularly dominate Amazon’s “Best Sellers in Jewish History” list. The point of telling these disturbing stories of brutality, suffering, and sacrifice at this time when the last Holocaust survivors are dying is to sear the evils of anti-Semitism into our collective awareness and thereby combat bigotry and hate. Though a number of Jewish scholars have decried “Holocaust consciousness,” as it has been dubbed, for (among other things) making victimization the core of Jewish identity or discounting other histories of oppression, most American Jews and educators regard almost any project that enhances awareness of the Holocaust as a worthy enterprise, to be lauded by all who value tolerance or morality.1
Dara Horn is having none of it. In her provocative recent book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, Horn takes direct aim at the outsize role allotted the Holocaust in the US. But her worry is not that America’s fascination with the Holocaust overemphasizes Jews’ persecution. Rather, she charges, public interest in past Jewish suffering amounts to little more than “gaslighting,” making Jews think that people care about them, when in actuality decrying the Holocaust serves to make non-Jews feel better about themselves while concealing a widespread indifference to Jewish history and lives. At the same time, Horn fears that repeatedly invoking the slaughtered six million raises the bar impossibly high, allowing for the dismissal of less sensational forms of anti-Semitism and obscuring real and present dangers to Jews.
Recent events would seem to bear out Horn’s bleak vision. People Love Dead Jews was published after several deadly attacks on Jewish institutions and gatherings in the US—in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, and elsewhere—which have left many American Jews shaken and fearful. In the book’s twelve essays, three of which respond to these attacks, the phrase “dead Jews” serves to tie together a series of loosely related topics. The result is at once a biting critique of the insipid pieties and comforting morals of many Holocaust-themed novels, children’s books, exhibitions, and films; an acerbic assessment of the Jewish heritage industry; and an angry condemnation of anti-Semitism past and present. Most of all it is a personal cri de coeur, expressing Horn’s anguish at living and raising children in a country that once felt safe to her but no longer does, and disillusionment with a world that doesn’t seem to care. The emotion is raw, the stories are vivid, and the language glistens with vigor and clarity.
But there is reason to pause before accepting the premise that “people [many, most, all?] love dead Jews.” Horn’s unifying thread is a delicate one: repeating the mantra “dead Jews” makes for powerful prose, but much is lost by grouping under one rubric the experiences of many different people, across many regions and years. Horn displays a regrettable tendency to confuse analyzing the causes of anti-Semitism with excusing anti-Semitism; she apparently finds relief in abandoning inquiry and simply concluding that “hating Jews [is] normal.” She is indiscriminate in her accusations—“people,” “scholars,” and “Western civilization” are frequent targets of her ire. Moreover, Horn’s conception of Jewish history is freighted with pieties of its own, and her notion of Jewish identity is troublingly narrow. One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that her concern for Jews, living or dead, is strangely selective, with her sympathies largely reserved for those who share precisely her passions and her pain.
Chapter 1, “Everyone’s (Second) Favorite Dead Jew,” takes on the most prominent manifestation of a common Holocaust piety: the extraction of uplifting lessons (preferably universal ones) out of the Shoah’s dreadful depths. The Jew in question is Anne Frank, whose diary has been published in more than seventy languages and who is widely revered for her declaration, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”2
Horn reads society’s transmutation of a murdered girl into a beacon of hope as a search for absolution, an attempt to purge civilization of culpability in her murder. The Christian overtones of Horn’s analysis (foreshadowed in the chapter’s title) are not coincidental. Noting that references to Jewish practice were excised from the original published version of Anne’s diary (passages since restored), Horn argues that her popularity rests on draining her of Jewishness. Horn’s response is to extricate Anne from the shroud of generic, sanctified innocence in which she has been enveloped, taking her seriously as an intellect and writer while conceding that her perspective was limited by her youth. She offers a close reading of the diary, highlighting Anne’s ambition, self-consciousness, and critical acuity.
Most strikingly, Horn allows her to grow up. In an imagined obituary for an Anne who survived and lived to the age of ninety-two, Horn sketches a vivid portrait of an avenging journalist, essayist, and novelist, a “clear-eyed prophet carefully attuned to hypocrisy,” who rewrote her diary as a book called Every House Behind, described as a “searing and accusatory” exposé of the “demonic evil” concealed behind the façade of “Western civilization.” Horn closes the chapter by sharing an all-too-real counterpart to Anne’s invented exposé: an utterly harrowing firsthand account, originally written in Yiddish, by a young Auschwitz inmate forced to work as a Sonderkommando. He did not survive. His story provides neither hope nor absolution, and for that very reason, Horn suggests, remains almost entirely unknown.
Horn’s indictment of the sentimentalizing and universalizing of The Diary of a Young Girl is fierce and cogent. But the percipience she brings to Anne’s story is less evident in the book’s other major critique of Holocaust consciousness. Chapter 10, “Blockbuster Dead Jews,” recounts Horn’s visit to a sprawling and hugely popular traveling exhibition called “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.” Though she is uncomfortable with its for-profit nature,3 she finds no fault with its content, conceding that it is learned and accurate and pays due attention to Jews’ religion and culture, to the historical context, to bystanders’ complicity, and to the world’s apathy. (She is funny about the exhibition’s comprehensiveness: after barely reaching Kristallnacht ninety minutes into her visit, she found herself thinking, “What the hell is taking so long?”) When Horn finally reaches the last display, however, a video in which survivors urge humans to love one another, she is disgusted. “That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love…is entirely objectionable,” she writes.
One can see her point: to collapse the Holocaust into a bromide seems obscene. But there is reason to pause before excoriating the exhibition for a video speaking about love when the speakers are Holocaust survivors. We might well wonder how or why they chose to react to their trauma by embracing love; we might perhaps suspect a degree of denial. But Horn shows no interest in understanding their experiences or choices. Instead she informs us that Yiddish survivor literature never mentions love, implying that the exhibition’s English-language testimonies are somehow less genuine. Horn, an imaginative and empathetic novelist, is able to create a convincing image of a grown-up, angry, avenging Anne Frank (an image, it might be noted, that bears a striking likeness to Horn herself). But when faced with those who, however incomprehensibly, have rejected the way of anger, her imagination and empathy fail her.
Horn’s anger is powered by the recent anti-Semitic attacks in Pittsburgh; Jersey City; Poway, California; and Monsey, New York, addressed in three chapters titled “Dead American Jews.” These episodes, one of which was close to Horn’s home in suburban New Jersey, evoke some of her most immediate and forceful prose. It is impossible not to be moved by her grief at the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pennsylvania, a grief shared by millions of Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike. When discussing the 2019 attack on a synagogue in Poway, Horn offers insight as well, explaining that “antisemitism is at heart a conspiracy theory,” one appeal of which is to “absolve their believers of accountability” (presumably for the problems they are blaming on Jews).
A natural sequel to this astute observation might be to ask: Why are such conspiracy theories exploding again just now? Many experts—such as Jewish studies scholar Joshua Shanes, sociologist Armin Langer, anthropologist Sarah Kendzior, journalist Jonathan Weisman, and political scientists Russell Muirhead, Nancy Rosenblum, and Daniel Goldhagen—are asking just that, exploring possible links between rising anti-Semitism and destabilizing trends such as globalization, deindustrialization, demographic change, and the impact of new technologies.
But Horn spurns any attempt to answer the question and implies that even posing it is to deny the very anti-Semitism it interrogates.4 She labels media coverage of two stabbing attacks in Monsey in 2019 as “gaslighting” for mentioning local tensions between Hasidic and non-Hasidic school board members. Because the perpetrator of the second and more deadly attack lived forty minutes away and was not personally involved in the disputes, Horn insists, the school board is irrelevant; citing the disputes edges into victim-blaming. Yet it is perilously myopic not to ask what discourses or conditions may provoke a man unaffected by local disputes to drive some distance to murder total strangers—not because the disputes are the “cause of bloodthirsty antisemitic violence” or because the murderer’s victims bear any blame for his hatred, but because only by understanding the overall dynamic by which hatred erupts into violence can we arrest it. It is just such understanding that Horn precludes when she rejects “tedious and self-serving explanations” for the resurgence of anti-Semitism in favor of the conclusion that “hating Jews was normal.”
This same mixture of insight, eloquence, and myopia runs throughout the book. Chapter 2, “Frozen Jews,” discusses the Jewish heritage industry in the form of the recently opened museum commemorating the prosperous but short-lived Jewish community of Harbin, Manchuria (founded in 1898 and largely gone by the 1960s). Horn acknowledges that much goodwill motivated the creation of the New Synagogue Jewish Museum there. But she also tartly notes its self-serving nature (like so many Jewish heritage sites, it aims to attract Jewish tourists, seeking to capitalize on the perceived wealth for which Jews historically have been excoriated) and blatant stereotyping (a gallery lauding Harbin’s economic miracles assumes that Jews are rich and money-oriented). She trenchantly points out a conspicuous hole at the museum’s heart: nowhere does it explain why the community disappeared.
Horn does tell us, sharing individual Jewish stories of exodus set against the chaotic backdrop of 1930s and 1940s Manchuria: a mine owner sent to a Soviet gulag; a teenager setting off alone to join a schoolmate in Paris, hoping for a more promising future; a grandfather kidnapped and tortured by Japanese occupiers. Others departed for Palestine, Australia, or America; some still lament assets seized by the Maoist government. Though these individuals and the roughly 20,000 other Harbin Jews who left the city over the course of three decades uprooted their lives for many different reasons and in various circumstances, Horn suggests that anti-Semitism underlies all of their departures.
But in doing so she again brushes off Jews’ own understanding of their experiences. Horn writes with palpable condescension and mockery of the Harbin Jews who used to meet in Tel Aviv every week to “play mah-jongg, drink tea, and reminisce about the wonders of Harbin.” When one former Harbin resident, now living in Israel, insists that the Chinese treated his family well and denies that Jews suffered disproportionately from Japanese crimes, Horn seems to regard him as a victim of Stockholm syndrome. She does not mention that Chinese Manchurians also suffered severely throughout the Japanese occupation or that Communists confiscated non-Jewish property too, preferring to weave the Harbin Jews’ migration stories, with their varied motivations and destinations, into a single tapestry of anti-Semitism. This is an all-too-common approach in Jewish history, but it is an ahistorical one. To erect anti-Semitic persecution as the sole Jewish experience submerges significant swaths of Jewish history and ignores the fact that many Jews over the centuries did live out the natural lengths of their lives in the places where they were born, unaffected by persecution, and that many others ventured far from home not in fear of death but in search of a better life.
Chapter 5, “Fictional Dead Jews,” pairs a withering takedown of the American taste for feel-good, redemptive Holocaust novels (Horn cites The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Sarah’s Key, The Book Thief, and The Boy in Striped Pajamas as examples) with an appreciative discussion of Chava Rosenfarb’s The Tree of Life, a Yiddish trilogy about the Łódź Ghetto, presented as “a more honest way to write fiction about atrocity.” Horn, who has a Ph.D. in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, points out that an influential chapter in a book by Frank Kermode on the religious nature of literary “endings” unconsciously equates “religion” with Christianity. This is illuminating, but then she posits an artificial binary, wherein “Western literature” seeks resolution and “Jewish literature” (by which she means works in Yiddish and Hebrew, though of course Jews write in other languages) resists it. Horn cites the long-suffering title character from Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman as an exemplar of a peculiarly Yiddish resistance to revelation and recognition of the senselessness of the world. Yet Tevye’s pragmatic resilience is not so far removed from that of Voltaire’s Candide, and Horn ignores many other works of Western, especially modern, literature that eschew closure and offer no “grace.”
Chapter 6, “Legends of Dead Jews,” debunks several heartening tales that Jews tell themselves about their own ancestors and origins. Horn became aware of the power of such mythmaking when she provoked a firestorm at a public talk by refuting the notion cherished by American Jews that simplified or Anglicized Jewish surnames can be attributed to clerical error at Ellis Island. She draws on a fine scholarly book that definitively proved that no names were changed at Ellis; they were changed by legal petition between 1920 and 1960.5 Yet many in Horn’s audience indignantly insisted that their own family names were indeed changed at Ellis Island. She compares this “founding legend” with a medieval tale tracing Spanish Talmudic learning back to a captive Babylonian rabbi ransomed by Spanish Jews and an early modern legend claiming that Jews gave Poland its name. Each of these tales, she argues, masks a fear that Jews were not welcome in their home countries by creating a “fantasy of total acceptance” and suppressing the reality of anti-Semitism.
The ostensible need to “believe your own lies” about the absence of anti-Semitism is, Horn claims, apparent in the post–Ellis Island name-change petitions, which almost never mention anti-Semitism as a reason for the change; Horn sees this as a signal of psychological denial or of barely buried discomfort. Perhaps. It also may reflect a strategic choice.6 Whatever the cause, Horn finds the petitions’ silence about anti-Semitism “heartbreaking.” But she judges the petitioners harshly. Such self-censoring amounts to a “debasing act of succumbing to discrimination instead of fighting it,” she writes, and deems the name-changers to have “participated in the very humiliation that they were seeking to escape.”
Again, perhaps. Some may well have felt humiliated. Yet it is worth noting that the names Jews surrendered, which according to Horn embodied “the very essence of who you are,” were of relatively recent origin. Eastern and Central European Jews only assumed surnames in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Austrian, Prussian, and Russian laws required them to do so. American Jews may or may not have “fear[ed]…being cut off from that chain going back to Mount Sinai,” as Horn suggests, but names like Rosenberg, Greenberg, and Lefkowitz were surely not essential links in that chain. Isn’t it possible that Jews fleeing persecution and pogroms might have felt little attachment to names imposed by the very governments that had persecuted them, derived from towns and landscapes from which they had fled? That they might bear the name Rose no less proudly than Rosenberg?
Given Horn’s critique of Holocaust novels that romanticize Gentile rescuers, it is somewhat surprising to encounter just such a protagonist in chapter 8, “On Rescuing Jews and Others.” And an intriguing figure he is. Making use of his memoirs, two recent biographies, discussions with a documentary filmmaker, and her own archival research, Horn narrates the risky mission and troubled life of Varian Fry, a young Harvard graduate sent to France in 1940 by the Emergency Rescue Committee to help Jewish intellectuals and artists escape to America.7 Horn’s primary interest is in understanding what made Fry do this when so many others failed to help. Elements of the chapter are remarkably thoughtful, particularly passages in which Horn attempts to enter into Fry’s feelings, muses on the nature of righteousness, and empathizes with his postwar professional and personal struggles. (He had difficulty keeping a job, and both his marriages ended in divorce.)
She is strangely scathing, however, when it comes to the refugees he aided. Horn is not the first writer to find it impossible to like Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer and wife of the Jewish novelist Franz Werfel. Alma was by most accounts a difficult and unpleasant woman. But to write that she “embark[ed] on a lifetime of screwing over brilliant Jewish men” is weirdly misogynistic. Alma was seventeen when she had her first affair, with a thirty-five-year-old (non-Jewish) man; when she was twenty-one she became involved with her Jewish music teacher, who was eight years her senior. It is jarring in this moment of heightened attention to the importance of power in sexual relationships to see a young woman cast as a controlling, predatory aggressor.
Horn is equally harsh toward Werfel. Describing the couple’s first meeting with Fry in Marseille, she snidely notes that Werfel wore “a bathrobe and slippers—because really, why bother getting dressed for the person offering to save your life?” This detail is drawn from Fry’s own memoir, but the imputation of disrespect is Horn’s alone. Fry describes a decorous and very anxious Werfel, wearing a “silk dressing gown,” which conveys quite a different impression. Horn’s general lack of sympathy for refugees who had just arrived in a strange city after fleeing their homes, and were surely traumatized and terrified, is striking and perplexing.
The reason, however, soon becomes clear. Fry’s story serves Horn as a vehicle for condemning “secular Western culture.” For it turns out that Horn holds the European elite civilization (whether Jewish or Gentile) that Fry so loved responsible for the Holocaust, or at least for allowing the Holocaust to happen. A parade of unsavory characters—the Werfels, a Harvard-educated Nazi whom Fry meets, the committee that cared only for intellectuals and abandoned non-elite Jews, the world that cared not at all—all stand, in Horn’s narrative, for a “Western education” that cannot teach goodness because it doesn’t seek to provide “moral education.” (That might have been news to Socrates, Kant, Wollstonecraft, and Mill, among others.)
Horn deepens her censure of an unrighteous world by lamenting that “no rescue committee was convened” to save “the many people who devoted their lives and careers to…the actual study of righteousness”: Orthodox Jews. In fact, there was just such a committee. The Vaad ha-Hatzalah was created in 1939 by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis to rescue European rabbis and yeshiva students. This is not to gainsay Horn’s main point: the world was indeed horrifically indifferent to Jewish suffering and death. But it does highlight her overwhelming need to regard observant Jews as alone and forsaken, set apart in suffering. This need is so pressing that she makes the righteous Fry an honorary member of the Jewish religious leadership, dubbing him an “Ezekiel,” akin to, and as persecuted (by his ungrateful Jewish beneficiaries, his inflexible employers, and an unappreciative nation), as “Europe’s greatest prophets,” by which she means righteous people—presumably traditional Orthodox Jews.
Horn’s tendency to define Jewish culture in narrow terms and to limit the parameters of her empathy accordingly is evidenced most starkly in chapter 4, “Executed Jews,” which relates the poignant history of the actor-director Benjamin Zuskin, one of the Yiddish-speaking writers and artists who embraced the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, only to be viciously turned on in Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. Zuskin’s story is fascinating, and Horn writes movingly about his life and work. But even as she shines a light on his tragic fate and that of his colleagues, she creates a Manichaean version of Jewish history. There are two types of anti-Semites, she says: the “Purim” kind who, on the model of the biblical villain Haman in the Book of Esther, seek to kill Jews, and the “Hanukkah” kind who, like the Hellenistic ruler who allegedly banned circumcision and ordered that pigs be sacrificed in the Jewish temple, aim to eradicate Jewish civilization through conformity.
Jewish society is likewise binary: all Jews are apparently either “cool” (assimilated/secular) or “uncool” (traditional/observant). “Cool Jews,” those eager to conform, are the willing agents of Hanukkah-style anti-Semitism. They are exemplified by the Hellenized Jewish athletes who, in order to compete in public games and appease their oppressive Greek king, were said to have “de-Jewed” their own bodies by having foreskins sewn onto the tips of their circumcised penises. Horn suggests these Hellenized Jews have numerous (though unidentified) modern heirs: Jews “willing to become cool,” who in their openness to the surrounding culture “flush thousands of years of Jewish civilization down the toilet in exchange for the worthy prize of not being treated like dirt.” The Yiddish writers who put their art in the service of Soviet socialism were likewise, in Horn’s schema, “cool Jews” who were “played for fools” and “stripped of their integrity.”
It is hard to know what to make of this recasting of Jewish history as high school drama. One might start by adding shades of gray to the black and white. Horn’s Hanukkah story, which pits assimilated, Hellenized, faithless collaborators against traditionalist Jewish rebels, is based on a nineteenth-century work and is no longer accepted. Scholars no longer see the Maccabean revolt as a conflict between assimilationist and “faithful” Jews and recognize that both the (presumably “uncool”) heroes of Hanukkah and their Jewish rivals absorbed and expressed themselves through Hellenistic culture. Horn’s “thousands of years of Jewish civilization,” which “cool Jews” flush down the toilet, is a phrase with little clear meaning. Jewish culture and practice have always varied greatly from place to place; considerable continuity has been balanced by much change over time. Customs are added and discarded; one generation’s assimilation morphs into the traditions of the next. Certainly in some communities and periods Jewishness was a simple matter of yes or no, in or out. But for much of Jewish history boundaries have not been so clear-cut, and communities, or sometimes even individuals, have defined for themselves the meaning of “Jewish identity” and “Jewish civilization.”
The problem with People Love Dead Jews is not that Horn gets some minor facts wrong, or that she writes from a personal and particular point of view; this is a book of essays, not a work of history, and essayists are allowed their preferences and partialities. The problem is that this eloquent exponent of Jewish life and culture presents a selective picture of Jewishness, cropping a rich, messy, diverse, and complex history so as to fit into a reduced and tightly focused frame. Everything outside it—all those who fail to share Horn’s vision of what Jews should do and be and care about, or those who prefer analysis to outrage—is relegated to the cutting-room floor.
In the last chapter Horn escapes the weight of an anti-Semitic world by immersing herself in the Talmud: the closing sentence describes the solace she finds in the collective study exercise, now open to women and conducted in English and online, called the Daf Yomi (page of the day), the balm provided by “fellow readers living and dead, all turning the pages with me.” It is a lovely, lyrical passage. No one could begrudge Horn the comfort the exercise provides. But the image of Jewish community it models—unified and synchronized—is an artificial and illusory one. Jewish life has rarely advanced in such choreographed conformity. It has always encompassed diversity and argument, variety and change, and included those who prefer to choose their own books, to read at their own pace, or not to read at all. The essence of anti-Semitism, as of any prejudice, is to flatten complexity, to divide humankind into a homogeneous “us” and an undifferentiated “them.” Like all persecuted peoples, Jews abhor it when this is done to them. Do we truly want to do this to ourselves?
Influential critiques of “Holocaust consciousness” (though not all use the term) include Jacob Neusner, Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust,” Zionism, and American Judaism (University of Chicago Press, 1981); Michael Goldberg, Why Should Jews Survive?: Looking Past the Holocaust Toward a Jewish Future (Oxford University Press, 1995); and Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). The most controversial such book is Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000). Israeli writers have had critiques of their own: see Amos Elon, “The Politics of Memory,” The New York Review, October 7, 1993; and Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (Hill and Wang, 1993). Alvin H. Rosenfeld provides an overview and critique of both these trends in American and Israeli historiography in “The Assault on Holocaust Memory,” The American Jewish Year Book, Vol. 101 (2001). ↩
The exhibition was created by a Spanish company called Musealia, which specializes in for-profit museum “blockbuster” shows. ↩
In a similar vein, Horn dismisses scholars’ explorations of the background for Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock as a “perverse historical mind trick of justifying my own people’s humiliation.” ↩
Kirsten Fermaglich, A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America (NYU Press, 2018). ↩
My own father openly told his children that he changed his name because of anti-Semitism. I doubt he was alone in being so forthright. ↩