Book review

The Holocaust in American Life

  • The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Hardcover. 373 pages. Index, source references.

Reviewed by Greg Raven

Promotion of Holocaust claims has been a boom industry of late, considering the run-away best-seller by Daniel Goldhagen (which claimed that all Germans were responsible for mass executions of Jews), the financial extortion of the Swiss banks and German businesses, the legal travails of anyone outside of the U.S. who has the temerity to question even the smallest Holocaust-related claim, and the daily onslaught of Holocaust-related articles, movies, television shows, and books that continues unabated.

Even so, there is also a counter-trend, in which a few non-revisionist authors are questioning -- if not the details -- the implications of the Holocaust in contemporary life. Among these are last year's Selling the Holocaust by Tim Cole, and this year's powerful The Holocaust Industry by Norman Finkelstein. Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life is another book is this fast-expanding genre.

Novick, a professor of history (University of Chicago), believes that the Holocaust became ubiquitous in American life because certain events, such as the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann, gradually led to the realization by American Jews of the importance of the Holocaust, and its value as a lesson for mankind. He presents Jewish immigrants to America after the Second World War as wanting to tell of their experiences during the war, but holding off, in an attempt to fit in (p. 158) until non-Jews in America became more receptive to their message, which according to Novick happened because we came to see Israel as an ally in the Middle East, in the aftermath of their June 1967 "Six Day War" against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

In the course of presenting his case, Novick, like Finkelstein, offers page after page of amazing acknowledgements regarding, among other things, the massive public relations campaign that turned the Jewish experience in Europe during the Second World War into "the Holocaust," and the uses to which it has been put by Jewish leaders and others. But where Finkelstein brings passion to his subject, Novick presents himself throughout as the calm, rational scholar, ever-sensitive to nuance and alternate viewpoints.

Whence 'the Holocaust'?

Even if you're not a revisionist, you might wonder why the experiences of a bunch of foreigners, which happened more than fifty years ago, half-way around the world, have become so central to modern American life. So does Novick (p. 2):

The Holocaust took place thousands of miles from America's shores. Holocaust survivors or their descendants are a small fraction of 1 percent of the American population, and a small fraction of American Jewry as well.... Americans, including many American Jews, were largely unaware of what we now call the Holocaust while it was going on ... So, in addition to "why now?" we have to ask "why here?"

Novick is hardly the first person to observe that "the Holocaust," which we are now told is all-important, was barely mentioned before the late seventies, suggesting that the fate of the Jews during the war was for many years viewed as being little different from the fates of others. Novick concurs (p. 2):

... surely there were some American Jews ... for whom the Holocaust was a traumatic experience. But the available evidence doesn't suggest that, overall, American Jews (let alone American gentiles) were traumatized by the Holocaust, in any worthwhile sense of that term.

What changed? Novick disingenuously writes (p. 6) that "... Jews have taken the initiative in focusing attention on the Holocaust in this country."

Why Jews? Novick recounts (p. 7) that "The Holocaust, as virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late twentieth century, has filled a need for a consensual symbol." As a result (p. 200):

... in what might be called American "folk Judaism" -- less bound by tradition and less scrupulous about theological consistency -- a de factor sacralization of the Holocaust has taken place.

For America's largely non-Orthodox Jews, this now has lead to the Holocaust "displacing Israel at the center of American Jewish consciousness" (p. 168). This has happened, Novick explains (p. 120), to those who think that history -- including Holocaust history -- has more to do with facts and context than with feelings and whim, that "Every generation frames the Holocaust, represents the Holocaust, in ways that suit its mood."

Lest anyone think that Americans have participated in this framing (as opposed to having it thrust upon them by what can only be called non-Americans), Novick later clarifies (p. 278) this point:

For all of the extent to which the Holocaust has reverberated throughout American society, it's not clear that the Holocaust is an American collective memory in any worthwhile sense.

It's not as though no one has made an effort to connect Americans to the Holocaust, though (p. 235):

Only a minority of the European Jews murdered by Hitler resembled middle-class Americans, but that's how they've been most often represented to American audiences.

Promotion

According to Novick, that's largely because American Jews have been doing the representing. Novick writes (p. 208):

How did this European event come to loom so large in American consciousness? A good part of the answer is the fact ... that Jews play an important and influential role in Hollywood, the television industry, and the newspaper, magazine, and book publishing worlds. Anyone who would explain the massive attention the Holocaust has received in these media in recent years without reference to that fact is being naïve or disingenuous.

Jews in politics played their role (p. 208):

What were, de jure, government initiatives were often, de facto, those of Jewish aides, simultaneously promoting projects in which they believed and helping their employers score points with Jewish constituents.

As Novick makes clear (p. 216), the reason politicians need to "score points with Jewish constituents" is because of Jewish power:

[President Jimmy] Carter's initiative [to create the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum] was an attempt to placate American Jews, who were increasingly alienated by what they saw as the president's "excessive evenhandedness" in dealing with Israelis and Palestinians.

And how did the USHMM come into being? According to Novick (p. 195):

It was American Jews' wealth and political influence that made it possible for them to bring to the Mall in Washington a monument to their weakness and vulnerability.

Pyramid Power

Novick also deals (pp. 8-9) extensively with the post-war victimization cult in America, going so far as to imply that those Jews in America today who claim victim status are doing so fraudulently (he calls it "vicariously"):

American Jews were by far the wealthiest, best-educated, most influential, in-every-way-most-successful group in American society -- a group that, compared to most other identifiable minority groups, suffered no measurable discrimination and no disadvantages on account of that minority status. But insofar as Jewish identity could be anchored in the agony of European Jewry, certification as (vicarious) victims could be claimed, with all the moral privilege accompanying such certification.

Novick acknowledges that Jews are atop the victimization pyramid, and notes (p. 223) that their only competition is from other Jews:

... unlike other groups that wanted to be recognized as victims of the Holocaust, gays do have political and cultural resources, and they don't face the same hostility to inclusion, based on prewar and wartime experience, encountered by Poles and Ukrainians. Their inclusion, moreover, could be seen as a contribution to the cause of combating homophobia. And many of their spokesmen, who press for inclusion, are Jewish.

By being "more equal" than others, one gains "moral capital." In this formulation, the revisionist movement isn't just to bring history into accord with the facts, but something far more sinister (p. 156):

Holocaust deniers, according to David Singer of the American Jewish Committee [in 1993], seek to "rob the Jewish people and the state of Israel of the moral capital."

There's no point in Americans looking for the benefits of this moral capital in the media, politics, or any other cultural institution; Novick himself says (p. 230) that the campaign against Swiss banks is really just seizing the "moral high ground."

Novick, however, is so intent on proving that the rise of Israel led to the rise of Holocaust promotion, that he ignores events that nullify his thesis: Zionist terrorism prior to the formation of Israel, the appointment of terrorists to the highest offices in Israeli politics, Israel's purchase of arms from Czechoslovakia, the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, Israel's continuing defiance of the United Nations, Israel's collaboration with then-pariah South Africa in the development of nuclear weapons, Israel's own development of nuclear weapons, Israel's improper sales of weapons to everyone from the communists in China to Serbs in Kosovo, the 1973 attack on a Libyan airliner that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians (p. 154), the Pollard spy scandal, and atrocites in occupied territories too numerous to mention here. If as Novick claims it was the public image of Israel that accounts for the tremendous increase in Holocaust propaganda, then why haven't these negative images of Israel counter-balanced the (largely false) image of an "embattled Israel"? The answer, which Novick acknowledges without examining it too closely, lies in the dominant power of American Jewry.

Jews and Communism

In the U.S., where for decades Jews have comprised between two and three percent of the population, Novick notes (p. 93):

... it was also correct, and becoming manifest, that a great many -- perhaps most -- American Communists in these years [1940s] were Jews.

You don't have to take his word for it (p. 92):

Lucy Dawidowicz -- later well known as an historian of the Holocaust, but in these years [after 1945] the American Jewish Committee's expert on Communism -- kept running tabulations for the Committee on the percentage of Jews among "hostile witnesses" before various investigative bodies. Jews, she found, often made up 75 percent or more of the totals.

By the late forties, a time when Novick points out that Jewish leaders were promoting the "sameness" of European Jews and Americans, communists were invoking Holocaust claims to drive a wedge between the U.S. and West Germany. The Holocaust was also a pretext used by Julius Rosenberg to justify his espionage for the Soviet Union (p. 94).

Novick's treatment of the tension between the drive to promote "sameness" (that is, the view that Jews in America had nothing to do with communism) during the Cold War, and the fact that the communists were making Holocaust claims ("featuring the Holocaust was ... Communist Party policy"), is the most intriguing section of the book. Unfortunately, Novick never deals with the issues of how, by the late fifties and early sixties, the communist's distorted Holocaust claims came to be so widely known in America, or why, once the survivors felt free to express themselves, so little of this Soviet disinformation was repudiated.

Discards

You wouldn't expect Novick, a historian who is not above quoting (p. 56) the discredited "confessions" of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, to discard any part of the received Holocaust legend. Yet he does. The story that the corpses of Jews were turned into soap is "... now dismissed as without foundation by historians of the Holocaust" (p. 23). About Babi Yar, he writes (p. 22):

Thus, after the Soviet recapture of Kiev, the New York Times correspondent traveling with the Red Army underlined that while Soviet officials claimed that tens of thousands of Jews had been killed at Babi Yar, "no witnesses to the shooting ... talked with the correspondents"; "it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth of falsity of the story told to us"; "there is little evidence in the ravine to prove or disprove the story."

Another oft-repeated Holocaust claim is that everyone knew there was a (secret) Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews, and no one did anything to stop it. Novick notes that it didn't seem to make much of an impression at the time (p. 105):

Leo Bogart ... wrote a thesis on [postwar American Jewish response to the Holocaust].... One of his approaches ... was soliciting lengthy written statements from a number of young Jews. He found that except for two individuals who were in the armed forces in Europe at the end of the war, it did not appear that "the extermination of Europe's Jews had had any real emotional effect upon the writers of the statements, or that it has influenced their basic outlook."

As Arthur R. Butz pointed out at the IHR's Thirteenth Conference, statements such as these are a paradox ("How could they have known about it and not cared?") only if you postulate that there was something about which to care in the first place. If the alleged extermination did not happen as we have been told, then there is no paradox, and the statement seems self-explanatory.

Recently, there have been increasing accusations by Jews that Pius XII did nothing to save European Jews during the War. Novick points out (p. 143), "... at the time of Pius's death in 1958 they [Jewish groups] had vied with each other in fulsome tributes to his wartime role in rescuing Jews."

In contrast to the position of Holocaust scribes such as Elie Wiesel and Deborah Lipstadt, who simultaneously claim that the Holocaust was unique, and that by being reminded of it constantly we can somehow apply (compare) it to other situations, Novick writes (p. 9):

The assertion that the Holocaust is unique -- like the claim that it is singularly incomprehensible or unrepresentable -- is, in practice, deeply offensive.

Novick seems unconcerned (p. 156) that those who "universalize" the Holocaust are sometimes charged with plundering the "moral capital" it brings Jews.

The Survivors

Virtually all the Holocaust presentations being pushed on Americans are built on the testimony and statements of Jewish "survivors." Elie Wiesel has stated that any survivor has more to say about the Holocaust than any historian (though he also reminds us that it is impossible to put the Holocaust experience into words). Novick informs (p. 83) us what their contemporaries thought of this national treasure:

American Jews, or Jews in the Yishuv [Palestine], would have been incredulous at the idea, later a commonplace, that survivors' memories were a "precious legacy" to be preserved.

This "precious legacy" is now reaping untold benefits (pp. 259-60): "A different kind of interest -- often overwhelming students -- is generated by the frequent visits of survivors to classrooms."

Thanks to the "important and influential role" Jews play in the media, it now often seems that one cannot pick up a newspaper without reading something related to the Holocaust. Novick has noticed this, too (p. 276):

After having gone through thousands of newspaper stories on the Holocaust, I'm struck by how often the pathos of interviewing or quoting a local survivor was the peg on which such stories were hung.

Even so, Novick doesn't have a very high opinion (p. 275) of the typical survivor's testimony:

... it is held that survivors' memories are an indispensable historical source that must be preserved ... In fact, those memories are not a very useful historical source.

Part of the reason memories are faulty has to do with the passage of time, intensity of emotion, and many other factors. Novick goes even farther (pp. 68-69), to implicitly condemn the character of the living:

Samuel Lubell wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: "For the Jews of Eastern Europe the Nazi gas chambers constituted a kind of grim, perverted Darwinism, psychologically and physically. Six years of systematic extermination ... bred a strange pattern of tenacious survival.... It was a survival not of the fittest, not of the most high-minded or reasonable and certainly not of the meekest, but of the toughest." "Often," wrote one local Jewish official, "it was the 'ex-ghetto' elements rather than the upper class or white collar groups who survived ..., the petty thief or leader of petty thieves who offered leadership to others, or developed techniques of survival." From Europe, a top leader of the American Jewish Committee wrote to a colleague in New York: "Those who have survived are not the fittest ... but are largely the lowest Jewish elements, who by cunning and animal instincts have been able to escape the terrible fate of the more refined and better elements who succumbed." ... And in David Ben-Gurion's view, the survivors included "people who would not have survived if they had not been what they were -- hard, evil and selfish people, and what they underwent there served to destroy what good qualities they had left."

Shaking the Money Tree

Novick does make the connection between Jewish feelings of being outsiders and the Holocaust as a fund-raising tool (p. 165):

The peaks of monetary contributions to Israel were in 1967 and 1973 when the Jews of Israel were thought to be on the eve of another Holocaust.

Jewish fund-raisers in America were quick to note this, and soon (p. 145):

... the Holocaust came to be regularly invoked -- indeed, brandished as a weapon -- in American Jewry's struggles on behalf of an embattled Israel.

He even goes one step farther, though, to show (p. 188) the cynical use of "the Holocaust" by Jewish leaders seeking funds:

The millionaire who provided most of the original funding for the Simon Wiesenthal Center told a reporter that it was "a sad fact that Israel and Jewish education and all the other familiar buzzwords no longer seem to rally Jews behind the community. The Holocaust, though, works every time."

Flexing Muscle

Novick can't find (p. 166) any proof that the Holocaust has had any effect on U.S. foreign policy, but acknowledges that (p. 155):

The Holocaust framework allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel, to avoid even considering the possibility that the rights and wrongs were complex.

He also recognizes that powerful Jewish interests in America will do anything to get their way (p. 167):

AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] ... has lavishly rewarded members of Congress who have supported Israel and ruthlessly punished those who have been critical of Israeli policies.

So here we have Novick, who believes that the image of Israel as "embattled" lead to the rise of Holocaust awareness, has acknowledged that the Holocaust is used as a weapon to deflect criticism (as well as gain advantages otherwise unavailable), and knows that pro-Israel lobbying groups are very effective in persuading members of Congress (and others?) to do their bidding, yet he can't find proof that the Holocaust has had any effect on U.S. foreign policy.

Lessons of the Holocaust

Novick implies (p. 253) that the Holocaust can sensitize us to other tragedies. After a couple of false starts at coming up with his "lesson of the Holocaust," Novick weakly offers (pp. 262):

There was a disposition, before the Holocaust, to think of the most barbarous deeds as being the work of the most barbarous folk -- the least cultured, the least advanced. We've learned from the Holocaust that that's wrong. Perhaps there are other lessons, but nothing that will fit on a bumper sticker, and nothing to inspire.

He believes that the urge to teach the "lessons of the Holocaust" (which he can't quite pin down) comes from the hope that out of it will come "something that is, if not redemptive, at least useful." However, he concludes, "I doubt it can be done" (p. 263). Nowhere does Novick, who lists some "good" reasons for remembering the Holocaust (pp. 239ff), point out the penalties for failing to do so.

Holocaust and Historiography

Novick's calm demeanor and nuanced approach crack only when he refers to Holocaust revisionists. Novick mischaracterizes revisionists as "deniers" who are a "tiny band of malicious or deluded fruitcakes" (p. 13), a "tiny band of cranks, kooks, and misfits" and "fruitcakes" (p. 270) who "deny that the Holocaust took place." Novick also claims (pp. 270-2) that revisionists would be inconsequential, had it not been for powerful Jewish forces who in 1993 used the threat of revisionism to usher in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Throughout his book, Novick continues what has been referred to as "the long tradition of Jewish scholarship that deliberately distorts the historical record to further Jewish group interests" (Brian Chalmers, "The 'Jewish Question' in 15th and 16th Century Spain," Jan.-Feb. 1996 Journal). Because many of his points are couched so obscurely that trying to determine what Novick actually thinks often exasperates, what stands out most are individual statements. Novick's book -- like Finkelstein's -- is a gold mine of information for revisionists. Novick's approach to these datum points, however, seems so conscious of Jewish group interests that the book appears to be written only for other Jews.

To put a scholarly veneer over the gaping holes in his account of the Holocaust's rise to power, Novick claims (p. 261):

If there is ... any wisdom to be acquired from contemplating an historical event, I would think it would derive from confronting it in all its complexity and its contradictions; the ways in which it resembles other events to which it might be compared as well as the ways it differs from them.

With regards to Holocaust claims, this is exactly what Novick has failed to do, aside from granting that it is (and should be) compared to other historical events. His lip service to historiography ends quickly, however, as he then writes (p. 261):

It is not -- least of all when it comes to the Holocaust -- a matter of approaching the past in a neutral or value-free fashion, or of abstaining from moral judgment. And it's not a matter of taking a disengaged academic stance.

Does this mean that if you agree with what he and other Jewish historians say about the Holocaust, there's no sense in reining yourself in? Does this mean that anti-Semites and neo-Nazis would make fine historians of the Holocaust, as long as they don't "abstain from moral judgment"? Will one approach be deemed better than another because it is more subjective? We can only wonder what Novick had in mind in juxtaposing these two statements.

Typical Effort

Not reflected in the cites above is Novick's systematic distortions of history, and of the roles of Jews in that history. Novick notes (p. 158) that Jews sometimes present themselves as the same as Americans (when they are powerless, or in need of help), and that they sometimes present themselves as being different (p. 159) or even superior (p. 170) when they are in a position of power. Even though he claims to be searching for reasons why the Holocaust came to inhabit such a vaunted position in American life, he completely fails to notice that Jews were essentially silent about Holocaust claims when they were relatively powerless in American society, and increasingly vocal about these claims as their power grew. Novick is blind to this phenomenon, which has given rise to the characterization of Jews as being "at your feet or at your throat." For him, the two positions are nothing more than two different, equally valid postures Jews might take at any given time.

Novick nowhere even hints that some of the problems between Jews and non-Jews might be due to actions of the Jews themselves. For Novick, there is no need for Jews to change any of their behaviors, and in fact, Jews must remain separate (p. 185). Novick seemingly accepts this, and offers (p. 189) a stunning example:

... a survey of American Jewish volunteer fund-raisers in the late seventies found three quarters agreeing that "I feel more emotional when I hear Hatikvah [Israel's national anthem] than when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner."

This supports one of the most common charges, that Jews are more committed to Jewish interests than the interests in the countries in which they live. Novick quotes (p. 182) Wiesel to this effect: "By working for his own people a Jew ... makes his most valuable contribution ..."

Important for Revisionists

One aspect of "the Holocaust" that comes through clearly in Novick's book is that there was never any intention of remembering Jewish suffering primarily as part of the historical record: there was always some secondary agenda tied to its promotion. Whether the goal was fund-raising, political power, Jewish unification, or all-purpose warrant and extenuation, "the Holocaust" was seen as merely the means to the end. (To be fair, this is little different from American Jews raising money for Israel, even though they themselves have no intention of going there.)

This book is not important because it reveals new details about Holocaust claims, or because it cites heretofore unknown documents, or because it breaks new ground in interpreting contemporaneous evidence. It is important because a Jewish historian has stated truths about the Holocaust and its use by Jews, the voicing of which by persons such as Ernst Zündel in Canada has landed in court, and even in prison. Revisionists have long since gone more than halfway in bridging the gap between what we know about the Holocaust and what we have been told. It's nice to see someone on the other side making an effort, no matter how small, to arrive at a more complete understanding.


From The Journal of Historical Review, January/February 2001 (Vol. 20, No. 1), page 36.