April 19, 2001
Exploring the Inexplicable
Four new books deal with the Holocaust in styles that range from the scholarly to the graphic.
My mother and I have an ongoing dispute. Sometime in the late 1960s, she was given an oversized French photograph book about the Holocaust, titled "La Deportation." As an act of Jewish solidarity, she has at times prominently displayed it. I find the cover painfully disturbing. It is the portrait of a survivor taken shortly after liberation: gaunt, staring, blank from the horror. When I visit, I turn the book face down, so as to be neither accused nor bearing witness. She turns the book back, face up, deliberately to engage with that image.
A rabbinic dictum teaches that there is no end to the learning of Torah. Nor can there be an end to the unfolding of both details and understanding about the Holocaust, no matter how often we turn the book cover face down. Each of the following books represents a different approach, none definitive, but each worthy and powerful in its own right, subject to its own limitations.
"Rethinking the Holocaust" by Yehuda Bauer. (Yale University Press, $29.95)
Yehuda Bauer, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, spends a great deal of necessary effort examining and correcting our language in "Rethinking the Holocaust." He points out that it was not the victims who were dehumanized, but the perpetrators, high and low, who dehumanized themselves.
It is only with tremendous effort that we can dissect the nature and components of the first systematic, industrialized, determined, ideologically inspired and directed effort to thoroughly eliminate a group of "racially" identified people.
This definition leads Bauer to argue that the idea of the Holocaust should be used exclusively in regard to Jews.
From the Nazi viewpoint, having identified Jews as the source of all pollution in the world, eradication of that pollution would naturally lead to utopia. Thus, Bauer contends that while Poles were considered inferior, Gypsies racially dangerous (inasmuch as they interbred with "pure" Germans), and the handicapped selected for elimination as a eugenic goal, the Holocaust can only be understood in light of the specific targeting of Jews.
The conduct of German foreign policy illustrates the point: the Nazis did not demand that their allies -- Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians -- hand over their Gypsy or handicapped populations to the death-camp industry, only the Jews.
Bauer, a public and determined secularist, maintains that all human experience can be understood, and in order to combat dehumanized evil, every effort must be made to understand.
"The Holocaust Encyclopedia" edited by Walter Laqueur, associate editor Judith Tydor Baumel. (Yale University Press, $60)
"The Holocaust Encyclopedia" reveals Walter Laqueur's historical and journalistic competence in great depth as it catalogues the seemingly trivial (to the degree that anything pertaining to the Shoah can be deemed trivial) and the truly masterful.
Yehoyakim Cochavi submits a dense eight-page essay on ghetto cultural life, a form of Jewish resistance widely accessible to many Jews and unduly ignored. The article on the Gerhard M. Riegner memorandum (sent in March 1943 to the governments of the United States and Great Britain, appealing to them to save the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries from a "carefully planned extermination campaign") was written by Riegner himself, World War II director of the World Jewish Congress' Geneva office.
Riegner reconstructs the anxiety he felt at his newly acquired knowledge of the depth and direction of Nazi Germany's actions, goals and capacities in eminently readable, clear and concise prose.
Among other contributors to the encyclopedia are some of the most important scholars today, including Michael Berenbaum (at the University of Judaism) and Saul Friedlander (occupant of the "1939" chair at UCLA).
"Scrolls of Testimony" by Abba Kovner. Foreword by Irving Greenberg. (Jewish Publication Society, $75)
Abba Kovner's breathtaking "Scrolls of Testimony" tries to evoke the inexplicable horror of the victims.
Kovner -- poet, avenger, partisan of Vilna, voice of conscience and memory in Israel, an almost inadvertent survivor -- self-consciously modeled his last and unfinished literary work on the scrolls used as part of Jewish liturgy (Esther, Jonah, Song of Songs, Ruth and Kohelet). The pages, beautifully laid out, suggest traditional Jewish texts, bordered by notes, asides and emendations.
In his foreword, Irving Greenberg relates that Kovner hoped that these Scrolls of Testimony would find a place in the Jewish liturgy, to be a formal voice of Shoah memory.
Perhaps in Hebrew, these "Scrolls" work. This translation is well worth reading for its own merit but does not work as a unified liturgical piece. Its length alone precludes its exclusive inclusion. Woven together are pieces of memoirs, short stories and poems. Like virtually all works that try to create a literary visceral sense of the Shoah, "Scrolls of Testimony" is disjointed, chaotic, dark and fearful. On that account, Kovner gives us a distant feel for the victims. But few of us would wish to voluntarily recount for an extended time those searing, horrific feelings.
"The Last Album: Eyes From the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau" by Ann Weiss. Foreword by Leon Wieseltier. (W. W. Norton & Company, $39.95)
Ann Weiss' "The Last Album" illuminates lives lost and images found.
During a small, somewhat private tour at Auschwitz, Weiss was accidentally led into a room that housed 2,400 photographs brought there by deportees. (Successfully hidden by Auschwitz inmates, these personal items were usually destroyed along with their owners.) This small selection documents Jewish life before and during the war in the two small towns closest to Auschwitz, Bendin (also called Bendzin and Bedzin) and Sosnowiecz.
A number of families from those towns are detailed. Some relate the painful irony of death and survival.
Concerned about marriage prospects, Yoel and Ruchel Diament packed off their middle daughters, Mindl and Gila, to their aunt in Montreal. Photographs of Gila with her husband, daughter and sister Mindl were sent to the parents, who carried them when transported to their deaths. Photos taken in Canada and retrieved from Auschwitz waited 60 years to be published in New York.
But there are too many individual stories, millions too many individual faces, for us to remember or to grasp. n
"The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures" edited by David Aretha. Foreword by Michael Berenbaum. (Publications International, Ltd., $40)
"The Holocaust Chronicles" presents pictures, brief explanations, one-page essays and a continuing timeline of the numbing details, year by year and month by month, with a story provided for each date.
It is a coffee-table book, if a work on this subject can be called such; a valuable research resource for the casual reader and a powerful introductory overview of the historical facts. A thorough index and a related Web site flesh out publisher Louis Weber's effort to make this book a portable archive and act of remembrance.
But the strength of a book such as "The Holocaust Chronicle" is also its weakness. Its timeline-based organization means that thematic issues are approached obliquely, at best, and cross-referencing material is complicated.
To study, for example, the fate of Greek Jewry, one crosses 22 different short, almost breathless references. On the other hand, start at page 405 and read to page 501, and 1943 is laid out: deportation, resistance, rescue, battles in the Soviet Union, agitation in the United States.
Two of the principal consultants on "The Holocaust Chronicle" are Marilyn Harran of Chapman College and John K. Roth, Russell K. Pitzer professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.
"The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust" by Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia. (Columbia University Press, $45)
Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia's "The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust" instructs the student in the basics of modern academic Holocaust study and research.
A dry historical overview opens a work seemingly geared to an introductory college class in Holocaust studies. The second part outlines the abstract issues that roil academic and scholarly waters: how to define the Holocaust, identify its roots, and see how the Final Solution came about. Who were the perpetrators? What were the victims' reactions? How did bystanders behave? Was rescue an option? What are the enduring effects of the Holocaust?
Niewyk and Nicosia concisely try to illuminate the ground current Holocaust studies in the United States tend to cover.
The third section is a bare-bones chronology; the fourth, a short encyclopedia; the fifth, a worthwhile list of various resources: print, film, Web sites, organizations, museums and memorials.