September 8, 2007
Books: Shoah satire crosses line into nasty territory
(Page 2 - Previous Page)With all respect to Ozick, then, it is not that the author has violated a taboo about the Shoah, but rather that she descends from her throne of high culture to render a punishing and utterly unsympathetic judgment upon whole groups of essentially simple people. Maybe it's a class thing, and I am oversensitive to Reich's highbrow denouncement of those lowlifes who can't find anything better to do with their wretched lives than wish they had a Holocaust. OK, one short joke about these people would have been enough. But a whole book? Reich is an equal opportunity satirist who goes after the whole lot -- survivors, survivors' families, survivor impersonators -- with more or less the same scathing humor (a curious literary strategy for one so incensed by efforts to "universalize" the Shoah). The fact that some of them are crass, annoying, even despicable, is true; but Reich's torrential storm of contempt, much of it etherized by incredibly funny dialog and scenery, swallows them all -- heroes, villains, and everything in between.
In all honesty, though, I am still laughing from Reich's impeccable rendering of the clowns in her novel, the egomaniacs who lobbied and paid for the museum on the mall and the parade of nut jobs who are trying to abscond with it to exalt their own various "Holocausts." Her message is important and needs to be heard: the purpose and content of the museum may be holy, but its practical implementation is not immune from organizational nonsense and prurient instincts.
Yes, there is too much "Shoah business," and I have long dissented from the attitudes and posturing of some survivors and some children of survivors who borrow rather opportunistically from their parents' suffering. I even have arguments with Elie Wiesel (who may recall having met my father in Buchenwald), and like my parents before me, I am wary that too much "universalization" can trivialize and, in the extreme, deny the Holocaust.
As I drive near the museum on the way to and from my office in downtown Washington, what was once respect and awe is now tinged with uncertainty. Now when I see that stately building and think about its enormous contribution to public understanding and scholarship, the image is blurred by the politics, infighting and crass impulses of at least some of the people involved in its creation and of those who want to grab it for their own political ends. Which makes me wonder how ordinary citizens (who maybe haven't had the pleasure of thinking about Hitler as much as I) will react to Reich's cartoon of survivors, their families, their imitators and their financiers. I worry that her humor will induce yet more cynicism and erode what's left of the authentic instincts to facilitate historical learning and moral search. Reich should worry too: after all, when we have no survivors, and no museums, what shall we satirize?
Michael J. Feuer is a social scientist and education policy analyst in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is "Moderating the Debate: Rationality and the Promise of American Education" (Harvard Education Press, 2006).
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