Brash insensitivity is an affliction of youth. So perhaps because Anna Breslaw is so young we can forgive her for being callous.
Earlier this week, the 25-year-old New Yorker became the bane of the Jewish world after publishing a bizarre essay for Tablet Magazine about the TV series “Breaking Bad” in which she saw fit to vent her hostile feelings towards Holocaust survivors.
“Since I was 12 I’ve had an unappealing, didactic distrust of people with the extreme will to live,” Breslaw writes. “My father’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and in grade school I received the de rigueur exposure to the horror—visiting geriatric men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms, completing assigned reading like The Diary of Anne Frank and Night. But the more information I received, the less sympathy the survivors elicited from me.”
I’m sure many Jews can relate to what Breslaw terms the “de rigueur exposure” to the Holocaust. Indeed, it is inculcated so constantly and uniformly, across literatures, mediums and genres, the term Holocaust fatigue has lately infiltrated the culture. But for Breslaw, having historical trauma foisted upon her was so distasteful, even as personal heritage, she developed not fatigue but a kind of Holocaust allergy. Rather than feel any responsibility to steward the story, she looked upon its characters with suspicion.
“Each time we clapped for the old Hungarian lady who spoke about Dachau, each time Elie Wiesel threw another anonymous anecdote of betrayal onto a page, I eyed it askance, thinking What did you do that you’re not talking about? I had the gut instinct that these were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like ‘triumph of the human spirit.’”
In her famous essay “Illness as Metaphor” Susan Sontag talks about the impulse to blame people for their bodily failings. If a person is ill, the thinking goes, they must have had some psychological condition that induced it. In his review of that work, the English literature professor Denis Donoghue explained the theory this way: “Those who suffered from the disease were thought to embody a special type of humanity.” Breslaw, it seems, is inadvertently drawing a similar parallel with survivors: They must have done something to deserve it.
But it is another byproduct of her age and inexperience that she confuses self-interest and survival. The will to live amidst a great personal ordeal is not the same as a willingness to sacrifice others for an advantage.
Inexperience makes it easier to judge than to empathize.
Her last and most egregious offense comes when she writes: “I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.”
That convoluted sentence was probably more offensive in aim than execution, though it makes clear the writer’s opinion of some essential Jewishness.
Fortunately for Breslaw, immaturity is an acceptable alibi. It lends her hubris and a saving grace, since the magnitude of her arrogance about the greatest trauma of the 20th century is equalled only by the impressiveness of her young resume, which includes work published in The New York Times, New York Magazine and on the Website The New Inquiry, an online literary salon created by a group of young, mostly Ivy-League grads. Precociousness comes with this territory.
But early accomplishment does not connote mental or emotional understanding. To be sure, Breslaw recently admitted on her blog for Glamour.com that she has “never had a boyfriend.” Still, for that publication she writes a sex and dating column that covers a range of topics, from “Exactly What Goes Through Your Mind After Naked Pictures of You Go Public” to how to answer the question “Is Your Dude More Into Legs, Butts, Or Boobs?”
Those are the preoccupations we might expect of a twentysomething writer who works for a fashion magazine. So why the departure from her characteristic playfulness to pillory survivors of the Holocaust?
Maybe Breslaw is too young to appreciate other people’s experiences more than her own intelligence.
Whatever her attitude towards the Holocaust or its survivors, annoyance does not give one license to diminish the pain of others. Breslaw should have a tougher stomach. For God’s sake, she has proven her tolerance—or, rather, appetite—for “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” which she cheerily covers for New York Magazine.