In the first decades following World War II, Americans rarely discussed the Holocaust. Now, remembering the Holocaust has become a fundamental part of Jewish identity; gentiles, too, view the Holocaust as a touchstone of moral solemnity. In The Holocaust and American Life
, Peter Novick asks why, and his answers are both sensible and shocking. He explains the immediate postwar silence about the Holocaust by reviewing the basics of cold war politics: just after the liberation of the concentration camps, Americans were called upon to sympathize with "gallant Berliners" who resisted the Soviets and built a wall against Communism--an "enormous shift from one set of alignments to another," Novick notes. Novick then leads readers through the series of events that brought the Holocaust to the forefront of American consciousness--the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Six-Day War, the Carter administration's Israel policy, and the construction of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Among Novick's most controversial ideas is his assertion that American Jews spoke softly of the Holocaust at first because they didn't want to be seen as victims; later, Jews decided that victim status would work in their best political interest. Or, as Novick puts it, "Jews were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics." The Holocaust in American Life is as carefully researched and argued as it is polemical and probing. Novick does not suffer Holocaust deniers lightly, and he is empathic toward victims and survivors, but he has no tolerance for false sentiment. One wishes that more people would ask, as Novick does, what kind of a country would spend millions of dollars on a museum honoring European Jewish Holocaust victims instead of a monument to its own shameful history of black slavery. --Michael Joseph Gross
Why has the Holocaust, five decades after its conclusion, remained such a burning issue in the consciousness of Americans, both Jews and Gentiles? After all, most historical events fade from memory with the passage of time and the deaths of those who directly experienced the events. Yet, despite the occurrence of more recent and certainly quite horrific mass atrocities, from Cambodia to Rowanda, the Holocaust continues to play a central role in American public discourse. In this unsettling and fascinating work, Novick, a Jew and a professor of history at the University of Chicago, examines how a variety of domestic and foreign events have moved Holocaust consciousness to the center of American life and kept it there. The author unhesitatingly probes touchy subjects, including the role of Holocaust consciousness in cold war politics, the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust, and even the supposed "obsession" of American Jews (few of whom are Holocaust survivors) with the Holocaust. This is an important work that is bound to irritate, even outrage, many readers. Jay Freeman