Impact of the Holocaust on Diaspora Jewry

Lecturer: Elly Dlin
Lecture 8: Impact of the Holocaust on Diaspora Jewry


People are social beings; we function in relationship with others.  Human relationships are, to a large part, based on common memories.  Oliver Sacks tells the story of a neurological patient, a sailor whose head was damaged when he was 19-years old, in a Japanese attack in the Pacific.  His memory retention is perfect...until the moment of injury.  He had total recall of his youth, parents, schooling, and army service...until the battle.  From then onwards he cannot remember anything for more than a few minutes. Trapped in the present, he had no memory of having met Dr. Sacks only a few moments after the doctor had interrupted their interview to answer the telephone.  He had totally forgotten ever having met Sacks.  The patient was unable to recall people he had met or things that happened to him a few moments ago (pp. 22-41).  

Imagine not recognizing your children when they return home every day or having to be reintroduced to your spouse when you wake up in the morning! Meaningful human relations are not possible without memories.

Yet we must be selective in what we remember.  There is a story of someone cursed by not having the ability to forget anything at all!  His mind and thoughts became cluttered in a crushing jumble of everything.

We present ourselves selectively.  We select fragments of our lives to include in our curricula vitaes, and we leave out the rest.  In some situations we present "our professional selves", while in other situations alternative identities have preference: bridge player, football fan, Zionist activist or "an Englishmen in New York".  We choose our clothes, our hair styles and colours in order to project the desired image that we want to show just then.

Our memories, what we choose to remember about ourselves and what we choose to forget, how we present ourselves to ourselves and to others - all of this is part of who we are.  It is a process that defines us, distinguishes us from others and binds us into human relations.

What do societies and cultures choose to tell about themselves?  Is Guy Fawkes (a Catholic who plotted in 1605 to kill the King of England and to blow up Parliament) a renegade or a hero?  What ever happened to May Day? What statement about its relationship to African-Americans is America making when Martin Luther King's birthday is elevated to a national holiday?

The third Monday in May is a long-weekend for Canadians that marks the Queen's birthday.  But historical accuracy is NOT an issue here since Elizabeth II was born on April 21 (1926).  For most Canadians a long-weekend in April would be too risky as it likely would be "wasted" in the rain and snow.  A long-weekend near the end of May is much more useful.  It is the perfect time to open up the summer cottage at the lake or to go on a picnic. Since Queen Victoria was born on May 24 the tradition was established and continues...despite the real facts.  And presumably the day will remained unchanged in the reign of Charles III (the current Prince of Wales) who inconveniently (from the Canadian perspective) was born on November 14 (1948).

A final example: Christmas could NEVER have happened on December 25!  Since when did Galilee Jews make a pilgrimage up to Jerusalem in December? Pilgrimage holidays are Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot - and none ever falls in late December.  And if a Jewish family were to visit Jerusalem in the off-season they wouldn't need to shlep out to a barn in Bethlehem to find a bed.  They could have their choice of accommodations!  A December 25 date is wholly impossible, historically.  But factual accuracy is irrelevant here. Tradition and collective memory have shaped this event, on this date, as perhaps the best known and most remembered in the Western calendar.


ANIMAL FARM and 1984 illustrate how memory can be enlisted to serve the powers-that-be. George Orwell shows how history can be changed and "updated" to fit present realities.  Historical encyclopedia are reissued in order to expunge references to a fallen hero such as Trotsky or to re-explain the role of Nicolae Ceausescu in the shaping of Romania.  High school history exams were actually canceled in Russia in 1989 because, with the rapidity of change and the fluidity of the situation, educators did not know what questions to ask about the past nor did they know how to evaluate the answers received!

I remember as a graduate student in history visiting the Museum of German History in East Berlin in 1975.  I saw how THEY had manipulated the historical record in order to make it serve their ideological positions. The history that they displayed bore little resemblance to what I had learned in Canadian schools and I thought to myself: "Look what they have done to pervert memory and it make it serve political purposes!"  It wasn't long before a second thought popped into my head: "And us?  Are we so pure? Is the story that we tell free of ideological biases?"

Constructed history is always LESS than the real past and MOyyRE than it was (Jenkins).  Most Jews did NOT survive the Holocaust yet most of the testimonies that we have of those events are provided by the survivors. Their stories are the exceptions and not the rule; those who lived through the Holocaust are the extraordinary, not the ordinary.  Historical accounts constructed from them is LESS than the real past.  And it is MORE when we consider the biases and filters of historians.  Our constructed version of the past generally gives more weight than is deserved to white, European, Christian, middle- and upper-class, urban males.

Shaping the memory of past is an effective tool for defining and for controlling the present and it may also go a fair ways towards determining the future by setting our options for action and our courses of behaviour.


The NEW YORK TIMES article "The Decline and Fall of Teaching History" (NY Times) makes the point that the study of history has steadily declined steadily in importance in American schools over the last generation.  Others make the same general point (for example, Allan Bloom).

I term the non-serious way in which Americans relate to the past as "Flintstone history" after the cartoon show starring Fred and Barney from Bedrock in Prehistory.  They are a couple of regular guys, just like you and me; the cartoon equivalents of bus driver everyman Jackie Gleason and his neighbour Art Carney in "The Honeymooners".  Sure cavemen didn't have metal or plastic, so their cars were made of stone and wood, had no windshields, and ran on foot-power.  Televisions were made of stone too, showers were elephants and can openers were birds.  Suburban middle-class America is how everyone lives, always lived and wants to live.

Another revealing cultural interpretation that I think is illustrative of American social attitudes to the past is the refrain repeated ad nauseam by Forest Gump (Tom Hanks): "life's a box of chocolates and you never know what you get". SHIT happens, and we have no control or responsibility over it. This is "No Fault History" that I referred - and rejected as unacceptable - in the 4th lecture.  It is history that is liberal and tolerant but without limits or criteria to distinguish valid interpretations from nonsense.  It may be "politically correct" to allow everyone to have an equal voice and to afford equal legitimacy to the views of all, but it is not being an historian.  History is a discipline and there are rule.  Interpretations that remain within the boundaries are potentially valid and may be presented; interpretations that disregard indisputable facts or that move beyond them into the realm of unfettered speculation are not histories but fantasies. They may be fun and they may be interesting, but they cannot be presented as the past.

Gays and lesbians were persecuted by the Nazis and their suffering should not be ignored, yet that does NOT make what happened to them "a hidden Holocaust" (Grau).  Ukrainians suffered persecutions in this century at the hands of Russians, Poles and Germans but that does NOT mean that you erect a common monument in Denver Colorado to the Jews and the Ukrainian killed in this century when some of the Jews died because Ukrainians KILLED them!

An American President who was a soldier in the Second World War cannot sacrifice history on the alter of political expediency in order to make a German Chancellor happy.  He cannot visit a cemetery containing graves of SS soldiers and justify it by saying:

"I think that there is nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis.  They were victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."  (Ronald Reagan on April 18, 1985 in Hartman).


The principal Jewish method for transmitting history is repetition: "ve-shinanta le-banecha ve-deebartem bum" (and you drilled it in to your children and you instructed them).  Jews retell the stories of Chanukah, Purim and Pessach each year.  Jews engage themselves directly in symbolic acts (lighting candles, carrying around the Torah, blowing shofars).  We are commanded to feel involved (as if I personally stood at Mount Sinai in witness of the revelation of the Torah).  And Jews remember.  We have a long collective memory.  We remember Amalekh and Torquemada and Kmielnicki; we remember the destruction of the Temples and the promise of our return to Zion. We remember the dead and repeat the "kaddish" (the mourner's prayer) daily.


American Jews largely ignored the Holocaust until well into the 1960s.  Few teaching curricula existed and fewer people spoke about it.  Early signs of an awakening appeared with the books of Elie Wiesel, the feeling of "near-destruction" before the Six Day War (Jews again abandoned to their fate at the hands of enemies who vowed to murder them all) and Arthur Morse's castigation of the inadequate response by the American Government (WHILE SIX MILLION DIED, 1968).  

These came on the background of other develops:

a) the growing legitimacy of anti-government protests and the acceptance of harsh criticism of government policies (present and past): the Civil Rights struggle, the Black Power movement and the growing protests against the War in Viet Nam, 

b) growing activism within all groups of Americans including the Jews;  

c) ethnic pride was "in" and it became more legitimate to promote the interests of one's own group;

d) American foreign policy shifted from a hostile to a strongly pro-Israel position, a change that made it much easier to be an American-Jewish-Zionist, and

e) group suffering was "in" and being establishment was "out", having been persecuted was "in" and holding responsibility and power was "out"; Gerald Green and NBC's docu-drama "HOLOCAUST" was the Jewish version of Alex Hailey and ABC's "ROOTS".

The late 1970s and the decade of the 1980s saw even greater attention being paid by American Jewry on the Holocaust and this to the exclusion of almost everything else that is Jewish.  American Jews came to know a lot about how Jews died, yet were woefully ignorant about how Jews lived.  With the delegitimation of Zionism and of Israel and the distancing of Jews from the nationalistic embrace, American Jews found that they could feel Jewish and American and also feel good about themselves (with an appropriate modicum of guilt and soul-searching) through the Holocaust.  It did not require them to give up cheeseburgers or to pray regularly.  It required little more than attending an Elie Wiesel lecture or watching Claude Lanzmann's 9-hour film "SHOAH".

A speculative case may be argued that the frustration, anger and political activism that was vented in the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and that eventually became a non-issue with the opening of the gates of emigration was partially redirected towards the prosecution of Nazi War Criminal in the 1980s - a channel that likewise soon spent itself with the aging of the criminals and the rather disappointing results of those efforts (the botched-up trial of Ivan Demjanjuk, the lack of significant progress, and the low numbers of accused brought to trial).  

I think that related aftershocks of this same energy underlie the Swiss Bank accounts issue and the outburst of attention over confiscated Jewish properties in Europe, including stolen possessions such as works of art. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so when the channel is exhausted, this energy will shift into a new expression of American Jewish life.


Bloom, Allan, THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Grau, Guenter, HIDDEN HOLOCAUST? GAY AND LESBIAN PERSECUTION IN GERMANY, 1933-1945, London: Cassell, 1995.

Hartman, Geoffrey, BITBURG, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986.

Jenkins, Keith, RETHINKING HISTORY, London: Routledge, 1991.

NEW YORK TIMES, "Decline and Fall of Teaching History", November 17, 1985.

Sacks, Oliver, "The Lost Mariner" in THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, London: Pan Books, 1986.





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0