In the wake of World War II, the Holocaust was a verboten subject in the Jewish community of America. While its refugees found homes and livelihoods, the prevailing attitude was that one should get on with one’s life, start afresh, look to the future, and push the past into the past.
Little did I realize that I knew several survivors while growing up in Seattle, but I did. They often had strong and mysterious accents, and they engaged in American life with gusto. One husband and wife loved to ride horses and ski, as they had in their former country of Hungary. They each wore half a coin to remind them of their separation when they were interned in different concentration camps. Another family was formed of a mother, husband, and three children, one of whom became one of my favorite friends at age five or so. They were on the famous ship, the St. Louis, whose cargo was Jews of Germany fleeing from the Nazis, its destination the United States. President Roosevelt, beloved by the Jews, forced that ship and its human cargo to return to Europe, where its passengers were caught up in the unfolding Holocaust. Another friend’s father was swept into a concentration camp in the south of France, where miraculously he survived. Upon later finding his way to the United States, he went to medical school in Chicago, married, had children, and finally landed at the Medical School at the University of Washington, where he served into his early 90s, having established the field of medical genetics, not to mention tutoring students who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Neither his children, nor I, ever knew his and his wife’s story until shortly before his death.
The Jewish community “discovered” the Holocaust in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as did I in a course I took at Hampshire College in the early 1970s. At that time, Hampshire College was a serious place, and a number of students led by Arthur Samuelson (who would go on to publishing fame), decided to develop a course on the Holocaust. I believe I sat for its first iteration. It was a year-long course, impressive in its breadth and completeness. It presented the lead-up to the war, looking at the Jewish communities of Europe, the soon-to-be victims; the German people, soon to be the victimizers; the destruction process itself; and then the aftermath, in various intellectual domains, including religion, philosophy, and literature. As a progenitor of what would later be called Holocaust studies, we had visits, and read the works of all of the initiators of the field, Guenter Lewy on the Holocaust and the Catholic Church, Raul Hilberg on the destruction process itself, George Mosse on German Youth movements and the increasing presence of the notion of Aryanism and Jews as the other, Isaiah Trunk on the Judenraat, Ben Halpern on the literary response, Rachel Rubinstein on Judaism after the Holocaust, and of course, the writings of Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl, Primo Levy, and others. It was an intense and overwhelming experience.
The following decades produced an avalanche of responses, primarily brought into existence by Jews. New holidays were created in the Jewish religion and in Israel. We wanted our experience to be acknowledged and made part of world history, but particularly of American history. It is hard now to find a university that doesn’t have some form of Jewish Studies. The US Holocaust Museum was established in Washington, DC, followed by others around the country in almost every major city, and even then in smaller ones like my own of Tucson. This was funded in large part by survivors who wished their story not to be forgotten. The Holocaust has also found its way into K-12 curricula, often mandated by state legislatures. Which is all to say the Holocaust is now ubiquitous. This is both wonderfully positive and decidedly negative.
We can agree on a number of things about the Holocaust; or at least I hope we can. It can’t be denied that the systematic destruction of six million Jews, the result of almost 2,000 years of anti-Semitism, was an unprecedented occurrence.
What we probably can’t agree upon is whether the Holocaust should be brought up in what might be termed trivial circumstances. Which brings us to the question of one Whoopi Goldberg. Now I enjoyed Ms. Goldberg’s performance in the movie Ghost and in some of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no one should seek her counsel regarding questions of race and the Holocaust. So when she said the Holocaust was about “man’s inhumanity to man” and “not about race,” she may have been overly simplistic, but she wasn’t wrong. When one of her co-hosts challenged that assertion, saying the Holocaust was driven by white supremacy, Ms. Goldberg said, “But these are two white groups of people.” Of course the co-host’s response is quite wrong, as one can’t place the Holocaust in the context of our current culture war, and to do so is to demean and trivialize it. Are the Jews white, with the meaning implied by critical race theory, namely, that the Jews are privileged and need to be taken down as do all whites?
She might wish to take Michael Oakeshott to heart. He said that there were certain subjects on which he wouldn’t hazard an opinion, as he just didn’t know enough to warrant a judgment. Should she have been “canceled?” She made a very dumb comment on the fly; it shouldn’t have required that kind of response. But she should be wary of making stupid comments on serious matters of which, it is clear, she knows next to nothing. And why should she by the way? She is just an actress after all.
Maybe we Jews should develop a somewhat thicker, or at least, more nuanced skin. Witness the recent hullabaloo about the graphic novel Maus, which was removed from the curriculum in McMinn County, Tennessee by its school board. It was described as a banning, and the book’s author, Arthur Spiegelman, said that this act had “the breath of autocracy and fascism about it.” But the book was not banned. Thomas Balazs, a writer, English professor, and a child of a Holocaust survivor, thinks there is more going on here. Of Maus he wrote:
It helped me to understand my father, who was a lot like Spiegelman’s. That doesn’t mean I get to insist that every county in the country include the book in its eighth-grade Holocaust program. I don’t know the kids in McMinn County, but I doubt they’ll become Nazis because they didn’t get to read Maus until ninth grade…So why all the weeping and gnashing of teeth? Some elements on the left clearly want to use this issue in order to discredit recent parental efforts to remove inflammatory texts about race or explicit sex-education materials from school curricula…The debates about critical race theory and sexually explicit graphic novels have nothing to do with Jews or the Holocaust, and there’s something cynical and exploitative about political attempts to link these controversies.
Here is the crux of the matter, and a problem not quite understood by Mr. Balazs. Critical race theory and Intersectionality have put Jews once again in the crosshairs. How so? Three young Jewish kids in New York are spat on by a 21-year old woman. Four Jews are taken hostage in a synagogue in Texas, but the FBI can’t identify this as an anti-Semitic act. Student governing bodies at universities around the country have passed BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) resolutions, and vilify Jews. Ultimately Israel, a multicultural nation if ever there was one, is called an apartheid state by Amnesty International. These are just drops in a much larger bucket.
If American and European Jews, and Israeli Jews, and the state of Israel are all about whiteness and colonialism, is a redefinition of the Holocaust not inevitable, just as it was in Whoopi’s brouhaha?
This is a terrible and slippery slope, and one that requires a Gentile, not just a Jewish, response. I hope that righteous Gentiles will indeed rise in opposition to these dangerous developments. It is now they, not Jews, who must take to heart the phrase “Never Again.” My Gentile friends should ask themselves: If it comes to it, when the mobs come, will I take in and protect my Jewish friends?