Holocaust Fatigue and the Lure of Normality


Today, at a time when the genocide of European Jewry is a frequent subject of Hollywood films, numerous museums have been erected in its memory, and its lessons are incorporated into high school curricula, a sense of Holocaust fatigue seems to be setting in. “I sympathize with those who are desperate to ensure none of it is forgotten,” writes critic Micha Odenheimer, “yet I am one of those Jews who prefers his Jewishness to be rooted in culture, tradition, or customs that can be lived, enjoyed, and celebrated.”

Recounting her visit to Yaffa Eliach’s monumental “Tower of Faces” exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which assembles thousands of family photographs to commemorate the Jewish dead of a single Polish town, Laura Levitt, an American Jewish scholar, laments that “the grander vision of devastation and loss that is the Holocaust” dwarfs the “ordinary losses” of American Jews (American Jewish Loss After the Holocaust, NYU Press 2007), making it difficult to process individual loss, such as the “normal” deaths of loved ones.

A number of years ago, I sat in Carnegie Hall listening to a performance of the Klezmatics, which melds the music of the shtetl with contemporary folk and other musical genres. At one point during the performance, the band performed a song in Yiddish that spoke of the genocide in a small Polish town. As one of the performers translated the lyrics for the audience, a man sitting in front of me turned to his wife, and said facetiously, “Oh that’s very uplifting.” A song about the Holocaust jarred his sense of what is suitable to perform in public, and what constituted entertainment.


Growing numbers of Jewish Americans yearn to be an ethnic and religious group, resembling Italian or Irish Americans, one that is defined by distinctive foods and ritual customs, rather than by the legacy of pain and suffering. Holocaust memory is crowding out other sources of Jewish meaning and diminishing the possibility of joy and celebration, they say. Their Holocaust fatigue registers ambivalence about the fact that the genocide has emerged as a core element of Jewish identity.  Jews are no better, more victimized or radically different from other ethnic groups, they argue.

Of course Jews are not alone in wishing to move on from traumatic pasts. Writing about commemorations of other traumatic episodes, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, cultural critic Marita Sturken notes that during the past few decades, an unprecedented focus on mourning and memory has converged with the belief “that one can always heal, move on, and place the past in its proper context, and do so quickly.”  Most Americans assume that closure is desirable and necessary, and that grief is bad and must end in order for individuals to adapt and for life to resume. We are assured that “someday things will just be a memory,” and are encouraged to “move on.” Sociologist Nancy Berns, in a recent book, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, suggests, “Closure offers order and predictability instead of ambiguity and uncertainty.” It allows us to “get on with out lives” and resume expectations of productivity and forward trajectories.

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The permanent association of Jewish identity with victimization is highly problematic, to be sure.  Jews, particularly in the United States, are no longer collectively powerless, even if they consistently perceive anti-Semitism to be more endemic to American society than public opinion polls say it is. But those who say that the past is behind us, and that we need to move on, fail to appreciate what a hard-won accomplishment Holocaust consciousness was, how much resistance those who tried to speak openly about the genocide often encountered, and how important it was for survivors and their children to finally be able to share their stories.

If talk of the Holocaust was in the air in the 1970s, when I was growing up, I was barely aware of it, even in New York City, which was home to such a large Jewish population, a good number of whom were survivors. We did not learn about it in school, even in lessons about World War II or about the waves of immigration to America’s shores, and there were no public memorials or museums to the murdered millions. There was barely a category of experience called “The Holocaust.” The genocide of European Jewry was generally subsumed under talk of “the war.” A patchwork memorial culture had emerged in Jewish communities over time, but these efforts were modest, somber, locally based, not a very visible aspect of Jewish communities, and were generally not seen as relevant to non-Jewish Americans. And in fact, I have written how survivors, recalling interactions with family, neighbors and others in the United States in the early postwar years, felt widely misunderstood, unrecognized, and at times even shamed.


Holocaust consciousness had to be organized, fought for, and created—particularly as there was so much working against it.  And still, today, in the midst of a robust memorial culture, the Holocaust remains forbidden territory. We distance ourselves from it, bathing it in Hollywood homilies to the power of human kindness. We draw boundaries around it, housing it in concrete structures, hoping to contain it.  Yet the call for Jews to become an ethnic group like any other, and minimize our connection to historical trauma, seems awfully premature.


Are We All Traumatized?


We all endure suffering, and we all lose loved ones. But are we all traumatized? According to Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and well-known Buddhist practitioner writing in the pages of the New York Times last Sunday, we are indeed.


In an essay, “The Trauma of Being Alive,” Epstein describes the experience of his 88-year-old mother, who two years ago lost her husband of almost 60 years, and who still suffers from that loss, while those around her tell her that she must move on.

Epstein is absolutely right that while we all grieve, our culture frowns upon those who would wallow in it. We are expected to mourn, work through, and move on toward closure, tying it all up neatly. But it’s not so easy to do that. Loved ones, or painful episodes, linger on in our memory, pulling us away from our daily lives. “Mourning,” he rightly recognizes, “has no timetable.”

But in his effort to democratize trauma Epstein waters the term down, making it meaningless. He writes: “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is will the poignancy of impermanence.”

As most psychiatrists and social scientists use the term, “trauma” refers to an event that is shocking and disruptive, that exists “outside the range of human experience.” They consider wars, genocide, natural disasters, rape and other forms of violence to be traumatic because these events cause lasting injuries, and fundamentally change the way we see the world. “I was a different person before the [fill in the blank] event that changed my life” is the typical refrain of the traumatized. Trauma, in other words, is marked by a radical break between before and after.

If trauma is by its very definition the effect of an exceptionally jarring event, then the notion that common events as joblessness, homophobia, or even losing a loved one (through a typical death) makes little sense– however painful they may be for those who experience them. “We are all suffering from “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” says Epstein. But tell that to the thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who suffer from painful flashbacks, nightmares, and an inability to speak of their experiences. And tell that to the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides–and to survivors of rape.

I would rather live in a society that over-diagnoses trauma than one in which trauma is denied. We did live in such a society until fairly recently. Before the advent of the idea of “post-traumatic stress” diagnosis beginning in the 1970s (thanks to psychiatrist Robert Lifton and others who worked with Vietnam vets and others who endured war, and Judith Herman, who included domestic forms of violence such as rape and incest to the mix) trauma was often met with incomprehension–or denial. Holocaust survivors, we thought, simply needed jobs and families to get over their experiences, and become “normal” again. Rape victims had endured bad sexual experiences, and would quickly heal. Today, we know that these experiences often have enduring effects, and frequently haunt individuals for the rest of their lives.

While modern life brings life uncertainties to which we are all vulnerable, trauma is an exceptional state; to say otherwise does victims–and ourselves– a disservice.

Remembering Bob Bellah


The other night I learned via a friend’s Facebook post that Bob Bellah had died.  The tributes have already begun to flood in. A brilliant sociologist of religion and analyst of American culture, mentor to so many students, and prominent public intellectual, Bellah was in his mid-80s, but his death still registered as a shock. Last December, when he spoke in New York about his latest work, a mammoth book about religion in human evolution, he was as sharp as ever. Afterwards, at a group dinner, he regaled us with stories of Talcott Parsons, opinions of Obama (he was, in the main, impressed), the story state of higher education in a neoliberal era, and  the three-book series he was madly trying to finish because, he said, “I don’t know how much time I have left.”

He was a member of a dying breed: an engaged intellectual who lived for ideas, who was dedicated to translating those ideas and sharing them with as many people as possible. Habits of the Heart, for all of its flaws, was a path-breaking book that dissected American culture’s love affair with individualism. I read it as a first year graduate student the year it was published, and it had an enormous impact on me–as much as for its form as for its content. At a time when sociologists were working on issues of diminishing scope, dividing the world up into smaller and smaller pieces, that book made a big argument about what it meant to be an American. It was beautifully crafted, written in a style that any “educated” person could read and understand. It wore its deep theoretical lineage lightly, and was written expressly to be read and talked about–and it was.

I was not the sort of person who would normally have gravitated toward Bob. He was always surrounded by a coterie of young male theorists –and I was clearly not in that league. Though committed to social equality, he was culturally pretty conservative, at least in his public pronouncements, and I was a feminist, and a lesbian to boot. (I never forgave him for characterizing gay and lesbian communities, in Habits of the Heart, as transient  “lifestyle enclaves” versus “communities of memory”). And finally, he was a Christian believer who thought that religion should be a foundational part of public life, and I was an agnostic Jew.

And still, in our conversations in his small office in Barrows Hall, he always made me feel that I had something important to say, and I will always be grateful to him for that.