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.
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.