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by Peter Novick

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-84009-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

An exceptionally interesting, prodigiously researched study of how the Holocaust has been understood and the uses to which it has been put, in American—particularly American Jewish—political, communal, and intellectual affairs. Novick (History/Univ. of Chicago; The Resistance Versus Vichy, not reviewed) notes that until about 1965, the Holocaust was “marginalized” in American life, subsumed under the Cold War’s political dynamics, as well as its cultural and pedagogic agenda. A wide variety of forces, from the Eichmann trial to the rise of identity politics and concomitant focus on “victimization,” led to the Holocaust becoming “centered in American life.” In the 1980s and particularly the “90s, with Holocaust education made compulsory in the high schools of several states, the erection of Holocaust memorials, and the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it came to have “transcendent status as the bearer of eternal truths or lessons that could be derived from contemplating it.” American Jewish leaders were instrumental in furthering this process, both to garner support for Israel and as part of their effort to deter assimilation. The Holocaust has achieved, in one of Novick’s more polemically charged phrases, a “perverse sacralization.” Yet parts of his book seem to argue against this thesis, or at least to demonstrate that Holocaust- centeredness may be an ephemeral phenomenon. Novick notes how superficial, and sometimes opportunistic or manipulative, allusions to the Holocaust from both ends of the political spectrum have been; he wonders how long it will be before Holocaust memorials become “part of the tuned-out urban background—; and he maintains that the memory of the Shoah has had a negligible influence on Washington’s response to genocide in places like Biafra and Cambodia. Concerning America’s hesitant response to Serb atrocities in Bosnia, for example, he asserts that “—the lessons of Vietnam” . . . easily trumped “the lessons of Holocaust.—” Inconsistent in its approach, occasionally characterized by rhetorically overcharged prose, this well-written, richly layered, pathbreaking work nonetheless deserves a wide readership.