By Samuel Moyn, TLS
August 7, 2013
Book Review Essay
Laura Jockusch, COLLECT AND RECORD! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford University Press).
François Azouvi, LE MYTHE DU GRAND SILENCE: Auschwitz, les Français, la mémoire (Fayard).
The conventional wisdom about Holocaust memory has been that there was next to no interest or investment after the Second World War in the fact that so many Jews died during it; that those who lived through the war were not simply bystanders of a great enormity, they did not even realize they were. Even in Israel before and after 1948, the creation of Holocaust consciousness lagged. But now, on the assumption that this “myth of silence” could only amount to a project to dishonour Jews or delegitimize the Jewish state, a backlash has begun. It started in 2010 with Hasia Diner’s We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the myth of silence after the Holocaust 1945–1962, which documented evidence that Americans had not stood idly by, and was followed by After the Holocaust, in which David Cesarani and an international team of historians showed that, especially in Yiddish-language circles, the shock of the Holocaust was registered immediately and persistently.
A student of Diner and a contributor to Cesarani’s book, Laura Jockusch is chiefly interested in Continental Europe’s Jews, and her Collect and Record! surveys the groundbreaking institutions in France and Poland that organized the earliest Holocaust research. While we have known about institutions like the Centre de documentation juive contemporaine in France and the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland, the responses of the many who struggled to tell their story have not been brought together before and Jockusch deserves enormous credit for recording their narratives in such rich and compelling detail. Perhaps most pioneeringly, she shows that Jews took up forms of historical writing even in the difficult circumstances of the continent’s displaced persons camps, a phenomenon never studied before. We find out here, for example, that in the American zone of occupied Germany, around fifty branches of a Central Historical Commission worked for two years in the late 1940s to fulfil a “holy duty” to document the catastrophe. One commission circular admonished: “Do not forget that every document, picture, song, legend is the only gravestone which we can place on the unknown graves of our murdered parents, siblings, and children!”
But Jockusch wants her story to be about more than the prescient drive to remember. The general impulse behind her book is a kind of second-order memorialization – the diligent collecting and recording of the stories of those who committed themselves so early to collecting and recording. These survivor-historians – most of whom were not professionally trained – showed “extraordinary foresight and audacity” in gathering personal reminiscences which are now seen as crucial elements in history but which at the time were spurned. In Poland, scholars like Rachel Auerbach – a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who would later go on to help found the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem – visited people in their homes and shelters, initially storing their interviews in a cupboard.
The most important success of Jockusch’s study is that it paves the way for a transnational history of Holocaust memory. Many books have been published on how the Holocaust came to figure in the national culture of each European country, along with America and Israel. But besides Tony Judt, for whom Holocaust memory was the single distinguishing accomplishment of European civilization in the post-war age, no one has tried to integrate different national experiences – a strange lapse given the huge displacement of surviving Jews after the war and the deterritorialization of the Jewish people even since 1948. Jockusch shows, through her small case study of early historians, how much more there is to do, in part because she stresses how connected different groups of collectors were.
She is less persuasive, however, in her argument against the “myth of silence”. The riposte to the generalization that there was a pall of silence around the Holocaust is surely not simply that Jews everywhere spoke early and often. Memory, and especially the collective memory of societies, is not like a light switch: on or off. Even a massive compendium of information of the kind that Diner’s important study serves up remains anecdotal in character, leaving open how to generalize about Jews as a group. Jockusch says that “silence” occurred mainly among non-Jews, which is true, but that hardly means it is the case that a great number of Jews, let alone a majority, broke the silence. Those who did not speak about the Holocaust were silent for disparate reasons, and sometimes for the sake of other causes. Jews in Eastern Europe were often fervent Communists; in Western Europe, many Jews concluded that their best choice was to try harder to efface Jewish difference (Jockusch cites Paula Hyman’s finding that French Jews changed their surnames in record numbers in the years immediately following the war). It would be absurd to impose on a far-flung and diverse group of people a collective obligation to meet any cultural expectation, even in the aftermath of their greatest tragedy.
Diner concedes that her evidence goes only to the memorialization of Holocaust victims by the Jewish community. Jockusch’s study, similarly, does not even try to reorient our understanding of why and how the larger societies in which these early Holocaust scholars worked spurned them. Jewish victimhood was less visible after the Second World War than now for a series of related reasons. National governments across the North Atlantic were preoccupied with presenting their own people as the principal victims. Perhaps more importantly, the military and political rather than “racial” enemies of the Nazis survived in far greater proportions to tell their stories. The very failure of the first Holocaust historians to be heard meant that few understood exactly who had suffered worst in a war in which most people suffered to some degree. Many of Jockusch’s scholars are Eastern Europeans who lost confidence that their efforts to memorialize what had happened would make a difference in a Communist utopia; but when they travelled west, they found even less of a hearing.
All of which makes François Azouvi’s Le Mythe du grand silence so important. It is the first attempt to offer a new starting point for the history of Holocaust memory that takes into account public memory in general and not simply Jewish memory in particular, even though it is limited to France. Azouvi’s elegant book focuses largely on high culture, from philosophers to novelists to filmmakers. His revision escalates in plausibility as the book moves further into the post-war era. In his treatment of the 1940s, Azouvi’s survey is hardly revolutionary, though he usefully focuses on immediate Catholic consciousness of the enormity of the genocide. Much more persuasive is his account of how Jewish genocide was taken up in literature and film – including in three Prix Goncourt-winning novels in the mid-1950s (most famously André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just). His most significant argument is that it was not the Eichmann trial of 1961 that brought the Holocaust into public consciousness, as earlier historians have claimed, but the controversy unleashed by Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, which indicted Pope Pius XII’s wartime silence. That controversy was abetted by several other events, like the now forgotten affair ignited by the publication of Jean-François Steiner’s potboiler Treblinka in 1966, which claimed the Jews had died because of a failure of moral fibre. Azouvi rightly suspects that in the mid-1960s, as the scandal unintentionally set off by Hannah Arendt’s passing statements about elite Jewish compliance also suggests, Jews airing worries about their people’s passivity helped to catapult the Holocaust to newfound prominence.
In spite of its occasional exaggeration and misleading title, Le Mythe du grand silence also confirms the received truth that public consciousness of the Holocaust “accelerated” after a slow start. When he comes to the pivotal date of 1967, on which so much hangs politically, the modesty of his revision is palpable. The Six Day War, for Azouvi, was less an absolute beginning than “the paroxysm that succeeded a long period in which the fever rose slowly, having spiked several times before”. That sounds right; but for a large number of non-Jews, as well as for many Jews, the focus on the Holocaust crystallized only then – or even later, since as Azouvi goes on to show, the “fever” still had several stages to run, including the release of Marcel Ophüls’s Le Chagrin et la Pitié two years later. In particular, Azouvi agrees that the separation of the Holocaust as a distinct event in its own right within the larger matrix of war did not reach the public – with some exceptions – until a considerable amount of time had passed.
The continuing quest for understanding how Holocaust memory emerged and evolved matters so much because it is a genealogy of our common morals. And there is a profound flaw in the well-meaning movement to destroy the myth of silence. Locked in polemical dispute, it often inverts the argument of those who constructed the “myth”. The current debate shows that historians should give up on the premiss that the Holocaust was either entirely absent or integrally present from the start. What counts are the changing forms of Holocaust memory, which by the 1970s and 80s had clearly changed people’s attitudes towards the national past as well as their response to international politics.
François Azouvi studies recent years from the perspective of the French state and looks at famous trials of ageing collaborators. Unlike Jockusch, he does not take Holocaust memory on from a supranational perspective. Extending the globalizing impulse of Laura Jockusch’s study may soon reveal the process of decolonization, and its sequels, as the crucial and most neglected event in the story. One scholar, Michael Rothberg, has already convincingly shown that German and colonial atrocity were remembered together in France, sometimes in sympathetic combination, as crimes against one people stoked memories of the pain of others. But in the longer run, Holocaust memory also filtered into a contemporary human rights consciousness. Not so much outraged by imperial crime, but rather horrified by postcolonial violence, Western citizens finally found shocking the intra-European violence they had once passed over quietly. We now need a story of Holocaust memory oriented to international politics as a whole, rather than the vagaries of a single hotspot. If global Holocaust memory sometimes provided a form of support for the Israeli state, it also helped the suffering victims of other states mobilize a new sort of humanitarian concern, at least as early as the 1960s and 1970s in Biafra and Bangladesh and Cambodia. It was not for nothing that victims and their sympathizers in all three places learned to present the tragedy as another Holocaust.
Samuel Moyn teaches history at Columbia University and is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.