Incorporation of the Holocaust experience into the American conceptual framework




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The American Jewish community worried that the American public would identify all Jews with communist traitors such as the Rosenbergs. The AJC (the American Jewish Committee) openly advocated the death penalty for the Rosenbergs as a means of demonstrating its patriotism (Lipstadt 1996: 202). In order to distort the stereotypical notion of Jews as communists, the American Jewish organizations protested against anti-Semitism in the Soviet bloc (Rudolph Slansky and the Prague trial became a great opportunity for the Jews to dissociate themselves in public from communism (Novick 1999: 98-99).

During the fifties the American Jews were busy with seizing new opportunities that the postwar America offered to them, such as an access to prestigious universities, to liberal professions and to the sphere of technology, engineering and management (Mintz 2001: 6). With increased opportunities and achievement came greater prosperity and transformation of Jewish life style (Mintz 2001: 6). The American Jews left their ethnic neighborhoods and moved to city suburbs, where they created their own community centers. This physical or rather a geographical move was also reflected in the way the American Jews were perceived: “Judaism became an American religion. From being seen as members of an ethnic group, like the Irish or the Italians, Jews began to be thought of as Americans who, like Protestants and Catholics, adhere to one of America’s three great faiths” (Mintz 2001: 6). This shift or rather a move to the mainstream of American consumer culture was expressed by either their radical assimilation and distance from Jewish roots or their adaptive acculturation with retaining of some ethnic and religious elements of Jewish identity (Mintz 2001: 6).

According to Mintz the promotion of the Holocaust talk after the war would impede the postwar Jewish process of Americanization by attracting attention to Jewish distinctiveness and also would consume energies necessary for following the new opportunities (Mintz 2001: 6). The very orthodox members of American Jewish communities and especially those ones among survivors avoided the Holocaust talk by concentrating on rebuilding religious institutions, schools and academies. America with its free practice of religion, restraints against persecution and material prosperity offered them “a safe haven” (Mintz 2001: 9). There was a widening gap between private and public discourse on the Holocaust.

If we look at what role the Holocaust played at that time, we will find out that the Holocaust in the fifties figured in two political frameworks: the Final Solution was interpreted mainly as a logical consequence of the German totalitarian regime and its political response was most visible in the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 (Baron 2003: 72). For further information on the relation between the Holocaust, America and Israel consult Novick’s study The Holocaust in American Life (1999: 69-84) and Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry (2000).

As already mentioned earlier, Novick claims that the Holocaust talk in the postwar years in American public sphere was almost nonexistent (Novick 1999: 103). Lipstadt agrees with Novick’s statement: “since throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s it was barely on the Jewish communal or theological agenda” (Lipstadt 1996: 195). Lucy Dawidowicz laments “it is plain from even the most cursory review of textbooks and scholarly works by English and American historians that the awesome events of the Holocaust have not been given their historic due” (Dawidowicz 1981: 22-23).

Novick and other scholars assert that there were only two historical books available in the United States during that time, both of them were produced abroad with low sales in the United States (Gerald Reitling’s The Final Solution and Leon Poliakov’s Harvest of Hate) and neither of them attracted much attention (Novick 1999: 103). There were only a few courses taught at schools, no special religious commemorations, monuments and memorials. Lawrence Baron argues on the other hand that Holocaust commemorations, memorials, and survivors’ groups originated between 1945 and 1960 (Baron 2003: 77).

Baron also points out to Novick’s failure to discuss reviews, essays and commentaries in academic journals and two other pioneering studies: Eva Reichmann’s Hostages of Civilization: The Social Sources of National Socialist Anti-Semitism (1951) and Joseph Tenenbaum’s Race and Reich: The Story of an Epoch (1956), both emphasizing the centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazi ideology (Baron 2003: 67). Besides these two major studies Baron also mentions monographs about the German leaders and Nazi organizations that appeared in the fifties: Willi Frischauer’s Himmler: The Evil Genius of the Third Reich (1953), Edward Crankshaw’s Gestapo: Instrument of Tyranny (1956), Gerald Reitlinger’s The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922-1945 (1957), Milton Meyer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945 (1955) and other scholarly literature analyzing the Nazi methods and the concentration camp inmates experience: Eugen Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System behind Them (1950), Elie Cohen’s Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp (1953), Victor Frankl’s From Death-Camp to Existentialism: A Psychiatrist’s Path to a New Therapy (1959), and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (1960).

He also argues that between 1945 and 1960 there was a steady stream of wartime memories and diaries, which later became crucial for the study of the Jewish genocide (Baron 2003: 75): Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys (1947), Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (1952), Gerda Weissmann Klein’s All But My Life (1957), Viktor Frankl’s From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1959), Primo Levi If This Is a Man (1959), and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960). Baron does not forget to mention the Holocaust bestsellers in America in the fifties: John Hersey’s fictionalized diary on the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto The Wall (1950), dismissed by Novick, who attributed its popularity to Hersey’s reputation as a writer (Novick 1999: 306-307), The Diary of Anne Frank (1952), which is analyzed later in this essay, Leon Uris’ epic novel on the establishment of Israel Exodus (1958), dismissed by Novick as “schlock fiction” (Baron 2003: 76), and William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959), acknowledged both by Lipstadt and Novick as one of the key text that contributed to the future popularization of the Holocaust.

Baron points out to the rise of Civil Rights agenda in the fifties pursued by mainstream American Jewish organizations (Baron 2003: 70) and publishing of studies dealing with prejudice and discrimination: Gordon Allport The Nature of Prejudice (1954). However, most of the studies published after the war concentrated mainly on the Nazi perpetrators rather than on their victims’ experience.

Baron in his article “The Holocaust and American Public Memory, 1945- 1960” also includes a chapter focusing on the philosophical and religious reactions to the Jewish genocide, especially on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (American edition in 1948), Albert Camus’ The Rebel (American edition in 1956) and Karl Jaspers’ reflections upon the German guilt (American edition 1947).

Baron mentions two pieces of evidence, which are often (according to him unjustly) cited to prove that Americans and American Jews felt indifferent to the Holocaust in the early 1960s: responses of thirty-one Jewish scholars in a symposium “Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals” in 1961, where only two participants pointed out to the Jewish genocide as an influence on their Jewish identities (Novick 1999: 106) and a public-opinion survey about the Eichmann trial, entitled The Apathetic Majority, where only thirty-three percent of those, who followed the trial could answer the number of Jews killed in the war (Baron 2003: 78). Baron argues that these results can be explained by strident secularism of most contributors and the absence of questions concerning the Holocaust. As far as the survey is concerned, Baron sees the problem in accepting only one right answer, the figure of six million, while it was still not so common to agree on that number in the fifties and early sixties and compares the survey with another one made by the American Jewish Committee in 1993, where only thirty-five percent of adults answered the right number (Baron 2003: 79).

As far as the cinematic situation is concerned, there were literally almost no movies dealing with the Holocaust produced after the war until the 1960s; the only exception in America was The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and French movie shown in the United States under the title Night and Fog (1955) by Alan Resnais – dealing with the French resistance during the war.

Lipstadt points out that most of the Holocaust production in the fifties and early sixties was prepared by the non-Jewish world (Lipstadt 1996: 196). She explains the Holocaust silence after the war, besides the obvious already discussed political reasons, by the “optimistic spirit” prevailing in America after the war: Those who had returned from the war were concerned with building a family and a career, not with dwelling on the horrors of the past…Americans were engaged in obtaining material goods and achieving goals that they never had before…Everything, including babies, was being mass produced” (Lipstadt 1996: 197).

The past was not an appropriate topic to discuss after the war; for Americans it took place somewhere else at some other time. Lipstadt argues that the optimistic postwar atmosphere full of hope and aspirations was reflected in Hollywood’s use of happy endings even when the war and the Holocaust were involved (The Diary of Anne Frank, This is Your Life 1953 television episode on Hanna Kohner, a Holocaust survivor): “Apparently Americans could only address this topic within an optimistic and uplifting context. People had to be left with a feeling of hope”(Lipstadt 1996: 198). The representations of the Holocaust victims depicted the survivors as people, who had overcome their past and successfully integrated themselves into American society. The emphasis was put on the diversity of victims rather than on the uniqueness of Jewish victimhood.

The anti-Semitism in the United States, which was on its peak during the Second World War, declined during the postwar years; the American Jews became integrated – Americanized. Doneson mentions in her book Holocaust in American Film Henry Popkin, who called the conforming attitude of the American expressed in the art “de-Semitization” (Doneson 1987: 65). According to Popkin the reasoning behind such an assimilation tendency was as follows: “If we pretend that the Jew does not exist…then he will not be noticed; the anti-Semite, unable to find his victim, will simply forget about him” (Doneson 1987: 65).

The film reacted with the reflection and promotion of this new image of the Americanized Jew. Many leaders in the Jewish community feared the possible connection of being Jewish with being Communist. While fascism was regarded as a right-wing movement, communism was identified with the left-wing and so were the Jews. Already in 1947 the Hollywood Motion Project (the Jewish Film Committee) was formed in Los Angeles (funded by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League), whose task was to supervise Hollywood film makers, in order to avoid negative portrayals of Jews in film and television and to improve the image of the Jew. In art generally the overtly visible Jewish characters were avoided. The American Jewish organizations within their frame of their universalistic approach extended their activities to include other minorities – ties between Jews and emerging black political activists were established.

In the same year when the Hollywood Motion Picture Project was formed the HUAC (the House on Un-American Activities Committee) began its investigation of communist propaganda among the representatives of the film industry. Those charged with having communist connections or beliefs and were later to be known under the label the “Hollywood 10”: “It seems that the belief in and fear of the influence of film constantly brought Hollywood under public political scrutiny” (Doneson 1987: 62). The American film industry was heavily under political control (Doneson 1987: 64), which was of course reflected in the choice of the themes in the films made in the fifties.

Doneson claims in her book Holocaust in American Film that even though the initial hearings had some anti-Semitic overtones, anti-Semitism was not at the core of McCarthyism; several of his main advisers were Jewish (Doneson 1987: 62-63). She also asserts that despite the fact that the Holocaust still was not an established entity in America in the fifties, its language and imagery was already used during the hearings (Doneson 1987: 63): “One could say that the Holocaust, along with its symbols, had already come to be considered a watershed event, the standard to which future disasters and persecutions, minor or major, would be compared. The Holocaust, in other words, was becoming a part of the vernacular of tragedy”(Doneson 1987: 63).

In the 1950s most American Jewish leaders felt hesitant about spreading consciousness of the Holocaust and in this way promoting the image of the Jews as victims (Novick 1999: 123). Novick considers the way victims were perceived in the 1950s another issue that contributed to marginalizing the Holocaust in postwar years: “Whereas nowadays the status of victim has come to be prized, in the forties and fifties it evoked at best the sort of pity mixed with contempt. It was a label actively shunned. The self-reliant cowboy and the victorious war hero were the approved (masculine) ideals. Few wanted to think of themselves as victims, and even fewer to be thought about that way by others”(Novick 1999: 121).

The American Jews feared that portraying the Jews as victims would strengthen stereotypical images of the Jews as weak, whining, complaining and self-pitying. That might have been the reason, why the Jewish organizations avoided representations of the Jews as victims and instead tried to adjust their images to typical American heroes and thus to integrate the Jews in public mind into American society: “There needs to be an elimination or at least a reduction of horror stories of victimized Jewry….We must normalize the image of the Jew….War hero stories are excellent….The Jew should be represented as like others, rather than unlike others. The image of Jewish weakness must be eliminated”(Novick 1999: 121). There was a widely spread belief among the American Jewish leaders that the victim image worsened rather than alleviated anti-Semitism (Novick 1999: 122).
4.1 The Diary of Anne Frank

Flanzbaum calls the book The Diary of Anne Frank the most widely read book about the Holocaust in America and for many decades the main source of the Holocaust education “the most important landmark in the Americanization of the Holocaust” (Flanzbaum 1999: 1). The Diary of Anne Frank entered the American consciousness first as a book in 1952. Since its first appearance it has become the canonical Holocaust text with redemptive message of the mankind’s goodness winning over the evils of persecution, oppression and discrimination.

The Book

Anne’s diary began as a private expression of her thoughts about her life in the span of years 1942 and 1944. During her hiding in Amsterdam she decided (after listening to a radio broadcast about a planned public record of the Dutch people’s oppression under German occupation) to make her diary public after the war. She edited, removed and rewrote sections of her diary and also created pseudonyms for the people, who were in hiding with her, and thought of it as a novel that would be entitled Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex). Otto Frank, her father, was the only one from the family, who survived the concentration camps and returned to Amsterdam. After the war Miep Gies, the family’s friend and their Dutch Christian “protector” during the war years, gave him the diary.

Otto Frank decided to publish the diary to honor his daughter’s wish to be a writer. Anne’s original version is known as “version A”, her edited version as “version B” and Otto Frank’s censored version for publication as “version C”. In the first version for publication certain passages were removed, especially those referring to Otto Frank’s wife and Anne’s sexuality. The diary was first published in Holland in 1947 and within a few years it was translated into German, French and English. The first American edition was published in 1952 under the title Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl followed by a play based upon the diary, written by the husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which premiered in New York City, in 1955 and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The movie The Diary of Anne Frank did not appear until 1959 and became an immediate commercial success

On June 12, 142, Anne Frank got a small red and white diary for her thirteenth birthday, which she named “Kitty”; she could not know that her notebook would become one of the most widely read personal journals in the world. She started to write her thoughts and feelings down out of lack of any real confidant. In her introduction to the diary’s first American edition, Eleanor Roosevelt described it as “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read”(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_frank#The_Diary_of_A_Young_Girl).

Since her first posthumous encounter with America, Anne has become a universal symbol of the Holocaust and her individuality and life sacrificed for the symbolism of all the victims of the genocide. The diary was praised both for its mature style of writing (Anne was 13 years old when she began to write her diary) and its content, which has been changed, edited and used several times throughout the years in order to fit the needs of a specific era. Since its publications, Otto Frank had to face Holocaust deniers’ accusations of ingenuity of the diary (David Irving) leading to a trial and extensive technical examination of the manuscript in the late 1970s. With Otto Frank’s death in 1980, the original diary, including letters and loose sheets, were willed to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, whose final statement was that the diary is authentic. The Anne Frank House has been open to public since 1960 and it has become one of Amsterdam’s main tourist attractions. In 1957 the Anne Frank Foundation was established in order to fight against discrimination and persecution.

The Diary is not a “regular” account of the war even though it has been used throughout the time as almost a war document. Anne could not give us a detailed description of the worsening political situation in Holland and Europe generally; she and the rest of the household in hiding were isolated from the outside world and received their information only through their Dutch protectors, radio and the attic window. She writes about heated political discussions and political opinions of the household members but she herself is tired and not interested in politics any more because political speculations and quarrels were together with talking about food issue number one for most of the time in hiding. However, Anne writes into her diary about every major progress or setback of the allied forces.

The genocide, the war and Anne’s Jewish identity create a determining background for Anne’s inner turmoil but they are not the only and may be not even the major issue her diary. It is a coming of age novel, even though not a typical one. Anne describes and observes in her diary her growing up, maturing and changing. The skeleton of the book is made of her feelings toward herself and to people that she lives in hiding with. In that sense the book offers a psychological portrait of a teenage girl under unusually difficult and stressful circumstances. She also gives a reader a quite precise and detailed analysis of behavior and characters of other people in hiding with her. That is where her observation and literary skills are the strongest.

The main focus of the book is Anne’s inner conflict between wanting to be a unique independent being and to make difference in the world and Anne’s feelings of not being understood and accepted as she is. She confesses to her diary in order to accept herself, her complexity and duality, her wild carefree talkative sociable side and her serious gentle sensitive introverted self. When she starts writing her diary, she is in her transformative years at the time and place full of political and social changes. Anne is full of hopes, plans and dreams that are constantly stepped on not only by their parents’ generation life skepticism but also the war situation. The center of the story is Anne’s character; it is neither the Holocaust and her Jewish identity nor the war. Anne thinks of herself first as a human being – as a growing woman, very modern and emancipated for her age and time.

In nationality terms, Anne believes that Hitler ripped her of her German identity and she feels to be Dutch, she would love to be Dutch. But no matter where she lives, the Jewish attribute is always with her. She is proud of being a Jew but she doesn’t consider it to be her core identity. It is something that is supplementary to her but still unwillingly affects her life fatalistically. She wants to be perceived and accepted as a woman, as a human being, not as a Jew. But still she doesn’t want to deny or anybody to steal her Jewish identity. She feels proud to be a member of a “chosen group of people”. Anne believes in God and even though she cannot understand why they – the Jews have to suffer so much, she believes there is a reason for it, there is a reason why they have been chosen and that it will not last for ever. Anne thinks of their suffering as a temporary state of being and never gives up her hope for better times in future.

However, Anne is dragged down by her always present subconscious fear; fear of being discovered, fear of being arrested and sent to a concentration camp but she always finds a way how to elevate her spirits. Her faith is essential for her but she does not describe it in strictly Jewish matters; it does not control or limit her. Anne believes in God but her God is rather personal and universal at the same time. Anne’s God has no Jewish restrictions or rules; her God is not limited or framed by any religion. Anne does not care for any specific religious rituals; she mentions celebrating Hanukah but she also says that she enjoys St. Nicolas Day better; her mind and the way she perceives religion is open, not defined yet or defined as such already.

Anne feels that she belongs to a group of people defined by their special relationship to God or rather God’s special relationship to them. Her Jewishness is part of her identity that she is aware of, both on a personal and on a social level. She feels that the Jews were chosen by God to have a special burden in order to change the world for better. It gives her the feeling of a strange privilege but also responsibility. She cannot understand the actual horror of the war but on o more abstract level she tries to see a reason for her suffering and she is plagued by guilt.

It is the survivor’s guilt, so well known from later art works dealing with the Holocaust survivors. She feels guilty because she is safe and other millions of people are dying. She feels guilty that she did not and could not help them. She feels guilty that she did not share the fate with them. She thinks about both in very concrete terms concerning her friend Hannele, whose image becomes Anne’s nightmare, and on a very general level, thinking with pity and compassion about all people suffering, Jews, Christians, and others.

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