I, the Holocaust, Am Your God

It’s long been remarked that the Holocaust and Israel have replaced God and halakha as the touchstones of Jewish experience and identity. The Holocaust is our deity, Israel our daily practice.

You get a sense of this in a New York Times oped Elie Wiesel wrote on the day that NBC first aired its mini-series Holocaust. That was in April 1978.

All Jewish families, mine included, watched it. One Jewish magazine even said that watching it “has about it the quality of a religious obligation” for Jews. Like the Six-Day War, it was a founding moment of contemporary Jewish identity.

I remember it vividly. I watched all nine and a half hours of it. I developed a mad crush on one of the characters, a beautiful, dark-eyed Jewish partisan in the forests of Poland or Soviet Russia (played, I realized much later in life, by a much younger Tovah Feldshuh). During one scene, of a synagogue packed with Jews being set ablaze by the Nazis, I ran out of my parents’ room, sobbing uncontrollably.

It was terrible TV; I tried to watch it years later and couldn’t make it past the first half-hour.

But Wiesel didn’t complain about the aesthetic quality of the show; it was the desacralization of the Holocaust he objected to. As quoted by Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life:

It transforms an ontological event into soap-opera…..We see long, endless processions of Jews marching toward Babi Yar….We see the naked bodies covered with “blood”—and it is all make-believe….People will tell me that…similar techniques are being used for war movies and historical re-creations. But the Holocaust is unique; not just another event. This series treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event….Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized….The Holocaust transcends history…..The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering…..The Holocaust [is] the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know.

It’s all there. The Holocaust not as an event in secular history but as a leap into transcendence; it cannot be explained, it can only be circled, like a holy fire. Auschwitz is our Sinai, the ovens our burning bush. Like the Jews receiving God’s commandments, the Jews of the camps experienced a sacred mystery, received a secret message, which we can only approach at a distance, with awe and trembling. I, the Holocaust, am your God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Just in case the overtones weren’t clear, Molly Haskell, writing about the show in New York Magazine, threw in an explicit reference to the Second Commandment for good measure:

How can actors, how dare actors, presume to imagine and tell us what it felt like! The attempt becomes a desecration against, among others, the Hebraic injunction banning graven images.

No graven images of the Holocaust. I, the Holocaust, am your God.

I also hated Schindler’s List—What was it Stanley Kubrick said? “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t.”—and much of the discussion around it. But faced with this kind of dreck from Wiesel and Haskell, this pseudo-religion of pyres and purgation, give me the bubblegum uplift of Oprah Winfrey any day: “I’m a better person as a result of seeing Schindler’s List.”


  1. milx February 13, 2015 at 10:09 am | #

    On the other hand for many of us [members of the Jewish ppl], Auschwitz isn’t our Sinai, Sinai is our Sinai. Holocaust and Israel have only replaced God and halakha as the touchstones of a particular kind of Jewish experience and identity. It’s a bit [idr the proper term here] erasing/alienating/myopic/arrogant to speak of yr limited experience of Jewishness as though it speaks for all [American] Jews.

    • Jacob February 25, 2015 at 1:18 am | #

      The author is a Jew.

  2. Tim Barker February 13, 2015 at 12:19 pm | #

    “The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering.” This is striking because, while sharing a vision of history divided between secular and transcendent time, it exactly reverses Walter Benjamin’s conception of the relation between the living and the dead (though of course WB wrote before the worst was known.)

  3. Joanna Bujes February 13, 2015 at 12:47 pm | #

    Actually, Schindler’s List was not about the holocaust. It was about the fact that we are reduced to working for insane capitalists or reasonable capitalists. TINA.

  4. jonnybutter February 13, 2015 at 1:14 pm | #

    The Holocaust not as an event in secular history but as a leap into transcendence; it cannot be explained, it can only be circled, like a holy fire.”

    Key phrase being ‘cannot be explained’. More like *shall* not. As in….

    ..arrogant to speak of yr limited experience of Jewishness as though it speaks for all [American] Jews.

    I’m sorry, but the sky-high arrogance here is right there in your sentence. How can you say something like that? (and who’s claiming to speak for all anyway?)

    I can’t believe some of the stuff I’ve been reading in comments here lately. Just wow.

    • s. wallerstein February 13, 2015 at 1:42 pm | #

      Actually, the original post speaks of “all Jewish families”, which obviously is an exaggeration, since some don’t even have TV sets, etc. In general, it’s going too far when you claim that “all X do….” whenever you speak of human behavior. Otherwise, I have no quarrel with the basic content of the original post other than to say that I liked Schlinder’s List and I didn’t find it so much about the Holocaust as about the fact that in a horrid situation, there is always room for right action. To belittle what Schlinder did because he only saved 600 Jews is like belittling the French Resistence because they did less damage to the Nazis than the U.S. Air Force did in 24 hours on D-Day.

      • jonnybutter February 13, 2015 at 2:14 pm | #

        the original post speaks of “all Jewish families”

        It said that all Jewish families watched the show, which is not a controversial statement, even if there are a few exceptions which, after all, put the rule into sharp relief – if he had said “virtually all Jewish families watched the show’ would that cover the objection at hand? No. Because Milx invented a specific claim on Corey’s part to speak for all Jewish families and then spanked his nose for it. I just hate that deliberate insult stuff and have been amazed at how shitty people are to each other *constantly* over IP. It’s just one long sluice of dumpster juice.

        • s. wallerstein February 13, 2015 at 2:22 pm | #

          I’m not sure what IP means. Otherwise, I agree with you. I too am perpetually amazed (although I’m 68 years old) at how shitty people are to each other. There’s an excess of shittiness, over and above the desire to screw the other person for money or other tangible goods.

          • jonnybutter February 13, 2015 at 3:34 pm | #

            IP = Israel-Palestine.

            It’s a time of frictionless shittiness – (try saying *that* three times fast!).

  5. jonnybutter February 13, 2015 at 4:01 pm | #

    OK, Corey does say, “Like the Six-Day War, [the Television Event] was a founding moment of contemporary Jewish identity.” If you are offended by that and have an argument to make, then make it. But this crap about ‘yr limited experience of Jewishness’ is not an argument or even an observation. It’s just both insulting and guilty of the sin it is accuses: fairly shocking arrogance.

  6. Steve Bloom February 13, 2015 at 4:04 pm | #

    “The Holocaust transcends history”

    That IMO is a very dangerous view. Attempts at genocides can be ranked in terms of how bad they were, but while each had its particular characteristics none are broadly unique.

    What must be confronted is that genocide is something humans are capable of, have committed before and will commit again. Taking what may have been the worst one, and was certainly the worst recent one, off the table serves to dilute the lesson and make future recurrences more likely.

  7. Erik February 13, 2015 at 4:12 pm | #

    I love that Kubrick quote. It is how I feel about it too. I cringe when I listen in on the kids Hebrew school. There is so often a tendency to make “love of Israel” to substitute for wrestling with god and the meaning of the torah. It is a tendency to make the Holocaust and Israel an Idol and substitute. I am Reform and that is a graven image I object to.

  8. Amor February 13, 2015 at 4:16 pm | #

    Rancière vs. Lyotard

    • Erik February 14, 2015 at 3:37 pm | #

      Wow, that makes me time travel back to undergrad surveys of the history of aesthetic theory and comp lit theory classes. Do you me attitudes towards the sublime? I may have to dig out my texts.

      • Amor February 16, 2015 at 11:16 pm | #

        Indeed, I mean there attitudes towards the sublime; but more generally, I mean there opposing attitudes towards the represetable and the irrepresentable, the thinkable and the unthinkable. In the last analysis, there respective ways of dealing with those oppositions point out to a problem that goes beyond Kant’s philosphy of judgment: it is as much an aesthetical question as it is an ethical and a political one.

  9. Amy February 13, 2015 at 5:25 pm | #

    Tovah Feldshuh IS crazy gorgeous. (I’m here for all the important stuff.)

  10. Claude Horvath February 13, 2015 at 7:05 pm | #

    I’m older than you, and remember plotting, as I walked back home from school, escape strategies should the Nazis ever seize power here. The Holocaust never struck me as transcendent at all; just cruelty amped up a bit higher than usual.

  11. BillR February 13, 2015 at 8:07 pm | #

    On the type of hot water casting any aspersions on the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust can land a sympathetic Jewish scholar in:

  12. YM Goldstein February 16, 2015 at 12:31 pm | #

    You protest too much, especially as a follower of Conservative Judaism, which is no more or less a Religion than the Holocaust and Israel (actually it might be the same thing).

  13. Will Johnson February 18, 2015 at 5:14 pm | #

    Great piece. Bruno Bettelheim has an interesting essay in which he objects to using the term “Holocaust” to describe the extermination of millions of Jews in the concentration camps for many of these reasons. He points out that Holocaust is correctly defined as “burnt offering” and that to liken the mass exterminations to “burnt offerings” is a sort of sacrilege against both the victims and their God, even while it attaches some mystical weight to the event.

    • avedon July 3, 2016 at 7:43 pm | #

      I’m curious about when it became the norm for pretty much everyone to refer to the events under the Third Reich as “the Holocaust”. I was surrounded by and raised by Jews for much of my life, was educated about why certain government conduct was objectionable by Jews who had escaped from or been rescued from the Nazis, went to a Jewish school, was tucked in by Jews with German accents, and I never heard this usage until decades later. Until then, everyone tended to just say “under the Nazis” or “under Hitler” or similar. Or “the camps”, or “the ovens”. But I don’t remember this one, unifying word being used this way.

  14. gstally March 3, 2015 at 11:56 am | #
  15. thenodster March 6, 2015 at 5:20 am | #

    Holocaust, schmolocaust. What about the Kurds (and others) in Iraq?

  16. eric April 8, 2015 at 10:30 am | #

    While I won’t argue with the larger cultural reading, I think you’re probably misunderstanding Wiesel’s intent. He’s written elsewhere that he’s ‘happy’ when children don’t know or understand the holocaust. So I think his meaning in that piece is probably more personal than universal.

  17. Joeff July 2, 2016 at 8:04 pm | #

    I actually think Fiddler on the Roof was a bigger cultural touchstone for American Jews than Holocaust but maybe one laid the groundwork for the other.

  18. srogouski July 3, 2016 at 12:13 am | #

    I suppose we’re about the same age. I saw Holocaust back in the 1970s. The only thing I remember about it was Meryl Streep as a German gentile married to James Woods, who was an artist locked up in Theresienstadt. I’m not Jewish and my family never talked about the Holocaust (or any other kind of history) so this was my introduction. In other words, the earliest image I have of a Holocaust victim is James Woods.

    For me, the best film ever meant about genocide is the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, a documentary about the massacre of 600,000 Communists in Indonesia back in 1963. It captures just about everything you need to know about the typical government mass murderer. He’s vain, clueless, proud of what he did. What makes this film so great is not that it sacrilizes genocide, but presents it in all its obscene weirdness.

  19. Roy Cameron July 4, 2016 at 12:51 pm | #

    It’s all about staring into the face of the Medusa. Got the phrase from Dr Adriana Mazzarella, a Jungian psychiatrist who also happened to be an Italian Jew. I helped her prepare her English for her seminars in the US for her book, Looking for Beatrice, a Jungian interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy…and, yes, she lived through WWII.

    Medusa represents that horror of life that simply turns your entire will to life to stone…something inanimate. I think what is happening here concerning the Holocaust is just that: looking at the Holocaust destroys faith in human nature and in the God that is supposed to have designed us.

    If you follow the idea of a Covenant with God quite literally, then you have to ask yourself what good it did to have the Covenant. If God’s means in the world are so terrible, you have to doubt either the existence of God or accept his means-and-ends POV as something apparently unjustified…calling into question every aspect of one’s faith.

    Another point of central importance would be the Holocaust’s apparent singularity. Its singularity derives mostly from our capacity to document it. 6 million Ukrainians were killed off by the Bolsheviks without anywhere near the documentation level, given that Russia was essentially a Third-Wold backwater without a great industrial base, and, as a result, the “singularity” of the Holocaust derives from the fact that similar events barely exist in human consciousness.

    I also add that, when the Khmer Rouge were conducted their Holocaust, I wondered why the phrase “Never Again” did not spur the world into action to prevent such a crime against humanity. Instead, I felt relief that Vietnamese communists, whom I despised, rode to the rescue, albeit late.

    I also have to agree with anyone who thinks that Wiesel takes it way too far getting into the “sacralizing” and “mystification” of the event. The motives of those who do evil can be understood and fought against.

    Last, but not least: the range of the comments here and their tone..impressive.

  20. Roy Cameron July 4, 2016 at 12:59 pm | #

    Please feel free to change “were conducted” to “conducting” and please add an “r” to Wold to write “World”…thanks

  21. s. wallerstein July 4, 2016 at 5:21 pm | #

    When people despise communists and point out the genocides carried out under communist regimes, I feel the ethical obligation, as a card carrying contrarian, to point out that several of the worst genocides were carried out by Western colonialism and imperialism, for example, in the Congo by the Belgians, 11 million dead according to some estimates; and actually, in Viet Nam if anyone carried out genocide, it was the defenders of democracy and the free world aka the U.S.A. At the same time the defenders of democracy and the free world were supporting a genocide in Indonesia, with between 500,000 and 3,000,000 dead. Of course, as the song says, you don’t count your dead when God’s on your side.

  22. aseparatepiece July 8, 2016 at 12:25 pm | #

    I guess Wiesel’s attempts to highlight some innately numinous quality in the Holocaust were also driven to some extent by his desire to position himself as its high priest. What a heady feeling it must have been, to be vested with so much spiritual power and authority.

    If memory serves, I think Kubrick said that Schindler’s list was about “winning,” and the Holocaust was about “losing.” I could be wrong about that.

    If memory serves, I believe over 330 films (movies and documentaries have been made about the Holocaust. I think I’m right about that 🙂

    Thanks for the read.

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