My Resistance to Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel’s death has prompted much discussion on social media. I’ve written—quite negatively—about Wiesel in the past:

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.

Last night, on Facebook, I reiterated my longstanding concerns:

I know Elie Wiesel is beloved by many, Jews and non-Jews alike. But as someone who’s written about—and against—him over the years, I feel like I have to issue a dissent.

(Please don’t tell me today’s not the day. Unless you’ve complained about what I said about Christopher Hitchens upon his death or a great many others. If you don’t want to read any criticism of Wiesel, I completely understand. I honestly do. Might I suggest then that you stop reading what I’m about to say?)

Set aside Wiesel’s stance on Israel/Palestine, which was often indefensible.

More than anyone, Wiesel helped sacralize the Holocaust, making it a kind of theological event that stood outside history. “The ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted,” was how he once put it.

At the same time, he helped turn the Holocaust into an industry of middlebrow morality and manipulative sentimentality.

Primo Levi had a special dislike for Wiesel’s ways and means, which makes Wiesel’s infamous verdict on Levi’s suicide (“Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”) all the more grating.

Decades ago, in a scorching essay, “Resistance to the Holocaust,” Philip Lopate caught the measure of the man: “Sometimes it seems that ‘the Holocaust’ is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday Times.”

An interesting discussion ensued.

After I was accused on another thread of being insensitive to the claims of survivors, to how a survivor chooses to represent himself and his experience, to how my position only reflects the fact that I was not There nor even near There, I followed up with this statement from the Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész, who was a survivor (he died earlier this year), from his essay “Who Owns Auschwitz?“:

I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life (whether in the private sphere or on the level of ‘civilization’ as such) and the very possibility of the Holocaust. Here I have in mind those representations that seek to establish the Holocaust once and for all as something foreign to human nature; that seek to drive the Holocaust out of the realm of human experience.

But I’ll confess that while my reaction to Wiesel and his brand (Wiesel once said that “the universe of the concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.”) is informed by and reflects Kertész’s position, a more visceral distaste is awakened in me by these kind of strictures from Wiesel. And the negative reactions of people to criticism of Wiesel.

Reading this piece from Haaretz this afternoon, on how Wiesel was received in Israel, helped concretize my feelings. The article shows how little standing Wiesel actually has in Israel. Both the right and the left dislike him, for different reasons. And his particular brand—a survivor who shrouded his experience, and the Holocaust as a whole, with an aura of religiosity—just didn’t sell there for many years, if ever.

What the article shows, by implication, is that the hushed tone we’re all expected to adopt, here in the US, when speaking of Wiesel and his work actually has less to do with the Holocaust or even Israel than with the pervasive sentimentality of American culture and argument, the notion that trauma confers privilege and precludes judgment or argument, that when it comes to the most terrible matters of history, we’re all supposed to act as if we’re in church.

Lopate’s essay, which came out in the late 1980s, really expressed this well. I’ll just quote from him:

When I was small, a few years after World War II had ended, my mother would drag me around Brooklyn to visit some of the newly arrived refugees; they were a novelty. We would sit in somebody’s kitchen and she would talk with these women for hours (usually in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand) to find out what it was like. After we left, she would say in a hushed voice, “Did you see the number on her arm? She was in a concentration camp!” I didn’t understand why my mother was so thrilled, almost erotically excited, when she spoke these words, but her melodramatic demand that I be impressed started to annoy me…

“Holocaust stands alone in time as an aberration within history,” states Menachem Rosensaft. And Elie Wiesel writes that “the universe of concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.” What surprises me is the degree to which such an apocalyptic, religious-mythological reading of historical events has come to be accepted by the culture at large—unless people are just paying lip service to the charms of an intimidating rhetoric.

I just don’t get why both New York City and Washington, D.C., should have Holocaust memorial museums. Or why every major city in the United States seems to be commemorating this European tragedy in some way or another. An Israeli poet on a reading tour through the States was taken into the basement of a synagogue in Ohio and proudly shown the congregation’s memorial to the 6 million dead: a torch meant to remain eternally lit. The poet muttered under his breath, “Shoah flambé.” In Israel they can joke about these matters.

These monuments have an air of making the visitor feel bad, at the same time retaining a decorously remote and abstract air—all the more so when they are removed geographically from the ground of pain.

Will the above seem the ravings of a finicky aesthete? I apologize. But remember that it is an aesthetic problem we are talking about, this attempt to make an effective presentation of a massive event. The dead of Auschwitz are not buried in Yad Vashem; believe me, I am not insulting their memories. Yad Vashem is the product of us the living and as such is subject to our dispassionate scrutiny and criticism.

Theodor Adorno once made an intentionally provocative statement to the effect that one can’t have lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Much as I respect Adorno, I am inclined to ask, a bit naively: Why not? Are we to infer, regarding all the beautiful poetry that has been written since 1945, that these postwar poets were insensitive to some higher tact? Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker, has explained what Adorno really meant by this remark: any art from now on that does not take Auschwitz into account will be not worthy as art. This is one of those large intimidating pronouncements to which one gives assent in public while secretly harboring doubts. Art is a vast arena; must it all and always come to terms with the death camps, important as they are?

It has also been argued that the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews calls for an aesthetic approach of an entirely different order than the traditional mimetic response. This seems to me nothing more than a polemic in favor of certain avant-garde or antinaturalist techniques, hitched arbitrarily to the Holocaust….

Art has its own laws, and even so devastating an event as the Holocaust may not significantly change them. For all its virtues, the longeurs, repetitions, and failures of sympathy in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah are not exonerated, no matter what its apologists may argue, by the seriousness of the subject matter, as though an audience must be put through over eight hours of an exhaustingly uneven movie to convince it of the reality of the Holocaust. A tight film would have accomplished the same and been a stronger work of art. Lanzmann might reply that he is indifferent to the claims of art compared to those of the Holocaust; unfortunately, you cant’ play the game of art and not play it at the same time.

False knowledge. Borrowed mysticism. By blackmailing ourselves into thinking that we must put ourselves through a taste of Auschwitz, we are imitating unconsciously the Christian mystics who tried to experience in their own flesh the torments of Christ on the cross. But this has never part of the Jewish religion, this gluttony for empathic suffering. Though Jewish rabbis and sages have been killed for their faith, and their deaths recorded and passed down, Judaism has fought shy in the past of establishing a hagiography based on martyrdom. Why are we doing it now?

In certain ways, the Jewish American sacramentalizing of the Holocaust seems an unconscious borrowing of Christian theology. That one tragic event should be viewed as standing outside, above history, and its uniqueness defended and proclaimed, seems very much like the Passion of Christ.

 

45 Comments

  1. John Maher July 3, 2016 at 3:59 pm | #

    So you are saying the real struggle began once the holocaust was over? Levi would not disagree. I recall being pissed off at Weisel when he spoke at my graduation. He seemed to want to perpetual his trauma on Palestinians.

  2. Rosalind Petchesky July 3, 2016 at 4:55 pm | #

    Amidst a deluge of Weisel aggrandizement and hagiographiy, this reflection and résistance come as a breath of fresh air. I’ve always felt something like this but unable to quite articulate the problem, except for the ways Weisel’s claim to and for holocaust sanctity served tp prop up his and others’ uncritical ultra-zionism. I’d never seen Lopate’s brilliant essay. So big thanks to Corey and to Lopate

    • barbara s. harshav July 4, 2016 at 1:35 pm | #

      Amen!

    • Ed Brown July 4, 2016 at 6:51 pm | #

      I’m with her

    • lablueyz July 5, 2016 at 1:49 am | #

      Après le déluge, le bateau.

      It’s awesome to reas dissent without trolls. Well done everyone.

  3. Joeff July 3, 2016 at 5:51 pm | #

    I think the unofficial sobriquet “Mr. Holocaust” about sums it up.

    • xenon2 July 3, 2016 at 6:30 pm | #

      Excellent!

  4. Frank Wilhoit July 3, 2016 at 6:28 pm | #

    No crime is about its victims. To say that it is is, indeed, kitsch. But in the present infantilized state of humanity, that perspective is universal and unchallenged.

    • InWonder July 3, 2016 at 8:04 pm | #

      I don’t think Robin or any other critic of Wiesel quoted in this piece said that “no crime is about its victims.” Rape, for example, is about its victims as well as its broader goals. Of course a crime is “about” its victim(s). It is not “merely” about its victims. But to dismiss them from the meaning of the event is just as bad as to treat their experience as sanctified beyond societal meaning and evaluation.

  5. nihil obstet July 3, 2016 at 6:33 pm | #

    One of the genuinely disturbing aspects of the American view of the Holocaust is not only that it shows “the pervasive sentimentality of American culture and argument”, but that it promotes American exceptionalism and military aggression. That’s the exact opposite of its purported “never again” goal. The U.S., government and people, participated in two major long-term racial/ethnic crimes — race-based slavery and the destruction of Native American societies, including the complete eradication of a number of tribes. We still minimize these crimes, preferring to focus on the evil abroad, which eventually we heroically overcame. Are the industrialized methods of mass killing using poisons from chemical factories in the 20th c. qualitatively different from using smallpox infected blankets in the 19th c.? The Holocaust Museum was built next to the National Mall, prior to museums of Native American and African American culture. Meanwhile, the Holocaust Museum serves as a constant argument that we should send bombs and troops to stop the Hitler of the month.

    It disturbs me that we remember those who were murdered by using their deaths to promote more murder.

  6. John Merryman July 3, 2016 at 6:42 pm | #

    While I’m not Jewish and possibly overly objective about the Holocaust, given there have been genocides throughout history(ask the Ukrainians about WW2. Stalin wasn’t into empathy.) and consider antisemitism, as well as other forms of racism, to be a sort of cultural allergic reaction to foreign bodies within one’s tribal bounds. What makes Judaism strong are its tribal roots and connections, essentially mythologized as a universal deity, given that deifying the soul of the group as a larger being(groupthink) has roots far deeper than civilization. Yet the other side of the coin is it poses a conflict with others sense of tribalism.
    Given inflaming the most reactionary group identity(Germanic peoples) was what motivated Nazism, it made the Jews an obvious and convenient target.
    That said, it is also natural that one should form scar tissue around such grievous wounds and imprint them deeply. What limits us, also defines us. Thus then, your reaction, “How to go beyond it,” is also a natural counter-reaction. Though it is a bit like telling someone with PTSD to “Just get over it.” You might have a point, but you are picking at a wound that is still healing.

  7. Shigekuni - Book Blog July 3, 2016 at 7:04 pm | #

    It’s lovely to use kertesz to further your agenda, use him because of his survivor status – and use him you do, because I read through some of your articles and you don’t agree with Kertesz on most of his positions. Kertesz is also a BIG Islamophobe, like, exceptionally clear and forthright about his condemnation of Muslim immigration to Europe. His complex positions on these topics arise from his gnarled and complicated work, but you feel no need to engage with it, because all YOU need is to use a Shoah survivor in order to attack a different survivor, which is fairly disgusting.

    As for the Lopato essay, all the rhetorical questions regarding Adorno could have been answered by reading the Prism essays where Adorno makes and contextualizes the claim, which also has roots in Brecht and others, as well as reading the widely publicized discussion between Adorno and Celan on the same topic. Literally all the rhetorical questions are answered thoroughly in these sources, but it makes for a snazzier essay, of course, if we just throw the questions out as if they were provocative and interesting and not merely the result of lazy reading and research habits.

  8. Donald Ellis July 3, 2016 at 7:47 pm | #

    This is why Jews very often invoke “anti-Semitism.” Wiesel was a thoughtful spokesperson responding to a clear evil and unlike Robin concerned with more than theoretical purity. By the standards of the original essay – which does little more than use quotes to name call and make dramatic points – nobody can engage in defending a disadvantaged group without being accused of being overly emotional or “trapped in the trauma industry.”
    The key issue is whether or not the Holocaust was rooted in Jewish particularity. If it was then the victims and survivors have a right to be heard. Maybe, just maybe, something will be learned or prevented. And of course you can always point to some other genocide or Holocaust perpetrated against some other group. This promotes trauma competition in which one side will get more sympathy than the other. That’s unavoidable but doesn’t negate the experiences of the traumatized group. A few of the above comments emerge from that spectrum of the left that never met a minority group that wasn’t oppressed. Claiming the Jews (or “Israelis” so you don’t run the risk of being called anti-semetic) are trying to do the same thing to the Palestinians is too silly to take seriously.

    • William Burns July 3, 2016 at 7:57 pm | #

      Victims and survivors’s right to be heard is dependent on whether the Holocaust was rooted in Jewish particularity? What sense does that make?

  9. lazycat1984 July 3, 2016 at 9:43 pm | #

    I often wonder what percentage of the Jews were massacred and enslaved during the Jewish Revolts against Rome? Yet Rome is held up as an example to follow. Mass murder is what humans do. Where are the eternal flame monuments to those massacred by Genghis Khan? Some victims are worthier than others

    • Alan July 4, 2016 at 10:48 am | #

      To be fair, one big difference is that the Holocaust occurred in the “modern” world in post-Enlightened Europe, in no less than the most scientifically advanced society of the day. It’s a deeply troubling reminder that there is no escape from the darkest impulses of humankind. I don’t fully disagree with you or the author, just trying to provide some perspective.

  10. Scott July 3, 2016 at 9:45 pm | #

    Lopate’s remark about the Passion struck me, as a Catholic, most forcibly. There is a kind of sentimentality that starts out by trying to honor an event we can barely comprehend and that winds up being more about the sentimentality and not the seeing, reveling in horror with an almost erotic sort of charge. It always creeped me out, really, and the descriptions here seem at least in the same ballpark. In theogical terms, too, this tendency always struck me as idolatrous and almost blasphemous, setting up an experience as a god rather than the god you’re ostensibly worshipping.

  11. Larry Houghteling July 3, 2016 at 11:57 pm | #

    Dear Corey,

    It’s always a challenge to say something challenging about a recently dead person that many people revere. A lot of people pulled their punches when talking about Antonin Scalia, for example. Thank you for expressing what may well be a minority POV, but one which seems to me sensible — and a hell of a lot more sensitive than the sentimental drivel Wiesel often trafficked in.

    But as a former teacher who on several occasions was required by others’ curricular choices to teach “Night” in English classes, I have a rather different complaint. Let me start by saying “Night” is the only one of Elie Wiesel’s many books I’ve read. But I’m told by others that it’s his best. Yet it was a book I always read with great qualms. I’m certain Mr. Wiesel was indeed imprisoned by the Nazis, and suffered a great deal. Yet I’d be willing to argue it’s hard to read “Night” without coming to the conclusion that Mr. Wiesel often exaggerates what happened to him and the people he knew. Do I have any evidence? No; I wasn’t there, and I’ve never spoken to or heard testimony from anyone who was there who called out Mr. Wiesel as to accuracy. But every time I have read “Night” I’ve been beset with a feeling that those all-night runs and other physical challenges and tortures that seem impossible, could not have happened the way he says they did. In other words, I get the feeling that he is pumping up a hideous event — the Jewish Holocaust — to make it seem even awfuller than it really was. And I’ve always felt guilty about that feeling, but still I feel it, strongly.

    Does anyone else get the same feeling about “Night”, or is it just me?

    Larry

    • Bill Michtom July 4, 2016 at 4:14 am | #

      It was very horrible. Haven’t read Wiesel, but–if you want to take the time–read the 3-volume Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hilberg.

      Also, give a look to this section of the wikipedia article about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Destruction_of_the_European_Jews#Stages_leading_to_the_destruction_process

      • Bill Michtom July 4, 2016 at 4:19 am | #

        From the wikipedia article also:
        Reviewing the appreciably expanded 1,440-page second edition, Holocaust historian Christopher Browning noted that Hilberg “has improved a classic, not an easy task.”[24] And while Browning maintains that, with the exception of Hitler’s role, there are no fundamental changes to the work’s principal findings, he nevertheless states that:

        If one measure of a book’s greatness is its impact, a second is its longevity. For 25 years The Destruction has been recognized as the unsurpassed work in its field. While monographic studies of particular aspects of the Final Solution, utilizing archival sources and court records not available to Hilberg before 1961, have extended our knowledge in many areas, The Destruction of the European Jews still stands as the preeminent synthesis, the book that put it all together in the framework of an overarching and unified analysis.

        • joshua schwartz July 4, 2016 at 8:16 am | #

          Your resistance to the sheer (perhaps transcendent) terror and anti-human, absurd-approaching destruction that characterized this accursed time is precisely what impelled writers such as the late Wiesel and Adorno to posit that the Holocaust is best understood through apophatic non-understanding.
          One can critique such a position of course, but your own shrinking away from the horror of the deed/event is precisely why its phenomenological import may be more apt than is given credit here.

          • joshua schwartz July 4, 2016 at 8:20 am | #

            If anything, Naomi Seidman, at Cal, argued that the English edition of “Night,” which is based on Wiesel’s French version, tones down the ugliest (and ignoble) elements of his memoir, which are, however, preserved in his original Yiddish edition (https://www.jstor.org/stable/4467484). This essay is very much worth reading.
            Seidman claims that Wiesel, in dialogue with a Catholic priest interlocutor, re-positioned his story, and the narrative he sought to wring from the Holocaust, to appeal to the Christological and martyrological thematics of Xian culture, in which suffering does impart beatitude, if born in Stoic nobility. What is left on the cutting room floor are his fantasies of revenge, his rage at the injustice, which, perhaps, provide fresh and vital energy that keeps such (personal) narratives irreducibly personal, authentic expressions of desire and disgust, rage and revenge.

    • barbara s. harshav July 4, 2016 at 1:42 pm | #

      Compare the sentimentality and Kitsch of Night with the “scientific” quality of Primo Levi’s brilliant account in Survival in Auschwitz.

    • Bill Michtom July 5, 2016 at 1:47 am | #
  12. Bill Michtom July 4, 2016 at 12:31 am | #

    “In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide_of_indigenous_peoples

    Does that stand outside of history as Wiesel claimed for the Holocaust?

  13. Nelson July 4, 2016 at 1:51 am | #

    I would think that turning an event like that to the level of religion would have to do with his own healing, and that I can understand. Less so for other people, or those trying to learn from History (surely there can be gradient for atrocities, as there can be a host of very human reasons for carrying them out?). Same goes for stating that it’s outside the realm of what humans can do. Seems well within it (examples given here by the posters) and that’s why we must stay vigilant

  14. joshua schwartz July 4, 2016 at 8:13 am | #

    Lopate’s historical claims re: historical Jewish religious responses to suffering, and its maintenance and extension through empathetic (and yes, mystical) ritual are simply wrong. He appears to be ignorant of the practice of kabbalists in Safed, in the sixteenth century, who prostrated themselves on the graves of ancient sages, to commune with their spirits and take them in. More particularly, R’ Moshe Cordovero had a practice of erring through the Galilee barefoot, imitating the suffering of the Shechinah (G?d’s presence) as She wanders in exile. Midnight vigils proliferated at this time (assisted by the import of coffee into Ottoman Palestine), at which mystically inclined Jews would rise in the middle of the night, study, pray, and weep for the Shechinah, all theurgically willing redemption to come.

    Your essay is a provocative one, and I hope to write a response to its substance later today.

  15. Carl Weinberg July 4, 2016 at 10:09 am | #

    Amen.

  16. Jack Goodman, Sr. July 4, 2016 at 10:43 am | #

    Corey, An interesting column, but totally inappropriate a day after his death.

    This is in bad taste, and unworthy of your fine educational credentials.

  17. al-yahud July 4, 2016 at 11:42 am | #

    as a non or anti-religious jew , you have no right to determine what is appropriate jewish response to the Holocaust. However, as an ardent anti-zionist , you will lambast anyone who interferes with elimination of the zionist entity….

    • Carl Weinberg July 4, 2016 at 12:33 pm | #

      Well, as a non-religious Jew whose great-grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, and whose mother, uncle, and grandmother were refugees from Nazi Germany, I think Corey’s right.

    • David Levene July 5, 2016 at 6:51 am | #

      There are two problems with your argument here. The first is a factual one: Corey Robin is neither non-religious nor anti-religious. See (e.g.) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/us/a-conflict-of-faith-devoted-to-jewish-observance-but-at-odds-with-israel.html.

      The second, and larger, problem is the implicit claim that if he HAD been non-religious, one could disregard his argument – as if the statements of a religious Jew in this area are somehow intrinsically privileged over those of a non-religious one. The critique of Wiesel’s sacralization of the Holocaust (a critique which, for what it is worth, I – another religious Jew – endorse wholeheartedly) is exactly on the mark, no matter who makes it. Wiesel’s statement that “the universe of concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone” was a ridiculous and (in as much as it appears to have been accepted by others) extremely damaging one. One does not need to be a religious Jew to point that out.

  18. anonthrowaway (@NeedSayin) July 4, 2016 at 12:54 pm | #

    Having once known Wiesel and his family, I must say that everything that Norman Finkelstein said about him was the truth.

  19. Jed Hovey July 4, 2016 at 6:52 pm | #

    I agree with most of these sentiments, but since I’m not Jewish I’ve always felt I needed to tread lightly on the topic. Mass Murder and genocide are hardly unique. What is it that makes it so special? At my most cynical moments, I’ve sometimes considered the Holocaust an attempt at doing to a group of white people within Europe what they had been doing to Africa and the colonies in general for a very long time. It’s often argued that the first proper concentration camps were created by the British during the Boer War. While it was smaller scale, obviously, the basic mechanics were all there. This is to say nothing of King Leopold in Belgium. Gemany had similar plans for Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. It was to be depopulated and colonized. Maybe Mussolini makes this analogy a little more direct, in how he attacked Ethiopia in the 30s.

    But even more directly 20 million Russian civilians died in WWII. That’s roughly triple the number of victims of the Holocaust. The two events aren’t separate, honestly, but even within the same war other ethnic groups suffered nearly as badly. The Siege of Leningrad was nightmarish by any definition. This isn’t to diminish any suffering, but the idea that it was somehow unique, a transcendental event just isn’t borne out by history.

  20. Mike Licitra July 4, 2016 at 9:44 pm | #

    I would like to recommend the article “The Most Sublime of All Laws: The Strange Resurgence of a Kantian Motif in Contemporary Image Politics” by Emmanuel Alloa which appears in the Winter 2015 edition of “Critical Inquiry” (Volume 41 Number 2).

  21. jonjost July 5, 2016 at 6:10 am | #

    Corey – Mark sent this to me to read/think about. I agree with you basically. Visiting Yad Vashem I was rather taken aback by the utter kitschiness of it all (the only thing I recall having any impact was a pile of shoes). I concluded there was no art that can approach such things, be it “the Holocaust” or any war or similar type of thing. I recall visiting Selinunte, in Sicily – a once Greek city utterly razed by the Carthaginians. To the ground; everyone slaughter, enslaved (a few thousand of 30K escaped). Old Biblical and other texts of the last 5000 years make it clear that the effectually tribal behavior of killing all those not like your own is SOP human behavior. Germany was just the first to carry out this inclination on a fully industrialized scale and mentality. But it was done before and will continue until – don’t think we have to wait too much more – we escort our kind off the planet by making it uninhabitable. So yes, making “the Holocaust” stand outside “history” or “human behavior” is utterly false: it is us written clearly and large. We Americans are especially well acquainted with such behavior though we do our danged best to ignore it, or glorify it in the name of patriotism. Drone away America!

  22. Chris Dorf July 5, 2016 at 1:48 pm | #

    As long as all holocausts are talked about….like 1 Million in Rawanda in 100 days…for example…

  23. Carl Badgley July 6, 2016 at 8:59 am | #

    Putting the Zions issue aside for just a moment (I know it’s intrinsically linked), I think the horror of the Holocaust for citizens of the West was due to simple awareness and self-reflection.

    For the first time a majority of Westerners saw what the civilized, industrialized nations were capable of and in this way the Holocaust became a signpost. You would think the trenches of WWI and their victims would have been enough. But perhaps it only cracked the carapace of distance and unfeeling.

    As we know Signs often become larger than what they indicate. This is a good example. Yet I feel that this slap in the face to the West’s citizens (not so often their governments) did pave the way for the discussion of other holocausts. I am not sure how open minds would have been to discussing or reconsidering colonial violence. In time something else could have triggered awareness of this Achilles’ Heel in Western history. But for whatever historical reasons it was the holocaust of WWII that did it.

    As mentioned, though, Signs grow larger than what they indicate. This leads to the sacralization of the event.

    I would add one caveat. The victim of a crime can very well sacralize their own encounter with the meaninglessness and horror of what becomes a life altering event. In this way others may show politeness, at the very least, if not plain human sympathy, for what has happened, but need not embed it in their own lives as a sacral event.

  24. Michael Johnson July 6, 2016 at 9:20 am | #

    How come no light is cast upon the reality of a mortal wrestling with his faith, ultimately his fate? Man cannot have two masters, and the flesh always unnervingly seeks vengeance.

  25. Michael Vickery July 7, 2016 at 12:19 pm | #

    I can see the author’s point and indeed many people have reacted to Elie Wiesel and to the Holocaust as the article has said.
    Unfortunately, the article is concerned with how people react, with public perception. The article is not interested in plunging to the depths of Elie Wiesel’s writings.
    Wiesel taught me that any philosophy or spirituality cannot be taken seriously that does not take into account the reality of Auschwitz. Any assertion that things are the way they are because God planned them is heartless and lazy-minded.
    Perhaps that’s why some people try to deny the Holocaust. Evil on that level calls into question God’s omnipotence and goodness. And most people cannot handle that internal dissonance.
    Significantly, Wiesel said that God’s Presence was as impossible to imagine at Auschwitz as was His Absence. God’s absence and God’s presence – both held at the same time in a human being’s struggling soul.
    The Holocaust impels us to grow into a more mature spirituality than most people (with their either/or mindsets) are willing or able to do.
    Weisel was raised an Orthodox Jew. But his faith was not equal to the task of accounting for what he saw and experienced in the Holocaust. The failure of his inherited religious thinking has caused him the most anguishing questioning a man can have.
    But he never gave up the struggle between faith and doubt.
    Many Christians cannot deal, or refuse to deal, with these terrible questions. In order to do so, they have to be willing to not-know, to live without the “answer”.
    It is easier, as with this article, to talk about public perception and trends in thought than to take the anguished existential dive into the great all or nothing.

    • David Green July 9, 2016 at 11:07 pm | #

      The Wiesel perspectives that you refer to here are exactly why I never have taken him particularly seriously. Who wants to argue about what God planned or didn’t plan? That’s not to mention his blatant political hypocrisy and opportunism.

  26. Enon Zey July 13, 2016 at 12:15 am | #

    My uncles were Americans who fought in North Africa. My father had a weak eye so instead of combat he made arms. Growing up in the aftermath of WWII I read everything available about what had just happened.

    I can sort of understand where Wiesel is coming from. What was unnerving about Primo Levi’s book about Auschwitz was the sense that the only way to survive being there was not to actually be There, to go through the entire experience at arm’s length. The most disturbing book I have ever read.

    As a gentile, I have no other comment except to thank you for your thought provoking post.

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