Hilene Flanzbaum, The Americanization of the Holocaust
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999
The following note is from summer 1999 when I was reworking my dissertation to what would become my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Temple University Press, 2001). Hedy Epstein’s Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug: Autobiographie appeared in Germany in 1999. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry came out in 2000.
This collection of essays doesn’t have much in the way of political relevance to my project, but there are good cultural analyses, particularly the editor’s overview to the subject (e.g., Wiesel at the Mets’ game), Steinweiss’s remarks on Wiesel in Nebraska, Greenspan’s studies of the evolving reception and discourses of survivors (stigmatizing vs. celebratory), and Young’s remarks on the politics of identity.
Indeed, it is easier to talk about cultural shifts and Americanization rather than take the more controversial and critical view that elites are happy to focus on the Nazi crimes rather than our own. Those people speaking out — more than 50 years later! — against Nazism may think of themselves, proudly, as moral beacons, say, Christian “Holocaust scholars.” But this reminds me of what Chomsky said, “You can tell the truth about Ghengis Khan, but it doesn’t rank very high on the moral scale.” People got agitated about the Reagan Bitburg scandal of 1985, but not about Reagan’s aiding and abetting the bloodbaths in Central America at the same time.
I attended the 1983 Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Washington, D.C., where I received a message from my Father, 43 years after he gave it to a fellow concentration camp prisoner in Camp les Milles in France. It was the closest I felt to my Father since I left Germany.
I was sitting at a large round table with a group at the Gathering, among them Kurt Maier, whom I last knew in Kippenheim as a boy about 6 years younger than I. He told me he had a present for me. He showed me a well-worn notebook that his own father had kept while in the camp. The elder Maier and his family had promising arrangements to come to the United States. In the notebook, he collected messages from his fellow prisoners to deliver to family and friends, if he survived. Among them was a message from my Father. He hoped that he and my Mother would be able to come to the United States in the not too distant future. When handed the notebook, I looked at it with almost paralyzing shock. I touched the page. I thought perhaps my Father had touched it and I was touching him. I felt his presence there.
Looking over the books for sale at the Gathering, I came across Serge Klarsfeld’s most startling opus, Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, which contains a list of more than 80,000 names of Jews deported to the “East” or killed in France. Not all were French Jews; they came from over 50 countries. Each entry includes name, birth date and birth place, and, in most instances, the destination, e.g., Auschwitz. A description of each convoy is also included. An article in the New York Times Magazine states: “… It is just by chance that the lists of names of the deportees survived. Each passenger list for the convoys sent to the East was typed in four copies. Two went with the convoys and were destroyed, as was the copy kept at the transit camp (Drancy). But the Germans allowed the Jewish Community Council in Paris to keep a copy. By the time the Germans fled the city in 1944, the defunct Council was forgotten. So were the copies of the lists. When Serge found them in a crate in a French Jewish archive not far from his office, they were faded and crumbling …. Sometimes the names were all but illegible….”
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Even her detractors might agree:
Two of Hedy Epstein’s characteristics—
Pertinacity and indomitability
I’ll add a third and fourth
Tenderness and compassion
As when I called her from Ramallah
To explain why I was unable the day before
To pick up her and friends at Ben-Gurion Airport
After their long flight from Saint Louis
The IDF had detained me and friends for hours
Granting me the most infinitesimal taste
Of what Palestinians routinely undergo
Hedy took this in …
Then the tremulous softness in her voice as she asked
“Did … they … torture … you?”
45 phone calls on 8.15
82 guests at birthday party
1948 arrival in USA
5 attempts to reach people in Gaza
20+ years working fair housing
1982 wake-up call
2 parents with tenderest love
1 conscientious speech on a rickety chair in Cairo
1 massage received on a boat
Countless planetary comrades
90 years remembering, struggling, raising voice, extending hand