Second-Lowest Form of Life

Not that this is the most important subject for me to tackle, but I am apparently the cousin (not sure of what degree) of the latest liar-author to hit the skids, Herman Rosenblatt.

It runs in the family: for years, my own grandparents lied about the details of their experience during the war, claiming they survived the war in hiding in Poland when, in fact, they had managed to get to the Soviet sector in 1939 and were deported to Siberia. They lied about where they spent the war because they thought a stint in the U.S.S.R. might prevent them from getting into the U.S.A. after the war – and once you start living a lie, it’s hard to find the right opportunity to ‘fess up to the truth. And, you know, you do what you have to do.

Of course, Rosenblatt should be ashamed, and his hangers-on condemned. But is there a larger lesson to be learned beyond that people love a good story, so stories that are too good should prompt serious skepticism? Professor Ken Waltzer’s take on the whole business:

But where were the culture makers on this one? What kind of questions did Penguin Berkley Press bring to bear regarding a memoir about a love story set in a concentration camp? What kind of strategy did Harris Salomon embrace to elevate a candy-coated Holocaust love story to bring Holocaust education to Middle America? This was not Holocaust education but miseducation. Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart-rending. All this shows something about the broad unwillingness in our culture to confront the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust. All the more important then to have real memoirs that tell of real experience in the camps.

Maybe. Or maybe the culture makers – and the liars, large and small – understand something about history that the professor has forgotten. History is – unavoidably – narrative, whether we’re talking about national narrative or the narrative of an individual memoir. And narrative involves the conventions whose purpose departs rather substantially for some kind of search for objective historical truth. The high priests of the cult of the Holocaust would say – and I don’t say that they are wrong – that the “moral” of the Holocaust has something to do with the failure of all moral systems. (I’m not sure Elie Wiesel would agree with that, but I’m pretty sure Primo Levi would.) And yet, this very week, partisans of both sides of the Israel/Gaza war are waving the ash-gray flag of the Holocaust as a kind of invincible standard.

Funes el Memorioso is our proper text through which to read the problem of teaching the Holocaust. The great injunction is: never forget. But never to forget necessarily means never to construct narrative, which in turn means never to derive moral meaning from experience, but to leave the experience raw, and undigested. That is, perhaps, the truest and most respectful approach, but it is not – and cannot be – the approach of the Holocaust educator. Holocaust education is, most charitably, animated by the desire that the victims not have died in vain – that we learn something from their deaths that, in some fashion, redeems them. But they did die in vain. The Holocaust was as brutal in its pointlessness as it was in every other sense. How do you teach that?