Too Much Holocaust?

The term “Holocaust” entered popular consciousness after the Eichmann Trial in 1961 to account, in particular, for the Jewish genocide in the Second World War. The Cold War had moved onto other enemies, other genocides. Before the Eichmann Trial many survivors felt that the recent fate of the Jews had been forgotten. By the 1980s the “war against the Jews” was placed in a wider historical context and was not just reduced to the ideological intentions of the Nazis. This contextualized approach culminated in the so-called “Holocaust Boom” of the early 1990s with the opening of the Washington DC Holocaust Museum in 1993 and the release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1994. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, access to crucial Soviet archives was granted for the first time, creating a parallel “boom” in historical accounts of the mass killings, inside and outside the camps, in Eastern Europe.

Today the Holocaust is memorialized, institutionalized and commemorated more than ever. Other victims of genocide – Native Americans, African Americans, Armenians, Roma, Muslims – are gaining recognition in the wake of the Jewish genocide. This recognition has resulted in a “colonial turn” in histories of the Second World War, with Nazi ideology and practice placed in a broad imperial context. It is even de rigueur for Diaspora Jews to oppose lachrymose definitions of Jewishness which are based on victimhood. Eternal victimhood leads to eternal vigilance and isolation from the world.

The fear that Jews are too Holocaust-centred is particularly apparent when judging the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize, awarded to a book that “translate[s] the idea of Jewishness to the general reader”. In 2016 Nikolaus Wachsmann won with his magnificent KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Please, not another mammoth “Holocaust Book” in 2017, we hear. My fellow judges – the novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna, the playwright Amy Rosenthal, and the critic and translator Natasha Lehrer – were more than aware of this plea. So why are four of the books on our shortlist of five “Holocaust Books”, according to some newspapers?

In fact, the Holocaust is not the only subject of those four. Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence examines troubling taboo history in contemporary Poland; Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing is a novel inspired by the forgotten genocide of ethnic Germans in East Prussia after the war; and Philippe Sands’s hyper-memoir East West Street explores the origins of human rights legislation and the invention of the term “genocide”. These are, clearly, very different kinds of fictions, histories, memoirs and reportage. Only David Cesarani’s Final Solution engages directly with “the Holocaust”, while rejecting the phrase as ahistorical because it has become too vague and all-encompassing. The book shows that mass deaths were not a clinical, industrialized form of killing as is conventionally thought. The fifth shortlisted book, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel Waking Lions, engages with powerless and victimized refugees by focusing on African migrants in southern Israel. Some would argue that this novel also evokes historical trauma.

The category of “Holocaust Books” is both too narrow (only dealing with the Jewish catastrophe) and too broad (universalizing diverse histories and experiences). In the end, all we could do as judges is choose the five best written and most compelling works on the longlist. While all of the chosen books engage with history, the shortlist is focused on live issues which have great relevance to the world today and connect to the present-day reader – the mass migration of refugees, the horror of war, and the denial of the humanity of others in the face of global indifference. This is our twenty-first-century world. If it is reminiscent of another time and another place then it indicts our supposedly more civilized times. As the late great Zygmunt Bauman noted, before the mass killing of Jews no one could imagine the Holocaust; after this horrendous event, however, no one can now imagine a world without the Holocaust.

Bryan Cheyette is Professor of modern literature at the University of Reading and chair of judges for the 2017 JQ-Wingate Literary Prize.

The 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize winner will be announced on February 23 at JW3 during an event, in association with Jewish Book Week, to mark forty years of the prize. Past judges and winners will be joining the journalist and Wingate trustee Emily Kasriel and 2017 chair of judges Bryan Cheyette to discuss “What Makes a Book Jewish?”.

This article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement Online, TLS Online.

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