Review: The End of the Holocaust


Review: The End of the Holocaust

The defeat of Nazism in the Second World War and the revelation of the ferocity and extent of its systematic destruction of the European Jews left an indelible mark on world history. Or at least we are tempted to believe so. We are tempted to believe that an event as monumental in recent European history as the Holocaust would remain engraved in our collective memory for centuries to come, and that its significance would remain lucid and perspicuous for us.

But memory is a strange phenomenon. We often seem to imprint our present perceptions onto our memories of the past, and in turn, sometimes the events remembered become changed in the process. This may be soothing on a personal level, but on a cultural and political level it is a very dangerous phenomenon. It is necessary to have a sober grasp on our history, not only to avoid a repetition of past atrocities, but also to know ourselves and understand where we come from.

Is it possible that, in the near future, the Holocaust can be forgotten? That may perhaps seem highly unlikely, but perhaps it is possible that we acknowledge the events but lose all sense of their historical specificity and significance? Can the Holocaust lose its meaning? It is these terrifying prospects of a fading memory of the Holocaust that Alvin H. Rosenfeld deals with in his latest book, The End of the Holocaust.

According to Rosenfeld the memory of the Holocaust is threatened not only by outright negations and denials, but, more ominously, the book explains how “the proliferation of books, films, television programs, museums, and public commemorations related to the Holocaust has, perversely, brought about a diminution of its meaning and a denigration of its memory.” Paradoxical as this may seem, Rosenfeld masterly traces disturbing trends in literary, intellectual, and popular culture to both universalize the Holocaust experience, and, to use Rosenfeld's words, "Americanize" it. Roughly the first half of the book deals with these cultural “recollections” in a wealth of examples, but with a particular focus on the presentation of Anne Frank’s story. The second part of the book focuses on the literary voices who survived to tell about the Holocaust experience—particularly Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, Elie Wiesel, and Jean Améry—and the agony they faced in trying to explain the inexplicable, to an audience not always willing to listen. The latter half is, in my view, the strongest section of the book, and it serves not only as an advanced treatment of their literary and intellectual challenges, but it also serves an enticing introduction to these important authors.

For our generation, and for the generations to come, the memory of the Second World War may be accessible more through action movies and computer games—rather than sober intellectual efforts at coming to terms with our troubled past. Serious literature, studies, and documentaries must provide necessary intellectual bulwarks against the breakdown of memory. Still, and I am deeply disturbed by this, Rosenfeld convincingly shows in his book the eerie prospects that even many of our intellectual defenses may have been breached already.

The picture on the cover of the book is telling: For a long time I just assumed it was the well-known, dismal picture of the railroad tracks leading into the Auschwitz concentration camp. I unconsciously thought I’d seen it on the cover, but when I was to write this review I discovered to my surprise that it was gone; there was no Auschwitz there, just a grey, foggy unknown.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld has written an important book that deserves a wide audience, not only to help us maintain a clear picture of our troubled past, in order to come to terms with its historical reality—but indeed to help us avoid a future that will bring back the darkness and the fog.  

— Eirik Eiglad

Alvin H. Rosenfeld
The End of the Holocaust
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011
298 pages, $29.95

You can find the book here.