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What we knew…and when
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What we knew…and when

BOOK REVIEW

Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2014) $27.95
Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2014) $27.95

This is a very important book about how the world in general and the United States in particular became conscious of the Holocaust. Beautifully and clearly written by Arlene Stein, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, Reluctant Witness presents the challenges and complexities of Holocaust remembrance through interpretive history, interviews with survivors, and the author’s own stories of her life as a child of survivors. 

Today, we accept remembrance as a given, but how did this happen over time and who was responsible for insuring that it did? The brilliance of this book is how it painstakingly traces the distinct time periods in which attitudes shifted. These shifts are connected to how the passage of time played a role, and how historical changes in American culture affected the views of the Holocaust on the part of the victims, their descendants, and American Jews and Americans in general. These periods begin in the late 1940s and early 1950s when silence and shame prevailed, along with a lack of understanding by Americans. Stein’s interviews with the survivors amply demonstrate that this was the norm; other scholarly literature supports her interpretation. In social work journals of the early postwar period, we read about these professionals lamenting how unprepared they were for the new immigrants. They had simply never dealt with the trauma of people on such a scale. 

Things begin to change in the still-mostly-silent ‘50s and ‘60s as survivors begin sharing their suffering somewhat with the kids. But it’s in the 1980s that the second generation persuaded their parents to really open up and we receive here an excellent analysis of Oprah Winfrey’s trip to Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel. In the ‘80s, the survivors finally emerge and enter the public forum to tell of their memories and experiences. By the 1990s the children are telling stories, producing films, and publishing memoirs that poignantly express their feelings. One particularly noteworthy volume is the gripping account by Barbara Finkelstein, Summer Long-a-Coming, a penetrating portrayal of what it was like to grow up with survivor parents on a New Jersey farm.

As a child of survivors, Stein knows from the inside what happened in America. Even as she details her story, she does a masterful job of maintaining distance, emphasizing that children — as was also true of survivors — have varying responses, and that hers shares commonalities as well as differences. 

Stein notes the work of Peter Novick, who argued that the memorials, courses on Holocaust history, and the like were set up by elites who wanted to make people here feel guilty about the Holocaust, to generate support for Israel, and stave off assimilation. This may be true to some degree, but ignores, as Stein argues, that much of the support for these museums and memorials was grass-roots, coming from children of survivors and others. In the larger sense, says Stein, it represents “a democratization of culture and a needed opportunity for people to process and learn about traumatic events.”     

One unanswered and sensitive question is what will happen in another fifty years? Will it become increasingly difficult to find people with the commitment to remember the history of what occurred, or will it become a category like American slavery that is still a centerpiece of the African-American experience despite having ended more than 150 years ago? Indeed, Jewish organizations and museums have come to recognize this. As Stein explains: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has organized national campaigns to end genocide in the Sudan, and American Jews have given generously to Cambodian organizations seeking to memorialize the two million souls murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

Then there is the question of relevance. We have witnessed other genocides since the Holocaust — Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, and now ISIS. The scholar Daniel Levy has, in fact, argued that the Holocaust has become a universal example of genocide, and that its international status as such implies its universal relevance. Indeed, Stein cites the cosmopolitan nature of the Holocaust as expressed by Levy as a way of “building bridges to other groups.” 

On a practical level, we also need to ask if Holocaust organizations like Yad Vashem should greatly broaden their focus to give equal attention and emphasis to other genocides. Certainly this can hardly be contemplated while there are still survivors of the Holocaust who are alive, but 75 years from now people may feel differently. In her book’s last chapter, Stein questions whether the Holocaust has been remembered too much and that perhaps it’s time to move on. 

Anyone interested in this topic should read this incisive and wise analysis in this outstanding volume. 

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