American Jewish Loss After the Holocaust
By Laura Levitt
NYU Press, 312 pages, $39.
Although the Holocaust is increasingly visible in American life, it remains forbidden territory. We distance ourselves from it, bathing it in Hollywood homilies to the power of human kindness. We draw boundaries around it, housing it in concrete structures, hoping to contain it.
The alternative — to look clearly into the eye of unimaginable horror — threatens to make us crazy. How can one enter that place of mass death without being driven to despair? How can Jews, in particular, build clear-headed connections to their murdered cousins while affirming the value of life in the present?
These questions haunt many of us who have grown up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and they haunt Laura Levitt, whose new book, “American Jewish Loss After the Holocaust,” tries to come to terms with the meaning of the Holocaust in relation to the everyday, ordinary losses we all endure.
Levitt is a professor of religion at Temple University, an American Jew who has no immediate connection to the Holocaust but has been moved by memoirs and literature, and wishes to build a bridge between her own familial losses and those extraordinary losses in order to understand both better. Her argument is simple but profound: that all of us, no matter how close or far removed from the tragedy, come to understand the Holocaust in relation to our own individual, personal losses.
She begins the book with a vignette about her own father’s family, about how she learned late in life that the woman she thought was her grandmother was in fact her grandfather’s second wife. She is haunted by this history, and takes it upon herself to come to terms with her missing grandmother, who died when her father was a boy. In a process that bears similarity to the journeys that many descendants of Holocaust survivors undertake, she movingly excavates and recasts her family history. It is partly through reading the art and literature on the Holocaust that she gains a deeper understanding of her own fractured legacy.
Levitt’s claim that we experience loss in personal ways seems irrefutable. It’s true of everyday, ordinary losses, to be sure, but it is also true of those who have experienced extraordinary losses. The now voluminous testimonies of Holocaust survivors, after all, focus on the loss of mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles once known and loved. (Indeed, the term “Holocaust” describing the collective experience of destruction, was not widely used until the 1970s.)
But when Levitt writes that she “hopes to invert the all-too-pervasive logic that insists that the Holocaust must always come first,” one wonders whether it is really true that individuals’ ordinary losses have been overshadowed by Holocaust memory. And if so, who is making such demands of Jewish Americans?
A clue emerges in Levitt’s discussion of Yaffa Eliach’s Tower of Faces exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in which thousands of family photographs have been assembled to commemorate the Jewish dead of a single Polish town. “I wanted to imagine these people as my own,” Levitt writes of the sense of familiarity and identification she felt when viewing the images. This exhibit provided, for her, a way into the enormity of the Holocaust, and a way to bridge the gap between ordinary and extraordinary loss.
And yet, she laments, the exhibit is organized so that viewers make some connections between those depicted in the photographs, but “we are not supposed to linger on this connection.” Ultimately, she writes, “our individual encounters are supposed to be dwarfed by the grander vision of devastation and loss that is the Holocaust.”
While Levitt recognizes the extraordinary nature of the Holocaust, her book is, in essence, an argument for its universalization. Survivors and their descendants can and should not be the privileged bearers of moral authority related to loss, she seems to suggest. Once we acknowledge the connection between the extraordinary losses of the Holocaust and the ordinary losses of every day life, we enlarge the pool of those who are able to integrate the Holocaust and its victims into their moral universe. This, she implies, is a good thing — and I agree.
And yet, “American Jewish Loss After the Holocaust” inadvertently reminds us of the continuing divide that separates those who grew up relatively insulated from Holocaust trauma and those of us who did not. For the very possibility of viewing those images of smiling Jews in the Holocaust Museum’s Tower of Faces divorced from their ultimate fates remains, for many of us, a luxury that is out of reach. The trauma wrought by extraordinary loss, though increasingly recognized by a wider swath of the population, continues to be borne disproportionately by those closest to the destruction.
Arlene Stein is a professor of sociology at Rutgers who is writing a book about Holocaust story telling in America.