Reading Between the Lines: Satire and the Shoah

The communal battle cry "Never Forget!" has woven remembrance into the very fabric of the Holocaust.

my holocaust 88 (photo credit: )
my holocaust 88
(photo credit: )
Holocaust commemoration is no simple matter. The communal battle cry "Never Forget!" has woven remembrance into the very fabric of the Holocaust. When we commemorate the Nazi genocide we remember not only the six million Jews who perished, but memory itself. This self-conscious engagement with remembering has yielded scores of museums, memorials and, of course, movies. At their best, these cultural products help facilitate our emotional access to the tragedy and inspire us to fight both anti-Semitism and genocide. But sometimes, the pomp and circumstance, the synthetic somberness and grandiosity and, most of all, the politics and finances of it all get in the way. Norman Finkelstein, currently engaged in a tenure battle at DePaul University (as well as a war of words with Alan Dershowitz), controversially dealt with these issues in his book The Holocaust Industry. Coincidentally, as the Finkelstein tenure story was hitting the press, a new book that takes aim at the commercialization of the Holocaust was published: Tova Reich's satirical novel, My Holocaust. Yet while Finkelstein is reviled by many in the Jewish establishment, Reich is the wife of a former director of the United States Holocaust Museum. But don't think that softened her critical voice. If anything, it gave her even more material to work with. My Holocaust follows the exploits of Maurice Messer, chairman of the United States Holocaust Council and founder of Holocaust Connections, a consulting company that helps pimp out the Holocaust "brand." (The book opens with Maurice working with "an anti-fur organization that was eager to firm up its honorary Holocaust status.") Messer is a shameless Holocaust profiteer. He offers naming privileges on a cattle car to a potential museum donor and, addressing the head of the House Appropriations Committee, he proclaims: "What are the ashes from the 6 million worth in dollars and cents? That's the question you must ask to yourself, and that's the question you must answer mit your heart and mit your conscience and mit the whole complete allocation from the annual federal budget." Reich's bravado has earned My Holocaust near-universal praise. Cynthia Ozick wrote a gushing, page-length blurb for the novel, which suggests that Philip Roth's and George Orwell's satirical work is amateurish in light of Reich's achievement. But ironically, despite all the novel's heresies, lauding the book may be the easy option. We want to believe that Reich has transcended political correctness and revealed new truths about human motivations, because if she hasn't, she's taken hutzpa to an altogether new place. And yet, I can't join the book's cheerleaders. Reich's exaggerated tone failed to ring true for me. Her protagonists are caricatures, not characters, and no matter how bombastic, satire must be tethered to the real world in some way. It must reference a reality we know in order to enlighten us with its absurdist twists. My Holocaust often feels cartoonish. A Palestinian leader (whose son has become a Jewish doctor) is brought to the Holocaust Museum as part of a "Teach a Terrorist" program. An Israeli teacher lights up a cigarette in a gas chamber as one of Maurice's prospective donors proclaims that Auschwitz should be a smoke-free zone. This same woman, soon to be named educational director of the Holocaust Museum, notes with approval that Auschwitz is wheelchair accessible and asks: "Was it always that way - I mean, even at the time of the Holocaust?" The book's pathways to the real world - the very things we need for a moral message to emerge - are all too dim. Let me be clear: Reich's project does not, fundamentally, offend me. Gary Shteyngart's Holocaust museum proposal in his novel Absurdistan is a relentless send-up of the ways Holocaust rhetoric is misused, but it is also a brilliant, insightful and productive critique of American Jewry. My Holocaust, on the other hand, might not be. It is meant to reorient us toward the authentic ethical demands of Holocaust remembrance, but instead, unfortunately, it raises new questions about the morality of memory.