Auschwitz and the Professors | Commentary magazine

Harvard’s Holocaust chair has been in the news again.

It was bad enough that, as of this past winter, the university had kept the slot unfilled for more than three years, prompting the New York financier Kenneth Lipper, who had underwritten the professorship, to shift much of his $3-million grant elsewhere. “It breaks [Lipper’s] heart what’s happening at Harvard,” attested Michael Berenbaum, the former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and now the head of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. But still worse was to come in the spring. Though the committee at Harvard had interviewed an all-star roster of historians, its members could not agree on who was most suitable to hold the endowed chair. And so, the university announced, the search was indefinitely suspended.

In the volley of criticism that followed this announcement, one especially fierce salvo came from Debórah Dwork, who directs the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University in nearby Worcester, Massachusetts. “I think it is appalling that Harvard is not endorsing this field of study,” she said.

Is it? Harvard’s lapse brings to the fore a number of genuinely difficult questions that have been, or should have been, on the minds of those spearheading the expansion of “Holocaust studies” in American universities. Nearly two decades ago, the critic Robert Alter cautioned in these pages against the distortions that would inevitably ensue as the Holocaust became “academicized” (“Deformations of the Holocaust,” February 1981). A “topic or event, however momentous,” Alter warned, “is not an academic discipline,” and to turn it into one was inevitably to skew perspectives. In particular, Alter was worried that presenting the fathomless evil of the Holocaust in the detached, dispassionate environment of a university lecture hall would have, in his words, the “unhappy effect of naturalizing the horror.”

In the years since Alter’s article appeared, Holocaust studies have become an established feature of the academic landscape, complete with endowed professorships, introductory and advanced courses, “interdisciplinary projects,” undergraduate “concentrations,” and the like. In a relatively brief period of time, the number of academic “resource centers,” i.e., specialized libraries devoted to the Holocaust, has mushroomed from a handful to more than a hundred. And if in 1981 there were 93 courses being offered on the subject in American and Canadian institutions of higher learning, ten years later that figure had nearly doubled, and has continued to grow throughout the 90’s. Since it was founded in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has created its own university-style Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, which offers 25 annual training fellowships, and it plans to organize an international consortium of universities with Holocaust chairs.

The canvas, then, is large and becoming larger. It is also quite various, in terms both of areas of specialization and of the quality of work being done. But within the variety a number of disquieting features remain readily discernible, including, in the first place, the sense-deadening phenomenon of “naturalization” that Alter cautioned against. Thanks to a number of other developments in our academic culture, however, things have also gotten considerably worse than he could have foretold.

Perhaps most striking to any outside observer is the way in which courses on the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews—“Holocaust 101,” in Elie Wiesel’s alarmed and alarming phrase—are now routinely exploited as commercial bragging points in the self-promotion of American institutions of higher learning. Clark University is a case in point. Harvard may be lagging in the great Holocaust sweepstakes, but Clark, according to the handsome publicity materials it puts out about itself, is a trailblazer. Clark offers “a comprehensive undergraduate education in Holocaust and genocide studies”; in fact, “it is the only college or university in all of the Americas and Europe to provide such a rich education in this field.” Clark also “boasts the first Ph.D. program in Holocaust history”; it prides itself on having not merely one Holocaust chair but two, and it plans soon to have four. Of the chair-holders, one is the aforementioned Debórah Dwork, a pioneer in women’s studies who, we are told, also serves as an adviser to the government of Poland on “tourism” and “ecology” at “the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration-camp site.”

Though Clark’s program is, as its publicity crows, among the most advanced in the world, it is hardly the most with-it. Undergraduates at Swarthmore can avail themselves of a “multidisciplinary” Holocaust course that also promises to be “truly multicultural.” Dickinson State University in North Dakota vies for interscholastic honors with “The Holocaust in Historical Context: An Internet Extension Course.” The University of Nevada at Reno offers students a nineteen-credit minor in Holocaust, Genocide, and Peace Studies that includes a hands-on “internship” providing “structured and supervised experience combining professional opportunities with reflective learning.” At the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, cadets can engage in “role-playing exercises” in a Holocaust course that the Academy rates first among its eighteen history-department offerings “in regard to knowledge, thinking, and enjoyment for all graded work.”
Of course, tastelessness of one kind or another is not exactly unknown on today’s campuses. Nor does a university’s self-presentation, however vulgar, necessarily tell us anything definitive about the teaching that takes place in its classrooms, or the research done by its professors. But the news on that front is, if anything, bleaker still.

“I warn you against the creation of ‘Holocaustology’ and the careerism of ‘Holocaustologians,’ ” implored the Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer at a conference in 1977. What he had in mind was the very process of “naturalizing the horror” that Robert Alter pointed to. Today, not only are academic careers built on the Holocaust, but research into it has also been thoroughly academicized. The very language in which the murder of six million Jews is discussed has become in no way distinguishable from the language of agricultural macroeconomics or the sociology of chimpanzees—which is to say that even at its best, it is often full of the most egregious professional jargon.

Consider, among practitioners of Holocaustology, the case of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, now an assistant professor at Harvard and one of the contenders for the university’s ill-starred chair. Whatever the merits or demerits of its thesis, Goldhagen’s 1996 best-seller, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, is suffused with the stultifying terminology of contemporary social science, its frequently harrowing descriptions of murder, torture, and starvation resting in a larger framework of “explanatory variables” and “analyses of the micro, meso, and macro levels,” illustrated by unintelligible charts showing “a classificatory scheme that specifies four types of actions . . . mapped in two dimensions.” Worse, throughout his book Goldhagen gives flesh to the “careerism” Bauer complained of by adopting a dismayingly sneering tone toward his fellow researchers, particularly those whose scholarly labors have obligingly paved the way for his own.

Or consider The Holocaust in Historical Context (1994), by Steven T Katz, a professor of Jewish history at Cornell. The wholly admirable aim of this book is to show that the Holocaust was a unique event in human history—a proposition that Katz proceeds to test by a comprehensive and enormously erudite look at other instances of “mass death.” But how, one must ask, is our understanding of this difficult subject, let alone our appreciation of its soul-shaking moral gravity, advanced by quasi-mathematical lectures on “the distinction between G (the presence of genocidal intent) in event E and ~G (the absence of genocidal intent) in event E1—and again in every other event E2 to En . . .”? Or by quasi-philosophical disquisitions informing us that “the manichean biologism of the Hitlerian cosmology is neither fluid nor primarily transcendental, though it does premise its empirical behavior on putative ontic truths, racial struggle being the immanent locus of adversarial transempirical actualities”?

Again one should qualify: pretentiousness and obscurantism are not, in the final analysis, the worst of sins. Whatever their faults, both Katz and Goldhagen are serious scholars, committed to understanding and memorializing the tragedy of the European Jews in all its uniqueness and specificity. Unfortunately, however, this last cannot be said with confidence about many of their colleagues.

Here we come upon a somewhat different form of “naturalizing,” one that wrestles the Holocaust into the Procrustean bed not so much of academic cant, or of academic careerism, as of academic fashion. One such fashion these days goes by the name of “victim studies,” and it is distressing to report how quickly those running Holocaust “centers” have rushed to subsume the Holocaust under its intrinsically degrading rubric. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld has remarked, the murder of the European Jews is now reflexively linked in American liberal discourse with every major or minor infraction one can think of: “human-rights abuses, social inequalities suffered by racial and ethnic minorities and women, environmental disasters, AIDS, and a whole host of other things.”1 The academic version of this leveling process can be seen at the Clark center, both in the kinds of courses offered under the tellingly inclusive title, “Holocaust and Genocide Studies,” and in Dwork’s earnest explanation that her objective is to “ensure that the Holocaust is taught in the broader context of genocide” (emphasis added).

But if that is the objective, one cannot help asking, why have a Holocaust center at all? Why not simply establish a place where Jews, Armenians, Cambodians, American Indians, AIDS sufferers, battered women, and other real or putative victims can be put under the scholarly magnifying glass all at once? (For one Holocaust scholar, the ecological impact of “thousands of pounds of human ash dumped into lakes and rivers” is no less urgent a subject than the Holocaust itself, and its study would serve usefully to “decenter narrowly anthropocentric views of human destruction.”) Creating a laboratory of holocausts, in fact, would seem to be the logic now in operation at Yale University’s newly minted and grandiosely titled Genocide Studies program.2 At Yale, the destruction of the Jews promises to be fully naturalized indeed, reduced to one, and not necessarily the most compelling one, of many rich and revealing “case studies” that will enjoy the benefit of the university’s “comparative and multi-disciplinary approaches.”

Between the Scylla of an academicized “Holocaustology” and the Charybdis of a universalized victimology, there would seem nowhere to go but down. And down we must go. For the worst excesses of all on today’s campuses are being committed not by either of those trends per se but by the voguish hybrid known as gender studies—an academic approach that, as Lenore J. Weitzman and Dalia Ofer characterize it in their new book, Women in the Holocaust3 “represents cutting-edge scholarship in an emerging field.”

Like women’s studies, from which it emerged and from which it is virtually indistinguishable, gender studies aims to redress the alleged neglect of women (plus various sexual minorities including homosexuals and the “transgendered”) in scholarly disciplines across the alphabet from astronomy to history to zoology. It was only a matter of time before its zealous and accusatory gaze fell upon the study of the Holocaust, and now it has done so with a vengeance. Mainstream scholarship on the Nazi genocide, we are being told on every side, is not so much mainstream as “malestream.” As such, it is guilty, in the words of Joan Ringelheim, director of education at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, of consistently minimizing or ignoring “issues of sexual vulnerability and assaults against women” while at the same time subtly working to perpetuate misogynist stereotypes and patriarchal institutions—of which Nazism is an extreme but hardly the only example.

“Women’s voices,” says Mary D. Lagerway, a professor at Western Michigan University, “remain primarily marginal to Holocaust canon” [sic]. To redress this supposed imbalance, feminist scholars have been avidly cataloging instances of “gender-differentiated behavior” under conditions of Nazi persecution, an enterprise that entails studying all the various and unique ways Jewish women experienced the ghettos and the camps. In itself, such an undertaking is hardly without merit. Even in the midst of the Nazi genocide itself, Emmanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto and the compiler of an extraordinary underground archive, commissioned a study devoted to this very question. But it is one thing to carry out such work in the name of honest understanding, and quite another to do so in the name of a naked ideological “agenda.”

That feminist scholarship on the Holocaust is intended explicitly to serve the purposes of consciousness-raising—ie., propaganda—is, as it happens, something its practitioners proudly admit, just as they are proud of their use of the Holocaust as a means of validating feminist theory itself. Unfortunately, in order to find these statements of intent one has to be willing to subject oneself to their prose—the general execrableness of which, let it be said, easily surpasses that of their male colleagues, while adding its own special notes of querulousness and righteous self-regard.
In books like Women in the Holocaust, Different Voices: Women in the Holocaust (1993), and Making Stories, Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust (1993), or in academic journals like the Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual or Contemporary Jewry, one can, for example, come across R. Ruth Linden of Stanford proclaiming that “[s]ituated knowledge of the Holocaust requires the willingness to tolerate a condition of material-semiotic vertigo”; or Debra Renee Kaufman of Northeastern worrying aloud that to “use this cataclysmic event to potentially further our own careers seems unscrupulous, if not disrespectful,” before going on to commit that very act of unscrupulous disrespect in “The Holocaust and Sociological Inquiry: A Feminist Analysis”; or the aforementioned Joan Ringelheim explaining that in general “women and minorities, the working class and the poor, prior to and after the Holocaust, have often lived in conditions similar in kind (although not always in degree) to those in the Holocaust”; or Myrna Goldenberg of Montgomery College and Johns Hopkins joyfully announcing, after days and weeks spent coding Holocaust memoirs for mentions of sexual differences, her discovery of “feminist values” in the barracks of Auschwitz.

A 1983 conference at Stern College on “Women Surviving the Holocaust” illustrates the lengths to which feminist scholars will go in pursuit of their propagandistic aims. The conference consisted in part of a series of “workshops” in which “facilitators”—primarily Holocaust professionals—posed questions to “resource persons”—primarily Holocaust survivors—about life in the camps. Depending on where the questions were leading, they could be regarded as either neutral or tendentious. Had, for example, the “resource person” been raped by guards? Had she menstruated or experienced menopause? Had she engaged in lesbian relationships? Did women, in general, have a harder time than men?

But where the questions were leading soon became evident. The purpose of this exercise, as it was put frankly at the Stern College conference, was “to enable survivors to respond to their experiences with increasing feminist consciousness.” And so, when one “resource person”—a survivor of Maidanek—made the mistake of declaring that the women who perished in the camps would not have “enjoy[ed] us going over their sexual record,” and then referred to lesbianism as an “aberration,” she was roundly criticized by a “facilitator” and induced to apologize.

This is hardly the only instance of feminist reeducation recorded in the literature. As Weitzman and Ofer inform us, many Holocaust survivors persist in believing “that being a woman was only rarely meaningful in their war experience.” But that is presumably before they have been counseled, nudged, prodded, and rebuked; then, it appears, these same survivors begin to be pleasantly surprised “by the new insights they [have] gained” about the importance of “gender” in the concentration camps.

What can be the object of such exercises, if not to sever Jewish women, in their own minds, from their families as well as from the larger Jewish community? So far as Myrna Goldenberg is concerned, the “values” that were miraculously to be found in the camps—”connectedness, nurturance, and caregiving”—are not human values, not Jewish values, but “feminist” ones, presumably as unknown to Jewish men in Hitler’s Europe as to men throughout history. Even the fragmentary nature of the stories women survivors have told about the Holocaust can be forced into a point for the cause, suggesting (to R. Ruth Linden) an exemplary eschewal of “male” forms of history-writing in favor of “nonobjectivist, anti-positivist, feminist versions of objectivity.”

In the pages of Weitzman and Ofer’s anthology, only the Israeli journalist Ruth Bondy, a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen, objects to these relentlessly divisive methods. “Zyklon B did not differentiate between men and women,” Bondy writes, in a memoir that she contributed to this volume “with grave reservations”; “the same death swept them all away.” The spare, direct language of her narrative of Theresienstadt and Birkenau stands as an implicit riposte to those who, while paying lip-service to the inescapable truth that simply to be Jewish was to be marked for death, proceed systematically to obscure that truth by painting the Nazis less as anti-Semites than as “sexists,” and who ludicrously characterize some of these anti-Semites’ most unspeakable atrocities as “sexual harassment.”

In their zeal to target the male sex, some feminist scholars have not even stopped with the Nazis. Thus, Joan Ringelheim has gone so far as to draw a connection between Nazi “sexism” and the, to her, age-old “exploitation” of Jewish women by . . . Jewish men. In this very link, indeed, Ringelheim has located a key to the puzzle of why “malestream” scholarship has allegedly erased the history of women in the Holocaust. After all, she writes, many people today simply find it “too difficult to contemplate the extent to which . . . the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in a tragic and involuntary alliance.”

On that defamatory note we may be tempted to take our leave of the feminist Holocaustologians. And indeed, were they just a narrow cult living somewhere on a commune and insisting on a macabre sisterhood with the dead Jewish women of Europe, they could be safely ignored. Alas, however, just as Weitzman and Ofer assert, they represent “cutting-edge scholarship in an emerging field,” issuing a steady dribble of articles and books and increasingly assuming important positions in Holocaust museums, resource centers, and university enclaves that are already contaminated by the ideas and the prose of the “naturalizers.”

But this brings us back to Harvard, and to the question its search committee was apparently unable to answer: why a Holocaust chair?

On this question, reputable scholars disagree. The distinguished historian Saul Friedländer, for example, a survivor himself and the holder of the Holocaust chair at UCLA, contends that without endowed professorships and the concomitant centers, the subject of the Holocaust would “not be taught in any significant way.” But one wonders. Creating centers will certainly guarantee that the subject is taught. But in a significant way—that is, in a way that deepens apprehension rather than simply spreading jargon, ideology, and distortions both monstrous and trivial?

Already, in American high schools, the Holocaust has taken its place alongside such other causes du jour as values enhancement and AIDS prevention. Already, in American popular culture, the Holocaust is rapidly replacing Christmas as a marketable icon of man’s humanity to man (see the Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its carefully calibrated upbeat message; or see Schindler’s List). Already, in the Jewish community, well-meaning organizations and individuals are mindlessly sponsoring Internet “sites” offering a “Holocaust cybrary” or a “virtual tour of Dachau.” Already, an academic conference has been scheduled in Washington on the subject of “Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe,” where for four days scholars in three separate victimological fields—“Holocaust Studies, Deaf Studies, and Deaf History”—will have an opportunity to “interact.”

Do we really need more of this?

Unresolved issues still swirl around the Holocaust. Many of those issues are historical, having to do not only, or even primarily, with the Jewish victims of the Nazis but rather with the perpetrators, the bystanders, the churchmen, the war planners, and everyone else whose acts of commission or omission ended in the annihilation of European Jewry. Other issues are political, moral, and theological. One does not need separate academic centers in order to consider them “in any significant way.” To the contrary: none of them is susceptible of being addressed by the sort of witless and malicious theorizing that would assign, for example, co-responsibility for the catastrophe to “the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community,” and that is all too characteristic of “cutting-edge scholarship.”

In the end, notwithstanding Debórah Dwork—currently at work on her own “gendered analysis” of the Auschwitz death camp—Harvard’s “appalling” lapse in failing to fill its Holocaust chair may not be appalling in the least. Rather, the university should be commended for embarking, however inadvertently, on a sensible path. Now, if scholars who still study and teach about the Holocaust in a serious way were to speak up against those bent on transforming the murdered Jews of Hitler’s Europe into so many “variables,” “case studies,” and “gendered” objects, we might yet begin to see a slow rotation of the wheel toward sanity and human decency.

1 “The Americanization of the Holocaust,” COMMENTARY, June 1995.

2 Yale’s center is headed by none other than Ben Kiernan, a onetime supporter of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and thereon hangs another tale. See Peter H. Rodman’s “Grantsmanship & the Killing Fields,” COMMENTARY, March 1996.

3 “Yale, 402 pp., $30.00.

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