Advertisement

Negative Epiphany: From Sinai to Washington

  • Avril Alba
Part of the The Holocaust and its Contexts book series (HOLC)

Abstract

Upon entering the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC, one is transported from the celebrated icons of American democracy to their antithesis. Exiting the elevators that lift the individual out of the present and into past, the visitor is confronted by the horrors of fascism, reflected in the now-infamous life-sized photographic images and film footage1 of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the American army. Due to the proliferation and familiarity of Holocaust imagery in the present, it is difficult to recall the profound effect of these images when originally released.2 ‘Writers have tried to describe these things but words cannot describe them and, even if they could, there are details too filthy to be printed anywhere’, opined the New York Times Magazine on 6 May1945, articulating a trope of incomprehensibility vis-à-vis representing the Holocaust that would echo for decades to come.3 The shock was such that for many, including most famously Susan Sontag, the photographs became indicative of a turning point in the history of the West, an indication that a ‘limit had been reached’ and a ‘prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany’, experienced.4 An inverse ‘salvation history’ was created and a new epoch proclaimed. But what, exactly, was the content of this revelation? Who would make known its message and from where would the word go out? Such were the questions that, I argue, preoccupied those individuals charged with the development and building of what was to become the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

Keywords

Jewish Community Jewish People Jewish History Jewish Tradition Death Camp 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 4.
    Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    See, for example, Tim Cole, ‘Nativization and Nationalization: A Comparative Landscape Study of Holocaust Museums in Israel, the US and the UK’, 23, no. 1 (2004), pp. 130–45;Google Scholar
  3. Grieg Crysler and Abidin Kusno, ‘Angels in the Temple: The Aesthetic Construction of Citizenship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’, Art Journal, 56, no. 1 (Spring 1997), pp. 52–64;Google Scholar
  4. Hilene Flanzbaum (ed.), The Americanization of the Holocaust (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999);Google Scholar
  5. James E. Young, The Changing Shape of Holocaust Memory (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1995).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Flanzbaum (ed.), The Americanization of the Holocaust. For a critique of ‘Americanization’, see Peter Novick, ‘The American National Narrative of the Holocaust: There Isn’t Any’, New German Critique, no. 90 (Autumn 2003), pp. 27–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 12.
    For a summary of the history of Holocaust representation in the United States in particular, see Alan Mintz, Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001);Google Scholar
  8. Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).Google Scholar
  9. For a more recent reappraisal of the emergence of Holocaust memory in the American context and an explicit refutation of Novick’s narrative, see Hasia R. Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945–1962 (New York: New York University Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945 (New York: Bantam Books, 1975).Google Scholar
  11. 40.
    For a full review of this debate in the historiography, see Gavriel Rosenfeld, ‘The Politics of Uniqueness: Reflections on the Recent Polemical Turn in Holocaust and Genocide Scholarship’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 13, no. 1 (1999), pp. 28–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. For a succinct account of its potential pitfalls, see David Biale, ‘The Perils of Uniqueness: The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. 1 by Steven Katz’, Tikkun, 10, no. 1 (1995), pp. 79–84.Google Scholar
  13. 44.
    Elie Wiesel, And the Sea is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969-(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). See, in particular, pp. 248–9.Google Scholar
  14. 46.
    Michael Berenbaum, Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel (Springfield: Behrman House Publishing, 1994), p. 20.Google Scholar
  15. 48.
    Steven Schwarzschild, ‘Jewish Values in a Post-Holocaust Future’, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 16, no. 3 (1967), p. 157.Google Scholar
  16. 53.
    Alan Mintz, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984);Google Scholar
  17. David Roskies, The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989).Google Scholar
  18. 54.
    Jacqueline Ninio, Out of the Depths I Cry Out to You: Liturgical and Ritual Response to Jewish Communal Catastrophe (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbinical thesis, 1998).Google Scholar
  19. 58.
    For further reading on the T4 operations, see Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995),Google Scholar
  20. Götz Aly, Peter Chroust and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)Google Scholar
  21. Michael S. Bryant, Confronting the ‘Good Death’: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945–1953 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005).Google Scholar
  22. 61.
    Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs Volume One 1928–1969 (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997), p. 104.Google Scholar
  23. 69.
    For a full account of Berenbaum’s concept of the Holocaust as ‘unique and universal’, see Michael Berenbaum, After Tragedy and Triumph: Essays in Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), esp. ch. 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 71.
    Joseph Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny: From Holocaust to the State of Israel (Jerusalem: Ktav Publishing House, 2000).Google Scholar
  25. 78.
    Jon D. Levenson, ‘The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism’, in Mark G. Brett (ed.), Ethnicity and the Bible (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), p. 143.Google Scholar
  26. 87.
    Raul Hilberg, ‘Opening Remarks: The Discovery of the Holocaust’, in Peter Hayes (ed.), Lessons and Legacies, vol. 1 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991), p. 19.Google Scholar
  27. 94.
    Jennifer L. Koosed, ‘Written in Stone: Biblical Quotation in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’, in Tod Linafelt (ed.), Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 2000), pp. 164–5.Google Scholar
  28. 101.
    Amy Sodaro, ‘Whose Holocaust? The Struggle for Romany Inclusion in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’, The Journal of the Inclusive Museum, 1, no. 4 (2008), pp. 27–35.Google Scholar
  29. 117.
    Brendan Gill, ‘The Holocaust Museum: An Unquiet Sanctuary’, The New Yorker, 19 April 1993, p. 107.Google Scholar
  30. 122.
    Michael Rothberg, Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). See esp. part three, ‘Postmodernism, or “The Year of the Holocaust”’, pp. 187–274.Google Scholar
  31. 130.
    Jonathan Rosen, ‘The Misguided Holocaust Museum’, New York Times, 18 April 1993, p. E19.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Avril Alba 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Avril Alba
    • 1
  1. 1.University of SydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations