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Manfred Gerstenfeld on Using and Abusing the Holocaust

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, International Law
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)


An Author’s One-Liners Attack Holocaust Myths


Using and Abusing the Holocaust by Lawrence L. Langer, Indiana University Press, 2006, 165 pp.

Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

This book contains ten essays on various aspects of the Holocaust. To a large extent it focuses on post-Holocaust developments. Its subjects include: “The Pursuit of Death in Holocaust Narrative,” “Wounded Families in Holocaust Discourse,” “Memory and Justice after the Holocaust and Apartheid,” “Witnessing Atrocity: The Testimonial Evidence,” “Moralizing and Demoralizing the Holocaust,” and “Representing the Holocaust.”

Other chapters deal with the Anne Frank story and myth, Roberto Benigni’s movie Life Is Beautiful, and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s invented memoir Fragments, which Langer compares with Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird. The book’s last essay analyzes how the painter Samuel Bak, whose work often focuses on Shoah-related themes, represents the Book of Genesis.

Lawrence Langer is emeritus professor of English at Simmons College in Boston. He has written several books on the Holocaust and how it is presented. In this new work Langer raises many questions, albeit not systematically. His essays do not set out to answer particular questions. Nor do they, taken together, represent an overall view of the subject mentioned in the title of the book.


Creative Thoughts

The author, however, offers many original insights, a number of which merit in-depth exploration in a more methodical and effective way. Reviewing Langer’s book thus mainly involves identifying several principal ideas.

In one of many interesting examples of Langer’s attacks on commonly accepted notions, he makes short shrift of a famous statement attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemöller (112ff):

When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church-and there was nobody left to be concerned.

In one sentence Langer debunks this passage, which suggests that Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews was similar to Catholics, Protestants, and trade unionists: “It may not have been Niemöller’s intention, but his remarks remain one of the earliest post-war examples of universalizing the Holocaust, of shunning distinctions and suggesting that the hostility to Jews in Nazi Germany was merely another form of discrimination that threatened all dissidents in the Third Reich.”

The most remembered sentence of the philosopher George Santayana is probably: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Langer, however, points out that: “Those who embrace Santayana’s formulaic flourish out of context reduce history to a study of action and reaction, as if human decision always controlled external events and all that were required to shape a desirable future was a clear understanding of the defects of antecedent imprudence.”

Langer adds that “tyrants are driven by the certainty that their efforts will succeed even though similar ones in the past did not. History is a poor instructor when the pupil is a stubborn despot who considers himself invincible. A major lesson we learn from history is how little we succeed in learning from it” (114ff). Langer notes that he is not criticizing Santayana but those who manipulate his text.


Anne Frank

In reassessing the Anne Frank story, Langer shows the hollowness of the conventional wisdom as expressed in certain one-liners:

When the “definitive” edition of [her diary] was published in a new translation in 1995, the reviewer on the front page of The New York Times Book Review did not hesitate to call it “the single most compelling personal account of the Holocaust,”[1] as if Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, to name only two, were amateur dabblers in comparison to the author of the Diary (24).

Reacting to the many statements in Anne’s Diary about the goodness of man, the solace for sorrow whatever the circumstances, nature’s capacity to comfort all who suffer, and so on, Langer writes: “The journey from ‘Anne-in-her-own-right’ to an undifferentiated corpse in a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen marked a defeat for everything Anne Frank had hoped for and believed in” (26). In the book’s introduction, he asserts: “The sequel to her Diary, in which she would have recorded her reaction to her ‘deathlife’ after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, remains one of the much-missed unwritten books of Holocaust literature” (xii).

Langer deals mildly, however, with South African Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu. He does not adequately rebuke a long list of his immoral statements such as: “However diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon” and “we had to distinguish between the sinner and the sin, to hate and condemn the sin while being filled with compassion for the sinner.” Langer instead remarks: “Condemning mass murder while pitying the mass murderers would have reduced the Nuremberg trials to a travesty” (87).


Holocaust Education

One among many issues Langer confronts, without finding an answer, is that of Holocaust education. He sums up the problems: “‘Learning from the past’ and ‘Never again!’ now seem meager and deceptive guideposts.” How can Holocaust education be made more effective? He has limited answers:

Instead of moralizing the event, we need to accept the sufficiency of reclaiming it by recognizing the intrinsic value of documenting the historical record and cherishing the intellectual worth of exploring the sources that establish it. There is enduring educational merit to separating myth from truth by observing how certain cultures manage to wrest a rhetoric of pride from a heritage of shame and twist physical loss into spiritual gain (122).

The above are representative examples of Langer’s generally insightful approach. There are many others that can contribute in the future to a systematic analysis of contemporary Holocaust distortion and its major modes. Such an analysis is a much-needed instrument in the battle against anti-Semitism. Besides recycled Holocaust promotion and denial, modes of distortion include inversion, depreciation, deflection, universalization, trivialization, memory silencing, and Holocaust equivalency.


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[1] Patricia Hampl, New York Times Book Review, 5 March 1995, 1.