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Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011

New book addresses 'the end of the Holocaust' in public consciousness

May 19, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Each year brings the appearance of new books, films, museums, commemorations and educational campaigns devoted to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's systematic, state-sponsored extermination of the Jews during World War II.

But the result, Indiana University scholar Alvin H. Rosenfeld argues in his new book The End of the Holocaust, has often been not greater awareness of the Holocaust but a weakening of its memory and its meaning, with the catastrophe appropriated for political purposes or feel-good moral lessons.

Alvin Rosenfeld

Alvin Rosenfeld

"The more successfully it enters the cultural mainstream," he writes, "the more commonplace it becomes. A less taxing version of a tragic history begins to emerge -- still full of suffering, to be sure, but a suffering relieved of many of its weightiest moral and intellectual demands and, consequently, easier to bear. Made increasingly familiar through repetition, it becomes normalized."

Published this spring by Indiana University Press, The End of the Holocaust also examines the growing phenomenon of Holocaust denial and its relationship to new expressions of antisemitism that have become resurgent at both ends of the political spectrum.

Rosenfeld holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies and is professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, where he is also founder and former director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program. He is director of the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and serves on the executive committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

The End of the Holocaust

He has written widely about Holocaust literature and is the author of A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (1980) and Imagining Hitler (1985) and the editor of Thinking about the Holocaust: After Half a Century (1997) and The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature (2009).

"Forcefully written, as always, his new volume honors his entire life as teacher and writer attached to the principles of intellectual integrity and moral responsibility," says Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, author, and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The End of the Holocaust explores the significance of cultural developments such as President Reagan's decision to visit a German military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985, the treatment of the Holocaust in novels and films, and the transformation of Anne Frank into a sort of typical teen-ager. In a chapter on "The Americanization of the Holocaust," Rosenfeld examines redemptive Holocaust stories such as the movie Schindler's List and the book and film versions of Sophie's Choice.

"We in America prefer happy endings, and the Holocaust doesn't give us happy endings," he said. "These are powerful works, to be sure, but one can leave them feeling somehow uplifted, rather than dejected. And the Holocaust, it seems to me, doesn't naturally lead to an uplift."

Rosenfeld also contends with political disputes over the meaning of the Holocaust. Should its definition be broadened to include non-Jews who were targeted by the Nazis? Should it be placed alongside other examples of mass murder and oppression? And how is the Holocaust used and misused in arguments about the state of Israel and its relations with its neighbors?

Rosenfeld's advice to those who would resist an end to the Holocaust: Write and talk about it responsibly, focus on the best sources -- the book includes chapters on Wiesel, Imre Kertész, Jean Améry and Primo Levi -- and remember that history "can go very bad" if we allow it.

"Six decades ago in Europe, it went catastrophically bad," he said. "It's important for people to know that today, and for them to do whatever they can to stand against a repetition."