In Search of the Memory of Evil
Many American writers born in the 1940's and 50's have begun to address the Holocaust as a subject repressed in childhood, avoided in their careers and of negligible influence on the American intellectual agenda. Sharing these writers' concerns, Judith Miller, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a Times editor, has probed deeply into unconfronted truths about the Holocaust and efforts to explain it away. Working from interviews with experts and ordinary citizens in today's European landscape, she has produced an unusually creative book of reportage that contains disquieting insights. Along the way, Ms. Miller illuminates many current issues, such as the drive for glasnost in the Soviet Union and German reunification. Most important, she helps one understand why it was so hard to believe the Holocaust was happening and why it is almost as hard to accept the truth now.
Meticulous about history, the author leads those who know little about the facts of the Holocaust on a journey across Europe. The first chapter, in Germany, opens with patches of sun. Some Jewish survivors revisit their childhood towns, where they are welcomed. But these guests come away feeling as though they had never lived, having found a country bereft of their traces. Then, as "One, by One, by One" advances country by country toward the Soviet Union, the story grows darker.
In Germany, for example, a mayor comments about a Jewish reunion group: "We're really asking for their forgiveness and their help in order to prevent another war and build a better world." As if living in another world, the mayor seems unaware that many on the tour and most of the survivors from his town are now in Israel, where they have had to fight other wars of survival since Germany's defeat.
A German radio broadcaster says about the Holocaust: "It has created quite a complex for young Germans. But I guess it's better for us to have a complex now, which will gradually disappear, than to do what our parents did in the 50's and suppress the whole experience." Simply disappear? Or is it not just as likely that a reaction will set in against its unwillingness to vanish? Ms. Miller crisply elucidates German ways of avoiding memory, quoting the Israeli historian Saul Friedlander on strategies for distorting the past, one of which is "drawing a line at the bottom of an account, or in this case, an era."
Austria's "love affair with Nazi Germany" is made palpable in the conversation of a resident: "Ours is very old, Christian anti-Semitism, as old as the empire." A concise history lesson follows, starting in the 12th century. (Each chapter deals with the country's origins as well as its own version of itself.) Austria, the author says, is "more adept than most Western countries at living with illusions." Ms. Miller finds the telling detail of the Austrian self-image in a "victims" list published recently by the Government-supported magazine Austria Today. "Sixty-five thousand Jews died in death-camps; but altogether, 400,000 non-Jewish Austrians were victims," including a huge contribution to the German Army, she writes. "Austrian suffering, the argument would seem, was more than four times as great as that of the Jews."
In France, Ms. Miller interviews the French Jewish author Alain Finkielkraut at the Klaus Barbie trial, and he says: "Why do the Jews want to monopolize the status of victim? people say. This is their new greed, they say. This has become one of the modern faces of anti-Semitism in France, indeed, in Europe today."
With a strong nose for the concealed wish to be rid of the past, Ms. Miller exposes the French confusion of sympathies. "The guilty," she quotes from Le Monde, "could be every man: this should be the principal lesson of the Lyons trial." Succinctly, Ms. Miller adds: "Barbie as 'every man'? The Nazi genocide the equivalent of the Cambodian slaughter? Evil is everywhere?"
Another chapter contains a clue about why Soviet Jews, who constitute the third largest Jewish community in the world, are anxious to leave their homeland. "Because knowledge of the Holocaust is absent from Soviet life, Soviet citizens have by and large been unable to appreciate the significance of the creation of the State of Israel." As Jews leave, Soviet citizens apparently feel no loss to their culture. To portray Jews as the major victims of the war in his country, a Soviet official warns, might well create "a counterreaction on the part of people who suffered here. It could wind up being very dangerous for Jews."
As one would expect in a country where a high proportion of Jews intermarry, an emphatic fear of forgetting exists among committed Jews in the United States. Yet the internal arguments of Holocaust institutions in America are a curiously inflated ending for this book. "Most important, whose suffering should be included?" is how the author characterizes one such exchange. Suffering is not what the Holocaust is about for most American Jews; it is more likely an inarticulate sense of absence, such as American Jews took away from their German hometowns on the reunion visits described earlier. A millennium of Western Jewish culture was smothered; it can be recalled, for instance, by the richness of historical context on most pages of the old Jewish newspaper in New York, The Forward.
Ms. Miller seems inclined to settle for the commonplace on her home ground rather than search out unconventional truths. A visit to Geoffrey Hartman, at Yale University's Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, is a lone reminder of her instinct for the hidden story throughout. Even more puzzling is the absence of Israel, the landscape where the majority of Holocaust survivors found refuge.
In her "Conclusions," however, Ms. Miller returns to form. Referring to "the lava of memory" just beneath the surface of a prosperous Western Europe, she writes: "Only when a society is forced to confront these memories . . . does the bitterness, the hatred and the anti-Semitism, along with guilt and defensiveness, burst forth with what seems astonishing power and vehemence."
"One, by One, by One" is a tenacious quest for remembrance, for the contour of concealed memory.