Americanization of the Holocaust (I)

 

     From a European perspective, I was really surprised about the role that the Holocaust is playing in the American Culture. I was quite astonished at the fact that almost every state had a Holocaust Memorial (museum, organization or artistic representation) and that this foreign genocide, and not other national ones, were deeply rooted in the American mentality. That is why I have started this brief research paper about the artistic and cultural representation of the Holocaust in the American society by asking myself: Why is it so? Different answers will be posted, either sympathetic to the Americanization of the Holocaust and critic to this internalization of the victims from the genocide.

     One of the first questions that come to one’s mind when dealing with the widespread artistic representation of the Jewish Holocaust in the American Culture is: Why is that so? Why are there so many memorials about the Holocaust in the United States? Why have they begun appearing in the early 80s, more than 40 years after the War World II? The answer to these questions is far from simple, but there may be some clues which can help us to fully understand the key role that the Holocaust is playing in the present-day North American culture.

     Following P. NOVICK’s [1]  introduction in his Holocaust in American Life, some light has been brought to these questions. After World War II, many victims from the holocaust migrated to the United States to start a new life. They slowly became an active part of the American society. After many years dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust, they finally had the need to re-emerge those feelings (LAPLANCHE, J. & PONTALIS, J. B. 1973:465) into a more conscious level, which actually occurred at the end of the 70s. Even though this might be a good explanation in Europe and other countries directly involved in the holocaust, the available data suggests that American Jews were not actually traumatized by the Holocaust, but that they assumed that the Holocaust must have been traumatic.

     Another possible explanation of the appearance of the Holocaust Memorials in the US is that it gradually became a collective memory to the American Jews. First, this ethnic group chose to marginalize that memory, probably because it was too painful to deal with. After some years, for different reasons (time has passed, second generations grown old …), they choose to place the memories of the holocaust in a central place of their social background. Thus, a new question may appear, Why has this Jewish initiative been placed on the American agenda? If the Holocaust is a collective memory shared by all Jews, American or not, why have they put the Holocaust as a national issue? Again, there is no simple answer to that. It has been suggested that this idiosyncrasy differentiates American Jews from other Americans. Instead of an integrative policy, followed after the years of WW2 when Jews become an assimilated part of the American general mainstream, there has been a shift to a particularist policy, which seeks to find the differences between theirs and Americans. Thus, the Holocaust, as a collective memory, has reinforced a collective identity and has become a symbol of the American Jewish. The Holocaust, as the main – and possibly only – common denominator for second generation American Jewish has filled a need for a consensual symbol (NOVICK, P. 1999:7).

     In a parallel way, there has been a change in contemporary American culture towards victimhood which has fostered even more this position towards the Holocaust of the American Jews. There has been a drastic change from rejective and silent attitudes of the victims to an embracement and voicing of a social class pain with a therapeutic aim. Again, this cultural change has strongly emphasized a heterogenic ethnic vision of the US, rather than a homogeneous All-American identity. Therefore, the appearance of the victim culture can be said to play an important role as a cause of American Jewry’s focusing on the Holocaust in the 80s. This quest for victimization has ended in a sordid discussion about the primacy of the Holocaust over other victims (such as Afroamerican, Hispanic …) throughout the North American History.

     It is quite obvious, then, that this new insight of the American Jewry became popular and pervasive inside their ethnic group. However, why is it that the American culture as a whole has embraced it? Generally speaking, the Jews have assumed a leading role in the North American society, either in their mass media and their opinion making elites. Thus, since the concern about their own victimization has grown, the Holocaust suddenly appeared in Hollywood films, telefilms and TV series, magazines and newspapers, comic books and academic symposiums. The broadcasting of their pain (both in popular and academic areas) has inevitably changed the way Americans understand the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general. In a cathartic way, we can assume that Holocaust turned into a moral lesson, something not to be repeated again. We can even go further, by posing that the North American culture has used its historic role in War World II as a national self-congratulation for ending the Holocaust. The Americanization of the Holocaust has involved using it to demonstrate the difference between the Old World and the New (NOVICK, P. 1999:13), celebrating the role of the American intervention in WW2 as the saviors of the European Jews.

     This victimization and broadcasting of the Holocaust has ended up in a broad exploitation of the Jewish suffering. First, there is a commercial exploitation, which is reflected in the mass media and films. There has been an increase of American films dealing with Holocaust from the 80s onwards: Ten Holocaust films were produced in America from 1944 to 1967, then seven Holocaust films were produced in America in the 1970s, twelve in the 1980s and twenty-one in the 1990s (List of Holocaust films, in Wikipedia – 1/27/2010-). There has also been a moral exploitation, emphasising the position of the Holocaust victims over other minorities which have also suffered from genocide. The Holocaust has been placed in such a primary place in the American identity that other minorities which have suffered from Federal and State abuses haven been left aside: Afro-American and Native-American, for instance. An academic/cultural exploitation is also a key factor to be taken into account. From the 1970, more than 25 Memorial Museums have been built in the United States. We can find Holocaust Memorial Museums from Chicago (IL) [2] to Tulsa (OK) [3], from Woodbine (NJ) [4] to Denver (CO) [5]; in fact, there are twenty-five Holocaust Museums in the United States [6]. Apart from Holocaust memorials, fully seventeen states mandate or recommend Holocaust programs in their compulsory schools, and many colleges and universities have endowed chairs in Holocaust studies (FINKELSTEIN, N. G. 2000:141).

 

Bibliography:

  • NOVICK, P. (1999), The Holocaust in American Life. Houghton mifflin company: New York.
  • FINKELSTEIN, NORMAN G. (2000), The Holocaust industry: reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering. New York: Verso.
  • List of Holocaust films. (2010, January 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:11, January 27, 2010, from here.

 

 

Notes:

[1] NOVICK, P. (1999 : 1-15)

[2] http://www.spertus.edu/museum

[3] http://www.jewishmuseum.net/

[4] http://www.thesam.org/

[5] http://www.mizelmuseum.org/

[6] http://www.science.co.il/Jewish-Museums.asp, retrieved 12:32, January 27, 2010.

 

 

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Americanization of the Holocaust (I) por Iván Matellanes (Licenciado en Filologia Inglesa), a excepción del contenido de terceros y de que se indique lo contrario, se encuentra bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Spain Licencia.

About Iván Matellanes

Administrador, editor y creador de la e-Revista de Humanidades Sárasuatī, soy Licenciado en Filología Inglesa (UAB) y estudiante de último año de Humanidades (UOC). Además, tengo un Máster en "Teaching English as a foreign language" (UPF) y actualmente estoy cursando otro Máster oficial en "Estudios Norteamericanos" (UAH). Soy profesor de Inglés de ESO en la provincia de Castellón. Me gusta mucho la historia Americana y el pensamiento político estadounidense, ámbitos en los que me estoy especializando y alrededor de los cuales me gustaría disertar en un futuro.

2 Comments

  • JM.Persanch
    11 abril 2010 | Permalink |

    Me encanta que la gente se haga preguntas y me gustan tu propuesta y enfoque. Te felicito desde ya y espero la segunda entrega.

    Mi punto de vista/aportación:
    Sin dejar de ser cierto las teorías que expones para dar explicación al interés, internalización/apropiacón y americanización del Holocausto, creo que hay otro hecho que no se debe obviar: La idea de “El excepcionalismo estadounidense y su visión de pueblo elegido” al fin y al cabo, desde una perspectiva estadounidense, fueron otros los que cometieron el genocidio y ellos -norteamericanos, sinónimo de excelencia- quienes vinieron a demostrar una vez más su excepcionalismo en pro de la Libertad y la democracia… así pues, el mito (entiéndaseme bien cuando digo mito…) del genocidio judío les sirve para reforzar su discurso histórico y sus valores, en definitiva, lo que ellos llaman el modelo de vida estadounidense. (A esto le podríamos sumar la idea de puritanismo americano en la que los europeos somos decadentes…)

    Saludos Iván!

  • Iván Matellanes
    12 abril 2010 | Permalink |

    Buenas!
    Gracias por tu comentario. Antes de nada, decirte que este es una breve introducción que le hago a un excelente artículo del Dr. Saez de Adana Herrero sobre la “Americanización del holocausto en el cómic Norteamericano”. Por lo tanto, para darle una consisténcia, pensé en hacer esta breve introducción antes de publicar su artículo (en dos partes).

    – Comentario:
    El tema del Excepcionalismo Americano es un tema recurrente en la definición de la identidad norteamericana, tanto desde un punto de vista histórica (idea creada por Tocqueville) como actual. ´Definir las características de esta excepcionalidad es unir todo aquello que los ha hecho diferentes a la norma impuesta durante siglos por la mentalidad Eurocentrica: Sistema político republicano, Federalismo, cuna del Calvinismo … Aún así, no creo que el excepcionalismo Americano como tal haya sido uno de los desencadenantes de esta apropiación, sino más bien (como ya comentas perfectamente) su concepción de pueblo elegido para democratizar y salvar al mundo de distintas opresiones. Esta perspectiva, también defendida por las grandes potencias coloniales Europeas de los siglos XVI a XX, quizás esté más en consonancia con el Manifest destiny Americano que racionalizaba la radical expansión hacia el Oeste de las primeras colonias norteamericanas.

    Sea como fuera, sí que es verdad que la americanización del Holocausto ha reforzado el discurso político que define el American Creed, popularizando los valores Americanos en un horror histórico que, geográficamente, les es muy lejano. Esta lejanía podría incluso, y esto es una hipótesis, purgar los Holocaustos caseros que se pueden leer entre las lineas de su propia historia, sin el peligro de verse a ellos mismos como los creadores de las masacres sino simplemente como los salvadores.

    Nos vamos leyendo,
    Gracias por tus aportaciones y re-saludos!

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