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By John Wilson


A Peculiar People

The uniqueness of the Jews

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Over the last three weeks we have been considering books that shed light on the Holocaust. One book we've noted, at once deeply insightful and curiously obtuse, is Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Novick is scathing about what he regards as unseemly and foolish attempts to maintain the uniqueness of the Holocaust among the episodes of genocide that modern history recognizes. The claim is "fatuous," Novick says; obviously every act of genocide is unique, and also bears resemblance to others.

But here, as with his willful blindness to the theological dimension of the Shoah, Novick just doesn't get it. The Jews are different, and the Holocaust is unique, and to say so, far from being fatuous, is to acknowledge one of the great mysteries of history.

"That the Jews are God's chosen people," Richard John Neuhaus writes, "should be beyond dispute for Christians," and even those who are neither Christians nor Jews (nor Jewish Christians) must acknowledge the ultimately mysterious "chosenness" of the Jewish people, both for good and for ill. Neuhaus's words come from his introduction to The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, just published by Eerdmans, a superb collection of essays originally published in First Things, the journal which has done more than any other to forward dialogue between believing Christians and Jews. (See also Neuhaus's commentary, "Whatever You Do, Don't Mention the Jews," leading off "The Public Square" in the May issue of First Things.)

One sign of that chosenness—melancholy, bizarre, and yet somehow representative in its very idiosyncrasy—is the tale of Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype, as related by David Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa (expanded ed., Lexington Books, 2000). An article by terrorism expert Christopher Harmon in the March/April issue of Books & Culture compared the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States with the 1995 terrorist action in Japan, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the deadly nerve gas, sarin, on the Tokyo subway. One point of comparison Harmon didn't mention was that anti-Semitism played an important part in Aum's ideology, just as it did in the ideology of Osama bin Laden.

Goodman and Miyazawa bring to light a history largely unknown except to a few specialists in Japanese studies. By contrast, in Dreamland: Europeans and Jews in the Aftermath of the Great War, just published by Knopf, Howard Sachar makes us see as if for the first time a history we thought we already knew. It is a story, in part, of noble but blind "European Jewish dreamers" who fail to recognize that for many of their fellow Europeans they remain quintessentially Other.

One who saw more clearly was Gershom Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, product of a first-rate German education, who realized that Germany was not a homeland even for Jews who had lived there for generations. He emigrated to Israel and sought in vain to persuade his friend Walter Benjamin to join him. That trajectory is traced in Gershom Scholem: A Life In Letters, 1914-1982, just out from Harvard University Press.

One wonders what Scholem would have made of the case of Binjiman Wilkomirski, a Swiss musician who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor and wrote a prizewinning memoir of his internment as a child in the concentrations camps at Majdanek and Birkenau. Fragments, published in German in 1995 and in English translation in 1996, turned out to be a work of fiction, and Wilkomirski (as he called himself) a Gentile.

Two books have been published on this episode. The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, by Stefan Maechler (Schocken, 2001), is the result of a study commissioned by the literary agency that held world rights to Fragments after charges against its authenticity had been raised. The book, which includes the text of Fragments as well, is a painstaking investigation. In contrast, Blake Eskin's A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjiman Wilkomirski (Norton, 2002) mixes in a great deal of self-indulgent, present-tense, first-person narrative (one isn't surprised to learn than the author first told his story on the radio program, This American Life), but it complements Maechler's book in some respects.

Both Maechler and Eskin report on Wilkomirski's rapport with a woman calling herself Lauren Grabowski, who as "Lauren Stratford" had published memoirs of Satanic abuse (exposed as fraudulent by journalists Bob and Gretchen Passantino, an evangelical couple) before moving on to a Holocaust memoir. In an age of victimology, the Shoah provides the ultimate identity.

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