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Alan Mintz. Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America. Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. xiv + 208 pp. Index. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-295-98120-2; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 0-295-98161-X.

Reviewed by Tom Lawson, King Alfred's College, Winchester.
Published by H-Judaic (February, 2003)

Alan Mintz's reflection on the status of Holocaust memory in America is, as the author himself recognises, a collection of four discrete essays, each approaching the subject from a distinctly different direction. In the light of this, this review will approach each of these essays in turn. At times the book is a little disjointed and connections between the essays are not always made where they could be. However, there is a coherence to this book which means that it is more than a collection of essays and that it ultimately should be viewed as a whole, which contributes much to our understanding of the Holocaust as an American cultural construction.

The first essay, "From Silence to Salience," is basically a narrative history of the development of Holocaust awareness, both within American Jewish communities and within American society as a whole. In essence Mintz provides a repetition of what has become the orthodox account of the journey of the Shoah into the American soul. In the immediate post-war era Mintz tells us, just as Peter Novick did before him in his The Holocaust in American Life, that the anti-Jewish crimes of the Nazis were avoided because of the moral and political priorities of the future. Jewish Americans, especially immigrant survivors, avoided vociferous confrontation with their past in order to ease their assimilation into the new world. Non Jewish Americans' memories of war were still dominated by the trauma of Pearl Harbor in 1945, and soon after that, turned to the possibility of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Within these mind-sets there was little room for reflection on the more distant crimes of the Nazis. This silence, Mintz argues, was transformed into salience through, on the one hand, the need for American Jews to develop a memory of suffering in the identity politics of the 1960s, and, on the other, the power of cultural texts referencing the Holocaust.

Alan Mintz's analysis does develop further Novick's explanation of the rise of Holocaust awareness in the non-Jewish world as a consequence of Jewish power, but there is still an explanatory void here. Mintz explains through invoking the power of Holocaust and Schindler's List how the murder of Europe's Jews became an American tale but I am not convinced he explains why. There are some interesting and pertinent observations made. For example the idea that Cold War politics helped shape a cult of the survivor which subsequently promoted Holocaust survivors as secular saints is fascinating and subverts the orthodox account of the negative impact the Cold War had on understanding the Holocaust. But for the most part it is that orthodoxy which is recounted here. Although this traditional narrative explains the fluctuations in the popular resonance of the Nazi genocide, what it does not do is explain what the USA, and especially non-Jewish America, gains from the contemporary proliferation of Holocaust memory.

However, the second essay, "Two Models of Representation," does begin to answer some of the questions left unanswered in the first. Essentially Mintz compares two modes of engaging with the Holocaust: the exceptionalist model which sees the Holocaust as being represented on its own terms, by an aesthetics and poetics constructed within the event itself; and the constructivist model which sees Holocaust as being refracted through dominant cultures of representation. Again Mintz's observations are acute--for example, the idea that each representational mode has developed its own clichés: for the former the camp universe, the latter the ghetto. That Mintz is more convinced by the constructivist model is also reassuring; it would be difficult to argue that the Holocaust is not appropriated or even mis-appropriated in the USA, Europe, and Israel. But Mintz's decision to only express a preference for one mode over another seems somewhat problematic. The notion that the Holocaust is a cultural construction moulded by the cultures which engage with the event does not allow the notion, implicit within the exceptionalist model, that the Holocaust is an irreducible and unique event which ruptures all representational conventions to survive. As Mintz himself implicitly identifies it, the notion of rupture--that the world changed direction once it reached Auschwitz--is itself a cultural construction.

Mintz's critique of Holocaust films, which makes up the third and most substantial chapter, is again fairly straightforward, although that does not mean that it is uninteresting. Reviewing the reception of three films (Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, and Schindler's List) inculcates a sense of each of them as a distinct American cultural event, and as such reinforces the constructivist approach to Holocaust representation. Each of the films is shown to have reflected a set of American priorities at the time of release--Mintz's deconstruction of Schindler's List as a redemptive, Christian narrative, for example, is illuminating and convincing. But we can return here to my comments on the first chapter. America, undoubtedly with Spielberg's help, has the Holocaust that it wants--indeed Britain and Europe have their Holocausts too. As such it is not the power of cultural texts that have facilitated the preponderance of Holocaust memory in the late twentieth century but the demands of the cultures of remembrance themselves.

Mintz is untroubled by the observation that the shape of a particular version of the Holocaust is determined by a memorial culture. Indeed in his final essay, a meditation on the future of Holocaust remembrance, he explicitly calls for individuals and groups to give thought to the way in which they choose to interpret the lessons and the legacies of the Holocaust and to acknowledge that this is a constructive process. Perhaps one of the most interesting implications of this final essay is that Mintz is essentially calling for those scholars, and I fear I must count myself amongst their number, who chose to critique the use and abuse of the Holocaust to give some thought to the Holocaust memories that they wish to construct. At the heart of Mintz's argument is the observation that the Holocaust enjoys a privileged place in contemporary memory not because of the innate moral worth of its lessons but because of the service that it can provide for the memorialising society, something which begins to fill the analytical void within the first essay. If those of us concerned with the memory of the Holocaust do not explicitly attempt to shape the future of memory, Mintz implies, then it will not be long before it fades and amnesia returns.

Although at times Alan Mintz could have been more challenging, he has written four accessible essays on Holocaust memory. The arguments that underpin all of them deserve consideration by anyone interested in the history of Holocaust memory, and it is to be hoped that scholars give some thought to the challenge that Mintz sets them: to design the future of the Holocaust in a changing world.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 27/01/04 05:07:36
©S D Stein

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