Teaching the Holocaust Again

black hole

I wrote the following notes after having taught at Syracuse my Holocaust class, the focus of which is Jewish religious response to the Holocaust. This post seems apt and I have since added to it.

While keeping to the basic structure of the course, I did some new things. I fixed the unit on women, I added a unit on Haredi thought, and I read more material, including the Eish Kodesh and other works by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also the Em Ha’banim Samecha, George Didi-Huberman’s book about the four photographs of the death pit shot by members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, and a collection of interviews with members of the Sonderkommando, that was some of the basis for the script Son of Saul. Also, for the first time, I had the entire class watch Night and Fog together as a group.

For the purpose of the course, I keep the focus on the first generation of Holocaust memory and it’s first impact on religious thought. There is more freshness to the first discourse than the desiccated ways the material is often framed nowadays. Without getting that, there’s no reasonable, critical way forward.

What impressed me the last time I taught the Holocaust and the problem of religion is how all the old figures of speech, all the old tired doxa of Holocaust discourse are intact: incomprehension, sacred (as in set apart) (handle with care) (hedged in by strong moral and political taboo), uniqueness, privilege accorded to survivors’ testimony, the preciousness of catastrophic suffering and mass death, failure of ordinary language, barbarity of poetry, the negative, the meaning of witness. They may not mean exactly what they first meant at their origin of first usage, but the sense they convey have a distinct persistence.

To be sure, these doxa get pushed and shoved in the scholarly literature, which forms at a more critical historical and mental distance from the first moment of Holocaust discourse. There are new questions and perspectives, more knowingness about discourse and about how representations get framed and manipulated.

Now under Trump and with white supremacists and neo-Nazis out in the open online and in public, suddenly it seems, non-Jews and Jews today talk more openly about “using” Holocaust memory and the “lessons” we should be drawing from it.  Colleague Joshua Shanes recently wrote a column to this effect at here at Ha’aretz in English about how we must use the Holocaust as a lens with which to  view politics. According to a just as recent scholars’ petition, which you can read here, “The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.”

What is the “core” of Holocaust education? The fundamental argument about the Holocaust Today is ontological. Is the Holocaust and its memory, in fact, a critical instrument and political apparatus with which to look at other primary things, a repertoire of slogans with which to motivate action? Or is the Holocaust and Holocaust memory its own grotesque thing,  a primary object whose overwhelming gigantism does moral and psychic damage to any thing that comes anywhere close to its morbid body? In our expressive culture, the Holocaust is the ultimate rhetorical foil with which to contest good and evil. That the Holocaust in Israel, Europe, and the United States is a monster that has always been put to this or that political effect is a descriptive truth that scholars used to interrogate with critical suspicion, not necessarily a normative mission to embrace openly.

Like any discipline, the best Holocaust scholarship brings the student deep into a historical field and problematics particular to it. Returning to the urgent light one’s own political place and and time, the moral and political lessons tend to be extra-curricular and speculative. For all that we must submit them to skepticism, we can circle back to the old doxa. We can test them, like hitting a clay pot with a stick. The doxa stand up in their essentials. The Holocaust is not everything. We see it today from a further distance. It remains out there, a moral, political, and theological black hole from which no good will come.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Teaching the Holocaust Again

  1. dmf says:

    I’m a philosophical pragmatist here in that I don’t there one can discover an Ought in the Is-ness of the Holocaust or anything else, the question than is more like what does one approach (one assemblage) or another enable/produce and what does it preclude/hide?
    The Holocaust isn’t some horrific God making demands on/of us from this point of view, we are left in (and to) our all too human ways of making do, probably not very satisfying for most theists I realize but at least tries to avoid inventing new gods in our images…
    Do you wrestle with what memory could/should mean in the face of demands to Never Forget?

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