Holocaust objects are widely recognizable and shared objects that convey Holocaust memory and the trauma that Holocaust memory carries. As old technologies, archaic today, they used to set that memory in stone. Examples include iconic photographs, historical sites, monuments, novels and memoirs, and films, persons and persona; they also include charged statements and slogans. As objects that are ready to hand, they were always easy to “manipulate.” For catharsis, one can pick up a Holocaust object, turn it around this way and that and put it to use. A long time ago, experts carefully, even jealously curated these objects, which were housed in specialized sites such as museums, synagogues, schools, the cinema arthouse. It has been decades now that Holocaust objects circulate more freely, let loose and in public on television and at the cineplex, and then finally as streaming digital content, subject to the proliferating logic of copies.
I remember how much energy and thought it took trying with more and less success to push the Holocaust out of the center of Jewish life (and out of the center of Jewish Studies). Once upon a time in the 1970s, only a few twenty-five year after the war, the Holocaust had been the lens with which one looked at everything related to the Jews and to Judaism. While activists on the Jewish left and right appealed to the still raw memory of the Holocaust, it was still (by and large) left safely in the hands of experts and Jewish establishment institutions. Combined with Israel and the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Holocaust was a central pillar to what Jacob Neusner famously dismissed as the “vicarious Judaism” of American Jews and American Judaism. Speaking from personal experience, I can safely say that I was eleven years old when I first saw Night and Fog for the second time at the Tisha B’Av commemoration at Labor Zionist summer camp in 1974.
Beginning already with the Eichmann Trial, a peak moment of first generation Holocaust memory and the creation of Holocaust objects for political consumption may have been in the early 1980s when the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, compared Yassir Arafat hiding from the Israeli army in Beirut during the first Lebanon War to Hitler hiding in a bunker in Berlin at the end of World War II. The statement was symptomatic, and for many critical observers, enough was enough. That moment summed up for those observers what was wrong with turning Holocaust memory into a political instrument. At some point Jewish educators, rabbis, and other institutional directors of Jewish life began to make less and less mention of the Holocaust, to tone it down, and to blunt the trauma. They did so at the very moment in the mid to late 1980s that Holocaust memory was institutionalized at museums, memorials, and events like the March of the Living. It was at the same time that Holocaust objects began to enter mainstream American popular culture. By the 1990s, anti-Semitism seemed to be a thing of the past. Holocaust memory was a safely sanitized topic of cultural grist. American Jews were safe and settled, and the State of Israel was strong and capable of protecting itself against forces that sought its extinction. “Jewish continuity” replaced “Never Again” as a buzzword in American Jewish life. Even as the Holocaust continued to rattle about in Jewish collective memory, Holocaust objects began to cool down for Jewish baby-boomers and Generation X.
Writing off the ideological configurations of institutional American Judaism, what Neusner did not understand is the power of the vicarious to organize collective action, and what he could not anticipate when he coined his phrase in the 1980s was the power of the internet to circulate Holocaust objects in digital form.
Coupled with the Confederate Flag, today the swastika is almost ubiquitous. Back in business, the Shoah has since surged back into the center of American life with the 2015 campaign of Donald Trump and his election in 2016. Almost no one saw it coming, the rise of white nationalism, anti-black and Mexican racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in this country and in Europe with white supremacists and neo-Nazis at large in the world. The Jewish world has been inundated by anti-Semtic memes, hate speech online, cemetery desecration, bomb threats to schools and Jewish community centers, and two active synagogue shootings, all inspired, at least in this country, in some way or another by the President. It has only been since the election of Trump and the hatreds dredged up by him that so many more Jewish institutions seek out the protection of armed guards. Offline and online, it’s in this current environment that Holocaust objects quickly heat up.
Now put into common play and alongside the swastika, “Never Again” is one such object. From Meir Kahane to Menachem Begin, to Benjamin Netanyahu, it has been the Jewish right that perfected the art of manipulating Holocaust objects. The routine weaponization of the Holocaust and the reification of its memory by cheap gestures, the very slogan “Never Again,” all of this used to be met with suspicion by critical thinkers, especially on the left. What’s different today is that the Jewish left, especially young people, and also Jewish academics, put their own hand to it, responding now from inside the seamless object-environment that has developed around the production of Holocaust memory.
With the rise of Trump and the fascist right in this country and in Europe, with asylum seekers and migrants from Central America left to rot in festering internment camps, the horrible urgency of now pushes Jewish trauma and Jewish slogans and other Holocaust objects into the center of American Jewish life. Jews on the right, orthodox and non-orthodox, are at peace with this. According to polls, an overwhelming majority of American Jews feels less safe than ever before and puts the blame squarely on President Trump, from whose person, it would seem, most American Jews recoil with disgust and fear.
That Holocaust objects are hot to the touch is why they demand careful and circumspect handling. But there is no moratorium to memory. Gentile philosemites on the right and the left marshal Jewish memory against each other, while the moral nihilism of the Jewish right (for whom there is nothing but Jewish trauma) meets the moral narcissism of the new-new Jewish left (for whom Jewish trauma is a birthright). In this social free for all, brought to a boil, Holocaust objects freely circulate. Against the common belief that there are “lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, it could be argued just as easily and with some critical distance that Holocaust objects clarify nothing. They only addle the national conversation, in this country as they have in Israel, ever since Begin spied out Hitler hiding in Beirut.
This post being no exception, indeed being part of the very problem in relation to digital Holocaust objects and Holocaust memory, the word “addle” one can mean something specific in addition to “confuse.” It can also mean “From Middle English adle, from Old English ādl (“disease, infirmity, sickness, pain, languishing sickness, consumption”), from Proto-Germanic *aidlō, *aidlaz (“burning, fever, disease”), from Proto-Indo-European *aidh- (“to burn, shine”). Cognate with Middle Low German ādel (“ulcer, wound, sore”).”