Creating art from the events of the Holocaust remains as daunting as ever. Soon, those awful events will move beyond the reach of living memory while the need for testimony grows more pressing, not less. But the responsibilities of art are different from those of history: Theodor Adorno’s much-misrepresented dictum that “it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz” can simply be used as a lazy shorthand for refusing to engage with difficult and challenging creations.
At the very beginning of his probing, disturbing account of the Nazis’ destruction of Dutch Jewry, Bernard Wasserstein asks what is no doubt the most terrible question that can be posed about Jewish behavior during the Holocaust: “Confronting the absolute evil of Nazism, was there any middle road between outright resistance and abject submission?”
A heartfelt letter sent to a newspaper editor a century ago has long stayed with me. I happened upon it decades after it was written. With his soul in torment, a New York factory owner had turned to the editor for advice. He was not paying his workers— like him, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe—nearly enough for them to make ends meet. He had a business to run, and there were limits to the wages he could afford. Still, the suffering of his employees and their families tore at his heart. What should he do?
The great Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who died in 2009, famously declared that history was “the faith of fallen Jews.” Yerushalmi had trained under the preeminent 20th-century Jewish historian Salo Baron, whose epic (and unfinished) 18-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews was celebrated for its paradigm-shifting rejection of the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history. Despite a life lived in the shadow of Jewish history’s most lachrymose moment—both his parents were murdered in the Holocaust—Baron insisted that Jewish history was defined not by dying but by living, by the astonishing creativity and vitality of an ever-changing Jewish culture.
The history of the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia has a singular place in the Jewish imagination today. To some, it is a dead subject, poisoned by the Holocaust and the lethal anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries: Either we know everything we need to know about it or there is nothing worth knowing. To others, it is shrouded in the nostalgia-laden distance of the Old Country…
Who was Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine? Many have tried to understand this complex, charismatic scholar whose embrace of modernism existed side-by-side with strict traditionalism. How to explain his contradictory mixture of tolerance and orthodoxy, nationalism and universalism, mysticism and activism? Kook was a poet, religious jurist, philosopher and communal leader. Was he a Zionist?
The title, Little Failure, is of course ironic. By now, after Gary Shteyngart’s three best-selling comic novels, many travel articles and dozens of interviews—in which he rarely gives a straight answer—his Russian Jewish immigrant parents must have forgiven him for not becoming the lawyer or accountant they envisioned. Or have they?
Richard Bernstein reviews two new works on anti-Semitism by Edmund Levin and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
By Konstanty Gebert. Over the past few years, a series of books has brought to the attention of English-speaking readers the morally challenging, historically important and often overlooked or forgotten story of the Polish contribution to the Allied war effort in World War II, and of the terrible fate of the Poles under German rule.