Holocaust Literature

Norman Finkelstein

Articulating the key Holocaust dogmas, much of the literature on Hitler's Final Solution is worthless as scholarship. Indeed, the field of Holocaust studies is replete with nonsense, if not sheer fraud. Especially revealing is the cultural milieu that nurtures this Holocaust literature. 

The first major Holocaust hoax was The Painted Bird, by Polish émigré Jerzy Kosinski. The book was "written in English," Kosinski explained, so that "I could write dispassionately, free from the emotional connotation one's native language always contains." In fact, whatever parts he actually wrote -- an unresolved question -- were written in Polish. The book was purported to be Kosinski's autobiographical account of his wanderings as a solitary child through rural Poland during World War II. In fact, Kosinski lived with his parents throughout the war. The book's motif is the sadistic sexual tortures perpetrated by the Polish peasantry. Pre-publication readers derided it as a "pornography of violence" and "the product of a mind obsessed with sadomasochistic violence." In fact, Kosinski conjured up almost all the pathological episodes he narrates. The book depicts the Polish peasants he lived with as virulently anti-Semitic. "Beat the Jews," they jeer. "Beat the bastards." In fact, Polish peasants harbored the Kosinski family even though they were fully aware of their Jewishness and the dire consequences they themselves faced if caught. 

In the New York Times Book Review, Elie Wiesel acclaimed The Painted Bird as "one of the best" indictments of the Nazi era, "written with deep sincerity and sensitivity." Cynthia Ozick later gushed that she "immediately" recognized Kosinski's authenticity as "a Jewish survivor and witness to the Holocaust." Long after Kosinski was exposed as a consummate literary hoaxer, Wiesel continued to heap encomiums on his "remarkable body of work." 

The Painted Bird became a basic Holocaust text. It was a best-seller and award-winner, translated into numerous languages, and required reading in high school and college classes. Doing the Holocaust circuit, Kosinski dubbed himself a "cut-rate Elie Wiesel." (Those unable to afford Wiesel's speaking fee -- "silence" doesn't come cheap -- turned to him.) Finally exposed by an investigative newsweekly, Kosinski was still stoutly defended by the New York Times, which alleged that he was the victim of a Communist plot. 

A more recent fraud, Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, borrows promiscuously from the Holocaust kitsch of The Painted Bird. Like Kosinski, Wilkomirski portrays himself as a solitary child survivor who becomes mute, winds up in an orphanage and only belatedly discovers that he is Jewish. Like The Painted Bird, the chief narrative conceit of Fragments is the simple, pared-down voice of a child-naif, also allowing time frames and place names to remain vague. Like The Painted Bird, each chapter of Fragments climaxes in an orgy of violence. Kosinski represented The Painted Bird as "the slow unfreezing of the mind"; Wilkomirski represents Fragments as "recovered memory." 

A hoax cut out of whole cloth, Fragments is nevertheless the archetypal Holocaust memoir. It is set first in the concentration camps, where every guard is a crazed, sadistic monster joyfully cracking the skulls of Jewish newborns. Yet, the classic memoirs of the Nazi concentration camps concur with Auschwitz survivor Dr. Ella Lingens-Reiner: "There were few sadists. Not more than five or ten percent." Ubiquitous German sadism figures prominently, however, in Holocaust literature. Doing double service, it "documents" the unique irrationality of The Holocaust as well as the fanatical anti-Semitism of the perpetrators. 

The singularity of Fragments lies in its depiction of life not during but after The Holocaust. Adopted by a Swiss family, little Binjamin endures yet new torments. He is trapped in a world of Holocaust deniers. "Forget it -- it's a bad dream," his mother screams. "It was only a bad dream.... You're not to think about it any more." "Here in this country," he chafes, "everyone keeps saying I'm to forget, and that it never happened, I only dreamed it. But they know all about it!" 

Even at school, "the boys point at me and make fists and yell: 'He's raving, there's no such thing. Liar! He's crazy, mad, he's an idiot.' " (An aside: They were right.) Pummeling him, chanting anti-Semitic ditties, all the Gentile children line up against poor Binjamin, while the adults keep taunting, "You're making it up!" 

Driven to abject despair, Binjamin reaches a Holocaust epiphany. "The camp's still there -- just hidden and well disguised. They've taken off their uniforms and dressed themselves up in nice clothes so as not to be recognized.... Just give them the gentlest of hints that maybe, possibly, you're a Jew -- and you'll feel it: these are the same people, and I'm sure of it. They can still kill, even out of uniform." 

More than a homage to Holocaust dogma, Fragments is the smoking gun: even in Switzerland -- neutral Switzerland -- all the Gentiles want to kill the Jews. 

Fragments was widely hailed as a classic of Holocaust literature. It was translated into a dozen languages and won the Jewish National Book Award, the Jewish Quarterly Prize, and the Prix de Memoire de la Shoah. Star of documentaries, keynoter at Holocaust conferences and seminars, fund-raiser for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wilkomirski quickly became a Holocaust poster boy. Acclaiming Fragments a "small masterpiece," Daniel Goldhagen was Wilkomirski's main academic champion. Knowledgeable historians like Raul Hilberg, however, early on pegged Fragments as a fraud. Hilberg also posed the right questions after the fraud's exposure: "How did this book pass as a memoir in several publishing houses? How could it have brought Mr. Wilkomirski invitations to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as recognized universities? How come we have no decent quality control when it comes to evaluating Holocaust material for publication?" 

Half-fruitcake, half-mountebank, Wilkomirski, it turns out, spent the entire war in Switzerland. He is not even Jewish. Listen, however, to the Holocaust industry postmortems:

Arthur Samuelson (publisher): Fragments "is a pretty cool book ... It's only a fraud if you call it non-fiction. I would then reissue it, in the fiction category. Maybe it's not true -- then he's a better writer!" 

Carol Brown Janeway (editor and translator): "If the charges ... turn out to be correct, then what's at issue are not empirical facts that can be checked, but spiritual facts that must be pondered. What would be required is soul-checking, and that's an impossibility."

There's more. Israel Gutman is a director of Yad Vashem and a Holocaust lecturer at Hebrew University. He is also a former inmate of Auschwitz. According to Gutman, "it's not that important" whether Fragments is a fraud. "Wilkomirski has written a story which he has experienced deeply; that's for sure.... He is not a fake. He is someone who lives this story very deeply in his soul. The pain is authentic." So it doesn't matter whether he spent the war in a concentration camp or a Swiss chalet; Wilkomirski is not a fake if his "pain is authentic": thus speaks an Auschwitz survivor turned Holocaust expert. The others deserve contempt; Gutman, just pity. 

The New Yorker titled its expose of the Wilkomirski fraud "Stealing the Holocaust." Yesterday Wilkomirski was feted for his tales of Gentile evil; today he is chastised as yet another evil Gentile. It's always the Gentiles' fault. True, Wilkomirski fabricated his Holocaust past, but the larger truth is that the Holocaust industry, built on a fraudulent misappropriation of history for ideological purposes, was primed to celebrate the Wilkomirski fabrication. He was a Holocaust "survivor" waiting to be discovered. 

In October 1999, Wilkomirski's German publisher, withdrawing Fragments from bookstores, finally acknowledged publicly that he wasn't a Jewish orphan but a Swiss-born man named Bruno Doessekker. Informed that the jig was up, Wilkomirski thundered defiantly, "I am Binjamin Wilkomirski!" Not until a month later did the American publisher, Schocken, drop Fragments from its list. 

Consider now Holocaust secondary literature. A telltale sign of this literature is the space given over to the "Arab connection." Although the Mufti of Jerusalem didn't play "any significant part in the Holocaust," [historian Peter] Novick reports, the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (edited by Israel Gutman) gave him a "starring role." The Mufti also gets top billing in Yad Vashem: "The visitor is left to conclude," [Israeli journalist] Tom Segev writes, "that there is much in common between the Nazis' plans to destroy the Jews and the Arabs' enmity to Israel." At an Auschwitz commemoration officiated by clergy representing all religious denominations, Wiesel objected only to the presence of a Muslim qadi: "Were we not forgetting .... Mufti Hajj Amin el-Husseini of Jerusalem, Heinrich Himmler's friend?" Incidentally, if the Mufti figured so centrally in Hitler's Final Solution, the wonder is that Israel didn't bring him to justice like Eichmann. He was living openly right next door in Lebanon after the war. 

Especially in the wake of Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and as official Israeli propaganda claims came under withering attack by Israel's "new historians," apologists desperately sought to tar the Arabs with Nazism. Famed historian Bernard Lewis managed to devote a full chapter of his short history of anti-Semitism, and fully three pages of his "brief history of the last 2,000 years" of the Middle East, to Arab Nazism. At the liberal extreme of the Holocaust spectrum, Michael Berenbaum of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum generously allowed that "the stones thrown by Palestinian youths angered by Israel's presence ... are not synonymous with the Nazi assault against powerless Jewish civilians."

The most recent Holocaust extravaganza is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Every important journal of opinion printed one or more reviews within weeks of its release. The New York Times featured multiple notices, acclaiming Goldhagen's book as "one of those rare new works that merit the appellation landmark" (Richard Bernstein). With sales of half a million copies and translations slated for 13 languages, Hitler's Willing Executioners was hailed in Time magazine as the "most talked about" and second best nonfiction book of the year. 

Pointing to the "remarkable research," and "wealth of proof ... with overwhelming support of documents and facts," Elie Wiesel heralded Hitler's Willing Executioners as a "tremendous contribution to the understanding and teaching of the Holocaust." Israel Gutman praised it for "raising anew clearly central questions" that "the main body of Holocaust scholarship" ignored. Nominated for the Holocaust chair at Harvard University, paired with Wiesel in the national media, Goldhagen quickly became a ubiquitous presence on the Holocaust circuit. 

The central thesis of Goldhagen's book is standard Holocaust dogma: driven by pathological hatred, the German people leapt at the opportunity Hitler availed them to murder the Jews. Even leading Holocaust writer Yehuda Bauer, a lecturer at the Hebrew University and director of Yad Vashem, has at times embraced this dogma. Reflecting several years ago on the perpetrators' mindset, Bauer wrote: "The Jews were murdered by people who, to a large degree, did not actually hate them.... The Germans did not have to hate the Jews in order to kill them." Yet, in a recent review of Goldhagen's book, Bauer maintained the exact opposite: "The most radical type of murderous attitudes dominated from the end of the 1930s onward.... [B]y the outbreak of World War II the vast majority of Germans had identified with the regime and its anti-Semitic policies to such an extent that it was easy to recruit the murderers." Questioned about this discrepancy, Bauer replied: "I cannot see any contradiction between these statements." 

Although bearing the apparatus of an academic study, Hitler's Willing Executioners amounts to little more than a compendium of sadistic violence. Small wonder that Goldhagen vigorously championed Wilkomirski: Hitler's Willing Executioners is Fragments plus footnotes. Replete with gross misrepresentations of source material and internal contradictions, Hitler's Willing Executioners is devoid of scholarly value. In A Nation on Trial, Ruth Bettina Birn and this writer documented the shoddiness of Goldhagen's enterprise. The ensuing controversy instructively illuminated the inner workings of the Holocaust industry. 

Birn, the world's leading authority on the archives Goldhagen consulted, first published her critical findings in the Cambridge Historical Journal. Refusing the journal's invitation for a full rebuttal, Goldhagen instead enlisted a high-powered London law firm to sue Birn and Cambridge University Press for "many serious libels." Demanding an apology, a retraction, and a promise from Birn that she not repeat her criticisms, Goldhagen's lawyers then threatened that "the generation of any publicity on your part as a result of this letter would amount to a further aggravation of damages." 

Soon after this writer's equally critical findings were published in New Left Review, Metropolitan, an imprint of Henry Holt, agreed to publish both essays as a book. In a front-page story, the Forward warned that Metropolitan was "preparing to bring out a book by Norman Finkelstein, a notorious ideological opponent of the State of Israel." The Forward acts as the main enforcer of "Holocaust correctness" in the United States. 

Alleging that "Finkelstein's glaring bias and audacious statements ... are irreversibly tainted by his anti-Zionist stance," ADL head Abraham Foxman called on Holt to drop publication of the book: "The issue ... is not whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong but what is 'legitimate criticism' and what goes beyond the pale." "Whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong," Metropolitan associate publisher Sara Bershtel replied, "is precisely the issue." 

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the pro-lsrael New Republic, intervened personally with Holt president Michael Naumann. "You don't know who Finkelstein is. He's poison, he's a disgusting self-hating Jew, he's something you find under a rock." Pronouncing Holt's decision a "disgrace," Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, opined, "If they want to be garbagemen they should wear sanitation uniforms." 

"I have never experienced," Naumann later recalled, "a similar attempt of interested parties to publicly cast a shadow over an upcoming publication." The prominent Israeli historian and journalist, Tom Segev, observed in Haaretz that the campaign verged on "cultural terrorism." 

As chief historian of the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of the Canadian Department of Justice, Birn next came under attack from Canadian Jewish organizations. Claiming that I was "anathema to the vast majority of Jews on this continent," the Canadian Jewish Congress denounced Birn's collaboration in the book. Exerting pressure through her employer, the CJC filed a protest with the Justice Department. This complaint, joined to a CJC-backed report calling Birn "a member of the perpetrator race" (she is German-born), prompted an official investigation of her. 

Even after the book's publication, the ad hominem assaults did not let up. Goldhagen alleged that Birn, who has made the prosecution of Nazi war criminals her life's work, was a purveyor of anti-Semitism, and that I was of the opinion that Nazism's victims, including my own family, deserved to have died. Goldhagen's colleagues at the Harvard Center for European Studies, Stanley Hoffmann and Charles Maier, publicly lined up behind him. 

Calling the charges of censorship a "canard," The New Republic maintained that "there is a difference between censorship and upholding standards." A Nation on Trial received endorsements from the leading historians on the Nazi holocaust, including Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning and Ian Kershaw. These same scholars uniformly dismissed Goldhagen's book; Hilberg called it "worthless." Standards, indeed. 

Consider, finally, the pattern: Wiesel and Gutman supported Goldhagen; Wiesel supported Kosinski; Gutman and Goldhagen supported Wilkomirski. Connect the players: this is Holocaust literature. 


The preceding text is excerpted from the second chapter of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2000), available for purchase at Finkelstein's website. The title above is editorial; Finkelstein's footnotes have been removed. The complete book is online at AAARGH and Libre Opinion. The second link is better organized. The preceding selection, it should be noted, distinguishes Holocaust "literature" from Holocaust "scholarship": In
Finkelstein's usage, Kosinski and Goldhagen write worthless Holocaust literature, while Raul Hilberg writes serious Holocaust scholarship.

 

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