Novick begins with an analysis of wartime policy. During the war, Jews eagerly embraced the Allies' ideological claim that Nazi Germany was the enemy not just of them but of "free men everywhere." Jews understood that throughout their long history, tyrants had periodically arisen who persecuted and killed them; but Jewish life would survive Hitler the way it had survived all his predecessors. For those concerned with world Jewish issues, working for the creation of a Jewish state took precedence over the rescue of Europe's Jews. American Jews accepted David Ben-Gurion's belief that creation of a Jewish state was the best way to make future tragedies impossible. In this context, Jews supported FDR's conduct of the European war with enthusiasm and gratitude.
This strand of Novick's argument runs against David Wyman's important and well-known book The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman argues that the Roosevelt Administration willfully disregarded rescue opportunities that could have succeeded, that anti-Semitism was the main problem and that inaction by American Jews also played a role. The "failure of rescue" is also a prominent theme in the Holocaust museum on the Mall.
Novick presents a strong case, however, that rescue efforts wouldn't have worked, and that trying to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers (much discussed by historians today) would have been a bad idea because precision bombing was a myth; nobody wanted to be blamed for bombing tens of thousands of Jews at Auschwitz--what could be regarded as helping Hitler kill Jews. In Novick's judgment, rescue efforts might have saved 1 to 2 percent of Jews from the ovens--"a worthwhile achievement indeed"--but he relentlessly documents the fact that rescue was barely mentioned by Jewish organizations.
"Abandonment of the Jews," he concludes, would have been an incomprehensible phrase at the time, because no one believed rescue of foreign civilian populations was an obligation for the Allies. With only a few exceptions, Jews concurred with the goal of the Roosevelt Administration and its allies: to force the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany as quickly as possible. That was the best way to help the European Jews who were still alive. All other objectives, including rescue, had to be subordinated to it.
Novick then provides a fascinating picture of the differences between postwar Jewish culture in America and that of today. Talk about the Holocaust during the early postwar years was "something of an embarrassment," indeed something seen as inconsistent with American ideals. Only the Communists worked to keep alive the memory of Hitler's campaign to exterminate the Jews--part of their fight against German rearmament. Official Jewish thinking in that era was evident in the response to proposals for a Holocaust memorial in New York City made in the late forties by prominent Jewish individuals. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and other official voices all agreed: Such a monument would be "a perpetual memorial to the weakness and defenselessness of the Jewish people" and thus "not in the best interests of Jewry."
Jews' desire to escape from the "victim" schema was perhaps best dramatized by an incident from the grotesque daytime TV show Queen for a Day, in which contestants competed for the most miserable story: A Birkenau survivor said, "Each time I look down at my left arm and see my tattoo I am reminded of my terrible past.... If only my tattoo could be removed!" The audience, Novick reports, voted enthusiastically in favor of an award of cosmetic surgery.
There was, of course, one monument of nascent Holocaust consciousness in the fifties: The Diary of Anne Frank, brought to the stage in 1955 and the screen in 1959. But those productions emphasized Anne's "universalism" and upbeat optimism and played down her Jewishness. Onstage and onscreen, Anne proclaimed, "We're not the only people that've had to suffer...sometimes one race...sometimes another." At the time this was precisely the way American Jews wanted their story told. But with the rise of Holocaust consciousness since the eighties, those productions have come under brutal attack. Cynthia Ozick wrote in The New Yorker in 1997 that the universalizing of Anne's story had gone too far, so that it might have been better if the diary had been "burned, vanished, lost."