No Business Like Shoah Business

I’m going to do something that I despise in other people—I’m going to talk authoritatively about a book that I have not read. It’s really one of the most despicable things that people seem to do more and more of … Read More

By / April 16, 2007
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I’m going to do something that I despise in other people—I’m going to talk authoritatively about a book that I have not read. It’s really one of the most despicable things that people seem to do more and more of these days. They read about a book, or listen to an author read from his or her book, and then go around talking like they’ve read the book. So I’m going to do that, but at least not without admitting to my folly, nor without promising that I really do intend to read the book (I promise, really). 

Last night I read a piece in the Forward on Tova Reich’s novel My Holocaust. It was the essay title that caught my eye: “The Greatest Shoah on Earth.” In the essay, the reviewer reads Reich’s novel not only as a satire on the “industry” of Holocaust commemoration—or what might more accurately be called the fetishization of the Holocaust—but also as an attempt on her part to settle some personal scores, to level the playing field a bit. And Reich certainly has some interesting connections to the world of “Shoah business.” She is the wife of Walter Reich, who was the director of the D.C. Holocaust museum between 1994 and 1998, and according to this essay he was forced out of the position after a “botched attempt to have Yasser Arafat visit the institution,” even though the visit was allegedly initiated by the museum’s then chairman Miles Lerman, and not Reich. And one of the characters in her novel—“that crazy spiderman rabbi”—is based on her brother Rabbi Avi Weiss who led a group of protesters over the fence surrounding the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in 1989.

 This reviewer also identifies striking similarities between Lerman, and the novel’s main character, Messer, a Holocaust survivor and founder of Holocaust Connections, Inc., a company committed to lending the imprimatur of the Holocaust to anyone who can pay for it; he is also chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Reich paints him as a lying, despicable figure who will betray even his family. There’s also, it seems, a comparison between Messer’s chief aide, Monty Pincus, and historian Michael Berenbaum. Ultimately, the book becomes a scathing, yet hilarious condemnation of countless groups—Catholic, Mormon, German, Polish, Japanese, African American, Native American, Palestinian, feminist, and more—all trying to claim their own portion of Holocaust victimhood. Even the main character’s son, a second-generation survivor, is not safe from Reich’s biting indictment against those who wish to capitalize on suffering and memory. 

I think though, that it is precisely because no one is safe in this book that it is so funny—everyone’s intentions are scrutinized in a way that is both provocative and humorous. A couple examples: 

While visiting Auschwitz, the adult daughter of a potential museum donor sees a fellow visitor in a wheelchair and says to her hosts: “I really really appreciate it that Auschwitz is wheelchair-accessible. You know what I mean? Was it always that way—I mean, even at the time of the Holocaust?” Later in the novel, this same woman —an emotionally stunted ball of neuroses with an unusual attachment to her DustBuster—becomes director of the Holocaust museum. Under her baton, the institution is rededicated to the Holocaust’s “other” victims: Gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, political dissidents, homosexuals and, yes, the handicapped and disabled.

Or how about this next one—multiple racial, cultural, and ethnic groups fight for victimhood supremacy, eventually forming "the United Holocausts rainbow coalition," whose manifesto reads: 

“We reject the hierarchy and caste system of Holocausts. All Holocausts are equal in the eye of God. No one Holocaust is superior to another, no one Holocaust is deserving of special treatment or recognition. All Holocausts are unique."

  But most shocking is the inscription one character leaves in the visitor’s book at the museum:  

I enjoyed it very much. Thank you for making the Holocaust possible.

 I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think about all of this, but it does seem pretty funny–maybe that's only acceptable because we're dealing with satire–and Reich may be on to something in her satirical critique of our post-Holocaust world.

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