Holocaust: An American Understanding

Rutgers University Press  2016


Drawing on both primary and secondary sources as well as interviews, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University Deborah E. Lipstadt’s demonstrates how the Holocaust evolved from a little-known—and even lesser understood—event in the postwar American conscience to its present impact on American culture, politics, and the American Jewish community.

The many issues, events, and personalities discussed by Lipstadt include the effect of the Holocaust over the Bitburg controversy, the Rwandian Genocide, the bombing of Kosovo, and the debate surrounding the purpose for the building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Significantly, Lipstadt does not overlook the important moral presence of the late Elie Wiesel in many of these events—Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize awardee, was not hesitant to speak truth to power—or any other Holocaust-related issue in the United States, comprehensively addressing each subject and leaving no rock unturned.

One of the most interesting topics addressed in Holocaust: An American Understanding is Lipstadt’s discussion of the controversy surrounding the factual definition of the Holocaust. When the Holocaust is commonly referred to as the “murder of six million Jews and five million others,” do we question who these “others” are, and how did we arrive at the number of five million? Lipstadt, in her somewhat critical assessment of Simon Wiesenthal, notes that the famed Nazi hunter came up with this number: Wiesenthal was critical of those who insisted “on dividing the dead and only mourning their own” and ignored “the other victims,” which he claimed numbered five million. Lipstadt surmises that Wiesenthal may have created this “fraudulent” number because he lived in Austria, “a country that for many decades[…] promulgated the false notion that it, too, had been a victim of Hitler’s aggression, as the first country invaded by the Nazi.” Lipstadt claims that Austria, contrary to the myth, welcomed Hitler in 1938 and subsequently was a loyal and trusted partner of the Third Reich, let alone engaging in the vicious persecution of its the Jews. She also suggests another motivation for Wiesenthal’s claim of five million was that he thought in universal, inclusive terms, seeking justice rather than vengeance.

Lipstadt reveals the “testy” if not competitive relationship between Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel. She notes that although Wiesenthal never openly stated it, there was little doubt “that when he contrasted himself to other Jews, those who he said wanted vengeance, he meant Wiesel.” Lipstadt cites Wiesel about his challenge to Wiesenthal to explain how he reached the number eleven million, to which Wiesenthal responded by accusing Wiesel of suffering “JudeoCentrism”, being concerned only about Jews.

So what are we to make of the “five million others”? Lipstadt argues that aside from its use for strategic or ideological purposes, “the eleven-million figure has acquired legs that have extended far beyond Wiesenthal’s initial claim. Enshrined in presidential orders, Holocaust museums, memorial services, and an array of publications, given its dubious and fictional status, it is not surprising that those who insist on using it cannot agree on who precisely are these other victims. Yet the number persists.”

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