People of the Books: Reviews by Elyce Rae Helford
My Holocaust by Tova Reich (Harper, 2007)
It took me a long time to get around to reading Tova Reich’s My Holocaust. Fifteen years, to be precise. I knew the book was a satire, and reviews told me Reich held nothing back in her critique of the Holocaust commemoration industry. I take seriously those who consider satire and other non-solemn genres problematic for representations of the Holocaust, especially today, in a world facing increased antisemitic attacks linked to white supremacy and conspiracy thinking, from replacement theory to Holocaust denial. Thus, even acclaimed Jewish American writer Cynthia Ozick’s defense of My Holocaust did not persuade me to open the book, not until late 2022.
A key reason I finally retrieved Reich’s novel from my long to-read list is my recent interest in scholarship on the limits of representation for conveying extreme phenomena, especially the Holocaust. We want to understand what happened, how, and why. But, as survivors often explain, we will never truly comprehend, not unless we were there. Moreover, everyone’s Holocaust experience was different. The problem of realistic representation becomes even more dangerously fraught in the form of fiction. Often, even the most well researched and sincere creative imaginings fall into the traps of reductivism or sentimentalism. Why not, some critics posit, consider new modes of representation? If realism has proved incapable of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, why not consider other literary methods? Humor, including satire, and fantasy are two options that can point to realism’s limitations as well as attracting new audiences to consideration of the Nazi genocide.
With this interest in how non-realistic modes, when handled with care and skill, may have some potential to revitalize representation, I went back to the shelf and picked up My Holocaust. Immediately, I realized I had forgotten that it was written by Tova Reich, whose writing I knew from the powerful short story “The Lost Girl.” This tale of an Orthodox teen, navigating a life she is ill-prepared for by her religious education, moved me deeply. Could I not trust that this author, knowledgeable about Jews in America and Israel, about the Torah and Talmud, and about gender and generational conflict, could write about the Holocaust in a way that would help me continue to wrestle with its meaning in compelling and productive ways?
As this point, I find it especially important to note that the subject of the book is not the experience of the Holocaust but the contemporary commemoration industry. And Reich skewers it with glee. Once I began reading, I could not put it down. I laughed and groaned and despaired for humankind in equal measure as I turned page after biting page. The central tension is between money-obsessed conventional Holocaust memorialists and a diverse bunch of opponents who want every group to have the “right” to promote their own personal “Holocaust,” from Tibetans and African Americans to whales and climate activists. We meet terrible people on both sides during the journey. Without exception, the novel’s characters are deplorable, and I longed for each and all to get their comeuppance, while recognizing that some might not. That’s just the world of overblown corporate hucksters, ruthless grifters, arrogant socialites, and phony gurus. Delusion – by others or self-propelled – rules the day.
Take, for instance, the aged Jewish camp survivor who directs the unnamed museum that is obviously the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A patriarch whose goal of raising world consciousness of the Shoah actually comes to rewrite his own personal history, falsely claiming he was a gun-toting member of the resistance. Thus overhauled, he can better achieve the kind of heroic status that will impress the wealthy and keep their donations flowing. Reich also depicts this survivor’s lackluster son and his most successful sleazy salesman, the former a hen-pecked husband type and the latter a grotesque womanizer whom the survivor nonetheless admires. All, meanwhile, have enough self-pity to drown in. The novel’s women are equally misguided, including the wealthy widow who seeks to “buy” the role of museum director for her airheaded daughter with a ten million dollar donation, and the survivor’s granddaughter, brought up to think of little beyond Holocaust remembrance, eventually deciding the best way to give her life over to commemoration of the victims is to become a (Jewish) nun, cloistering herself and praying ceaselessly in a convent build within, and then moved to sit beside, the Auschwitz memorial in Poland.
The pleasure of the book is how Reich actively demands of her readers an interrogation of how American Jews (and a few Europeans) have surrendered Holocaust remembrance to a deeply cynical commercialization. The distance a satire puts between us, and its target subject keeps us from feelings of sympathy or sentimentality. We do not suffer along with characters or hope for a happy ending. Instead, we remain on our guard, in the realm of the intellect. I could not help but question, after reading, why Washington DC has a Native American and African American heritage museum, but not a Jewish American one. In short, we yielded life for death, gained a space for mourning the loss of European Jewry instead of recognizing the presence and importance of Jewish American history.
Now, I feel protective of My Holocaust. I cherish its dark wit and social critique, even as I fear its reception – at publication and especially now – by antisemites. I want to withhold it from anyone who has not read several survivor memoirs and a good dose of Jewish history first. For those who pass this test, I can then recommend My Holocaust as a powerful political satire for the 21st century.
Author bio: Elyce Rae Helford, PhD, is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. Her most recent book is What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.