The focus of my thesis entitled “Incorporation of the Holocaust experience into the American conceptual framework” is on the ways how the Holocaust event and its memory were perceived, presented, constructed and shaped in the postwar United States. The special emphasis is put on one of the most popular forms of the Holocaust remembrance: the American wartime and postwar cinema. The aim of my thesis is to point to and show the evidence of a very close interaction between the American sociopolitical and cultural context and the way the American wartime and postwar cinema faced the artistic and moral challenge of the Holocaust and the mutual relationship between artistic cinematic representation and the American public awareness of the Holocaust. The thesis particular focus is on the way Jewish characters were portrayed in selected films and what it says about the society and time, in which these films were produced. Because of little availability of some of the movies discussed in this thesis, I refer to the analyses of three crucial cinematic studies: Judith E. Doneson’s The Holocaust in American Film (1987), Omer Bartov’s The “Jew” in Cinema (2005) and Annette Insdorf’s Indelible Shadows (2003). As a source of cultural and historical context of the wartime and postwar United States I rely on Peter Novick’s controversial study The Holocaust in American Life (1999). The other materials mentioned in the thesis together with the selected movies are cited at the end of this study. As an underlying motto for my argument I borrowed a fitting line written by James E. Young in his essay “America’s Holocaust”, which was published in the book called The Americanization of the Holocaust: “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of memory are never pure” (Flanzbaum 1999: 68).
In the introduction I outline two basic approaches to the Holocaust artistic representations, which are usually applied to the Holocaust literature but can also be relevant for the Holocaust film studies. The first chapter deals with the issues of the Holocaust postwar silence, the process of Americanization, the question of the Holocaust proper representation, and victimhood as the center of a collective identity. The second chapter explores the question of the role cinema played in disseminating the Holocaust awareness among the American public. The focus of the third chapter is on the American political and cinematic situation of the thirties and forties with special emphasis on three selected outstanding movies: Alfred L. Werker’s The House of Rothschild (1934), Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), and Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). The fourth chapter is devoted to the fifties and its cinematic product The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) directed by George Stevens. The last chapter examines the American posttraumatic cinema of the sixties in the case of Stanley Kramer’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Each chapter starts with a detailed analysis of the social situation followed by exploration of the selected movies with special interest in the stereotypical images of Jews, signs of Americanization/universalization, and the issue of historicity (if relevant for the selected film) plus special contribution of the main selected films. In the conclusion I summarize messages of the selected films and speculate about future development of the Holocaust cinematic representations.
“Holocaust remembrance is a dynamic phenomenon” (Shandler 1999: 1).
There have been a great number of studies dealing with the changing ways of how the Holocaust has been remembered, perceived and understood by American society since the end of the Second World War and the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945. There have also been a great number of feature films and documentaries dealing with the Holocaust event in many different ways. Alan Mintz argues in his book Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (2001) that there are two different approaches to the Holocaust study: the exceptionalist and the constructivist model (38). Mintz demonstrates these two models on the Holocaust literature, concretely on two anthologies: Lawrence L. Langer’s Art from the Ashes (1995)and David G. Roskies’s The Literature of Destruction (1989).
The exceptionalist model stresses the uniqueness of the Holocaust event, which denies any analogies and comparisons. According to this model true artistic responses to the Jewish genocide are rare and usually succumb (especially in the case of popular culture) to vulgarization (Mintz 2001: 39). The exceptionalist model despises various appropriations of the Holocaust so that the event could serve different purposes such as national interests, universalistic ethic, and personal identity (Mintz 2001: 39). The model does not take into consideration different origins, languages and cultural contexts, in which the Holocaust art works originated. According to this model a historical event (the Holocaust in our case) has its inner ultimate meaning (the truth) that cannot be appropriated or constructed for other needs and purposes. The exceptionalist model was a favorite dominant model for the first years of serious analysis of the Holocaust. Mintz points out to its prophetic appeal, which was needed in the earlier years of the Holocaust study (Mintz 2001: 39).
The constructivist model on the other hand stresses the cultural lens through which the Holocaust is perceived (Mintz 2001: 39). According to this model the Holocaust may be an unprecedented event in history but still can and should be analyzed and perceived within a frame of already existing art categories. The constructivist model points out to the importance of a cultural background of an artist and his/her work. Mintz argues that external historical events (the Holocaust was an external historical event for the United States) can be perceived and understood both by an individual and a society as a whole only within the set of their own issues and interests and must be motivated by an internal need (Mintz 2001: 40). According to the constructivist model a historical event (the Holocaust) has no meaning by itself; the meaning differs according to the motives and needs of different societies and communities. Further in this study we will explore the American particular internal needs and motives that lead to the Holocaust representations and remembrance and how they affected the ways the Holocaust was portrayed in the cinema.
Mintz finds the process of first marginalization (denial and resistance) and later centering (appropriation and Americanization) of the Holocaust event into the American public awareness a logical consequence of the understanding process of an external historical event. No matter whether the result of such understanding effort (an art work) is considered to be high (serious) or low (vulgar), it will always be just an appropriation of the event and its memory (Mintz 2001: 40). Mintz sees the key to the study of artistic responses to the Holocaust in the constructivist approach, which means in the language of the art work and the cultural context of its origin and production.
As far as American studies are concerned, the exceptionalist model would represent an analysis of the relationship between the American representation and artistic response to the Holocaust and the real actual Holocaust event. The constructivist model would pay more attention to the interaction between the American artistic response and the American cultural context, in which the art works originated. The focus of the first model is on the Holocaust itself as a historical event; the focus of the other model is rather on the impact the event had on the culture and how the culture influenced the perception and remembrance of the event.
This thesis follows the constructivist approach in its analysis of the relationship between the American postwar cinema and the postwar America with its changing cultural and political milieu.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when the two words are said together: America and Holocaust? What is the connection? The first association you may have is Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Spielberg stands for Hollywood, Hollywood stands for American film. So the film may be the first and ultimate connection that may come across your mind. America has become one of the most (if not the most) commercially successful producers of the Holocaust film. Some people may assert that the reason behind this success is because of the “Jewish Hollywood industry”. But the reasoning behind is more complex and involves other areas of the Holocaust commemoration in America. The Holocaust as a historical event has become America’s adopted child, paradoxically sometimes even more favored than America’s full siblings.
The Holocaust (also called Shoah in Hebrew) refers to the period from January 30, 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, to May 8, 1945 (V-E Day), when the war in Europe ended. During this time, Jews in Europe were subjected to progressively harsh persecution that ultimately led to the murder of 6,000,000 Jews (1.5 million of these being children) and the destruction of 5,000 Jewish communities. These deaths represented 2/3rds of European Jewry and 1/3 of world Jewry. The Jews who died were not casualties of the fighting that ravaged Europe during World War II. Rather, they were the victims of Germany's deliberate and systematic attempt to annihilate the entire Jewish population of Europe, a plan Hitler called "the Final Solution" (Endlösung).
Peter Novick argues in his controversial book The Americanization of the Holocaust thatthe Holocaust was hardly talked about for the first two decades after the Second World War and then during the late sixties and seventies became a central part of American life and played a crucial role in defining the identity of American Jews. The question that many historians have asked was why so late and why in America, a country with no direct connection to the Jewish genocide: “The Holocaust took place thousands of miles from America’s shores. Holocaust survivors or their descendants are a small fraction of 1 percent of the American population, and a small fraction of American Jewry as well. Only a handful of perpetrators managed to make it to the United States after the war. Americans, including many American Jews, were largely unaware of what we now call the Holocaust, while it was going on; the nation was preoccupied with defeating the Axis” (Novick 1999: 2). The Holocaust that was once regarded as a side story within the context of the larger Second World War story is now a foreground story on the background of the Second World War (http://library.flawlesslogic.com/industry.htm).
Until the 1960s, many scholars assert, most Americans’ awareness of the Holocaust was based upon vague, trivial, or inaccurate representations: “Between the end of the war and the 1960s, as anyone who has lived through those years can testify, the Holocaust made scarcely any appearance in American public discourse, and hardly more in Jewish public discourse – especially discourse directed to gentiles” (Novick 1999:103).
Novick claims that the term “Holocaust” became prominent in American Jewish life only after the 1961 Eichmann trial, Israel’s 1967 triumph in the Six-Day War, and its costly victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Novick 1999: 127-169). Most scholars (Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian and the author of the book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994), Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945 (1993) and History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (2005), Lucy Dawidowicz, an American historian and the author of the books A Holocaust Reader (1976), The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (1975), The Jewish Presence: Essays On Identity And History (1977), Spiritual Resistance: Art From Concentration Camps, 1940-1945 (1981), The Holocaust and the Historians (1981), On Equal Terms: Jews in America, 1881-1981 (1982), From That Place And Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947 (1989), What is the Use of Jewish History? (1992))agree with Novick’s statement and share his view of the Holocaust role in the American Jewish identity during the two decades following the Second World War, period that Jeffrey Shandler calls an era of “omission” and “avoidance” (Shandler 1999:1) of the Holocaust in mainstream American culture.
The Holocaust silence in the postwar years is often explained on a psychological, sociological, and on a political level. The psychological reasons for repressing the Holocaust memory go back to Freudian theory of trauma. According to this theory the Holocaust becomes an unbearable traumatic experience that cannot be communicated and thus turns into a repressed memory, which comes back as an explosion of talk in later decades (Novick 1999: 2-3). Novick together with Mintz and other scholars find this theory unsatisfactory for the American environment.
Mintz offers a socioeconomic explanation, which refers to the fact that the American Jews underwent rapid Americanization and were busy with seizing new opportunities in the postwar America; there was no space left for the Holocaust talk and remembrance (Mintz 2001: 7). Novick mentions a French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and his theory of collective memory dating back to the 1920s, in which present concerns determine what of the past we remember and how we remember it; the collective memory defines the identity of a group and leads to the institutionalization process of an event and its memory (Novick 1999: 3). Novick finds this theory more appropriate for the evolution process of the Holocaust conscience in America; throughout his study he traces American political and cultural concerns of the postwar years in connection to the rising interest and awareness of the Jewish genocide. Later in this essay we will see that both Freudian and Halbwachs’ theory play a crucial role in portraying the Holocaust and its victims in the film.
On a political level the circumstances that are mostly looked at and discussed in connection with the Holocaust issue include the Cold War, the Middle East conflict, and Civil Rights Movement. Chapter four of this thesis deals more closely with the effects of the Cold War culture on cinematic representation of the Jewish genocide. Chapter five explores the cultural context of the sixties and its influence on the Holocaust movie production of that time. Despite the fact that the American foreign policy concerning Israel has influenced American cultural to a high degree, this thesis does not address into depth the Israeli issue and the Middle East conflict. The Israeli cinema and its specific attitude to the Holocaust theme would deserve a study of its own.
The institutionalization of memory, in our case the memory of the Jewish genocide in Europe is closely connected with the issue of Americanization (universalization): initial marginalization and later centralization of the Holocaust in American life. The process of institutionalized commemoration of a historical event is according to Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory an inevitable direction (Novick 1999: 5-6). Even though it was the Jewish community, who brought the Holocaust talk back to life during the 1960s and the 1970s, American Jews like other American minorities and Americans generally have reacted to political, social, and cultural changes in the postwar America and because the non Jewish majority in both America and Europe has been so receptive to that Jewish initiative, the process of Americanization and universalization together with trivialization and commercialization of the Holocaust event and its memory needs to be discussed and analyzed together with its historical and cultural context.
The point of our discussion becomes thus dual: on one hand, the centrality of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity and on the other hand the centrality of the Holocaust in American awareness generally. These two concepts are inseparable from each other, since they have developed in a close interaction with each other and they cannot be analyzed without considering the historical context, which played a crucial role in the process of centering – the process called Americanization or universalization of the Holocaust memory.
As we have discussed earlier the Holocaust played little if any role in the lives of most Americans during the war, no matter if Jews or gentiles, and still the event and its memory has established its official place in American society, became institutionalized in the form of federally financed national museums, and managed to enter the American popular imagination so much that it almost seems to be a part of the American experience (Doneson 1987: 6). The Holocaust entered America as a foreign “refugee event” (a matter most closely connecting America to the Holocaust was its refusal to allow Jewish refugees entry into the United States) (Doneson 1987: 6). In order to make the event more accessible and comprehensible to the American public, its portrayal had to be shaped and adjusted to the American standards – the Holocaust had to be Americanized. In his introduction to the book While America Watches Jeffrey Shandler calls this process “domestication” (Shandler 1999: xiii).
The process of Americanization of the Jewish genocide, what Hilene Flanzbaum calls “the pervasive presence of representations of the Holocaust in our [American] culture” (Flanzbaum 1999: 8), is best visible in the motion picture industry with Hollywood at its center. As a matter of fact the process might be called “Hollywoodization” as well, since television and cinema have significantly influenced the popular beliefs regarding the Holocaust (http://www.history.ucla.edu/undergrad/pat/Journal2004/Hakakzadeh.pdf).
Film critic Judith E. Doneson sees the process of Americanization in the film as a process, in which it is “the American imagination that decides how the Holocaust is to be remembered, making it, ironically enough, an American memory” (Doneson 1987: 83). Cinema can work as a naval cord for the collective mind of a society.
As Flanzbaum states in her book The Americanization of the Holocaust “our knowledge of the Holocaust in America has rarely been delivered by direct witness; it comes to us by way of representations, and representations of representations, through editors and publishers, producers and directors”(Flanzbaum 1999: 4). According to Flanzbaum the most important touchstones of the Americanization process have been the publishing of The Diary of Anne Frank in America in 1952 together with the Broadway play and the film adaptation that followed the book in the 1950s, the radio broadcast of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust, the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 and the huge success of Schindler’s List in the same year (Flanzbaum 1999: 1-5).
The aims of the Americanization are best expressed by the project director of the Washington’s Holocaust museum, Michael Berenbaum, whose agenda was to present the Holocaust issue “in such a way that it would resonate not only with the survivor in New York and his children in San Francisco, but with a black leader from Atlanta, a Midwestern farmer, or a Northeastern industrialist” (Shandler 1999: xiv). The official justification for the Holocaust national memorial in Washington D.C. was provided by President Carter in his address to the first Days of Remembrance commemoration on April 24, 1979; in short the Holocaust was relevant for the United States for three main reasons: first, because of the American liberating troops and the role of the United States as a new home for survivors, second, because of everyone’s responsibility for not having acted, and third, because of human rights generally (Flanzbaum 1999: 73). The Holocaust in America is represented through the memorial as the ultimate violation of America’s Bill of Rights and as such becomes an American phenomenon – the physical reality of the Americanization of the Holocaust.
1.3 Proper Representation?
The issue of universalization and Americanization of the Holocaust event and its memory immediately evokes the question of its uniqueness and an appropriate representation and remembrance. What is the proper representation of the Holocaust, can such an event be conveyed via film and if so, how? The very idea of the art based on the Holocaust is rather controversial.
As I have mentioned earlier since the end of the Second World War until the present days there have been dozens of the Holocaust movies approaching the subject in many different ways. Immediately after the event, the question of a proper representation arose. The most well known statement concerning an artistic response to the Jewish genocide goes back to 1949, when a German philosopher, sociologist and composer, Theodor Adorno wrote his famous dictum: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (Hirsch 2004: 4). Limits of the cinematic representations of the Holocaust weren’t discussed until the broadcast of television miniseries “Holocaust” in the United States in 1978. These miniseries brought the Holocaust into American mainstream consciousness.
One of the most famous representatives of the idea that the Holocaust cannot be and should not be represented is Elie Wiesel, an emblem of the Holocaust and the Nobel Peace Prize winner for his lifelong political and cultural activism on behalf of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel is also one of the defendants of the Holocaust uniqueness; he claims that only the Holocaust victims and survivors dispose of privileged ownership rights to the Holocaust and its memory: “whoever has not lived through the event can never know it. And whoever has lived through the event can never fully reveal it” (Hakakzadeh 2004). According to him neither words nor images are sufficient to create the image of the unimaginable. He finds the Holocaust incomparable in its enormity and calls for a taboo on Holocaust representation (Hakakzadeh 2004). Wiesel’s black and white notion of the Holocaust representations (either none or if there are any then they cannot escape trivialization of the event) is shared by other critics.
Theodor Adorno expresses the same worries concerning the Holocaust images in popular culture: “Popular culture is entertainment…entertainment is betrayal…deriving pleasure from artistic representation of pain is disagreeable, dishonorable, and ultimately might blur the distinction between victim and perpetrator” (Hakakzadeh 2004).
All art involves some artifice and is a product of an imaginative rearranging of reality and thus the proper response to the Holocaust has been seen by many rather in its documentation than its artistic transfiguration. In the early years of its serious analysis the Holocaust responses were considered as unsuitable for the apparatus of art criticism because of the respect for its victims.
But not even these critical and warning voices did stop the process of presentation and transformation of the Holocaust event. Especially the American popular culture has been very successful in disseminating powerful Holocaust images into the public awareness all over the world and according to the above mentioned critics violated and trivialized the sacredness of the event.
In order to understand the process of Americanization we have to examine the term Americanization itself, which is rather ambiguous: “For some it automatically signals America at its worst: crassness, vulgarization, and selling out” (Flanzbaum 1999:5). Other scholars (Michael Berenbaum in his defense of the mission of the American Holocaust museum) suggest that “Americanization is a necessary, and noble, evolution of Holocaust remembrance” (Flanzbaum 1999: 5).
The issue of Americanization is not restricted only to the media and places of remembrance but also to popular national figures such as above mentioned Elie Wiesel, who turned into a living Holocaust memorial. Elie Wiesel is a representative of a proportionally small American Jewish community (Jews constitute less than 3 per cent of the American population (Flanzbaum 1999: 13)), whose status, wealth and successful integration into American society and close attachment to American culture, might have according to Flanzbaum considerably contributed to the Americanization of the Holocaust.
The process started already invisibly (as we will see later on the image of the Jew in the postwar American film) in the postwar atmosphere of consensus and assimilation, which did not favor the Holocaust talk; the generation of baby boomers grew up in the society that desired sameness and deprecated diversification; being different was being un-American. The rise of the Holocaust talk and awareness during the 1960s and 1970s coincides with the Civil Rights Movement and an intensified search for ethnic roots and identities (Novick calls this change a shift from an integrationist ethos to a particularistic ethos (Novick 1999: 6-7).
The sixties brought the American Jewish community renewed sense of their identity through the Holocaust (Flanzbaum 1999: 11). After their assimilation effort, the American Jews had to come with something that made them different from the rest of America (Novick 1999: 7). They started to search for their new identity; neither their distinctive religious beliefs, nor their distinctive cultural traits were defining enough, since the modern generation of the American Jews did not bear either of them. Zionism worked for some but not for the majority. The Holocaust experience, event though for most of the American Jews indirect and distant by land and generation, proved to be strong enough to hold the American Jews together (Novick 1999: 7).
This crucial role of the Holocaust experience in the American Jewish identity takes us back to the earlier mentioned Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory, which is closely connected with collective identity. Novick asserts that the Holocaust has been a “virtually the only common denominator …consensual symbol” for the American Jewish community, whose integrity and continuity have been threatened by declining religiosity and increasing assimilation (Novick 1999: 7). Since the Jewish interests had been by then fully incorporated into American concerns, the Holocaust was not only a Jewish issue but also an American topic. Not only has the Holocaust become major element in establishing the identity of American Jews since the 1960s, it has also evolved into a universal standard of genocide, oppression and tragedy in general; a measuring stick for universal suffering and victimization (Flanzbaum 1999: 13-14).
After we have discussed the process of Americanization let us now proceed to the issue of victimization, which became essential mainly during the competition of the American minorities for their identities in the sixties. Along with the search and the struggle of American minorities for their individual identities (separated from the “all-American” identity), which were usually based on the group’s historical victimization; there grew a “victim culture” and created a fertile background for the Holocaust talk (Novick 1999: 8).
Let us turn our attention to the American Jews living in the United States in the last third of the twentieth century, who were, according to Novick, greatly disadvantaged in comparison with other American minorities in their search for signs of their current oppression: “American Jews were by far the wealthiest, best-educated, most influential, in-every-way-most-successful group in American society – a group that, compared to most other identifiable minority groups, suffered no measurable discrimination and no disadvantages on account of that minority status. The Holocaust offered such a ‘certification’ both for the Jewish competition for recognition and for primacy”(Novick 1999: 9). Novick’s statement takes us back to the assertion of the Holocaust uniqueness, incomprehensibility and unrepresentability and the cult of the survivor (Elie Wiesel).
If we are to examine the victim status of the Jews living in America, especially the Jewish Holocaust survivors we should start our analysis with language and the way the victims of the Holocaust were embedded in English, since language and images are keys to understanding changing attitudes toward victims and survivors. Henry Greenspan argues in his essay “Imagining Survivors” that “the ways we have imagined survivors can be quite powerful indicators of wider cultural trend” (Flanzbaum 1999: 46).
Those, who survived the Jewish genocide, were called by different names such as: “liberated prisoners”, “walking corpses”, “the living dead”, “human wreckage”, “displaced persons”, “new Americans”, and “survivors” (Novick 1999: 67-68). Novick points to the terminability of the term and label “Holocaust survivor” (Novick 1999: 67). Nowadays the term almost always refers to a Jewish survivor. The early perceptions of the Holocaust survivors were hateful. Immediately after the war those, who survived were often accused of having done so by low cunning and selfish behavior; a phenomenon later called “survival of the worst” (Novick 1999: 69).
There was no place for a victim in the postwar America, especially not for the Holocaust one. The Holocaust survivors were either silenced or ignored and forced to integrate fully into the economically prosperous and war victory society, who considered victims as shameful and weak figures: “Whereas nowadays the status of victim has come to be prized, in the forties and fifties it evoked at best the sort of pity mixed with contempt…Few wanted to think of themselves as victims, and even fewer to be thought about that way by others” (Novick 1999: 121).
After the Second World War American Jews and Americans generally regarded the victimhood symbolized by the Holocaust as a feature of the “Old World” (Novick 1999: 121). Henry Greenspan in his essay “Imagining Survivors” calls the general lack of the American interest in the Holocaust and in survivors in the postwar America not only as “an absence, a vacuum of responsiveness, but an active process of suppression and stigmatization” (Flanzbaum 1999: 50). This process of denial and suppression refers again to both the Freudian and Halbwachs’ theories mentioned in the passage dealing with the Holocaust taboo in the postwar America.
The image of the Holocaust survivors as well as the whole notion and awareness of the Holocaust has changed and evolved during the time. In the postwar period (as already mentioned above) the survivors were usually called “refugees”, “Europe’s homeless”, “Displaced Persons” (DPs), or within the Jewish community “the saving remnant” (Shandler 1999: 27). After the war the survivors were often associated with the newsreels of liberated camps and were also labeled by terms such as “the greeners – greenhorns,” or “the ones who were there” ….”they evoked a shifting combination of pity, fear, revulsion, and guilt…they were isolated and avoided” (Flanzbaum 1999: 50). As these terms show the status of a survivor was considered to be a temporal state of being: “Survivor’s wartime experiences were, at first, largely regarded as something they should overcome and put behind themselves” (Shandler 1999: 27). The survivors were expected to forget and “to start a new life” as soon as possible, that is why the focus was rather on their postwar life, their relocation and rehabilitation than on their wartime experience (Shandler 1999: 27-28).
When talking about the isolation of the Holocaust victims, Eli Wiesel uses the metaphor of “the invisible barbed wire” (Flanzbaum 1999: 55) and Henry Greenspan talks in his essay about a “conspiracy of silence” ( Flanzbaum 1999: 51), which means that nobody was really ready to discuss the Holocaust immediately after the war, neither survivors nor the others. The survivors included within themselves contradicting duality of living and death (as we will see later in chapter five in the cinematic portrayal of the Holocaust survivor of the film The Pawnbroker (1964)), their wish to speak and to be silent.
Novick explains the American Jews’ postwar repudiation of victimhood both as a spontaneous act of starting a new life, distancing oneself from the past, and as a political strategy in the fight against anti-Semitism. American Jewish communities feared that the image of a weak Jew could contribute to anti-Semitic feelings and that representing the Jew as a suffering victim could strengthen such perceptions in American public (Novick 1999: 121). They strived for “normalization” of the image of the Jew and eliminating the Jewish suffering in media (Novick 1999: 121).
This Jewish effort to achieve normalization of their image fits into the context of assimilation and integration goals of the American Jews in the fifties. The common stereotypical picture of a whining, complaining, self-pitying Jew had to be adjusted to the American cultural stereotype of a hero. The Holocaust taboo in the American postwar society represents a parallel to the Jewish postwar avoidance of the victim image; visualizing or promoting the Holocaust in any way would necessarily mean depicting the Jew as a suffering victim, even if one of many.
However, during the sixties and seventies there was an incredible shift in the perception of victims, who started to be listened to and even sought after and whose status dramatically changed to the status of heroes and almost saints, as in the example of Elie Wiesel. In the last decades of the twentieth century the image of the Holocaust survivors transformed from “objects of occasional curiosity” to “bearers of memory…witnesses to history…sources of insight into the historical experiences” (Shandler 1999: 39). The seventies transformed the survivors into the stars in the center of public interest; being a survivor became a kind of fashion (Flanzbaum 1999: 57).The term “survivor” was used for anybody, who had to overcome various obstacles or face challenges; survival became romanced and turned into “a primary American virtue” (Flanzbaum 1999: 58). There was established a new ceremonial rhetoric of survival in comparison with the psychiatric rhetoric of the postwar years, which saw the survivors more as dead people than living human beings.
I would like to mention the two existing separate survival discourses of that time: ceremonial and psychiatric. The ceremonial discourse uses the language of veneration and sees survivors as heroic witnesses and bearers of memory. Its interest lies in their testimonies; the act of testimony is more important than its content (Flanzbaum 1999: 59). The Holocaust experience is perceived as a triumph of human life. The ceremonial rhetoric is a rather recent phenomenon; it became dominant only in the seventies and last till the present.
The psychiatric discourse uses the language of medical diagnosis and involves issues of posttraumatic stress and its symptoms, guilt, and shame. Memory of the Holocaust is reduced to clinical symptoms, its content is lost; the Holocaust experience becomes a burden. As an example of the psychiatric discourse in cinema serves the film produced in the sixties The Pawnbroker.
Recently there has appeared the rhetoric of intergenerational transmission (Flanzbaum 1999: 63), which describes the way memories are perceived and conveyed from one generation to another and examines the question of legacy and continuity.
How were the changing attitudes to victims and victimhood in general in American society reflected in the images of the Jew in American films? This question will be explored in further chapters of this thesis.