What Can Holocaust Memory Teach Us About Civil War Memory?

Next year I will be teaching a course that explores the Holocaust and historical memory as well as how our own Civil War has been remembered.  I am excited and horrified given what little I know about the Holocaust and WWII.  Perhaps I would feel this way about any historical subject next to my knowledge of the American Civil War.  The course comes with a whole new set of challenges that are definitely going to keep me on my toes.

Today I came across this very interesting editorial by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who offers some thoughts about the kinds of questions the Jewish community needs to explore as it moves from a collective memory built around personal stories and testimony of the Holocaust to one that is more removed and, as a result, less emotional.

Does any Jew carry any personal pain from the horrible massacres of the Jews during WW I? Do the Inquisition and its brutal torture of countless Jews arouse in any Jew the same level, or even the same type, of pain as the Holocaust?

Of course not. This is the work of the passage of time. Of course, pained by the suffering of Jews throughout the ages, and perhaps even immeasurably angry at their tormentors, the living Jew today does not, and cannot, carry the visceral response to the countless Jewish tragedies of the ages that he carries in response to the Holocaust. But the visceral response to the Holocaust will end. It cannot be transmitted. This is not a pedagogical failure. It is inevitable. Holocaust remembrance in a scant 50 or 75 years from now — if there is to be any Holocaust remembrance at all — will have to have a basis different from the personal.

WE need to look to Jews with no familial connection to the Holocaust in order develop a rationale for Holocaust remembrance that transcends the personal story and the last vestiges of the personal agony.  It must be Jews who can see Jewish fate during the Holocaust in continuity with Jewish history and Jewish theology in order to anchor it permanently — way beyond the 68 years following the end of Holocaust — in the Jewish mind and ritual practice.

Steven Spielberg has already recorded the personal stories of some 52,000 Holocaust survivors, in many languages. This is an invaluable treasure. But any person in the future who listens to these testimonies, but who has never heard a living survivor, will not be affected by these recorded testimonies in the same way as a contemporary Jew who has discoursed with a living survivor. Recorded testimonies will not take the place of personally hearing a survivor, and will not, in and of themselves, sustain Holocaust remembrance, especially in an era when virtually everything is recorded and it is not unusual for trivia to attract millions of views on YouTube.

ALL this means that as we move forward with Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in this, the last years of the era of the living survivor, we must concentrate not only on the personal stories of survivors. We must also reach out to and engage Jews who are interested in setting forth a rationale for Holocaust remembrance that is detached from the ephemeral, albeit unique, testimony of survivors. We need new ideas, radically new ideas.

One million Jews were killed during the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago. There must have been countless personal stories about that horror. Virtually none of these stories has survived, and none dramatically move us today. Yet, the remembrance of that pivotal event in Jewish history is with us, year in and year out. A rationale beyond the survivors’ tales was successfully devised. We need to do the same thing for the Holocaust.


Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

32 comments… add one
  • Doug Hudson May 2, 2013 @ 13:35

    Sorry about the late comment, just saw this post. I think fascinating (and disturbing) parallels could be drawn between how the Southerns dehumanized Blacks and the Nazis dehumanized Jews (and others).

    I remember being absolutely shocked and horrified the first time I read pre-war quotes from Southerners in “Battle Cry of Freedom”. I knew slavery existed, of course, but I hadn’t realized how twisted the Southern mindset had become, in order to defend the indefensible.

    Sobering to realize how easily humans can persuade themselves that another group of humans aren’t actually human.

    • M.D. Blough May 2, 2013 @ 15:31

      Doug-It boils down to the fact that cognitive dissonance is a bitch (pardon the language). It makes people very uncomfortable and people HATE feeling uncomfortable. The cognitive dissonance problem was particularly acute in the post-revolutionary US because of the enormity of the conflict between the natural rights philosophy that was the moving force behind the independence movement. We tend to look more now, if we do at all, at the 19th century abolitionists with their religious underpinnings but, in the 18th century, it was Montesquieu and others who argued that all human beings had certain unalienable rights. It didn’t mean that they were equal on all levels of existence but it meant that these basic rights belonged to all. Slavery, particularly the chattel slavery where someone is a slave from cradle to grave for no other reason than his/her parents were slaves, is a slap in the face to natural rights philosophy. Now there are some people, like the Grimke sisters, who are capable of looking that dissonance square in the face and working to correct the injustices, etc. However, many others, whose comfortable lives depended on blacks being held on property, worked overtime in coming up with ways to negate the humanity of slaves so that the whites did not have to acknowledge that any conflict existed.

      • Doug Hudson May 2, 2013 @ 15:49

        Well, I would argue it really came down to profit. Slavery was ridiculously profitable for the slave owners, and humans have a tendency to twist themselves into moral pretzels trying to justify wealth.

        What I think would be interesting in comparing the Holocaust and slavery is looking at the arguments that the Nazis and the slaveowners used to justify their actions. I think one would find many interesting parallels. Both relied on Christianity to bolster their positions; both argued that they were trying to establish perfect, white civilizations.

        And also the differences would be interesting. In the South, the aristocracy (being the largest slaveowners) were naturally the leaders of the defense of slavery, whereas in Germany the aristocracy was ambivalent about the Nazis.

        Anyway, I think, contra some of the posts above, that the Holocaust and the Civil War actually have quite a bit in common. Certainly both were extreme cases of human self-delusion leading to horrific consequences.

  • Amy Apr 23, 2013 @ 12:57

    I would use “The Wave” and the Frontline story on the “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” exercise. I have shown the 1981 made for TV version in class before when teaching the Holocaust. I have not yet seen the new German version, but heard it was good. Then, perhaps the Frontline story on the “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” exercise for Civil War/Racism in America?? I have done an extra credit, voluntary exercise similar in class before, but haven’t used the Frontline story. I haven’t watched it yet to be honest. Planning on it though.

  • TF Smith Apr 20, 2013 @ 17:10

    Good luck – just don’t ask your students to argue in favor of the Holocaust….that tends to make parents wonder what’s going on in the classroom.

    More seriously, what’s your thesis in terms of comparing and contrasting these two particular events and historical memory? The cycles of historiography?

    Beyond the widest possible brush of comparing two huge historical events, one in the Twentieth Century and one in the Nineteenth, and how they were and are remembered, I’m missing the parallels between the US Civil War and the Holocaust.

    The Holocaust and other genocides, certainly; the Civil War and other (19th or 20th) century wars…I could see the WW II German (and Japanese) slave labor policies, or legalized chattel slavery in the US vis a vis the British West Indies, or the same re Brazil.


  • Lee Hutch Apr 20, 2013 @ 15:56

    Sounds like an interesting class. I hope it goes well for you. Best of luck.

  • Matt McKeon Apr 20, 2013 @ 13:36

    Good luck with the course. In Art Spiegelman’s now famous “Maus” he interviews his father, an Auschwitz survivor. In “Maus” and also “Meta Maus” Spielgelman directly engages with issues of memory, the world of the survivors, the survivors’ children and later generations.

    Its a tough subject.

    • M.D. Blough Apr 20, 2013 @ 21:17

      Actually, “Maus” would be excellent on the reading list. It’s profoundly unsettling and disturbing but incredibly powerful. The art work is amazing.

      • Woodrowfan Apr 21, 2013 @ 12:36

        I taught a small honors seminar on the Holocaust last semester (2 students). Since I’m an American specialist I asked a European-specialist colleague for recommendations. Of all the books I ended up using, “Maus” (both parts) seem to have grabbed my students’ attention the most. They both finished both volumes well before the scheduled deadline because they were so engrossed.

        FWIW, the movie “The Pawnbroker” also sparked a very thoughtful discussion. It does contain nudity so some high school student’s parent may object.

  • Lyle Smith Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:07

    Have you heard of the “Hitler Diaries” published by the German magazine Stern in 1983? It was a moment of Nazi nostalgia for some former Nazi Germans.


    Also a lot has been written about the author Günter Grass not admitting he was in the Waffen-SS until later in his life, which was like 7 years ago.

    Good luck!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:08

      I am, but thanks for the reminder.

  • Peter Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:50

    Not sure if it’s still the archetypical undergraduate structure, but a good framework for the Holocaust is putting Daniel Goldhagen’s _Hitler’s Willing Executioners_ against Christopher Browning’s _Ordinary Men_. I think the quickest way for you to get a handle on the state of history and historiography of the Third Reich and the Holocaust would be to read Richard J. Evans’s trilogy, Saul Friedlander’s duo, and Adam Tooze’s _Wages of Destruction_. Mark Mazower’s _Hitler’s Empire_ and Timothy Snyder’s _Bloodlands_ are good representatives of a more recent historiographical trend that places Hitler’s ambitions and actions within the framework of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century colonialism.

    Wieveriorka’s book, and others like it, deal more with issues surrounding witness testimony.

    I’m afraid I don’t see much of an overlap between the two fields, knowing a bit about each. I think anything that would carry over from the former part to the latter of the course would be on the level of how to evaluate sources, considerations of the interplay between ideology and culture, the role of nationalism, and so on (but at the level that these are introduced as concepts and explored as such will help make it easier to talk about them later on, rather than any direct comparison). There might be a little you could do with the Crater, in the sense that an overall culture that condones violence against a particular group enables spontaneous action to erupt without direct authorization, but that’s not anything that in itself relies on particular comparison between the two events.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:53

      I read Goldhagens’ book when it came out and am currently reading one of Evans’s book. I’ve also read the first volume of Kershaw’s biography of Hitler. I will definitely check out these titles.

      You might be right that there isn’t much overlap and I may end up only making the most general points about the challenges involved in nation’s facing their past.

      • Peter Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:03

        It might be worth injecting Neely and the debate about the Civil War being a total war into the mix, as a bridge between the two.

        Definitely check out Browning, though. Goldhagen pretty much wrote _Hitler’s Willing Executioners_ as an attempt to refute Browning.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:40

    Hi Kevin,

    I was clearing out some old “favorites” , came across your web site, and decided to see what you and your readers were discussing. Imagine my surprise at the topic!

    I think that all history is personal, to a certain extent–or ought to be. I certainly hope we never forget the immediacy of the Holocaust demonstrated by a Hungarian Jewish woman who is my friend, whose relatives were murdered by the Nazis and collaborative Hungarians, and with whom I watched “Schindler’s List” at a theater. (This woman had to get up and leave at one point and could not watch the entire movie. I left with her, of course) Otherwise, we might indeed be doomed to repeat past horrific tragedies of unimaginable magnitude, as I think the Rabbi would agree.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:50

      Nice to hear from you, Sherree. 🙂

  • Ethan Kytle Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:32


    You might want to check out an article that Blain Roberts and I published in the Journal of Southern History last August (“Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery, Race, and the Commemorative Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865-2010”). Near the end of the piece, we address the city’s disparate responses in the late 1990s to two proposed monuments that would recognize Denmark Vesey, on the one hand, and the Holocaust, on the other. Both of the monuments were to be installed near the Calhoun Monument in Marion Square. The former was very unpopular–and still hasn’t been erected–while the latter was quickly put up and widely praised.

  • Peter Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:19

    It’s worth looking at Omar Bartov’s writings about the “Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht, 1941-1944” exhibit. I think this is the English version of the catalog: http://www.amazon.com/The-German-Army-Genocide-Prisoners/dp/1565845250/ref=cm_lmf_tit_2

    You also should read Anette Wieveriorka’s _Era of the Witness_ post-haste, if you have not already done so.

    Also, what do you hope to explore through a comparative perspective on the memory of the Civil War and the Holocaust?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:22

      Hi Peter,

      Nice to hear from you and thanks for the recommendations. As far as what I hope to explore it’s a little too early. I only recently learned that every senior history elective at my new school begins with roughly 8 weeks of the Holocaust, specifically with how it was possible. In other words, the perspective is from that of the perpetrator. I have a great deal of flexibility within this approach and since we will follow with Civil War Memory I thought it would be a good idea to take somewhat of a comparative approach. Any suggestions?

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Apr 19, 2013 @ 10:55

    You might want to read “One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust,” by Judith Miller. She explores differences in Holocaust memory in the various European countries, particularly the degree of willingness (or not) each particular country has to acknowledge its complicity with the Nazis or willingness to “be a bystander.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:04

      That sounds like a must read. Thanks, Mary Ellen.

  • Keith Muchowski Apr 19, 2013 @ 7:51

    Kevin, I don’t know if I’m entirely on topic based on the post but in a class on the Holocaust memory I would make sure to include how the Cold War influenced the narrative. There was a willful forgetting in West Germany, while at the same time the official East German narrative was that they (the East Germans) fought with their Soviet allies to fight fascism and Western aggression. It’s a huge part of the story.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 7:55

      There was a willful forgetting in West Germany…

      Surprised to hear you say this given that my wife’s experience in the classroom included a great deal of focus on the Holocaust. This included visits to Concentration Camps.

      • Keith Muchowski Apr 19, 2013 @ 8:06

        I am glad that she and her classes went. I was thinking more of the immediate postwar era. I think in the initial phase there was a quick rush to forget, rebuild, and move forward. This began to change later with such documentaries as The World at War in the early 1970s. I would make sure to look into what Tony Judt has written on the subject.

        It sounds like a great class.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 19, 2013 @ 8:14

          Interesting. Thanks for the follow up and for the Tony Judt reference. I am putting together a reading list and may need to include it.

        • Rob Apr 21, 2013 @ 12:23

          Especially true given the “Cold War” era and the importance of West Germany.

  • Dudley Bokoski Apr 18, 2013 @ 16:34

    I hope the Rabbi is wrong, but fear he is correct. If he is wrong it will be because while the Holocaust was a crime directly against Jews it was also a crime against humanity. And I speak here not just of humanity as a collection of peoples but something deeper, a crime against the spirit within us which God has bestowed on us all and binds us all together as brothers. If he is right it will be because we have not been diligent in carrying the story forward generation to generation. History is something more than what is in dry books, it is a living thing and we must sustain it because it is too precious to be laid aside.

    • M.D. Blough Apr 19, 2013 @ 4:42

      I visited the Holocaust Museum with friends, a truly overwhelming experience, that included a painful reminder that we’re not just examining a historical artifact. My friends and I split up since we each have different museum viewing styles. When we reunited, one of my friends, a man who is gay, was white and shaking. It turns out that when he was at the exhibit on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, which, of course, disturbed him, as it should any thinking person, he overheard a man telling a companion, “Well, at least Hitler did something right!” My friend was angry at himself for not confronting the man but he was so stunned at the remark that the man was gone before he could react.

  • Jonathan Dresner Apr 18, 2013 @ 15:27

    I think they’re taking “visceral” too literally. I come from a family with no Holocaust survivors, since both sides of the family got here 30-40 years prior, and as far as I know, my temple and other communities growing up didn’t include any, either. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take it personally when I read Nazi political writings, or read literature of the Holocaust. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a pit of horror in my stomach when I come across “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a Japanese bookstore, or read about it’s popularity in Arabic, or read any historical work relating to Henry Ford.

    Yes, it was a long time ago. But when an Oklahoma State Senator can smirk through a half-assed apology for saying “jew-down” on the floor of the state senate, I don’t really feel it being quite so distant.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2013 @ 16:18

      Thanks for the comment, Jonathan. It’s nice to hear from you. It seems to me the Rabbi is making a point about the relative importance we place on personal memories of historical events. The memories constitute part of the event itself or its living legacy and this renders it with a certain dominance that second generation memories lack. Sure, they may be emotional, but they are one step removed from the event itself and not informed by personal contact with survivors. We will see the same process play out with the memory of 9-11.

    • M.D. Blough Apr 19, 2013 @ 4:37

      I agree. My oldest sister’s ex-husband is Jewish. While his ancestors came from Germany, that was long before he was born. She converted when they married and, while their son, who I adore (he was the firstborn of my nephews and nieces) chose not to have a bar mitzvah, his wife is Jewish and that is how they are raising their children. My nephew has a lovely and talented half-sister from his father’s remarriage. It still chills me to the bone to realize that, if they lived in Hitler’s Germany, any of them them would be lucky to survive, including my sister for marrying a Jew. Any thinking person takes the anti-Semitism you describe personally because converting any group into “The Other” is the first step to such horrors.

    • Lee Apr 19, 2013 @ 5:52

      “Yes, it was a long time ago.”

      Not really. It was 70 years ago. There are still a substantial number of people alive who were already adults then (Olivia de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine are two famous examples). It’s not like we’re talking about the era of Christopher Columbus or Charlemagne.

Leave a Reply to Kevin LevinCancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *