Holocaust media & white saviorism
Let me preface by saying three things:
(1) much of this post is simply my opinion. Jewish folks: you are entitled to disagree with me as much as you want. Non-Jewish folks: it’s extremely inappropriate for you to speak over Jews — including Jewish historians, Holocaust survivors, Holocaust experts, and second and third generation survivors — about what does or doesn’t constitute adequate Jewish Holocaust media representation. As a non-Jewish person, this is not your decision to make. Jews are the experts on our own experience.
(2) the Holocaust (i.e. the Nazi genocide) targeted two groups: Jews and Roma. While it’s true that the Nazis discriminated against a plethora of populations — disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, Slavs, communists, and more — only Jews and Roma were subject to the Final Solution. As such, it’s inappropriate to deflect conversations about the Holocaust by invoking “what about X group?”
In that vein, I want to make it clear that, as I am Jewish, this post is about Jewish representation in Holocaust media. It’s abundantly clear to me that Roma representation is sorely lacking. However, as I am not Roma, I am not the authority on what constitutes adequate or inadequate representation. It infuriates me when non-Jews tell me what representation is good representation (see next point), and, as such, I refuse to make that decision for other groups. Roma folks are the authority on Roma issues. Please follow and learn from Roma educators and organizations.
(3) the idea for this post came to me because a major activist page shared a series of tweets explaining why The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is incredibly problematic. In the comment section, a few people asked about Number the Stars. I responded by saying that, while I liked the book as a kid, it’s essentially a white savior story, and that I don’t think it should be taught in school. Non-Jewish commenters went ballistic, and I was gaslit incessantly for the next couple of days. I’m actually astounded at the amount of emotional labor I was forced to perform, over and over again, because the page did not moderate the comments. So I repeat: if you are not Jewish, it’s not up to you to decide what is or isn’t adequate Jewish Holocaust representation.
In the 77 years since the Holocaust, the United States has mythologized its role during World War II as that of the hero, the “good guy,” and savior of all humanity (“if it weren’t for us, you’d be speaking German!”) — and of the Jews. In reality, the facts don’t add up.
At the 1938 Évian Conference, the United States — and every other nation attending, save for the Dominican Republic — refused to absorb Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Up until 1941, when Jews were being slaughtered by the millions in Europe, the United States declared itself a “neutral state.” When the American Jewish community pleaded for help, Americans accused Jews of plotting to drive the United States into another world war. Following the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria, widely considered the start of the Holocaust, 71% of Americans stated that they were opposed to Jewish refugee immigration to the United States. In 1939, over 900 Jews fleeing Germany on the SS St. Louis were turned away from the United States and ultimately shipped back to Germany.
Americans have long feigned ignorance about the events of the Holocaust as it was unfolding, but again, the facts don’t add up. Since the early 1930s, at least 2000 daily American newspapers reported on the Nazi treatment of Jews. By 1942, the Allies were well-aware about the Nazi genocide. Throughout the war, many Jewish leaders asked the Americans to bomb the concentration camps or railways leading to the camps. In 1944, the World Jewish Congress asked the United States to bomb Auschwitz. The United States refused on the grounds that they would not use their resources on non-military targets.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, once the full extent of the Nazi atrocities came to light and some 250,000 Jews were confined to Displaced Persons camps, only 5% of Americans thought the United States should lift its antisemitic immigration quotas to the United States. When a representative of the American government visited a DP camp, he stated: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”
Since the advent of Christianity, the non-Jewish world has, for some reason, looked to Jews to redeem them of their sins. The foundational premise of Christianity is that Jesus — who, it turns out, was a Jew — died for the collective sins of mankind. If a person accepts Jesus as the savior and son of God, said person is forgiven for whatever sins they might have accrued during their lifetime. What’s interesting to me is to see this in its proper historic context: just a few decades after Jesus’ death, the Romans were crucifying some 500 Jews a day during the First Jewish Revolt. And yet, little attention has been paid to this act of genocidal brutality. Instead, the world has given its attention to the one crucified Jew out of hundreds of thousands who has redeemed humanity of all its ugliness.
Dara Horn, author of People Love Dead Jews, illustrates this point in her book. “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank is the most famous Holocaust book of all time. There are numerous reasons for this, of course. Anne was a brilliant writer. Horn posits the question, however: out of hundreds — if not thousands — of Holocaust-era journals written by Jewish children, why is it that Anne’s became so popular when others did not? In her view, and I agree, much of it comes down to Anne’s famous quote: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
In a single line, Anne redeems the non-Jewish world of all of the ugliness that it inflicted on her and her family. Except that, in the end, Anne was murdered in the Holocaust (she died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp). So are people good at heart, really? Were Anne alive today, would she stand by what she wrote? Unfortunately, we will never know.
A similar point can be made about Schindler’s List, a brilliant film and the most famous Holocaust movie of all time. But here’s the thing: Schindler’s List is not about Jews. Ultimately, the story — though true — is a Nazi redemption arc. Schindler, an antisemite, is redeemed when he finally sees the humanity of Jews.
WHOSE STORY IS IT?
I — as well as other Jewish educators and Holocaust experts — have noticed a pattern: most of the Holocaust media (films, books) that makes it into the pop culture zeitgeist is not about the Jewish characters. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the (extremely historically inaccurate) story of a Nazi’s son. Schindler’s List tells the story of a Nazi-turned-righteous-gentile. The Book Thief, Zookeeper’s Wife, and Number the Stars all tell the stories of non-Jews who save Jews in some way.
Then there is Sophie’s Choice (both the book and the movie).
Sophie’s Choice tells the story of a Polish woman imprisoned in Auschwitz who later immigrates to the United States and falls in love with a mentally unstable American Jew, Nathan Landau. While it’s true that the Nazi treatment of Poles was despicable, it’s also true that Poles were widely complicit in the genocide of Jews, so positing Sophie as the victim in contrast to Nathan is already a problematic choice. What’s even more infuriating to me is that throughout the story, Landau almost resents that Sophie was a survivor while he was a free Jew in the United States during the war. While survivor’s guilt is a very real phenomenon, the idea that Sophie’s survivor status would be a cause for Nathan’s envy is distasteful to say the least. However badly Sophie was treated, had Nathan been at Auschwitz, he most certainly would’ve been exterminated immediately upon arrival or within a few weeks.
Non-Jewish and non-Roma prisoners, on the other hand, were kept under drastically better conditions and were used for “easier” slave labor (that is, the worst jobs were handed out to Jews).
Additionally, the glorification of the Polish resistance, known as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), bothers me, given that, regardless of their hero (or savior) status in Poland, the truth is that they too were deeply antisemitic. For instance, in December 1943, a Home Army report stated, “There is certain sympathy for the Jews. It is better, however, that they are no longer here and no one desires to see them return after the war.”
IS FICTION OK?
I actually don’t have a strong opinion on this: is it okay to write fiction about the Holocaust? I think that it depends. Fiction can be a wonderful vehicle to educate readers or viewers about a particular subject. In fact, many Holocaust survivors, such as Elie Wiesel, have written fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust themselves (e.g. in addition to multiple Holocaust memoirs, Wiesel wrote The Forgotten, which is a fictionalized account).
In a similar vein, other Jews, including second and third generation survivors, have also written fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust. While “Maus” is based on a true story, Art Spiegelman, a second generation survivor, wrote it in graphic novel form.
On the other hand, I do get a bad taste in my mouth when non-Jews and non-Roma write and profit off Holocaust fiction, especially when it centers (and even glorifies!) non-Jewish and non-Roma characters and is historically inaccurate. The most glaring recent example is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by John Boyne, who is neither Jewish nor Roma. The book is rife with historical inaccuracies and even minimization; for example, there is simply no plausible way that the son of an Auschwitz commandant could’ve struck a friendship with an Auschwitz prisoner, particularly a Jewish child. To start off, all Jewish children were immediately gassed upon arrival, with only minimal exceptions, such as those used in Josef Mengele’s medical experiments. Ultimately, this book, too, is a Nazi redemption arc. Author, rabbi, and professor Benjamin Blech recalled speaking with a Holocaust survivor about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: “[the friend said that it’s] not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation.” The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum itself harshly criticized the book.
By 2016, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas sold some 16 million copies. The film made over 44 million dollars. Why is a non-Jewish and non-Roma person profiting off the Holocaust?
It’s not just problematic. It’s morally wrong, in my opinion. The non-Jewish world stood idly by as we were slaughtered, and now it profits off our genocide.
With all this said, educators should always prioritize real accounts of the Holocaust (e.g. memoirs) over fiction.
The Holocaust was a team effort.
The SS — the paramilitary Nazi organization mostly responsible for carrying out the genocide against Jews and Roma during WWII — peaked at about 800,000 members (as of 1944). In terms of numbers, both the Jewish and Roma population of Europe seriously outnumbered them. How, then, were they able to murder 6 million Jews (66% of Europe’s Jewish population) in just six short years?
The unfortunate answer is widespread collaboration, ranging from Nazi puppet regimes, such as Vichy France, to individual civilians, to international institutions and organizations such as the Red Cross and the Catholic Church.
Another thing of note: the Holocaust cost money. An industrialized genocide of that scale couldn’t have been implemented without the financial backing of banks (particularly Swiss banks), corporations, and looted and stolen (largely Jewish) assets. Scores of corporations — ranging from Swarovski to BMW — were actively involved with the implementation of the Holocaust. The majority of these companies are still in operation.
As much as a third of the Nazi war effort was funded by stolen Jewish wealth. The Nazis stole about 12 billion pounds in Jewish wealth between 1933-1945. The biggest Jewish financial “contribution” (for lack of a better term) to the Holocaust and the Nazi war effort, however, was Jewish slave labor. The Nazis had as many as 44,000 concentration and death camps and other incarceration sites (such as ghettos) between 1933-1945. Over 3 million Jews died in extermination camps alone.
The fact of the matter is that the whole world was complicit in the Holocaust. The percentage of Righteous Among the Nations was minimal, and yet, Holocaust media does not reflect this tiny percentage. In Poland, for example, where 90% of the Jewish population was murdered, only ~0.02% of non-Jewish Poles are classified as Righteous Among the Nations; that is, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews for altruistic reasons (i.e. not for money or any other sort of benefit).
Which, again, begs two questions: (1) why does Holocaust media disproportionally center white saviors? (2) why are non-Jews and non-Roma still profiting off our genocide?
For as long as Holocaust-related media has existed, so have Jews been berated by the non-Jewish and non-Roma world for “centering ourselves” in our own genocide.
In the 1970s, Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal felt frustrated about the non-Jewish world’s lack of care about the Holocaust. So he created a figure to de-emphasize the Jewish nature of the genocide, knowing that the world would likely be more interested in the plight of others. Historians who knew him say that he chose the figure carefully: 5 million was a large number, but not a number large enough to obscure the 6 million Jewish victims.
In 1978, then president Jimmy Carter established a commission on the Holocaust, headed by Elie Wiesel. The commission recommended the creation of a Holocaust memorial museum. Carter was adamant that the museum should commemorate the so-called “11 million,” leading to harsh disagreements between himself and Wiesel. The American public wouldn’t care, Carter insisted, if the Holocaust was something that couldn’t have possibly happened to them. Thankfully, by the time the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was inaugurated in 1993, Wiesel won that particular battle.
Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian, has spoken about how she is accused of being too “Judeo-centric” when she refuses to center non-Jews and non-Roma in discussions about the Holocaust.
About 30% of the world believes Jews talk too much about the Holocaust. I myself was gaslit in that comment section, accused of being “too negative” when I stated that the Final Solution only targeted Jews and Roma.
So here’s the deal: as Jews, we are accused of talking too much about the Holocaust but it’s okay if non-Jews and non-Roma make millions off of our genocide? It’s okay if politicians — on the left and right — compare the Holocaust to every issue in the world today (from abortion to Palestine), but Jews talk too much about the Holocaust? The antisemitism is glaring.
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