The Holocaust as kitsch

Opinion: Death Camps as Kitsch


New York Times

In St. Petersburg, Fla., the powers that be have graciously prepared a list of “40 Fun Things to Do” in their city. Number 11 on the list is “Remember the Holocaust.” Those out for an enjoyable afternoon are invited to visit the local Holocaust museum, where for $39.95 they can purchase a scale-model replica of a Polish boxcar once used by the Nazis to transport Jews and others to the concentration camps. (If that’s not enough, they can donate $5,000 or more to the museum and receive a genuine railway spike from Treblinka preserved in Lucite.)


In Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance promotes itself like a theme park. “Travel Leaders and Tour Operators!” barks the publicity material. “Make the Museum of Tolerance part of an exciting and informative itinerary for your group. Check us out for group discounts, special bonuses.”


Matters are even worse in the academic world. […] Today, with the emergence of a new discipline called Holocaust studies, the academicization of the subject is proceeding apace, complete with meaningless jargon and political agenda-setting.

Where one leading scholar pronounces the Holocaust “a multidimensional, many-person event,” another contends that it offers grounds for “non- objectivist, anti-positivist, feminist objectivity.” The titles of papers delivered at the 29th annual Holocaust scholars’ conference last week — “An Afrocentric Critique of The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Pop Art Representations of the Holocaust,” the “Holocaust and Femicide/Female Feticide” — give all too keen a sense of the academic fashions that have taken hold of the field.

Why does the Holocaust exert such great fascination these days outside the Jewish community? And why are its images being abused by those who purport to be custodians of its memory?

The answer to both questions undoubtedly lies at least in part in the rising culture of victimhood, visible in our society at large but particularly ensconced in the universities. As the ultimate in victimization, the Holocaust is simply assuming pride of place in a field that also comprises women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, disability studies and all the other victim disciplines that today constitute the cutting edge of the academic world.

It is in the interest neither of American Jews, nor of the broader public, to turn the Holocaust into grist for the mill of academic trendiness or into a carnival.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary magazine.

Webmaster note: On January 30, 2002, a man identifying himself as Gabriel Schoenfeld called me and demanded that I remove this article from this site immediately, calling me a “dirty dog.” (Those senior editors at Commentary certainly are eloquent!) Subsequently, on February 6, 2002, I received a letter from the New York Times’ legal department, demanding that the page be taken down immediately. The above text is a fair-use excerpt of Schoenfeld’s opinion piece, which appeared in the New York Times on March 18, 1999. If you have access to back issues of the NYT, look for “Death Camps as Kitsch,” by Gabriel Schoenfeld, New York Times, March 18, 1999, Op-Ed 682 words, Late Edition — Final, Section A, Page 25, Column 1. It may be worth the effort, considering how much trouble they’re going through to suppress it.