Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory, by Oren Baruch Stier. Rutgers University Press. 239 pages. $29.95.
Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, by Mark Glickman. The Jewish Publication Society. 312 pages. 312 pages. $29.95
How is individual and collective memory and understanding of a significant historical event shaped, especially for those who have no first-hand experience of the event? Professor Stier explains how memorialization depends significantly upon icons, charged symbols that capture and express formative meanings, judgements, and even emotions.
Stier begins his study with erudite definitions of his key term and a patient explanation of his methodology. Building upon the work of previous scholars, he reaches across disciplines to analyze four highly distinctive icons of the Holocaust. These items, like other icons, do the work of “simplifying, condensing, and distilling . . . [Holocaust] narratives and producing meanings for cultural consumption.”
Railway cars of the Holocaust period, especially those that resemble the specific vehicles that brought people to their deaths, may be thought of as “artifact” or “relic” icons. They are authentic either historically or by association. Stier compares and contrasts the ways in which these material icons are used in the displays and strategies of various Holocaust museums, explaining how they compress and release a part of the Holocaust ur-narrative.
Stier’s other selections mix materiality with other expressive dimensions. He explores the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” found as signage on the gates of several concentration, work, and death camps, though his main focus is Auschwitz. Stier elaborates upon how the phrase and its placement play off the stereotype of Jews as people who don’t value work. The invitation to become workers that they are ostensibly accepting will lead (with a sick irony) to their freedom. The icon’s history has turned it into an invitation to annihilation.
The author treats Anne Frank as both a literary and a visual icon. His overview of the various states and editions of Frank’s diary shows how the icon has gone through a series of shadings and shapings, slowly becoming Americanized and then universalized through the successful drama and film based upon it. Stier considers the way in which Frank’s diary has become a sort of sacred Holocaust test. He explores as well the impact of the familiar and less familiar photographs of Anne Frank with equal rigor and creativity.
The final Holocaust icon that Stier discusses at length is the number “six million.” He reviews the historical basis for this powerful iconic figure and its legitimatization, through use in judicial proceedings and other institutional settings, as the grand signifier of “Nazi destruction of European Jewry.” Stier is in top form as he distinguishes between “six million” and “the six million,” the latter formulation an intensifier of the icon’s significance.
Though a bit jargon-heavy, Stier’s work is stimulating in its erudition, especially its critical eclecticism.
Though written in a more playful style than one might expect, Glickman’s study is important for locating in one place a sufficiently thorough and eminently readable treatment of its subject. Glickman begins by setting his immediate subject into a few larger ones. These include the long association of Jewish culture and civilization with the written word, which stresses the primacy of scribed and printed text in shaping Jewish life and identity. The suggestion is that no other people would be as damaged as the Jewish people through the destruction of its literature, both sacred and profane.
Another important context developed by the author is the Nazi plundering of the larger category: all Jewish cultural production, notably including artworks. The annihilation of the Jewish people, under Hitler, required as well the disappearance or appropriation of its creative expression.
Glickman also provides a history of Jewish books and religious scrolls: their making over the centuries of changing materials and technologies, their methods of ownership and distribution, their privileged place in the transmission of peoplehood.
The heart of the book, of course, is the holocaust within The Holocaust. Rabbi Glickman traces the transition from destroying Jewish books to hoarding and hiding them. The raiding of homes, libraries, and Jewish institutions in general led to a dispersed accumulation of enormous numbers. However, even before the war was over, the effort to rescue and reclaim was underway. Jewish leaders recognized the need to rescue and rehouse the treasure of the Jewish mind, spirit and history.
Perhaps the most interesting material in Stolen Words has to do with the role of U. S. military forces and of specially established institutions for the rescue, repatriation, and allotment of Jewish books as part of rebuilding Jewish community life after WWII.
There are several heroes of this effort whose contributions Glickman treats in detail. These include Army Captains Seymour Pomrenze and Isaac Bencowitz; Salo Maron, who oversaw the system-building that would “determine the fate of millions of Europe’s Jewish cultural treasures,” including books, and such instrumental figures as Judah Leon Magnes, Cecil Roth, and Hannah Arendt.
Rabbi Mark Glickman’s vivid and meticulous presentation of these efforts, instrumental to cultural continuity in what he calls the “New Jewish Landscape,” will be a revelation to most readers.
This book is a must-read for every Jewish library and every university library as well.
This article is a modified version of reviews that were originally published on the Jewish Book Council website. They are reprinted with permission. You can find them by searching the website at http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org.
Reprinted in the May 2016 editions of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim(Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).