Troubled Memory

An elderly Holocaust survivor confronts a Holocaust denier, and a historian takes note

BY: Rodger Kamenetz

 

Last week, Nelson Mandela, the extraordinary South African leader, honored Louisiana with a visit. In a minor footnote, the local Nazi clown, David Duke, demonstrated against Mandela's presence. To my dismay, the demonstration received local television coverage, in some cases on equal footing with Mandela.

The media always has a difficult decision when dealing with a mediagenic anti-Semitic provocateur like David Duke. On the one hand, if you ignore him, you are leaving yourselves open to a charge of bias, and leaving out part of what happened. And more cynically, you are killing a great story. On the other hand, it's awful to give publicity to David Duke.

But this latest incident in the career of Louisiana's home-grown Nazi recalls a problem Jews in Louisiana have faced several times. Throughout Duke's public career, including most recently a run for Congress last fall, many in the community have felt the best strategy is to ignore him, figuring that openly opposing him would only inflame his supporters and play into his hands by providing him free publicity. The result is that Duke all too often gets a free ride in the press.

For instance, Duke participated in several candidates' forums with five others running for Congress last fall--and not one person running called him on his overt Nazi views. They all feared galvanizing his supporters. That was more or less the attitude toward Duke in the mainstream Jewish community in Louisiana as well, going back to the time Duke was elected as a state representative in 1989.

But on June 6, 1989, at the Great Memorial Hall of the State Capitol, something happened that had a profound effect on the politics of the state. Anne Skorecki Levy, Holocaust survivor, confronted David Duke, Holocaust denier.

An exhibit of Holocaust photographs had been mounted there in protest of Duke's election to the legislature. Anne Levy had come with a group of New Orleans Holocaust survivors to bear witness. She noticed him coolly gazing at the photographs, which showed in graphic detail the suffering in concentration camps. Outraged, the woman oft described as "the petite, dark haired grandmother" tapped him on the shoulder. "What are you doing here? Why are you looking at this?" she asked. Her voice was tremulous. "I thought you said it never happened."

David Duke tried to weasel out of the situation. But with the attention of the media drawn to the scene, he quickly fled. For Anne Levy--a private person with an immense legacy of pain--the confrontation was a moment of public courage and triumph, and a testimony to the power of what Tulane University historian Lawrence Powell aptly calls "troubled memory."

"Troubled Memory" is the title of a new book by Powell just published by the University of North Carolina Press. It's unusual in many ways. Powell is a historian, but certainly not a standard Holocaust historian. His previous books are on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Louisiana politics. It's the last term that provides the link: "Troubled Memory" grows from Powell's effort to understand with proper respect and depth what happened in those few moments in the State Capitol of Louisiana.

Two citizens of Louisiana met. One, a woman who suffered as a child because of the Holocaust, another who celebrated Hitler's birthday, sold Nazi books, and denied the carnage ever happened. The confrontation had the immediate effect of galvanizing anti-Duke efforts, including Powell's own remarkable organization, the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism.

But clearly, something about the confrontation haunted Powell. Going against the norms of academia, which dictate focus on areas of expertise, Powell spent the past eight years researching and interviewing members of Anne Levy's family. He went to Poland and interviewed survivors there. The core of "Troubled Memory" is a powerful, harrowing account of the war years and their aftermath, in which Anne Skorecki, her younger sister, Lila, and their parents Mark and Ruth, survived together as a family.

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