My friend was reacting to a work of art in which computer artist Alan Schechner superimposed himself, Diet Coke can in hand, on top of a famous Margaret Bourke-White photograph of Holocaust survivors in their bunkers at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
I would be horrified. I would certainly feel the apprehension that my friend and most others feel over seeing this piece of art, called "It's the Real Thing--Self Portrait at Buchenwald"--the sense that this photograph somehow diminished Holocaust victims' experience. But my real horror would stem from a better understanding of the piece. Though the work has been described by art critics as an attempt at "collapsing historical distance," I would feel horror because it is such a provocative reminder of how unfathomable that distance is--between now and 50 years ago, and between my own life and the lives of my maternal grandparents, both Holocaust survivors. I spend my twenties living comfortably in my Manhattan apartment, drinking plenty of Diet Cokes. My grandparents, at about my age, lived in a Displaced Persons camp after World War II, figuring out how to start anew after their families, the lives they had known, and the majority of the rest of European Jewry had been destroyed.
"It's the Real Thing" is just one of a number of equally provocative works of art in a new exhibit, called "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," at New York's Jewish Museum. Most art created in response to the Holocaust has dealt with the themes of victimhood, of tragedy, of survival, and of the painful aftermath.
The works in this show are different. Many of the pieces depict the perpetrators and the means of destruction, rather than the victims and their experiences. The exhibit includes other works like "Giftgas Giftset," a collection of Zyklon-B canisters with luxury brand labels, and a "Lego Concentration Camp Set."
Detractors of the show say that it is too early to produce or exhibit anything at all provocative about the Holocaust because it is insensitive to the survivors and their families. Our memory of the Holocaust is created and maintained through images, as the museum's exhibition catalog points out, and through the stories of survivors. It is understandable to want to ensure that these images are valid representations, so that what memory we have of the events does not get distorted. Others believe that artwork like this has no place at all in a Jewish museum, or in our understanding of the Holocaust.
Even as we get further from the Holocaust, its aftermath continues to profoundly affect contemporary Judaism. For me, born more than 30 years after the end of the Holocaust, it has been an integral part of how I think of myself as a Jew. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I have grown up in its shadow. The lessons I have learned from my family experience are the lessons anyone learns from a legacy of tragedy--to appreciate food because we have the legacy of knowing what it means to be hungry, to appreciate making money because we have the legacy of knowing what it means to be impoverished, to appreciate family because we have the legacy of knowing what it means to lose one's lifeblood. But most important have been the Jewish lessons: the overarching importance of understanding where I come from; what it means to believe in a God who would let six million be killed; an understanding and appreciation of the strict observance of Judaism; the fact that family and tradition are the sustaining forces of life; and finally, what it means to create a meaningful Judaism of my own.
But many American Jews of my generation and younger do not get such clear messages about what it means to be Jewish. Much of what young Jews know of Jewish life is in relation to the Holocaust, but it is often more about destruction than life. The Holocaust is of such vast, incomprehensible enormity that in contemporary times we have reacted to it combatively, as if it is an overpowering force to be reckoned with, rather than as part of a chain of events, traditions, and beliefs that as a whole form a basis for identity. The centrality of the Holocaust in American Jewish life often relegates the Holocaust to a sacred, untouchable realm, and it becomes a catalyst for all of Jewish identity. Jewish children are told: you must perform this ritual because of the Holocaust, you must celebrate this holiday because of the Holocaust, you must marry another Jew because of the Holocaust. But what we should be telling children is: you should perform this ritual, celebrate this holiday, and marry a Jew because it will bring meaning to your life.
A destruction-centered Judaism does not fulfill contemporary Jews' spiritual needs, it doesn't encourage people to marry other Jews, and it does not make young Jews want to be Jewish. More importantly, over-sensitivity does not encourage us to think about what the Holocaust will mean in the future, when an understanding of what happened will be even more necessary, because its victims will not be around to explain.
This is not a new debate. Similar objections to artistic response to the Holocaust were raised when cartoonist Art Spiegelman first published "Maus," the story of his father's Holocaust experiences told in the form of a comic book, with the Jews depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. And even "Life Is Beautiful," the award-winning comedic film from 1998, was accused of trivializing the Holocaust because it infused humor into scenes that were in real life so humorless. Some claimed that celebration and life-affirming endings had nothing to do with the Holocaust.
But what the Jewish world needs to realize is that life-affirming endings and the celebration of the human spirit have everything to do with the destruction of European Jewry. The aftermath of the Holocaust, if it is to mean anything at all to people in the future, must be more about celebration than destruction, understanding than guarding, inquiry than sensitivity.
For me, my grandparents--now 87 and 75--and the lives they have created for their children and their grandchildren in the 50 plus years since the end of the war, are the very embodiment of this life-affirming, miraculous aspect of the Holocaust. They lost their families and everything they had known, they lived in fear and poverty and hunger for years, but they still consider the fact of their survival a miracle. They still thank God and pray three times a day, they still observe Jewish tradition to the letter of the law, and they still maintain that imparting this tradition to the generations that follow them is the most important legacy they can leave. I will go see the new exhibit with them in mind, and I will use it as a way to begin to envision my own post-Holocaust Jewish world, someday, without them.