American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust

Review of American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust, by Laura Levitt (New York: New York University Press, 2007)

Under cover of the Second World War, the Nazi state systematically orchestrated the annihilation of an estimated one third of the world Jewish population. This figure is but one measure of the devastation inflicted. It only begins to describe the legacy of loss. Although the Holocaust has come to be widely commemorated in the United States, and around the world, its terrifying extremity can overshadow the intimacy of victims' experiences.

While making no claim of commensurability, in American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust, Laura Levitt observes that the magnitude of the Holocaust also renders the losses of ordinary Jewish Americans relatively insignificant. In her work, she attempts to negotiate an understanding of the relationship between a traumatic death in her own family and representations of loss in the Holocaust. Through a close reading of contemporary texts, she explores the intersections of what she terms "familial" and "familiar" narratives and the boundaries between them.

In this book, Levitt has blended personal reflections with feminist and cultural analyses. This is, in some ways, a deeply personal book. She begins with an intimate account of her struggle to unravel the tale of her father's mysterious birth mother, who died tragically when he was very young. Levitt had not known of her biological grandmother's existence, and the revelation of this buried piece of family history prompts her to seek commemorative space for such "ordinary" losses within contemporary Jewish history. Yet, the legacy of the Holocaust and its influence on the memories and identities of Jewish Americans tempers her search for such a commemorative space. Unable and unwilling to reconcile the disparity between narratives of the Holocaust's legacy and those of her own family history, she looks instead for instances in which they "touch."1

The distinction that Levitt makes between one's own lived experiences and the experiences of those with whom one identifies lays at the heart of her argument and analysis. For most Jewish Americans, the Holocaust is not a part of their lived experiences. Yet, its legacy powerfully informs contemporary understandings of what it means to be Jewish. According to Levitt, "the desire for a more authentic and important Jewish identity" may cause many to "blur the distinctions" between their own stories and those of the victims of the Holocaust.2 In doing so, they minimize vital family legacies which, although ordinary, should be recognized as just as integral to Jewish history.

In thematically arranged chapters, Levitt uses her own experiences to engage with film, poetry, and collections of photographs that represent the grief and loss of the Holocaust. She argues that commemorations of ordinary Jewish loss can not only coexist with those of the Holocaust but may actually facilitate better understanding of the individual suffering of the victims of the Holocaust. Her introduction deftly sets up this thesis, and Levitt is particularly effective when she analyzes the juxtaposition of different losses represented in Alan Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Among the other works that she addresses are Abraham Ravert's short film Half-Sister, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Irena Klepfisz, Ann Weiss's The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the photographs in the "Tower of Faces" (the Yaffa Eliach Collection) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Levitt returns to the photographs and the Tower numerous times.

Levitt's self-identification as a Jewish American woman informs much of this work. However, her discussion of the Tower is one of many instances in which her reflections will resonate with a broad spectrum of readers. As she scans the "before" images of the Jewish townspeople of Eishyshok, Lithuania, Levitt finds herself comforted by the familiarity of their faces and poses. With a sense of recognition that is experienced as belonging, she almost wishes that these were her family photographs. For a moment, she sees these individuals for how they lived, not how they died. Suddenly, she catches herself. She remembers her physical location (the Holocaust Museum) and the fate of the Eishyshok townspeople.

Levitt had briefly connected personally to the past by seeing it through the lens of her own experience and sense of the familiar. However, as she observes, her connection had its limits, bounded by the gulf that separates ordinary from extraordinary loss. For Levitt, the Holocaust is a Jewish past that profoundly affects her present. Yet, at the same time, it is a past to which she cannot lay claim.

While her interwoven analytical threads are sometimes difficult to follow, Levitt's lively combination of memoir and scholarly analysis results in a work that is nuanced and sincere. As she intended, it is an open-ended study that poses more questions than it offers answers. This book is a valuable and challenging contribution for readers, especially historians, with an interest in how the positioning of stories about the past shapes the present.

1 Laura Levitt, American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 8.

2 Ibid., 40.