On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries

I read an article today by a Jewish woman lambasting a work of romantic fiction written by a Christian woman. The gist of the reviled book is that a Jewish girl is taken under the wing of a concentration camp commandant, they fall in love, and in the end they convert to Christianity and save Jews from the Nazi maw. Something like that.

The reviewer in question was utterly outraged, first that a non-Jew was even writing from the perspective of a Jewish woman; second that any redemption could be had by any Nazi but especially the commander of a concentration camp; three that such dross has a right to be published at all. I disagree, albeit respectfully, with each of these concerns.

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My first and paramount disagreement is that an outsider cannot, ought not write about the perspective of another–in this case, and it is an extreme case, about the seminal tragedy of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Emotionally, this subject is notable for several reasons, its close proximity to the present day, its enormity, the methodicalness with which it was carried out, the unparalleled historical evidence for its breadth, sadism, and efficiency…No event in recorded history can match the Holocaust in pints of blood or reams of paper. Controversy is inevitable.

That a Jew is insulted, enraged, baffled, betrayed at the sight of a romance set during this time is understandable. I as an outsider in every way, when I put my mind to it, can imagine the intellectual outrage, create my own sense of emotional distress, work up an appetite for blood. Are my emotions a mere echo, a mimicry, a farce of the genuine article? There is no objective way to know. I suspect that the immediacy of my recreation soon wears off, while her emotions linger. I suspect that her reaction is stronger than mine, more concentrated. I suspect that both are personal, although in differing ways. Both are real, in the sense of being experienced, although clearly hers are the more intense. It is a matter of degrees, I think, and not of validity.

And regardless of degree, both require honesty. She needs to be honest in the use of her memory, a tricky device and prone to error, exaggeration, and outright fabrication. I, experiencing second hand, need to be honest in my humility and genuine in my attempt to research and grapple with something outside my immediate sensory experience. Both have their flaws and limitations. Both are acts of constructing order out of chaotic data.

Her criticism strikes at the very heart of what I believe the point of writing is. I approach fiction much like I approach history, as a process by which empathy is had for my fellow man. Rousseau was not wrong in surmising that pitie is a natural part of the human mind, but it dulls in the face of competition, rivalry, jealousy. Sometimes it disappears altogether, at least functionally.

Great fiction (and history in this sense is fiction because the historical narrative is a product of the imagination), effective fiction, is empathetic. It is the author’s admission that his is not the only perspective, that even through his own prejudices and limitations (necessary to the creative process as they are) he can see that there are other stories than his own, other perspectives than the one he assumes to be correct on a daily basis, other modes of thought and being than the ones that he finds comfortable and natural.

It is an imperfect process to be sure. I can never know what it was like to be in the Holocaust, either as guard or as condemned, ditto for growing up in a Jewish family in the wake of that cataclysm. But I can imagine. I can surmise. And I can honestly put myself into the shoes of another, doing my best to see what she sees, breath what she breathes, think what she thinks. In doing so, I will never be able to recreate the objective reality of the past. Fiction cannot do that; history cannot either (nor memory, if we’re being honest). I can, however, recreate at least a semblance of the subjectivity of the human creature.

When done in good faith (and careful research is a prerequisite to this fidelity), fiction is a way for the subjective to bend, expand, look upon itself. In this way our common humanity is better understood–and our differences (in opinion, in custom, in disposition) are made rational, are made understandable to the outsider.

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Now, what of redemption? I should first mention that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in this context. All can be saved if they only embrace the Truth that is Jesus Christ. In so doing, they shed their pride and thus deserve (earn, are given–depending on your theology) salvation. A counter-intuitive notion, to be sure, and one that Christians have trouble putting into practice (witness the hatred felt towards child molesters, as an example), but an ideal of many Christian denominations it certainly is.

So, that a Christian author would find the idea that a Nazi could be redeemed plausible and indeed quite compelling as an exemplar for the power of God to forgive all his creations, is not an irrational turn of events. Nor is it strange that a Jew would take umbrage at this. The Jewish God is not so loving as the Christian, and the tone of His interaction with the world shifts radically from the Old to the New Testament. The two perspectives are so radically different as to make compromise practically impossible.

Theology aside, I believe that all people deserve redemption in the historical sense of that word. What I mean is, as a historian, it is my duty to throw my imagination into the perspective of anyone that becomes my subject of study, regardless of their thoughts or actions. It is the closest thing I can do to allowing my subject the objectivity–the lack of unconscious or irrationally strong bias–that makes for genuine, honest history, that is to say history done in good faith.

It is in this way that we lose the temptation to grind axes, vomit polemics, or pass vitriol off as scholarship. In this way we judiciously, carefully weave our prejudices into the fabric of the work, balancing them as best we can against whatever facts we unearth. No bias can be totally erased, but it can be tempered. In that equilibrium resides an honest picture of the past–not complete, but a valiant effort in that direction.

Historical redemption is also a humanizing activity. It reminds us, by forcing us to look at the motivations behind what we presently consider the most heinous acts, that it is not a monster we are studying. It is not a demon that has attracted our historical curiosity, who begs for our historical judgment. Our subject is nothing as special as all that. It is merely a man, with a man’s strengths, a man’s motivations, a man’s imperfections.

Morally, it whispers into our presently arrogant ear that we, as humans like once they were, have the same potential for good and for ill, that the actions that we take will have consequences–intended or no–just as theirs did, that the future will judge our actions with as much narrowness of perspective as we now judge our progenitors.

Whatever their reasons were, the Nazis perpetrated the worst slaughter that recorded history has preserved. This should sober us, terrify us to the reality of human motivation: that given enough energy, we can justify anything. Being reminded of that, we of the present should show the caution and restraint so seldom seen by those whom we claim to have bettered. We are our past. Those people were and are us. Their mistakes were ours, the mistakes of the race. Only when we own up to them, our wrong-doings, can we internalize them, learn from them, possibly outgrow them. History is a laboratory experiment 1000 generations running. We are as much lab rats today as in the days of Hammurabi. After so much trial and error, will we ever escape this maze?

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My final quibble is with the idea that such a work as this, being insensitive to a minority community, being historically ignorant, being racist in its erasure of Jewish identity by a Christian one, ought not have the right to be published at all. My gut reaction to such a statement is horror. After all, the first amendment is what allows me to write whatever I want without fear of recourse. It has its limits, libel for instance, but realistically my speech seems freer than at any other time or place in recorded history. The majority will always find ways to silence the minority, but the official response is so ridiculously weak that I have no fear of having the hammer of the law smite me for what I put to print.

The question becomes is that a good thing? The outraged author to whom I am responding says that such fiction as this is dangerous in its ability to nullify the identity of another. She is rightfully concerned that free speech is dangerous. It certainly is. Freedom is fraught with danger. Do the benefits outweigh these?

I am inclined to say yes.

Philosophically, or perhaps politically, a free exchange of ideas seems of genuine practical value, for it–hopefully–results in a weeding out of the less-well-thought-out stuff, and through the continual editorial process of criticism and response, would yield something better. But this seems hard to quantify, or to prove.

I will say that the potential allotted to a people possessed of free speech seems more fraught with peril, but also so much higher, than a people trammeled with the safety of a controlled mind. Strife breeds necessity, and necessity creativity. And there is no place where creativity is more necessary than in the products of the human imagination.

So there it is, a respectful disagreement. Can the internet handle such a thing? …And there I am being self-righteous. We can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

3 thoughts on “On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries”

  1. Oh Will Durant. Will you ever stop being amazing!
    Oh sorry. Wrong author. Or is it?
    I have been reading in fits and starts Durant’s ‘Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God’. It is a collection of essays, most quite short, written at the behest of his readers to relate some of his own opinions on matters similar in meat to those in the title. The combination of poetic imagery, even-handedness, optimism in human potential but realism as to the unchanging nature of human foibles, simplification in explaining complex ideas and fresh insights is appealing in his writing; as it is in yours.
    Good observations and encouraging of opinion and reasoned argument as foundational to any chance of human progress. Did you read the book? Did you send your reply to the author of the critique? Didn’t think so. One is compelled to say why not?You have a voice. It is a voice of reason, a voice of fairness, a voice of encouragement. Why keep it to yourself?

    1. I read Fallen Leaves, I’ll have you know! The chapter on the Vietnam War was super interesting, since it was written as the war was happening. Also the chapters on Old Age and Death. Very touching.

  2. Yes. His perspective on these things is at once resigned yet oddly optimistic. Death is a tragedy only because we view ourselves as individuals. It is not a tragedy if we perceive it as necessary to allow the next generation its chance. In this way Life wins eternally over death. Resigned optimism.
    (If you ever want to expand your musical tastes try Patty Griffin, album ‘Children Running Through’. She is an excellent poetic wordsmith and speaks of ‘someone else’ tomorrow as a similar image).
    Anyway, my main point is to encourage you to speak to a wider audience. It occurs to me that we often have similar views. Mine seem to be formed sui generis; that is without much depth of knowledge, but from a random ability to perceive what others were doing and saying. (Patients and children). Thinking myself brilliant I concocted a resigned optimism in my work as father and doctor. You seem to have come to a similar point largely through very good education both directed and self-directed; and at a much earlier age! I had a ready audience in you, PJ and my patients whereby I could spout and influence to a degree. You will find it similar when you have children. But other than these, you will have to seek an audience to make think. Hence my question as to whether you responded to the critics comments. Talk to you tonight.

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