By Benjamin Kweskin
For many Jews, June 11, 1967, represented the real end of the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt said. The Israeli victory in the Six-Day War was a watershed not only for Israel, but also for Diaspora Jewry.
Many Jews had feared that Israel was politically and militarily weak and would cease to exist if the Arab armies won the war, but instead Israel claimed a quick victory and captured extensive territory, including the remaining parts of Jerusalem.
Right before the mournful commemoration of Tisha B’Av came to a close Sunday, July 26, Young Israel of Toco Hills hosted the annual lecture given by Lipstadt, the well-known professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University who will soon be portrayed by Hillary Swank in a movie based on her book “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier.”
Titled “America After the Shoah 1945-1978: A Time for Talk or a Time for Silence?” Lipstadt’s hour-long presentation to about 70 people made the case that the postwar discussion about the Holocaust was not black and white.
Lipstadt argued that the period of 1945 to 1965 was tenuous, given that the trauma and the social and political ramifications of the Holocaust were still fresh. She said there were no Holocaust studies departments or museums, and the media did not cover what happened nearly as much as today. People did not even know what to call it: “Holocaust” was used sparingly, and “a holocaust” was used in place of the current “the Holocaust.” Even survivors did not have a term to describe what had happened to them.
Popular media only tangentially touched on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in 1947 was one of the first Hollywood movies to even vaguely reference the Shoah, and several New York Times best sellers that year dealt with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In 1950 “The Diary of Anne Frank” became known to the world, and the Broadway play premiered a few years later.
Lipstadt said the diary and related publications, television shows and movies indirectly dealt with the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, and the messages were intended to reach a wider, non-Jewish audience with the hope of universalizing the message and conveying the suffering while remaining aligned with contemporary American society.
“Exodus” was published in 1958, and the movie adaptation came out in 1960. That work clearly linked the Holocaust and the state of Israel, a dangerous connection to foster, Lipstadt said.
She cited several influential movies, plays and books written by Jewish people in the 1950s and early 1960s that started to shift the conversation. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminist Mystique,” Sidney Lumet’s “Pawnbroker,” Sylvia Plath’s “Holocaust Poems,” Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” used Jewish motifs, and within those iconic works were metaphors and analogies regarding the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
Political and societal changes were happening in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas 1950s America yielded to McCarthyism and a unified sense of Americanness, the next two decades were more culturally and ethnically self-aware because of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, Latino rights and so on.
The 1960s, Lipstadt said, embraced “ethnic America.” The baby boomers were proud to be different and demanded an America more reflective and inclusive of differences and identities. The Jewish community became stronger, louder, prouder and increasingly defiant of its detractors, especially given that Soviet Jewry was suffering behind the Iron Curtain.
Lipstadt concluded that in many respects, the Holocaust has become a perennial symbol of human suffering and a way to elicit action on contemporary genocides and massacres.
Asked about the ramifications for Holocaust education and awareness, Lipstadt said it is much better to be aware of and educated about the Holocaust, but there is a real danger of overusing the term, as PETA and some pro-life advocates reference the Holocaust for political ends, and thus draining the Holocaust of its power.