Judith M. Gerson and Diane L. Wolf, editors, Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007) pp. 407.

It has been nearly three decades since Helen Fein wrote her important work Accounting for Genocide, which demonstrated the contributions that sociology could make to our understanding of the Holocaust. By its nature and scope, understanding the Holocaust is a mutli-disciplinary task requiring the skills, knowledge and methodology, among others, of historians and psychologists, theologians and political scientists, literary scholars, writers and dramatists as well as sociologists. So any work that brings the insight of this discipline to bear on the Holocaust is most welcome and this collection, which consists of some twenty essays and responses to them does just that. The editors offer an important assessment of the state of sociological research; their bibliography is useful, their insights intelligent and their review of the literature significant especially for those of us who read in the Holocaust but do not read sociological journals routinely.

The essays reflect the tension in the title. True to its word – perhaps disappointingly so – the sociologists grapple with memory and identity far more than they confront the Holocaust. The aftermath, its memorialization and the attempts to collect testimony seem of far greater interest to the contributors than the Holocaust itself. Suzanne Vromen’s essay on the rescue of Jewish children in Belgium convents and Rachel Einwohner’s  study of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are rare and tantalizing exceptions because they sensitize students of the Holocaust to important evidence that other disciplines might overlook. Vromen’s offering is now included in her important book on the larger topic. Born in Belgium, she escaped with her parents to the Congo where she was raised as a Jewish child in Roman Catholic schools. A refugee rather than a survivor she was uniquely equipped for her interviews with children survivors; her empathy is manifest, so too is the sensitivity to the identity of a Jewish child in a Roman Catholic convent. Readers will appreciate her interviews with nuns and priests as well as survivors. Einwohner draws attention to the role of youth movement in creating bonds of trust and understanding that permitted fighters to take on the herculean and nearly impossible task of fighting the Germans within the ghetto. She draws upon testimony and history but uses the lens of her discipline to sharpen our insights.
Most of the contributions deal with memory and the impact of the Holocaust on the identity of future generations. Given my career track, I must take particular note of Diane Wolf’s comparison between the interviews that she did with an Ithaca survivors, many interviews over considerable time, which permitted evolving trust and the breaking down of what Langer has called the preferred narrative and the two and a half hour interview conducted by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now called the USC Shoah Institute). She accuses the Shoah Foundation which she refers to as the Spielberg Shoah Foundation, a name she deliberately did not and would not use, of the Hollywoodization of the Holocaust when she herself consistently invokes the famed filmmakers name and attributes to him a role in the professional work of the SOSVHF that he never played. Is it any wonder that a single interview in two hour period would yield a different level of understanding that many interviews conducted over an extended period of time?
Chaim Waxman insights into the role of the Holocaust in the Orthodox community is essential for our understanding of this important community. Other essays are fascinating with regard to the subject such as Rhoda Levine study of the role of German Jewish survivors in New York’s cattle industry and essays on Latin America and Soviet Jews in the United States.
By its very methodologies Sociology is comparative, seeking to understand the Holocaust in comparison to other events of mass murder, other immigrant groups, other Diaspora communities. The comparison are often quite fascinating and remind the reader that even for those who argue for the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its incomparability, much is to be gained – and little lost – by exploring comparable events. They shed like to what the Holocaust shares in common with other events and also where it differs.
The contributors were often reliant on the work of work of others for their basic insight into the role that the Holocaust plays in Germany, in Israel and in the United States, Often, because of language difficulties – American scholars are far too often limited to English alone – they are dependent on English language publications and thus they often quoted Norman Finkelstein’s Holocaust Industry or Tom Segev’s The Seventh Million without considering the dubiousness of Finkelstein’s work and the ideological limitations of Segev’s contribution. They overlooked the evidence of more important and more durable contributions to the role of the Holocaust in the American and Israeli Jewish community.
The shared understanding of the cosmopolitan Jewish identity by many of these contributors is exceedingly valuable especially since many sociologists who write on Jewish identity consider merely its ethnic, religious and parochial aspects. The wider lens is a welcome correction.
Again, I return to the title. The work succeeded more as Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas that it does as Sociology Confronts the Holocaust. Its greatest contribution may be the invitation it offers to sociologists to actively confront the Holocaust – the event and not just its aftermath.

Michael Berenbaum
Los Angeles, California

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