The Benefits (and Challenges) of Looking Beyond the Holocaust

Ansel Adams photograph of the mess hall lunch line at the Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Ansel Adams, “Mess Line, Noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California.”
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I had a different post planned for last week, but in light of the last fortnight in America — and the rise in anti-Asian violence over the last year — I think it’s important that we acknowledge the ways in which literary and educational pedagogies of exceptionalism hinder social change relating to tolerance and human rights.

One of the reasons that the Holocaust has risen to such prominence in American popular culture is that, for all its horrors, the historical narrative is a relatively easy one for American audiences to swallow. The United States is the hero of that narrative. Not just the hero, the savior. We can read about the Holocaust with the assurance that we were the good guys, that our nation acted nobly, that our soldiers fought with honor.

The comfort that narrative brings allows us to confront the terrible and sinister truths of what happened in Germany, what happened in Poland, what happened in Austria and Vichy France and occupied Italy and all of Eastern Europe. But it also allows us to avoid confronting the terrible and sinister truths of what happened here at the same time, what happened at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, what happened later in Cambodia, in Vietnam, in Korea… The United States has a particular history of violence against Asians, both within our borders and abroad. That violence is fueled by racism, and it is fueled by hatred.

There are many ways in which the Holocaust was utterly incomparable to any other event in human history. It is undeniably important to keep that in perspective.

But there’s also an extent to which exceptionalist attitudes about the Shoah can be countereffective, or even harmful. It harms the people and communities whose experiences that attitude diminishes (or even denies). It harms Holocaust education initiatives, which depend on diverse and intersectional engagement to succeed. And it threatens the future of Holocaust literature — and your book’s prospects along with it. The further we set the Shoah apart from all other history, the less relevant it becomes.

So what does that mean for your writing?

But always keep an eye on how you’re positioning the Holocaust in relation to other atrocities, violence, and racist hatred. Be mindful that casting the Shoah as sacrosanct can be a way of diminishing, or even denying, other narratives and experiences. Language that insists, however gently, that the Holocaust was or is “worse” than all other instances of human suffering is a way of demanding that others similarly diminish or ignore those experiences. Acknowledging multiple narratives doesn’t mean you’re equating them; you don’t have to bend over backwards to draw comparisons where none are called for.

If it helps, remember that connecting your story to broader themes (and current events) will go a long way when it comes to selling your book, to publishers and readers alike. As you write and/or revise your manuscript, consider where there’s room to acknowledge world events — particularly the social and political realities we’re witnessing in real time today, and the systemic iniquities that led to them. If there isn’t space for that in the story you’re telling, bring it into the conversation in other ways. Use your platform as a writer — social media, your blog or website, speaking engagements, discussion groups — to address social exclusion in the present moment and throughout history: explain how they relate to the themes of your book (or book-in-progress). Drawing those connections for your audience and/or publisher is a great marketing tactic, and attaching your writing to important, even critical conversations about world history and modernity increases your ability to reach a wider readership with greater impact.

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So you want to write about the Holocaust…