Chapter 1 The American Experience While the Holocaust happened far from America's shores the event has undoubtedly permeated and captured the American imagination In his work The Holocaust in American Life Peter Novick skeptically questions the usefulness and agenda of collective American Holocaust memory Novick states In the United States the Holocaust is explicitly used for the purpose of national self congratulation The Americanisation of the Holocaust has involved using it to demonstrate the difference between the Old World and the New and to celebrate by showing its negation the American way of life The author argues that Holocaust awareness in the American public sphere was essentially nonexistent in the immediate postwar years stating Between the end of the war and the 1960s as anyone who has lived through those years can testify the Holocaust made scarcely any appearance in American public discourse This silence is attributed to the optimistic atmosphere of the 50s and a cultural climate which favoured sameness and prosperity rather than diversity and victimhood Novick subsequently brands the 1960s and the 1970s as the years of transition in which rising social awareness and political activism saw minority groups move from the periphery to the mainstream provoking a new sensitivity to suffering and oppression
Furthermore the capture and trial of Nazi War criminal Adolf Eichmann resulted in the mass circulation of the very term Holocaust This period of immense social change began the process of assimilating and familiarising the Holocaust in mainstream American culture This integration arguably culminated with two specific events in 1993 the inauguration of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Steven Spielberg s Schindler s List 1993 Former museum Director Michael Berenbaum recognises that the event must be framed in clear universal and relatable terms in order to strike a chord with a diverse multifaceted American audience Berenbaum describes The story had to be told in such a way that it would resonate not only with the survivor in New York and his children in San Francisco but with a black leader from Atlanta a Midwestern farmer or a Northeastern industrialist Millions of Americans make pilgrimages to Washington the Holocaust museum must take them back in time transport them to another continent and inform their current reality The Americanisation of the Holocaust is an honourable task provided that the story told is faithful to the historical event the instruction in the Holocaust had become an instrument for teaching the professed values of American society democracy pluralism respect for differences individual responsibility freedom from prejudice and an abhorrence of racism
Over time the Shoah has certainly reentered the modern landscape and become a pertinent and applicable symbol in which to consider and critique the American identity This process of Americanisation is perhaps most visible and illuminating in cinematic depictions of the Holocaust specifically Hollywood representations In Brutal Vision The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema Karl Schoonover considers the capacity and potential of the visual image stating Late twentieth century thinkers often repeat a fateful parable of how World War II destroyed the photographic image After the camps according to this parable the camera image could only reveal its own inadequacy The unprecedented death toll of World War II confounded the camera the scale of the Holocaust Hiroshima and Nagasaki exceeded what its lens could capture The suffering caused by totalitarianism attempted genocide massive theatres of ground combat and the deployment of the atom bomb rendered impotent any ordinary means of documentation and depiction Once the pillar of evidentiary plentitude the photographically generated image came to seem forever doomed by its inherent paucity
This parable describes a truth telling picture that can only tell a partial truth a photodocument that signifies only its own evidential limitations and a realism that corrupts as it represents Schoonover subsequently illustrates how the cinematic image became a crucial enlightening and didactic tool which could alter and expand perspectives The war s aftermath and anxieties about a shifting global order issued a moral imperative to visual culture the truth must be shown and by any means necessary Pictures previously understood as unfit for public consumption contained content that was now thought to be vital for all to see Calls for unshackling the image were articulated not only in journalistic and documentary ideologies of film but also in the practices of fictional cinema American films preach a ruthless expansion of what the subject is expected to tolerate visually Belligerent fits plague characters who refuse to look at the photographic documentation of war victims As Schoonover demonstrates the visual image is riddled with both limitations and possibilities Robert Rosenstone broadly describes the unique manner through which the medium of cinema is able to portray the past Whether the mainstream drama focuses on documented people or creates fictional characters through their eyes and lives adventures and loves we see strikes invasions revolutions dictatorships political movements holocausts But we do more than we see we feel as well Using image music and sound effect along with the spoken word the dramatic film aims directly at the emotions It does not simply provide an image of the past it wants you to feel strongly about that image The ability to elicit strong immediate emotion the emphasis on the visual and aural and the resulting embodied quality of the film experience in which we seem to live through events we witness on the screen most clearly distinguish the history film from history on the page
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