MY HOLOCAUST by Tova Reich (Harper Collins, 2007)
Review by Nancy Yanes Hoffman, www.writingdoctor.typepad.com,
www.nyhwriter.com, email@example.com, 585-385-1515
In the endless lists of misunderstood writers, the satirist wins hands down. Writing from a conservative point-of-view but speaking in a radical idiom, the satirist courts angry reactions from right and left. Whether misanthropic like Juvenal or Swift’s diatribes or gently remonstrating like Horace’s verse, satire requires culturally ironic double-vision lacking in our society. The impulse to satire is ostensibly moral. Aggressively corrective, it criticizes stances or behavior failing the satirist’s standards.
Tova Reich’s MY HOLOCAUST exemplifies the satirist’s dilemma. Heatedly, she attacks what she believes is modern marketing of Jewish victimization. Tragedy by association, says she, minimizes. It dumps every survivor of brutality into the caldron with Jewish sufferers of the Nazi Holocaust. Scorning current museums and memorials as trivializers reaching for tourist dollars, Reich depicts this selling as sham tears, long overdue and meaningless.
Although true satire stabs with a rapier, never bludgeons with an axe, Reich wields a club with the personal axe she grinds. In the interest of full disclosure, Reich’s husband, Walter, had to leave his directorship of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Whether she models her labored stereotypes on Board members who may have forced Walter out is unclear. But it’s worth a guess.
For despite Reich’s apparent outrage at the twentieth-century culture of victimization, her satire doesn’t ring true. Her singularly unlovable characters (what a euphemism, that!) are mostly Shylockian Jews trying to squeeze a buck from evidence of brutality that nearly destroyed their people forever.
Maurice Messer, he of the symbolic name, is a Holocaust survivor, who has made his firm, Holocaust Connections, Inc (don’t forget the Inc) into a big consulting business. For money, lots of it, Maurice née Moses, escorts rich donors through the promised lands of concentration camps. Business is good. Five million dollars will buy a donor’s plaque for a railroad car installed at the gateway to a new museum. What better legacy can his richly indifferent clients find?
His neurotic son, Norman learned the business well from his father. But not well enough. Norman can’t accept his daughter Nechama’s conversion to Catholicism. In Reich's ironic in-joke, her Nechama’s name means “soul,” the loveliest name Jewish parents can give a daughter. Now, Nechama is a silent nun in the controversial cloister overlooking the ovens of Auschwitz.
Reich’s clangingly offensive title, MY HOLOCAUST shows she hasn’t done her homework. Since when is the Holocaust hers? If so, what does she mean by that? Does she even know what “holocaust” means or where it came from?
For the record, the word "holocaust" comes from the Greek holokauston, which originally meant “sacrifice completely burned by fire” and first appeared in I Samuel 7:9. After World War II, “Holocaust” slid furtively into the eminent domain describing the Nazis' terrifying genocide of Jews. "Sho'ah, the Hebrew word for "Holocaust," shows how the Nazis nearly succeeded in annihilating every Jew on the planet.
If you “Google” the word “Holocaust,” you’ll find nearly two million (1,920,000!) definitions with almost as many points of view about its usage today. That other peoples join their suffering to the fate of Jews under the Nazis is obviously one of Reich’s cause célèbres.
Whatever your view, it’s chutzpah to believe that Jews have cornered the market on victimization. Gypsies, also devastated by the Nazis, call their plague the Porajmos, meaning “devouring.” Porajmos seems even more expressive of the Nazis’ bestiality than Holocaust. Still, it was the deeds, not the words, that killed.
One of the best satirists of our time, librettist-mathematician-physicist Tom Lehrer, quit the satire gig in the sixties. “You can't satirize real evil,” said Lehrer: "You can make fun with Saddam Hussein jokes ... but you can't make fun of, say, the concentration camps (italics mine)… my target was not so much evil, but benign stupidity. People doing stupid things without realizing or, instead, thinking they were doing good." I wonder what Tova Reich is thinking she is doing with “her” Holocaust.
I’m with Tom Lehrer, not Tova Reich. Hers is not so much "benign stupidity" as a malignant tin ear. Her episodic ranting is not true satire in any sense of the genre. MY HOLOCAUST is a tediously misanthropic indictment of Jews and non-Jews alike who try to recapture Holocaust horrors to further their own ends.
Read MY HOLOCAUST if you have nothing better to do. Better yet, read Mark Twain’s THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER, the bitter chronicle of mankind’s brutality to its own through the ages. Twain’s is a better window on what we facetiously refer to as “human nature” than Reich’s pseudo-satire can ever be.