Susanne Rohr, Von Grauen und Glamour: Repräsentationen des Holocaust in den USA und Deutschland (Heidelberg: Winter, 2021), 386 pp.
The title Von Grauen und Glamour recalls the by now widely known quip “There’s no business like Shoah-Business.” And indeed, this monograph addresses processes of commercialization, medialization, and Americanization with regard to Holocaust representations. Susanne Rohr sets out to analyze how second- and third-generation writers (and artists) in Germany and the United States depict the Shoah.
In order to analyze Holocaust representations as expressions of national and transnational collective memory Rohr calls first on the theories—and main theorists—of memory studies such as Maurice Halbwachs and Jan Assmann, before moving on to discuss the problem of grouping and categorizing writers into “generations.” She then sketches a history of Shoah representations in Germany, the United States, and to a lesser degree in Israel, basing her arguments on (among others) Hilene Flanzbaum’s The Americanization of the Holocaust (1999). It is helpful here that Rohr reminds her readers of the history of crucial terminology: the etymology of the term “Holocaust,” for instance, or the origin of notions like “rupture of civilization” or “negative symbiosis.” She also recalls historic markers, such as 1952, when the Diary of Anne Frank was published; 1961, the year of the trial of Adolf Eichmann; the Six-Day War of 1967 (erroneously dated 1969 on page 37); 1978 when the television series Holocaust aired; and the German historians’ dispute of 1985. Equally important are the landmark studies she discusses, such as By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (1980) or Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999). All these references and contexts already demonstrate the scope of her research. The book analyzes novels and memoirs, including graphic novels, but gives equal space to film and, time and again, discusses examples from the fine arts. Within this broad range, there is a discernible emphasis on second- and third-generation cultural production, foregrounding the genre of comedies and a comparative approach, with both American and German texts, as well as frequent examples from other cultural contexts. Given the breadth of Rohr’s project, her approach is, however, somewhat eclectic, proceeding more along associative lines than a systematic and comprehensive line of exploration.
One special area of interest is film, and Rohr identifies Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994), and Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella (1997) as paradigmatic examples of the Holocaust documentary, epic, and comedy respectively. At first mainly assuming the form of documentaries concerned with questions of authenticity, reliability, and the (un)representability of the Holocaust, representations of the Holocaust, she illustrates, became more frequent and more Americanized in time, resulting in a certain “Holocaust fatigue” (Gewen qtd. in Rohr 53) by the turn of the century. One of Rohr’s main tenets, and one she frequently returns to, is that the 1990s marked a shift in paradigm from documentary to comedy as the principal mode of Shoah representation. The many Holocaust comedies from the late 1990s onward that enjoy breaking taboos are more than just a provocation in the face of a tradition that had established authenticity as the sanctified norm for writing on the Holocaust, she argues. The comedies that succeed do so not by lessening the suffering of the victims but by engaging with, questioning, and complicating the rhetoric of established Holocaust representation, including, for example, notions of unrepresentability. A case in point—which Rohr discusses in depth—is Hotel Auschwitz (2019). The film not only stages the speechlessness and helplessness that confronts people when facing the Holocaust but also illustrates the highly problematic strategies of representation that have developed as a result of it.
Another manifest strength of Rohr’s study is her detailed analysis of literary texts. Major attention is given to Melvin Jules Bukiet, After (1996), Tova Reich, My Holocaust (2007), Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy (2012), Thomas Lehr, Frühling (2001), Kevin Vennemann, Nahe Jedenew (2005), and Katja Petrowskaja, Vielleicht Esther (2014). Rohr’s discussions offer ingenious insights and succeed as interpretations informed by theory without losing sight of the texts themselves. In Vielleicht Esther, Rohr detects a “trust in the power of words” (262). This focus on language exemplifies her main argument, which proposes that the central question has changed from how to why the Shoah is represented, with the result that second and third generation writers and artists no longer try to tackle questions of authenticity or appropriateness of representation but rather reflect on the specific language and (Americanized, transnational) iconography of previous Shoah representations and their respective purposes.
The final section of Susanne Rohr’s book reveals another interest of hers, namely the transnational aspect of contemporary writing on the Holocaust. Nora Krug’s graphic novel Belonging (2018) and Angelika Bammer’s life narrative Born After (2019) are interesting case studies, since both authors are Americans with German roots. The different covers of the American and German versions in Krug’s case suggest different readings as Rohr convincingly illustrates. While the American version offers critical distance to the events of the past, the German version seems more in line with the so-called “Opfernarrativ,” i. e. non-Jewish Germans considering themselves the primary victims of the Nazi period. Here Rohr’s thesis that the “Opfernarrativ setzt sich nach 2000 durch” (313)—“the victim narrative prevails after 2000”—appears rather misleading. One could indeed argue, if one were to write a history of German representations since the 1950s, that this has been the prevailing attitude all along.
The book concludes with the insight that Germans are still seeking some kind of forgiveness, maybe even redemption—a longing which even Rohr’s critical study cannot fully escape on its final pages. A comprehensive filmography and bibliography at the end of her book provide helpful tools for any further research in the field. These reviewers only miss Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1959) on the reading list in which arguably the short story “Eli, the Fanatic” is one of the first to raise the topic in American literature. It would then, in the 1960s, become, as Rohr rightfully observes, a major subject. Also missing is We Remember with Reverence and Love (2009) by the renowned American historian Hasia Diner, in which she debunks the myth that American Jews kept quiet about the Holocaust until the 1960s, a claim reiterated here. Admittedly, these are minor complaints in a well-researched and equally well-written book.
Bettina Hofmann and Julia Wewior (Bergische Universität Wuppertal)