Once again, the Jews are victims.
A new wave of post-Holocaust Jewish intellectuals has revised the rules for remembering their 6 million dead. Silence and muted utterance, this movement insists, are the appropriate modes of expression. This revisionist position denies Jews access to the healing process through redemptive expressions of grief. Until now, such catharsis has found voice in literature, music, painting and sculpture as a source of relief from unremitting pain.
Ironically, the new orthodoxy is reminiscent of the policy of stunted speech and restricted expression that was rigidly enforced by Nazis in the death camps.
It derives from two sets of perceived conditions that confront second-generation Jewish survivors.
The most daunting is their status as observers whose knowledge of the Holocaust comes from the memories of others. Secondhand witnesses to a history they did not experience directly, they define their knowledge as "vicarious memory."
The second obstacle is inherent in the very idea of artistically rendering the Holocaust.
It asserts the futility of bridging the gap between conventional artistic devices that describe a broad range of human experience on the one hand, and the unfathomable brutalities of industrially implemented mass murder intended to exterminate an entire culture on the other.
These intellectuals reject attempts to develop a creative idiom capable of faithfully portraying their parents' experience. Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List" is derided as an inauthentic Hollywood charade. So are literary fictional narratives that transmute facts in the crucible of art.
They oppose efforts that personalize Holocaust history by translating abstractions and numbers into human drama -- attempts to soften the distinction between victim and survivor.
James E. Young's empathetic reflections on post-Holocaust art in "At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture" (Yale University Press, 256 pages, $35) examines the intellectual tenets of the new orthodoxy.
An English professor of impressive literary agility, Young teases meaning from their primary charge that artistic reconstructions of the Holocaust contain an inherent flaw: the impossibility of manufacturing matter out of anti-matter. When the Nazis extirpated a 1,000-year-old civilization from Europe, they created the equivalent of a Black Hole. To imagine that a credible, recognizable culture can be conjured from a void is absurd.
What is possible, says Young, is art that simulates silence. Post-Holocaust architecture emphasizes emptiness and undefined space. These memorials, some completed and some now planned, stress the importance of viewing the Holocaust as a "post-memory," a history to be experienced as ephemeral and incomplete.
Deftly employing new technologies in electronic and graphic arts, they use overlay grids and gauzy silk-screens to create impressions of chimerical reality. Primary emphasis is placed upon minimalist, inchoate artistic statements -- a legacy of their "vicarious memory" of Holocaust events.
Given a subject of such nebulous, inaccessible dimension, the ordeal of creating a marketable product requires enormous technical proficiency. Whether they have surmounted these obstacles, especially in music and the graphic arts, remains open to debate, says Young.
Complicating all such efforts is the unspoken issue of guilt. What is seldom discussed is the first-generation Holocaust survivors' implacable mandate, now seared into the second generation's consciousness: "Let Us Never Forget."
The essence of the second generation's plight is captured in this excerpted poem introducing Daniel Schwartz's "Imagining the Holocaust" (St. Martin's Press, 353 pages, $29.95):
" ... all the living are guilty
who offered bouquets of flowers
lovers are guilty
guilty are those who ran away
and those that stayed ...
the dead are taking stock of the living
the dead will not rehabilitate us."
Nor can rehabilitation be extended to those whose capacity for artistic regeneration is fettered by "vicarious memory."
To the contrary, it traps them in a double bind that is all the more painful because it is self-inflicted. Unable to remember an unknowable past, yet enjoined never to forget it, they embrace silence as a logically defensible alternative.
This counter-strategy employs a tightly reasoned rationale that cedes unquestioned Holocaust remembrance only to those who endured it. Elie Wiesel, perhaps the Holocaust's most prominent writer, is granted sweeping authority to portray its ineffable horror in authentic detail.
For the same reason, he is authorized to delineate its spiritually redemptive capabilities. Here Wiesel exults in the "God-given" gift of the written word to explore the spiritual connection between man and his creator:
"To write is to plumb the unfathomable depths of being ... The space between any two words is vaster than the distance between heaven and earth. To bridge it you must close your eyes and leap. Ultimately to write is an act of faith." This is from Wiesel's "Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). Schwartz makes an important distinction between the writings of Wiesel, Anne Frank, Primo Levi and others who earned the right to bear witness in the Holocaust cauldron, from "fictive constructs" of second-generation, post-Holocaust writers. He finds that what is OK for Wiesel's generation is problematic for its "post-memory" descendants.
Yet more intimidating is the second-generation assault on Holocaust portrayals that would redeem its victims but at the risk of unleashing anti-Semitic activists poised to implement their own notions of redemption.
They cite neo-Nazis who continue to trumpet the redemption of an Aryan nation by genocide.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the only response is art that restricts itself to portrayals of unidentifiable reality -- the aesthetic equivalent of silence. This is uniquely taxing for architects whose challenge is to create "negative space."
Thus Micha Ullman commemorates an infamous Nazi book-burning episode in Berlin with an empty cobblestone expanse where people peer through a ground-level window into a ghostly white underground room of empty bookshelves.
This counter-monument removes the possibility that a memorial to events so grave might squander the pathos intrinsic to the Holocaust in an artistic statement of unacceptable banality.
This logic is taken one step further. Rather than rebuild an ornate 19th century fountain designed and funded by Jews, one architect fabricated a hollow concrete form which was briefly put on public display before it was sunk 12 meters deep in underground aquifers. The objective was not to commemorate an event so much as to bury it altogether, putting it beyond desecration but not recollection.
A more controversial approach -- abandoned after extensive debate -- would have installed cobblestones along a major urban highway near a Holocaust extermination site, slowing traffic to a crawl during rush hour.
In the end, however, the sounds of silence may be of meager appeal to a culture used to noisy confrontation. One of the few contemporary Jewish artists whose work provocatively lampoons its subjects is Art Spiegelman, an American artist of growing popularity.
His painterly cartoons -- presented as "Maus" -- emphasize the horrific ludicrousness of Nazi behavior. In prompting viewers to laugh at human frailties, the work validates the redemptive value of comic representation.
Spiegelman exhumes ironic humor from its unlikeliest source -- the Holocaust death camps -- a strategy that promises post-Holocaust Jews a more navigable path to bereavement than silence.
Adam Spiegel, a former Sun reporter, was publisher of the Carroll County Times from 1968 to 1974. A 35-year resident of Baltimore, he served as head of the tracing division of the American Red Cross' Holocaust Center for three years.