What Can “the Holocaust” Be Called?: Language, Politics, and Historical Imagination.

Miyuki Kinjo 2010/07/05
How can the Holocaust be represented? This is a question which many historians have been disputing for a long time. In the conference “Probing the Limit of Representation” held in 1990 in the University of California, Professor Hayden White, in his presentation, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” posed the following question: Do the events such as the Holocaust have any absolute limits on what can be truthfully said?

Based on this question, Professor White discusses questions on two interrelated kinds of limits of representation. The first question concerns whether “the nature of Nazism and the Final Solution sets limits on the kind of stories that can be properly told about them.” According to Professor White's argument, there is no such thing as the story underlying the event itself; historical narrative is formulated by the historian's discursive acts. His argument goes on to suggest that “an oppositional structure constitutive of a semantic field in which the naming of the plot type of one story determines the semantic domain within which the name of the plot type of the other is to be found.”[White 1992:43]

The second question concerns the problems that emerge in the “realistic”representation of an event. In discussing these two questions, Professor White casts a question on “a conception of discourse that owes too much to a realismthat is inadequate to the representation of events, such as the Holocaust, which are themselves 'modernist' in nature.”

It seems to me that Professor White's arguments not only approach “the limit of the representation,” but also “the potentiality of the representation.” If so, Professor White's critiques on realist history point out the epistemological and ethical dilemmas caused by the unlimited possibility of realist historical
narrative forms. Then, he searches for a new style, that is, a modernist way of
representation in order to overcome these dilemmas.

Following these arguments of Professor White, this presentation aims to articulate other two limits of representation which is seemingly constituted in general discussions on the representation of the Holocaust. The first limit I would like to argue today concerns the fact that current attempts of writing the experience in the Holocaust may not be able to avoid the influence of a political claim. The second limit concerns our understanding of the Holocaust only as the Jewish experiences. Interestingly, it appears to me that Professor White's argument is also restricted by these limits although the clues to overcome these limits are given in his argument itself.

I. “ Shoah,” and Dilemma of Realism
Professor White pointed to our profound sense of the incapacity oftraditional modes of representation in explaining or describing the experience of the Holocaust. It reflects his critical awareness of arbitrary emplotment of the original event formulated through words employed in realist historical representation. Thus he searches for a new style or voice in this representation. But is the question of the language in which that style is applied so self-evident that we can keep away from it? Indeed it is crucial to examine the implication conveyed by choosing a certain language as well as by choosing a certain voice, in order to overcome the uncertainty perceived within the realist historical consciousness.

The choice of language in representing the Holocaust matters because of people's multilingual experiences in the event. Most of the Jews transferred to the concentration camps used the language—most often more than one language—of their origin or of their living place, such as Yiddish, German, or Polish and so on. They experienced a multilingual space in the concentration camps and then destruction of the original communities after the liberation. Here the question is: in which language could the Holocaust survivors narrate theirexperiences from the time of Nazism? Also, how can historians and bystanders come to understand those experiences?

It seems to me that, in current historical discussions on the Holocaust, the Hebrew word “shoah,” has been increasingly applied instead of “the Holocaust.” Especially after Claude Lanzmann's movie, “SHOAH(1),” this word has been employed out of an attempt to represent, in a more appropriate word, the extreme experiences of the Jewish people, who survived—or died in— that era. However, in fact, in the Diaspora Jewish communities at that time, it isunlikely that people referred to the ongoing situation with a Hebrew word, since Hebrew had been considered as a sacred language designated exclusively for biblical studies or religious practices, and secularization of the Hebrew language had been avoided. Looking at this issue from the context of Professor White's discussion, giving a name in Hebrew to an event which possesses unlimited potentiality both in “putting into phrases” and in choosing language restricts ourhistorical imagination to that event.

From my perspective, when one uses the term “shoah” as a “natural” word expressing the Jewish experience in the era of Nazism, or when one views the Hebrew language as the “natural” language to express the Jewish experience [Ezrahi 1992:260], it should be noted that our historical imagination is being subjected to the influence of a political actor that emerged after the period of the Holocaust, namely of the State of Israel, which has officially revived Hebrew as their national language. That is to say, Holocaust narratives of “shoah” cannot avoid the historical interpretation brought forward by a certain ideology, namely Zionism(2).

When viewing Israeli historiographies, one will notice that, in the Zionist ideology, “shoah” is invested with historical significance. More precisely, if a definite article is added to the common noun “shoah ” to make a proper noun “ha-shoah,” the word is invested with extra significance. (Similarly, in English, a definite article is added to a common noun “holocaust” to make a proper noun “the Holocaust.”) In Israeli historical interpretation, “ha-shoah” is regarded to be the culmination of anti-Semitism, a phenomenon that will continue to exist as long as the Jews continue to live in the gentile community(3). In other word, “hashoah” is emplotted as an event that may occur again. Therefore, in the Zionist ideology, the Jewish State is conceived to be an absolute requirement in order for preventing another Holocaust(4).

However, in the light of Professor White's article “The Politics of HistoricalInterpretation,” the Zionist emplotment of “ha-shoah” emerges from the realistic historical consciousness. In his article, Professor White warns of the process of historicizing the lived experience underlying an event. This warning is directed towards the process in which “the historical sublime,” which includes rich and varied experiences, is transformed into a discourse that sustains a certain political power and authority, by being domesticated by means of professionalized and disciplined rules of historical study. In this process, the social groups resisting the existing power have only to counterpose a narrative version of their own, going through the very same domesticating and historicizing process. [White 1987: 78-82] However, as the case now stands, to which extent can narratives of “shoah” that are employed to overcome the realistic historical consciousness and to address the lived experience be effective to challenge the Israeli historical consciousness? It seems that the narratives of “shoah” also face a realistic dilemma as a result of being affected by political circumstances.

Would it be possible, then, to move beyond the narrative emplotment of“shoah” and thus explore the use of new voice and language to renovate our historical imagination? Such a possibility is worth exploring, but the problem is not that simple. We cannot disregard the people who had little choice but to build their lives in Israel, because of the decision of the international community to have Israel absorb most of the Jewish refugees after the WWII. The point is that it is necessary to examine how language is chosen in a given discursive act and what that implication is. And then, we can think about a new representative style on the basis of an understanding of the kind of arbitrary manipulation—historical or political—working on the discursive act.

II. The Nazi Crime and Non-Jewish Victims

Here, I would like to go on another issue regarding the way narratives of “shoah” have restricted our historical imagination. That is the question of the non-Jewish victims who perished at the hand of the Nazis. Generally, and also in the case of the conference mentioned above, the Holocaust is regarded as a term replaceable with the Final Solution, or with the extermination of the Jews in Europe. The focus of the approach presupposed here is the Final Solution to the Jewish question and not the whole picture of the criminal acts of the Nazis.

Admittedly, the Nazis' only collective target of complete extermination was the “Jews,” who fell in to the racial category created by the Nazis. After the liberation, indeed, the Jews who survived the Nazi crimes needed a certain narrative for Jewish people themselves. After the Nazi regime, the liberated countries abolished the racial rules that had been introduced by the Nazis and returned the Jewish people to the status of ordinary citizens. However, for the Jews themselves, they had been damaged just because they were Jews. It is true that non-Jewish people suffered from the wounds of war, but from the Jewish perspective the wounds of those who were directly or indirectly involved in the Holocaust were not equivalent to the damages of the Jews. Thus the Jews required redress for their damages which were caused by the fact that they were the Jews. [Takei 2008: 122]

However in fact, the victims who perished in the Nazi crime comprised not only the six million Jewish people but also large numbers of non-Jewish people (5). When the Holocaust is discerned exclusively as the extermination of the Jewish people, how can the non-Jewish victims take up their room in the same historical event? Are the Jews the only victim of the Holocaust? Or, do we count all the victims deprived of their life in the Holocaust?

This question is caused by the fact that in the historical study of the Holocaust, the Jewish experience is exclusively situated at the center of the whole tragedy. The Jewish historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet also points out this question, discussing how the painful memory of the Holocaust should be transformed into history.

[ W]e are observing a transformation of memory into history… That one must fight against the disappearance—or, worse yet, the debasement- –of memory seems to me obvious… But what are we going to do with this memory, which is ours, and not the memory of all? …It must be admitted that the war is over, that the tragedy has been, in a way, secularized, even if it entails for us, by which I mean us Jews, the loss of that discursive privilege that we have in large part enjoyed ever since Europe discovered the great massacre. [Vidal-Naquet 1992: 57-8]

Professor White, though moved by Vidal-Naquet's words, is critical of his position to rewrite the experience into a disciplined history. He states that such historicizing process is always instructed from centers of established political power. However, Vidal-Naquet's suggestion also includes having another look at the event containing the non-Jewish people's experience. If we return to Professor White's discussion that proposes to go beyond the historical emplotment, we should be critical of the discussion treating the Holocaust only as the experience of the Jews as well as of the historicizing process of memory.

However, this challenge brings ethical difficulties caused by the direct or indirect involvement of the non-Nazi communities in the Holocaust (6). Based on this regard, how can we demand from the Jewish survivors, who survived extreme conditions, to imagine the destruction which other people might suffer? How can we demand from those who suffered from tragedy just because they were categorized as a “Jew”, to imagine the tragedy of others?

However, as a matter of fact, non-Jews also perished in the Nazi crimes, so we should expand our historical imagination to their experiences. It is supposed that, on the level prior to emplotment, the experience of the Jews and non-Jews as the victims of the Nazi crime should not be mutually exclusive. Against the current historical discussion in which the non-Jewish devastation is obscured by the Jewish devastation, how can we knock in a wedge of critique? Considering this question from the perspective of Professor White's discussion, this question should not merely be an issue of redefining the subject in historical studies. Then, how can we challenge this issue while holding to “the historical sublime”?

■ Footnotes
(1)This movie attempts to reconstitute the historical reality of the event through huge number of testimonies, against those who relativize or negate the Nazi crimes. Although this work was done by the director's realist challenge to present the reality of the event, the testimonies in the movie show the difficulties or pains of the discursive act of the witnesses.
(2)Nevertheless, the term “the Holocaust,” meaning “burning totally” in Greek, cannot be considered as the original word to represent the Jewish experience in the Nazism era. It was only after the late 1970s, when an American drama “the Holocaust” was broadcasted on television, that this term got more widely dispersed. Until then, it had been more common to use “Genocide,” the word of the criminal category in the international law.
(3)Regarding this point, in English and in Hebrew, the meanings confined by the definite article may be different. “The Holocaust” in English implies an event with uniqueness and incomparability. One the one hand, in the Jewish history, or at least in the Zionist interpretation of the Jewish history, “ha-shoah” in Hebrew indicates the event which is unique in scale but not in nature. Thus “ha-shoah” is considered as the event which possibly occurs.
(4)Constructing a discourse that raises such a sense of existential danger, the State of Israel, under the pretext of “security,” has ended up creating a militarist society, that suppresses the Palestinian communities. It is doubtful that such a society can really ensure the life of the Holocaust survivors that moved to Israel after the liberation.

(5)These victims includes Polish, Slavs, Romani people, Soviet prisoners of war, people with physical or mental disabilities, homosexuals, and anti-war resistants and so on. This point reminds of what Peter Norwich called the “six million” versus “eleven million” dispute. The number of “eleven million” includes both the six million Jewish victims and the five million non-Jewish victims (The number of five million is borrowed from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre). Norwich, posing a question to the accuracy of the number, notes that “of course, the point is not the number itself but what we indicate or talk about in speaking about 'the Holocaust'.” However, Norwich explicitly supports the idea to commemorate only the Jewish victims in his conclusion.
(6)Directly, they were involved in the deprivation of Jewish assets, or in supporting the transfer of the Jews to the concentration camps, and indirectly, they kept silence to the ongoing situation or prevented the Jewish refugees from entering to their countries.

■ References
Ezrahi, S. D. “The Grave in the Air: Unbound Metaphors in Post-Holocaust Poetry.” In Probing the Limit of the Holocaust: Nazism and the “Final Solution”. Cambridge and Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp.259-76.
武井彩佳『ユダヤ人財産はだれのものか──ホロコーストからパレスチナ問題へ』白水社 2008 年 (Takei, A. Who Owns Jewish Properties?: From the Holocaust to the Question of Palestine. [Japanese] Hakusuisha, 2008.)
Vidal-Naquet, P. Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman from French. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. =『記憶の暗殺者たち』石田靖夫 訳 人文書院 1995 年
White, H. “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation.” In The Content of the Form. Baltimore and London:The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 58-82.
──── . “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth.” In Probing the Limit of the Holocaust: Nazism and the “Final Solution”. Cambridge and Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp.37-53. =「歴史のプロット化と真実の問題」ソール・フリードランダー編 上村忠男・小沢弘明・岩崎稔訳『アウシュヴィッツの
表象と限界』未來社 1994 年

吉田: Thank you very much for your presentation Ms.Kinjo. Just in time. Now we are going to receive comments from Professor White. First, please speak in English through microphone, and then, Ms. Hiraga also with microphone interprets his comments into Japanese for speaker and for the audiences. Professor Okamoto helps it. Please.


ホワイト:Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to your university and or arranging this event. Can they hear me? For arranging this event, I'm very pleased to be here. It's my first visit to Japan, and I'm very pleased to be here, even though I'm ashamed to say, that I speak no Japanese, I came because Professor Okamoto is so persuasive, he made me come by constantly demanding that I do so. I thank you also for your interest in my work and I thank Ms. Kinjo for her brilliant analysis of the problem of historical representation: the problem of historical representation.


ホワイト:I'm going to comment on Ms. Kinjo's paper by putting this diagram on the board, because the paper is a commentary on an essay I wrote that has to do with the nature of the historical event. Historical events are different from scientific or physical – the events of physical nature, and historical events are thought of conventionally, as always being individual events, that is to say, a historical event is by definition, a unique event, even though it may be a very large event or a small event, and it's an event which, traditionally, could not be generalized or subsumed, or gathered under a general law, this is why historians have favored description of events rather than scientific analysis of clusters or groups of events. Now, a historical event – OK – this is about the nature of historical events, because the Holocaust is treated as an exceptionally individual event, one that cannot be talked about.


ホワイト:The Holocaust, for many years after the Second World War was regarded as an exceptional event, not only an individual event, but an event that was so unexpected, so exceptional to human experience, that one could not describe it using ordinary, everyday speech or scientific language, the question arose therefore, is what are we to call this event? And Ms. Kinjo talks about this, do we call it Holocaust, do we call it Shoah, do we call it genocide, do we call it churban, –  churban which means destruction in Hebrew, churban means – what do we call it? This is an important part of my discussion of the nature of historical events, because the interpretation of historical events oftentimes takes the form of a battle over what to call the event. What and how to name it. Ms. Kinjo is quite correct that when you turn a noun into a proper name, you immediately endow it with substance. Substance, and the question then, or essence, and the question then, does the name reflect the substance of the event?


ホワイト:I'm talking about western historical debate and discussion, the situation may be quite different in Japan, among Chinese, or Asian, or for that matter Arabicspeaking and Hebrew-speaking historians, because, and this is an important distinction, because naming the event requires that we name it in a particular language, Ms., Kinjo points out that it depends on whether we call it the genocide, the genocide in English, or some version of it, the <XXX>, whether we use Hebrew, this is a Greek term, or derived from a Greek term and all of these terms have different connotative meanings. They project a particular coloration, or a particular value on to the thing that is being named. So we have this event, the persecution of the Jews by the Germans during the Second World War and before then, the attempt to destroy them, as part of what they called “the Final Solution”, the Endlösung, the Final Solution. So if we call that the Final Solution, this endows the event with a particular substance and prefigures or anticipates the interpretation of the event that we will give to it. This is why many Jewish historians and Hebrew-speakers insist that we cannot use a non-Hebrew term for the discussion of this event, because you can see that in Hebrew, or in Japanese, when you use a particular word it summons up a whole history of meaning that the event then is supposed to manifest or display. Can you get that, Ms. Hiraga?

 ですから、あの当時のユダヤ人の虐殺を、「最終解決」と言われた、ユダヤ人を全部抹殺してしまうということを、英語でThe Final Solution というが、そのサブスタンス、主体をどのように呼ぶかによって、その言葉によって独特のカラー、意味合いが含まれてしまう。それが重要になります。

ホワイト:You have the same problem here in your discussion of the Nanking, the conquest of Nanking in 1938, the discussion of the comfort women of Korea, what are we to call these events, how do we name them? Do we have adequate terms in Japanese against the demands that they be called for example the massacre and so forth, especially by westerners that are raising questions of Japanese war crimes. Now, I'm going to now say only two things more about – raised by Ms. Kinjo's paper, and one has to do with voice, voice, voice, voice, voice, in English, I don't know about Japanese, in English we have two voices, active and passive, is it the same in Japanese? In many other languages they have a third voice, it's called the middle voice, in Greek we have the middle voice, you can see that when you write history about, for example, Japanese troops in Nanking, about the German troops on the eastern front in the Second World War, about the American bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, the Allied bombing for the destruction, about the bombing, about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, why two atomic bombs? The question has to do with this, when you write the story of these events, when you write a narrative, a story, do you put the participants, the agents, people who are involved in these events, do you treat them as agents, or as patients? Do you know the word patient? Something being happening to you. Are you doing something?

通訳(平賀):日本の場合にも、同じようなことが言えるかと思います。日本でも1938 年の南京大虐殺をどのように呼ぶか、もしくは太平洋戦争中の慰安婦の人たちのことをどのように表現するか、これが重要になってきます。例えば西洋では、南京大虐殺のことをNanjing Massacre と呼んでいますが、これが正しい表現と言えるのかどうか。

吉田:Thank you very much. We are going to have discussion time after Nishijima's session. So then, we expect Ms.Kinjo's response to Prof. White, OK? So now, let's move on to the next presentation. The speaker is Kazuhiro Nishijima.