The Future of the Past: Countermemory and Postmemory in Contemporary American Post-Holocaust Narratives Academic Article uri icon


  • History & Memory 12.2 (2001) 56-91 Carlos Fuentes Collective memory cannot be divorced from its construction in culture. As the Broadway version of The Diary of Anne Frank did so phenomenally, plays, novels and movies generate cultural perceptions in ways that are particularly problematic and that stimulate further media reworking of the memory, which may produce stronger images than documentary presentation of facts and testimony by witnesses, educators and historians. In the United States the Holocaust entered popular culture as an American experience, first through the TV miniseries Holocaust (1978) and more recently in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), which gave the definitive photo-realism touch to a Hollywood story of the morally ambiguous but can-do hero who pits his wits against absolute evil. The same year, the Holocaust became accessible in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC alongside the nation's other museums and monuments. The question behind what is frequently called the "Americanization of the Holocaust" is what shapes the memory when it has become a cultural artifact with tenuous relevance to the historical events. What are the implications for the writing of history when the past is perceived as a confused myth within conflicting discourses? "Witnessing through the imagination" has been seen as a legitimate way for those who were not there to approach the Holocaust, but what happens when it can only be understood in an effort of the imagination? The novels, plays and memoirs discussed in this essay illustrate these burning issues with material which is often disturbing for its provocative or shocking use of Holocaust memory. These are texts by serious contemporary authors who cannot be lightly accused of trivializing the Holocaust. Among them are children of survivors who are motivated to promote remembrance as well as to combat revisionist denial and whose narratives are to be understood as formative in their own search for identity. Yet the growing legitimacy of fiction that claims to represent the Holocaust and its aftermath must make us examine the consequences of hypermediated cultural constructions of the past for identity and historical truth. What Marianne Hirsch calls "postmemory" resurfaces as a revenant in the post-Holocaust generation, "a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation." James Young has described postmemory as a representation of generational distance from history, a "vicarious past" which the post-Holocaust generation can only access through the imagination. If there will soon be few left with personal experience of the Holocaust, it is high time to ask what kind of memory is being handed down and what kind of post-Holocaust Jewish identity it is helping to create. Are we moving toward a working-through of the past or a sick obsession locked in compulsive repetition? At the end of the twentieth century there was a surge of Holocaust memory, partly because of new evidence of complicity in Nazi genocide by Vichy France (highlighted by the Barbie, Touvier and Papon trials) and claims for restitution of the victims' assets (gold, safe deposits, insurance policies, art collections) or compensation for slave-labor from large industrial corporations. Amid the collapse of totalitarian ideologies, delegitimization of the nation-state and skepticism toward the political use of the past, the close of the millennium coincided with retrospective anniversaries (particularly of Kristallnacht in 1988, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1993 and the liberation of the camps in 1995), and then came the fin de si├Ęcle itself, with its apocalyptic fixation on calamity and death. The reopening of old wounds, half a century after the end of World War II, should have awakened national consciences to a full, if painful, accounting and to a reexamination of the historical record, yet public amnesia has not ended nor have racist attacks and new genocides been prevented, despite the media splash of David Irving's libel case against Deborah Lipstadt or Pope John Paul's conciliatory statements on the Church's silence during the Holocaust. Resentment at the burden of guilt (Europe's "bad debt" to the...

publication date

  • January 1, 2000