Review of “People Love Dead Jews” by Dara Horn

Dara Horn has won many awards for her writing, not only for her fiction, but for her essays. This latest book is a collection of her essays, some of which I have read before, but which are compiled here in a very coherent way and which deal with both timely and timeless themes.

One of the main threads running through these essays is that there is a great deal more empathy and good feeling for dead Jews than for those who are living. However, in order to be “acceptable,” these books about dead Jews – Anne Frank’s diary being the most obvious – must have positive uplifting messages, and preferably include non-Jewish rescuers. But as Horn points out, Anne wrote about her conviction that people were “truly good at heart” before she was captured and sent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp and then on to the Bergen-Belsen killing facility, i.e., before, Horn writes, “she met people who weren’t.”

Just reading the diary out of context, though, readers are offered grace and optimism without having to confront the reality of what happened to Anne.

Horn asks, “What would it mean for a writer not to hide [the] horror?” The answer, she avers, is that practically nobody reads the book.

One of her most funny-but-not-funny anecdotes is about a young Jewish man who worked at the Anne Frank house, and who tried to wear his yarmulke to work. His employers, she relates, told him to hide it under a baseball cap. She writes:

“The museum finally relented after deliberating for four months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.”

Jewish literature in English, Horn writes, is basically Holocaust fiction, but fiction, like the story presented in Anne’s diary, that meets certain requirements. She notes that in the West, as the literary critic Frank Kermode suggested, “readers desire coherent and satisfying endings,” which he connected to the history of Christian religion – i.e., the desire to live in a world that makes sense and provides happy or at least understandable endings. At the every least, the main character should have an epiphany or give us a moment of redemption.

But the problem is, as Horn observes: “the canonical works by authors in Jewish languages almost never give their readers any of those things.” The world Jews have known, she writes, is broken and unredeemed, and often doesn’t make any sense. Thus the Holocaust novels that have sold millions of copies have all been “uplifting.” The ones that haven’t been successful have “no contrived conversations with Nazis that show their humanity, nor even any brave rebellion – at least, not until the very end. Instead there is confusion, starvation, denial, and sheer sadistic horror.”

She also writes about “Jewish Heritage Sites” in places that no longer have any Jews at all. She calls the phrase “a truly ingenious piece of marketing. It is a much better name than ‘Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.’” [We have taken a number of tours at such sites. The emphasis is always on how the city honors its former residents, with nary a mention of why they aren’t there anymore.]

One of her essays deals with the role Jews play in popular imagination rather than the reality of who they are. Somewhat humorously (but not) she relates the story of Harbin, China, the former home of around 20,000 Jews, and since 2007 the location of one of these “heritage exhibits.” When it opened, Harbin’s mayor welcomed visitors by referring to “esteemed Jews” such as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Of course, neither one was Jewish, but they were rich, so the mayor assumed they had to have been (secretly, if not openly) Jewish, because “the Americans’ money is in the pockets of the Jews.”

Former synagogue in Harbin, a refuge for many Jews who fled the Former Soviet Union (photo credit: Chinese Embassy)

How Jews themselves cope with antisemitism is another recurrent theme. Horn relates very interesting research that shows Jewish names were not in fact stripped of their identifying characteristics by officials at Ellis Island. Instead, the names were changed afterward, by Jews themselves (as well as by people in other disparaged ethnicities) in the courts. She writes:

“These new Americans and their children, living in what they hoped was the first place in centuries where their families could enjoy full and free lives, soon discovered that when they applied for a job as Rosenberg no one would hire them, but when they applied as Rose, everyone would.”

Horn has a theory that Jews are reviled because since ancient times, they “have represented the frightening prospect of freedom.” By that she means the freedom to be different, but also the Jewish notion that freedom is inextricably associated with responsibility, accountability, and obligations to others. Blaming others for your problems, and being accountable to no one or no law but yourself and your own desires, is much easier, and, as it turns out, much more popular.

How do non-Jews account for antisemitism? She points out the message promulgated by the newest Auschwitz traveling exhibition by Musealia, a producer of blockbuster museum shows. Their contention is that what is needed is more love. Horn writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented – have always represented . . . the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Evaluation: As usual with the writings of Dara Horn, these essays are full of thought-provoking insights, historical information, and moral passion. I highly recommend this collection for book clubs – it will provide hours of contemplation and discussion.

Rating: 5/5

Published by W. W. Norton Company, 2021

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1 Response to Review of “People Love Dead Jews” by Dara Horn

  1. Oh this sounds really fascinating! I’ve tried a couple of Dara Horn’s novels and couldn’t quite get into them (I’m not wild about historical fiction), but maybe her essays will be the right speed for me.

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