Inevitably, however, we tend to create a generic Holocaust narrative out of the tales we hear most often, and find most easy to identify with. As Americans, we respond to stories of assimilated Western European Jews who are gradually shut out of their country’s life, like that of the German diarist Victor Klemperer. As city dwellers, our imaginations are compelled by Anne Frank’s experience of hiding out in a crowded apartment, invisible in the multitude. And as members of an advanced industrial society, we are compelled by the image of the gas chamber, which writers since Hannah Arendt have made the central emblem of the Holocaust—the ultimate reduction of human life to inanimate matter. All of these are truths about the Holocaust, but they are not the only truths. As many Jews died by simple shooting as in gas chambers; far more died in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe; millions were killed almost as soon as their towns and villages were occupied by the Germans, with no chance to hide out or adjust in any way to life under Nazism. Statistically speaking, the representative Holocaust story might not feature concentration camps or hiding places or repressive laws at all; it might simply be the story of waking up one morning to find German tanks in your street and a month later being shot and buried in a mass grave.
more from Adam Kirsch at Tablet here.