In My Own Words: Thoughts about dead Jews

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Did anyone else ever read the Anne Frank quote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” and wonder if Frank would have felt the same after being taken to the concentration camp where she died? Dara Horn has. She has difficulty with that quote for a simple reason: it allows people to believe that killing Jews is a lapse from normal civilized behavior, rather than acknowledging that killing Jews is actually a rather common behavior. Not only have many people in the past hated Jews enough to murder them, Horn believes that the same hatred still exists today.

This thought appears in one of the essays in Horn’s provocatively titled work “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Past” (W. W. Norton and Company). She believes that the Jews most people are familiar with are dead Jews, particularly those who died in the Holocaust. For a while, the horrors of the Holocaust seemed to protect American Jews, but that has changed. Horn writes that “the last few generations of American non-Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust – which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make antisemitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events were dying off, the public shame associated with expressing antisemitism was dying too. In other words, hating Jews was normal. And historically speaking, the decades in which my parents and I had grown up simply hadn’t been normal. Now, normal was coming back.” As Horn notes in her three essays called “Dead American Jews,” attacks on American Jews have become far more common. She also expresses concerns about the way these are reported: far too many offer excuses about how the Jews themselves provoked the attacks. 

Those are strong words and ones that many of us don’t want to hear. But I do understand why Horn wrote them: she seems desperately afraid that someone is going to kill her children. I don’t mean she’s worried that someone will single out her children because someone has a personal grudge against them, but rather they are at risk because they are Jews and people are killing Jews – even in the U.S. – simply because they are Jews. If you think she doesn’t need to be afraid, she’ll talk to you about the attack in Pittsburgh, then the one in San Diego and finally the one in Jersey City, which was close to her home. Yes, she acknowledges that people came out in support of Jews. But she also notes the explanations offered for the Jersey City attacks were a problem; they suggested the attacks were caused by Jews moving into a new area of the city, making it seem as if it were their own fault for straying into non-Jewish neighborhoods.

The essays in “People Love Dead Jews” aren’t only about what’s happening in the United States. Horn discusses the incongruity of Jewish heritage sites, which offer tours of places where Jews once lived, but which are now empty of Jewish life. And she notes that no one talks about how and why those Jews disappeared. In another essay, she fumes about a website that offers photographs and information about Jewish sites across the world, many of which have been destroyed, but which also refuses to discuss how they were destroyed or take sides in the arguments about why the destruction occurred. 

My favorite essay, “On Rescuing Jews and Other,” is thought-provoking and challenging. What Horn wants to do is flip the way we view rescuers and the need for rescuing. It tells about Varian Fry, who went to Europe before World War II to save famous writers and artists. Most works about Fry talk about the difficulty of deciding who was vital enough to western culture to be saved. Horn sees this as the wrong debate: “The assumption in such stories is that the open maw of death for Europe’s Jews and dissidents was something like a natural disaster. These stories, in some sense, force us – people removed from the time by generations – to ask the wrong questions, the kind of question that we might ask about shipwrecks or epidemics. Someone has to die, this thinking goes, and the only remaining dilemma is who will get the last seat in the lifeboat or the last vaccine. But these questions fall short by assuming the perpetrators were irrelevant. As long as we are questioning the choices that were made, shouldn’t we be considering the possibility of the Holocaust never happening? If someone was in a position to choose whether to save person A or person B, shouldn’t whole societies have been in the position to reject the notion of genocide altogether? Why wasn’t everyone Denmark?” Horn also discusses why Fry acted as he did and what happened to him after the war. She credits him for the good he did do, but also suggests that no one tried to save the everyday culture of the Jews. No one helped the average person who lived a life of righteousness. 

Horn admits that, at times, she has also been blind to the true questions to ask, particularly when it comes to English literature. In her essay “Commuting with Shylock,” she writes how her 10-year-old son learns of William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” and convinces his mother to download a production of the play so they can listen to when they’re traveling in the car. Horn does a great deal of research on the play, looking for ways in which to explain that the play is not antisemitic because Shylock is treated as a human being in one famous speech about how he bleeds like any other human. Horn’s son, however, isn’t fooled: he compares the speech to that of the monologue spoken by evil super villains in superhero movies to explain the horror they are about to inflict. Unlike her own efforts, Horn notes, “My son insists on integrity. He is not afraid to be unpleasant; he knows evil when he hears it.”

I debated writing about Horn’s work in this column or in my regular book review column. It’s placed here because these essays show how the personal can be political. Horn writes of her feelings, but those feelings are also reflected in the larger world. Although best known for her fiction, she acknowledges that what is happening in the world today doesn’t fit into a simple story with a beginning, middle and end. The persecution of Jews – and the excuses made for it – seems ongoing. To be clear, Horn is not saying that the U.S. is becoming Nazi Germany, only that the death of Jews in the U.S. now seems to be taken for granted. Is Horn right? I’m so divided in my opinion: I want her to be wrong, but I can’t argue with what she says. Horn ends her acknowledgments noting that this book is dedicated to her children and that “it is my fervent hope that they will never feel the need to read it.” My fear is that someday they and their children and grandchildren unfortunately will.