People Love Dead Jews

And the prize for most provocative title goes to…

Dara Horn’s collection of essays proves her point, which is that ‘Jewish history is exploited to appease the living.’

The dead vs. the living. Her first chapter is about Anne Frank, everyone’s favorite little dead Jewish girl. So easy to admire because of her intelligence and grace. Inspiring. “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” she famously wrote.

As Horn points out, Anne Frank wrote this three weeks before some truly bad people who were not good at heart came to her attic door.

Around 10 years ago I found a notebook at a Dollar General. It had this Anne Frank quote artfully printed on the cover. I couldn’t quite figure out why it bothered me so much but I just knew it was out of place. I rationalized: well, maybe this will bring her to a wider audience, bring more awareness of the Holocaust to a world that seems to be forgetting.

But the commercialization of it. The fact that someone was making money off this flimsy, Made in China notebook upset me in a way I could not articulate.

Anne Frank, murdered holocaust diarist vs. the multitude of survivor authors is Dara Horn’s point. Aside from Elie Wiesel, can you name any others? Ouch. We prefer gracious and forgiving Anne Frank to stories that are too real, too harsh, too frightening.

Horn’s voice throughout her book is engaging, deadpan, almost comic. Darkly comic. She is wry and resigned to the fact that if things are going well for the Jews, the story is going to eventually end badly.

Reading her book is a launching off point for things to learn about. There’s a documentary I want to see, and a book she wrote glowingly about that I’ve already checked out. It’s a tome – a trilogy called Tree of Life by Chava Rosenfarb. “The sort of work that feels less like reading a book than living a life,” writes Horn. Rosenfarb survived two death camps and her gift to the world is this apparently extraordinary book. Horn calls it a masterpiece.

She also casually mentions a Rabbi who was murdered by Romans – he was wrapped in a Torah scroll and set on fire. As he burned he exclaimed –

The parchment is burning but the letters are flying free!

Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion

How can you read something like that and not want to learn more? On the other hand, reading a book like this and engaging in thought like this can drive one mad. It’s all so incomprehensible, the cruelty and inhumanity. Time and time again.

Varian Fry’s sad story was new to me. He helped rescue European intellectuals and artists during WWII, coordinating their escape from the Nazis. Some call him the American Schindler. But his story is more complicated than that, and in the end most of the people he helped sort of abandoned him. Many would never discuss him or talk to a documentary filmmaker about him. As if they wanted to keep that past in the past.

Horn is brutal when discussing these artists. And also about Fry and his group, with their lists of important people. It was problematic because he had to choose – who gets saved, who gets left behind. Horn points out the human potential lost when we’re forced to make choices like this. She is hard-lined and I didn’t always agree with her black and white assessments and language. For example she says of Fry that “he abandoned” people in his efforts to rescue others. Not fair, he literally could not save everyone.

Horn can be harsh but who can blame her? She is a devout Jewish woman and mother raising children in an antisemitic world. She’s infinitely more invested in being Jewish than I am. So I respect where she’s coming from and appreciate her perspective. I need it.

As I finished reading this book the Texas synagogue hostage event happened. And then a week or so later, Maus got banned in Tennessee. We have to keep our eyes on these things even if it is the same old story, over and over and over.

Or, we can turn away.

Horn finished writing People Love Dead Jews in December 2020. It ends, surprisingly, with hope. Horn decides to turn off the news and turns to the Talmud. There is a group that reads a page a day of this rambling, intergenerational Rabbinic text, taking seven years to go through the entire document. “Comforting” and a “magical shift” are words she uses to describe the experience so far. I’m glad she found some comfort. And I’m grateful that she wrote this book.

The world is broken but hold the broken pieces tight.

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