“My Holocaust,” by Tova Reich, is a relentlessly savage satire about the modern-day religion of Victimism, where everybody wants in on the martyr action in order to feel special about themselves.
Its central character is Maurice Messer, an old Jew who survived the Holocaust (by hiding in the woods, though he tells everyone he was a resistance fighter) and now runs the lavish U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., with his son Norman. Norman is what they call a “second generation survivor,” even though he didn’t actually survive anything himself, having been born long after the war. Survivorship can be inherited, you see. They spend ridiculous amounts of government money wining and dining potential donors, taking personalized tours of Holocaust sites in Europe and forever claiming everything they do is for “the six million.” You can’t cut their budget or insist they stop flying first class everywhere — it’s for the six million! Many Jews, Reich suggests, worship at the altar of the Holocaust, using it to define themselves and their religion above everything else.
But that’s not all! Reich also has stinging barbs for all the gentiles who try to latch onto the Holocaust for their own needs, other religions and groups who try make their persecutions and trials match up with those of the Jews, everyone eager to wrench a piece of the sympathy market away from them. The “holocaust” against women, gays, African Americans, endangered animals — why should the Jews have a monopoly on holocausts?
The novel is brilliantly, caustically funny, at first because you can’t believe someone had the guts to make jokes anywhere in the vicinity of the subject of the Holocaust, but eventually simply because Reich has established so many memorable, flawed characters, all of them ripe for ridicule.
Funny story: I was reading this book in a movie theater before a screening a couple weeks ago, when the place was still mostly empty. A sponsor was passing out flyers for a local museum exhibit called Body Works, which features actual human bodies on display in various poses, their skin removed so that you can see how the muscles work. She asked a woman sitting a few rows behind me if she wanted a flyer, and the woman said, “Oh, no, I can’t go see that. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and he saw people skinned alive.” And I thought: Well, that’s a good reason for your father not to go. But it sounds like you’re wearing your Holocaust credentials on your sleeve just so that people will … what? Feel sorry for you? Revere you? Be impressed by you?” See, the book was already sinking in. We all want to be victims.
(I became aware of the book through Lisa Schwarzbaum’s glowing review in Entertainment Weekly, which you can read here.)