By Dara Horn
The only other book by Dara Horn that I’ve read is Eternal Life, which is a kind of romantic fiction with a difference. In that book, the girl and boy first meet in the period of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where he is a member of the priestly class. In the tradition of all bodice busters, they fall deeply and irrevocably in love, but there’s an unusual glitch.
They can’t die.
They survive, century after century, into the present era. Meanwhile, in each generation, their children are born, grow old and predecease them. It’s a kind of curse, and I forget how it ends (sorry!) but, be assured, it’s haunting.
Aside from that, I see occasional articles by Dara Horn in the Jewish Review of Books. Four other books of hers are cited inside the cover. She’s taught Jewish literature at top universities and is a scholar of Jewish history. In short, she’s a talent, a fresh voice, and a presence on the cultural scene.
Ordinarily, such early and deserved success has its price. An acclaimed writer can feel reluctant to jeopardize her perch near the top of the prestige ladder. However, in the case of People Love Dead Jews, we can stop worrying. Dara Horn has not sold out.
Her title makes clear her thesis: the wide public acknowledgment of the Holocaust as outstandingly horrible tends to mask (or compensate in advance) for a contempt and erasure of Jews that continues — briskly and dangerously — for Jews living now.
Some of her examples were news to me. Take Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. The Secret Annex, where (till they were betrayed) the Frank family hid from the Nazis, draws more than a million visitors a year. Anne’s Diary has been translated into seventy languages and has sold upwards of 30 million copies. Nevertheless, a young employee at the Ann Frank House was forbidden to wear his kippah on the ground that it might compromise the museum’s “independent position.” Hmm. Of what was the museum displaying independence?
Throughout Europe, there are Heritage Sites to which Dara Horn travels. These sites show and even reconstruct places where — before the Holocaust — real Jews once lived and worshipped. Coupled with displays of local pride at a Jewish heritage that draws touristic visitors, discreet silence reigns as to why no Jews live there now.
Take the town of Harbin in Manchuria (Northeastern China). About a million people live there at present. In 1896, it contained only a few small fishing villages scattered round the bend of a river. In that year, China ceded the locale to Tsarist Russia, a concession that allowed construction work to continue on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. To build that section of the railroad, Russia needed skilled people who would migrate to Harbin because, for them, living in Siberia would be an improvement!
Ah-hah, the Jews! Promised freedom from antisemitic laws, they flocked to Harbin! They built schools, theaters, orchestras, synagogues, ritual baths, bakeries, kosher facilities and so on. And the railroad of course. The Jewish population grew to about 20,000. At which point — between White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution, Japanese occupation forces throughout the Nazi years, and finally Soviet Russians returning to Siberia after the War — the entire Jewish population was either forced out or murdered. I omit details. Dara Horn found one Jew alive in Harbin. That town is now a Heritage Site.
I’d known nothing of this story, but learning it now struck me with peculiar force. In the Preamble of my new ‘Dear Abbie” podcasts, I describe three women who – in my childhood — exemplified the art of being a fully grownup woman. One was a Russian woman who, as now I recollect, had been born — in Harbin! As a schoolchild, she recalled time being set aside for the class to pray for Alexei, the hemophiliac son of Tsar Nicholas II. My mother’s woman friend returned to Russia on a touristic visit after the fall of communism. She had no thought of Harbin, but in Moscow she did go into a synagogue, one of those recently reopened. Perceiving a Jewish woman who spoke Russian natively, Jews crowded round her to tell her what they had lived through. From them, she learned what she would have faced had she not emigrated to America as a young woman. When she returned to her hotel that night, she cried for many hours.
In other places, it’s worse: there are not even heritage sites. For example, there are none in the Middle East and North Africa, where Jews lived for millennia before they were driven out or killed, their synagogues burned, their neighborhoods reduced to rubble, and commemorations of vanished communities prohibited.
Nevertheless, as Dara Horn has discovered, there is “a virtual museum called Diarna, a Judeo-Arabic word meaning ‘our homes.’ The flagship project of the nonprofit group Digital Heritage Mapping, Diarna is a vast online resource that combines traditional and high tech photography, satellite imaging, digital mapping, 3-D modeling, archival materials and oral histories to allow anyone to virtually ‘visit’ Jewish historical sites … .”
The recovery of these data has called into being — from different individuals who get no profit from their efforts — spontaneous courage and tireless ingenuity. This kind of zeal for memory must be borne aloft on a counter-entropic energy of its own — like a waterfall that insists on flowing uphill.
There are other stories, American stories – too many to tell here.
Dara Horn seems herself like Diarna: a counter-entropic cascade of insightful outrage that – against the probabilities – flows tirelessly uphill!