Can any one group lay claim to the Holocaust? Though its victims were primarily Jews, does that mean that Jewish suffering was so great that it trumped that of others killed in the Holocaust, such as Poles, Gypsies, and homosexuals? Does the genocide define the Jewish identity? Or, speaking more broadly, was the destruction of the Jewish population so great that the Holocaust deserves more attention than other genocides?
These are questions normally handled with the highest degree of caution and deference, but not in the case of author Tova Reich. In her fourth and latest novel, My Holocaust, Ms. Reich takes these issues on in a delightfully irreverent style certain to break even the sternest of readers.
Though the book will undoubtedly ruffle the feathers of the politically correct, anyone with reasonably thick skin and a sense of humor would be challenged to make it all the way through "My Holocaust" without laughing out loud. But like most intelligent humor, its real merit comes from its social commentary. Reich's intent is not to be glib about the Holocaust, but rather to pillory those who've profaned its memory for their own purposes.
At the center of the novel is Holocaust survivor Maurice Messer and his son Norman, inheritor of the Holocaust legacy and thus a second-generation survivor. With a bit less tact than a used car salesman, the father-son team runs Holocaust Connections, Inc., providing clients with honorary links to the tragic event, in addition to running a museum. For example, Norman helps an anti-fur organization claim the "moral stamp of the Holocaust" by drawing a parallel between fur products and hair shorn from Jews before entering the gas chambers.
Anyone can share in the suffering of the Holocaust and the moral authority it supplies, provided they're willing to donate money to Maurice's cherished United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Messers world turns upside down, however, when Norman's 20-year-old daughter Nechama, a regular "Holocaust princess," tarnishes the family name by becoming a nun at a convent just outside Auschwitz. While Norman struggles to bring his daughter back into the fold, his father risks ceding control of his museum to the vacuous Bunny Bacon in order to get a $10 million donation from Bunny's mother.
To make matters worse, Bunny wants to cheapen the Holocaust making it overly inclusive. As a first step, she plans to "hire [museum] employees of all races and religions and minorities and sexual orientations in order to elevate the Holocaust from just a Jewish hang-up with which the Jews were guilt tripping the rest of the world to the level of a universal archetype with all-purpose generic lessons and implications for everyone."
What ensues is a hilarious – and, at times, uncomfortable – commentary about the human tendency to aggrandize individual suffering and use it as a claim to any number of entitlements.
While other books have grappled with the issue of the Jewish identity and the Holocaust, addressing it as a work of satirical fiction allows Reich far more wiggle room than her contemporaries.
Controversial Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein, himself a "second generation survivor," took on many of the same issues in his nonfiction work entitled The Holocaust Industry, which argues that the Jewish community exploits their experience in the Holocaust to gain unreasonable political and social advantages. His work was strongly criticized and pushed into the margins.
By confronting these issues in a light-hearted, fictionalized format, Reich softens the potential sting without losing any poignancy. Unlike a scholarly text, Reich is free to utilize her artistic license to make sure that no one escapes without a quick satirical lashing.
Still, underneath all of Reich's barbs, is an underlying compassion for all her characters that allows us to view someone like Maurice as a compelling character even in the midst of his sleaziest sales pitch.
If any fault can be found with the novel, it's when Reich lingers on her characters' stream of conscious meditations as they interact with one another. While these often carry the work and provide some of its most entertaining moments, at times Reich overindulges, and the story's pace lags.
Still, it's a small price to pay for those moments when Reich is at her best.
• Tom A. Peter is an intern at the Monitor.