A REVIEW BY ANDY CAROL SILOW

In her latest novel, My Holocaust, Reich’s points are pretty obvious, but the means she uses to get to them raise similar questions about satire and audience.

Reich’s novel is the kind of book-length farce reviewers like to compare to Catch-22. Like Heller in his satire of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Reich peoples a real-life institution, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, with a cast of cartoon characters. The protagonists, if they can be called that, are three astonishingly repellant museum bigwigs: the museum chairman and Holocaust survivor Maurice Messer; his underachieving nebbish of a son, Norman; and Monty Pincus, the museum’s research director, whose academic and rabbinic credentials are as flimsy as his sexual morals. Messer speaks in a Yiddish idiom not heard since the days of vaudeville, given to pronouncements like, “You are now dealing mit the greatest Shoa on earth mixed up mit the greatest power on earth, the government from the United States of American and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” (Are you laughing yet?) Maurice will stop at nothing to finagle a donation to his museum, including appeals to his nonexistent exploits as a Resistance fighter.

The book is daring, I give it that. Reich is challenging the ways in which Jewish commemoration of the Holocaust has turned into a cult and survivors and their children have allowed their suffering to be marketed by those with baser impulses than mere remembrance. Reich had a front seat to this process, as the wife of Walter Reich, who was ousted as director of the Holocaust museum in 1998, and sister of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who shows up in the book as that “crazy rabbi” staging protests at the gates of Auschwitz. Both men insist that the Holocaust was a unique event and should not be lashed by ideology or example to the undeniable tragedies that have befallen other people. Indeed, My Holocaust ends in a takeover of the museum by a coalition of environmentalists, Palestinians, Native Americans, and New Agers demanding that it be turned into a museum dedicated to all “holocausts,” from the slave trade to the slaughter of the whales.

The politicization and commodification of the Holocaust is certainly fair game for satire, in a tradition that includes Francine Prose’s novella Guided Tours of Hell and the ill-fated exhibit “Mirroring Evil” at New York’s Jewish Museum. The question again is: Who is the audience for such satire? Within the Jewish community, it’s necessary to debate the role of Holocaust commemoration in our communal and religious lives, and the ways in which we honor – and dishonor – the dead. Reich demands that the Holocaust not be put to any “use” other than remembrance: Millions did not die so that a New Jersey schoolchild could write a perfunctory essay on “tolerance.”

But who else will be reading this book? Which of their preconceptions will be confirmed by a portrait of a Jewish fund-raiser with an exaggerated survivor past and a penchant for flying first-class on the government’s tab? Or a faux rabbi and Holocaust expert who runs from the arms of a shopaholic philanthropist to the bed of a Polish Catholic tour guide, with equal contempt for both?

The “Philip Roth” defense is that an artist must neither ask nor answer such questions. I used to buy into that, but maybe I am losing my sense of humor. Perhaps Reich’s novel is a “ferocious work of serious satiric genius,” as Cynthia Ozick describes it in an introduction. I am just not sure who is going to get the joke.