January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous labor and extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, right under the nose of Polish citizens and the wider international community. The timing of this gruesome anniversary is poignant, as European anti-Semitism is perhaps more virulent and threatening now than at any point since the war. Anti-Semitism has unfortunately proven itself to be an extremely adaptive prejudice, taking different forms wherever and whenever it emerges; it has also proven to be monumentally destructive for culture. “The politics of hate that begins with Jews,” as Jonathan Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “never ends with Jews.” The anti-Semitism we see in Europe today has roots in historic prejudices, but there are new aspects to its current incarnation. The distinctly European strain of anti-Semitism has combined with tensions surrounding events in the Middle East, as well as simmering resentments from Europe’s often alienated Muslim communities.
European leaders have struggled even to face, much less stem this rising tide of bigotry. The French ministers of foreign affairs and the interior penned an op-ed for the New York Times last July, titled, almost plaintively, “France Is Not An Anti-Semitic Nation.” Just three days later, on July 13, crowds marching in anti-Israel demonstrations set the streets of Paris on edge with chants of “Death to the Jews” and two synagogues were attacked; a third synagogue was defaced the following day, and similar attacks, as well as assaults on Jewish citizens, continued throughout the following months in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her denunciation of bigotry, but even she must be unnerved by the thus far uninhibited rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, where demonstrations last summer also featured chants of “Adolf Hitler.” Despite Germany’s stringent laws prohibiting the use of overt Nazi imagery, the production of clothes that assists white supremacists in identifying each other through more subtle branding has proven lucrative for at least one company. A recent article in the New Republic details the enormous expansion and popularity of Thor Steiner, a clothing company that “has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.” Thor Steiner’s clothing features sly references to Nazi imagery and slogans, and over the past several years they’ve opened stores in “the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow.” They’ve registered their trademark in the U.S., too. Meanwhile, the surge of violence continues. Several weeks ago, a gunman in Copenhagen targeted bystanders at a free-speech rally and a synagogue, killing two civilians and injuring five police officers. As we commemorate the past, our most urgent obligation is to honestly confront the thorny history of anti-Semitism, and to face its current incarnation with clarity.
Historical records are, of course, critically important in such work, but literary fiction has a role to play as well. Where the sheer magnitude of the historical record of the Holocaust can sometimes become so overwhelming that our empathetic faculties are all but exhausted or shut down, fiction can offer us a way in, once again. Both the writing and the reading of Holocaust fictions are fraught with pitfalls, yet the subject calls to us, and it is a call that should be heeded. Over the past year several new novels have been published around the subject, and, in light of recent events and the escalation of violent attacks, one in particular seems perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published: Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest (306 pages; Knopf), deserves renewed attention, not only for what it accomplishes, but also for the confused reception it received. Some found it to be satire, which implies the work offers exaggeration to the point of comedy. That’s not how I read it. With this recent surge of anti-Semitism tearing its way through Europe, it is more important than ever to read such books carefully, and to scrutinize not only their pages, but how they are received.