Despite saying books of essays are hit-or-miss for me, I read a lot of them. Maybe I just keep picking ones that feel essential, in a way, and Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews is a collection that reinforces the sad reality that everything old is new again, at least when it comes to Antisemitism.
The attention-grabbing title is a central theme throughout Horn’s essays, of varying length and breadth. She examines the contemporary portrayal of Jewish culture and history in media, and especially the nature of contemporary Antisemitism. I went into this collection expecting to hear what I already knew. I regularly read about extremism and I have my kinda-sorta, tangentially Jewish-ish background. But I did learn a lot here. Especially in Horn’s essay about the Jewish history of Harbin, China. The city is now being furiously restored–maybe to court tourism money or maybe to atone for the Cultural Revolution.
One of my favourite essays was “Fictional Dead Jews”, in which Horn discusses the state of Holocaust fiction. Horn has finally put into words why book-club fodder about the Holocaust makes me feel uncomfortable. Most of the authors are non-Jews, and lots have happy endings or at least some sort of epiphany–something that Horn notes is not present in Holocaust narratives written in Yiddish or Hebrew.
These books often feature “good” Gentiles helping the Jewish main characters survive, hide, or escape. But in real life, those officially recognised as the Righteous Among Nations amounts to a fraction of 1% of the population of Europe at the time. Everyone wants to think that they would be a good guy when faced with an environment as devastating as the Third Reich. But Horn proves that very, very few really were.
Horn argues that people visit death camps “to feel sad, and then feel proud of themselves for feeling sad.” Popular Holocaust fiction seems to function in much the same way. It reinforces what readers already know, and fails to explore how Antisemitism manifests itself beyond genocide. It keeps Nazi ideology framed as an artefact of the past, when it’s anything but. Good nonfiction makes you uncomfortable as its changing your perspective, and this is a book that fulfils that promise.
I listened to the audiobook of People Love Dead Jews on Scribd. Click here to get 1 month of unlimited audiobooks free!
RATING: 5/5 STARS
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