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A Holocaust Controversy
The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France
Samuel Moyn

The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry

2005 • 248 pp. 11 illus. 6 x 9"
Jewish Studies / British & European History

$24.95 Paperback, 978-1-58465-509-1

"Arresting scholarship . . . Moyn elucidates with compelling clarity and coherence. Alive to historical ironies and penetratingly written, this small, thoughtful book focusing on one moment in French history illuminates very large themes, representing intellectual history at its very best."Choice

A provocative study of a French Holocaust controversy of the 1960s and the dynamics of postwar memory.

How has the world come to focus on the Holocaust and why has it invariably done so in the heat of controversy, scandal, and polemics about the past? These questions are at the heart of this unique investigation of the Treblinka affair that occurred in France in 1966 when Jean-Francois Steiner, a young Jewish journalist, published Treblinka: The Revolt of an Extermination Camp. A cross between a history and a novel, Steiner’s book narrated the 1943 revolt at one of the major Nazi death camps. Abetted by a scandalous interview he gave, as well as Simone de Beauvoir’s glowing preface, the book shot to the top of the Parisian bestseller list and prompted a wide-ranging controversy in which both the well-known and the obscure were embroiled.

Few had heard of Treblinka, or other death camps, before the affair. The validity of the difference between those killing centers and the larger network of concentration camps making up the universe of Nazi crime had to be fought out in public. The affair also bore on the frequently raised question of the Jews’ response to their dire straits.

Moyn delves into events surrounding the publication of Steiner’s book and the subsequent furor. In the process, he sheds light on a few forgotten but thought-provoking months in French cultural history. Reconstructing the affair in detail, Moyn studies it as a paradigm-shifting controversy that helped change perceptions of the Holocaust in the French public and among French Jews in particular. Then Moyn follows the controversy beyond French borders to the other countries—especially Israel and the United States—where it resonated powerfully.

Based on a complete reconstruction of the debate in the press (including Yiddish dailies) and on archives on three continents, Moyn’s study concludes with the response of the survivors of Treblinka to the controversy and reflects on its place in the longer history of Holocaust memory. Finally, Moyn revisits, in the context of a detailed case study, some of the theoretical controversies the genocide has provoked, including whether it is appropriate to draw universalistic lessons from the victimhood of particular groups.

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Reviews / Endorsements

"In uncovering and analyzing the controversy for contemporary readers, Moyn provides an entry for productive examination of some of the compelling issues still animating Holocaust scholarship, including how best to conceptualize Nazi criminality, the question of Holocaust particularity, the issue of Jewish complicity and resistance, the effect the Holocaust should have on framing Jewish identity, and the uses and abuses of the Holocaust to further other agendas. The book is timely, important and quite suggestive."Jewish Book World

"Professor Samuel Moyn's book is a brilliant presentation of the intellectual and emotional controversy caused by the publication of Steiner's book.”Bridges

"Moyn's discussion is built on painstaking analysis of primary sources, from private archives to Parisian Yiddish daily newspapers, and manages to be at once exceptionally scrupulous and wonderfully lucid . . . This is a superb book and, as an inspiring model of committed scholarship, at a time when particularism and universalism are again crucial domestic and international political questions, essential reading."—French Studies

"Did Jews go like lambs to the Nazi slaughter? Not those who revolted in the Treblinka death camp in August 1943. In this absorbing and elegant work Samuel Moyn shows how an incendiary book about Treblinka in 1966 transformed Holocaust awareness." —Robert O. Paxton, author of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order

“Many of the still burning issues in French culture—republican universalism vs. communal particularism, historical veracity vs. popular memory, and confronting anti-semitism past and present—come alive in Samuel Moyn's narrative re-creation of the tempest unleashed by Jean-Francois Steiner's Treblinka in l966. Meticulously researched, judiciously argued, and lucidly written, this little gem of a book shows the smallest historical episodes can have surprisingly weighty consequences.”—Martin Jay, author of Refractions of Violence

SAMUEL MOYN is Assistant Professor of History, Columbia University. He is also the author of Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics (2005).

Tue, 15 May 2018 12:59:00 -0500