The Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry

A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France

Samuel Moyn

Cover of "A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France"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-François 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. Reconsidering the tradition of antifascism and chronicling debates about contemporary identity among Jews and non-Jews, Moyn shows how a particular event can illuminate the multiple histories that converged in it. 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, engaging authors like Giorgio Agamben and Tzvetan Todorov, 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.

"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

"Moyn provides a fascinating micrological study [that] becomes the port of entry for an illuminating exploration of still live issues surrounding the uses and abuses of the Holocaust." — Dominick LaCapra, author of History and Memory after Auschwitz

"Meticulously researched, judiciously argued, and lucidly written, this little gem of a book shows how the smallest historical episodes can have surprisingly weighty consequences." — Martin Jay, author of Refractions of Violence

About the Author

Samuel Moyn is assistant professor of history, Columbia University.