International Campaign for Real History

In an Australian literary sensation of 1994, the novel The Hand that Signed the Paper, by Helen Demidenko, attracted attention throughout Australia for its depiction of her Ukrainian origins. It won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1995, and The Australian's Vogel Literary Award.

The Australian Jewish community squirmed: the author was not one of them, but one of the hated Ukrainians. She had dared to depict how the Ukrainian Communist party had been largely Jewish, and she had portrayed their "cruelties" against the non-Jewish Ukrainians under Stalin's regime.

Then it turned out that Helen was not Ukrainian after all. The community kvelled with glee. Robert Manne, associate professor of politics at La Trobe University, Victoria, and editor of the Jewish quarterly Quadrant, published a pamphlet entitled The Culture of Forgetting. Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust, in which he waded into her, and settled a few more scores against David Irving--with whom he had suffered a losing bout on television when Irving last visited Australia--and other revisionists, whom he roundly called "Holocaust deniers", the only rude word that Manne has learned since bum and fart, apparently. Never having read a work by Mr Irving, Manne comforts himself repeatedly by calling him a "Holocaust denier".

See too the hatred-filled extracts from Manne's more recent work, The Way we Live Now (Melbourne, 1998); the earlier, little-noticed book on Demidenko, from which we reproduce scattered pages [BELOW] provides revealing insights into

  • the Angst of his community when they learned that Mr Irving intended to visit Australia again (which they prevented), in 1993;
  • their glum realization that their illiberal public stance on that occasion had increased antisemitism; AR logoand
  • the behind-the-scenes discussions that go on in circles like these, weighing the need for their community to act in concert to suppress unpleasant allegations about their own past history against the very real fear of being perceived to act as censors and the enemies of Free Speech. Perish the Thought.
The Culture of Forgetting

uneven and immature, although not without gripping moments. He thought the technical difficulties to which Lynne Segal had drawn attention--concerning the relations of the first-person voices to the third-person narrator--were so fundamental that no edit could overcome them. There was, anyway, a post-modern convention which relieved authors of responsibility for 'putting up their hands'. Thomas believed the moral numbness of the text was deliberate. He was, however, somewhat concerned with the crudity and audacity of what he read-- 'she'd put on hobnail boots and marched over sacred ground--and even suspicious that Demidenko might have chosen her subject cynically, with an eye to the publicity she would most likely attract. In contemporary culture, We agreed, the distinction between fame and notoriety had been hopelessly blurred.

On the other hand Thomas believed that Helen Demidenko was telling an authentic story about her family's dark past, as a way of coming to terms with their guilt. As someone who had experienced the political atmosphere at the University of Sydney in the 1970s, and who now saw its terrible blind spots, he was pleased to see a novel which drew attention to the crimes of Stalin. It would be wrong if stories such as hers could not be told for reasons of political correctness. Of course the Jewish-Bolshevik equation in the manuscript troubled him. He was aware that the left might view the work as a League of Rights propaganda tract. But even on this question the Jukes report had satisfied him. It had suggested that there were enough Jews in the Communist Party of the Ukraine for the Ukrainian peasant vision of Bolshevism as a form of Jewish political power to be plausible.


The Vogel Winner

Thomas was not persuaded by Lynne Segal's report. He thought she had been offended chiefly by what the main characters said. 'How do you depict antisemites if they don't act and speak in an antisemitic way?' For his part he did not consider The Hand antisemitic. It did not, unlike David Irving, deny the Holocaust. It did not deny the suffering of the Jews. it did not exculpate the Ukrainian perpetrators. Although in his report to Allen & Unwin he had said that The Hand 'teeters on the edge of apologetics' it had never gone over. He had felt, during the course of the debate, that the Holocaust was regarded as the Jews' sacred ground. They had said, in effect, 'keep out of our temple'. While he could understand this, in his view there should be no subject so sacred that it could not be touched.

How closely, I asked Thomas, had he worked with Helen Demidenko on her manuscript? Not closely at all. They had spoken on the telephone on perhaps three occasions. He had to admit that he did not really regret not having met her in person. 'You don't do dialogue with Helen.' During their telephone conversations he had found her performances as tine 'downtrodden wog', distinctly tedious. The only really substantial change he had been able to make to her manuscript was the removal of a didactic coda, where Fiona and her new German friend had exchanged banalities while strolling around Treblinka. For the rest she had simply ignored other changes he had proposed.

Obviously some anxiety about The Hand had nagged at him after his editing work was complete. He told me he had been relieved to see the positive review of The Hand in the Age by his old teacher from University of Sydney days, Andrew Riemer. In the first responses of the



The Culture of Forgetting


Critics of the critics of The Hand might disagree over the literary worth of Demidenko's novel. They might even disagree over whether or not it can be regarded as antisemitic. However they were united in the view that the campaign that had been conducted against Demidenko posed a serious threat to the idea of cultural freedom in Australia. All would, I suspect, have agreed with Leonie Kramer when she claimed that the Demidenko affair called into question 'Australia's claims to be a tolerant and fairminded society'. Even more, all would have agreed with P. P. McGuinness that the primary 'target' of the opponents of Demidenko was nothing less than 'free speech'.

On the surface the claim that free speech had been threatened by opponents of The Hand was difficult to understand. Let me state the obvious. I have read almost every published contribution to the Demidenko debate. It is difficult to locate even one instance when legal action against The Hand was advocated. The closest anyone came to such a position was Professor W. D. Rubinstein. In the Australian Jewish News of 1 September 1995 a letter of Rubinstein's was published which argued that as The Hand maintained that 'the Jews who perished in the Holocaust got what they deserved'--a claim which even Holocaust-deniers like David Irving did not make--Demidenko's book had to be regarded as 'unquestionably the most antisemitic work to appear in Australia in recent decades'. Rubinstein continued:

A point which has occurred to me, and probably to others, is whether The Hand that Signed the Paper is actionable under the Racial Vilification legislation which exists in several states, including New South Wales. I can obviously see many reasons why neither the Jewish community nor legal


Free Speech Political Correctness and the Jews
authorities would wish to proceed against a 'serious' work of literature, however controversial. But if Racial Vilification legislation does not exist to penalise a work which claims the Holocaust was justified what does it exist to do?

Rubinstein did not answer his own question. His suggestion was not discussed by any further correspondent to the Jewish News. Nor was it taken up by any representative of the organised Jewish community

Nor did anyone, so far as I am aware, suggest that Demidenko's book should be banned. It is true that many opinions highly critical of the publishers, the judges and the literary culture which supported and honoured The Hand were expressed during the course of the controversy--by Louise Adler who argued that no civilised publisher should have touched a book like this; by Guy Rundle who suggested, when Demidenko's fake ethnicity had been unmasked, that Allen & Unwin should withdraw current stock and issue a reprint of The Hand that explained the fraud; by Peter Christoff who claimed that a book like this would not have been published in Europe let alone honoured; by Helen Daniel who called on the Miles Franklin judges to resign; and by Ivor Indyk who campaigned to have Helen Demidenko stripped of her ALS Medal. Criticism, however harsh, is not censorship. Not one of these statements could even remotely be construed as an attempt to interfere with free speech. Despite McGuinness, no one tried to 'interdict' or to 'suppress' The Hand. During the Demidenko controversy the principle of free speech in its essential and noble meaning was, quite simply, not under question.




The Culture of Forgetting


Far more importantly, however, Andrew Riemer's catalogue of the rhetorical sins of Demidenko's opponents fails to distinguish the language of the heart--passion, dismay, outrage--which can represent the precisely appropriate tonal register at certain moments in certain kinds of discussion, from what one might call the language of the spleen--invective, slander and slur. To be unable to distinguish one language from another seems to me to be, especially in a literary critic, truly strange. Let me illustrate by a personal example. In the first contribution I made to the Demidenko debate I thought it appropriate to speak of how 'shaken' I had felt when a young Australian woman had revived, in fictional form, the central precept of Nazi ideology, 'Jewish Bolshevism'. In The Demidenko Debate Riemer dismisses this remark as a piece of shoddy emotionalism. If my understanding of The Hand was right a stance of detachment would have represented a certain kind of evasion, a sacrifice of truthfulness to politesse.

This takes us to the heart of the matter. The critics of The Hand did not think it merely a mediocre novel, an unworthy winner of the Vogel or the Miles Franklin awards. Most regarded The Hand--whether rightly or wrongly is a separate question--as plainly antisemitic. Many thought it trivialised the evil of the Holocaust or that it degraded what Raimond Gaita called its 'lucid memory'. Very many believed that it served as a kind of apologia for the most terrible crimes against humanity and were shocked by the novel's argument that the desire to bring their perpetrators to justice was mere Jewish vengefulness. Some, as we have just seen, even believed that the argument of The Hand was even more repellent than the Holocaust denial of David Irving, because of its suggestion



Free Speech, Political Correctness and the Jews


that in the Holocaust the Jews 'got what they deserved'.

It does not matter here whether some or most or ell of these arguments were wholly or partly true. All that matters is that such views were sincerely held by a number of those who had read The Hand with attentiveness and care. While, of course, such people were obliged to listen carefully to the arguments of those who disagreed with them, and while it was, here as ever, wrong to use (as some did on occasions) a language of invective or slander or slur during the course of the debate, it seems to me ludicrous to think that--given what was in dispute--the case against Demidenko's The Hand could have or indeed should have been conducted without passion, without the expression, where it was felt, of anger or outrage. Given their interpretation of its text many readers of The Hand--Jewish and non-Jewish alike--were astonished by what they encountered. It is, of course, entirely legitimate to dispute their interpretation. It displays, however, a profound but not uncharacteristic misunderstanding of what civilised discourse might mean to interpret the expressions of anguish, of those who thought The Hand pervasively antisemitic and a degradation of the meaning of the Holocaust, as transgressive. Such a misunderstanding is, in its own way, another fulfilment of Primo Levi's Auschwitz nightmare of the world's forgetting.


The conservative claim that Helen Demidenko was the latest victim of a cultural offensive waged by the armies of


The Culture of Forgetting


idea of literary standards were merely a Dead White Male conspiracy against feminist writing, gay writing, lesbian writing, black writing, green writing, pink-with-purple spots writing, and so forth.

For Stove the Demidenko case perfectly exemplified the force of the New Censorship. There had been a time when, apart from sex, an author 'could pretty much publish what he liked'. That time had passed. 'As Paul Ross suggested in the last IPA Review it took Stalin, the NKVD, and twenty million corpses to stamp out free thought; in Australia we've managed to achieve a similar intellectual condition all by ourselves, without any of these messy techniques.'

Stove has been worth quoting in some detail, in part because he expressed, with greater eloquence and greater recklessness, the kind of case that many other cultural conservatives advanced about the link between free speech and political correctness in the Demidenko affair, and in part because his case exemplifies neatly the way in which the idea of political correctness has come, in recent times, to be drained of meaning and used as a substitute for critical thought.

The critics of The Hand regarded it as a thoroughly antisemitic book and as one that degraded the memory of the Holocaust. Apart from informing us that he held 'no brief' for The Hand, Stove neither agreed nor disagreed. Nor, apart from the odd throwaway line, did Leonie Kramer or Frank Devine or P. P. McGuinness. Stove and other conservative critics of the anti-Demidenko campaign simply did not see that the judgment on this question was at the very heart of what mattered. For if The Hand that

Free Speech, Political Correctness and the Jews

Signed the Paper is antisemitic or if it does degrade the memory of the Holocaust, on what ground ought it to have been spared from harsh, sustained and even passionate criticism?

Let me put this point another way. If we believe the campaign against, say, Helen Garner to have been vicious or unbalanced or unjust, to have been driven by the force of 'political correctness' as some have said, we think these things only because we value her voice, or at least think of it as part of civilised conversation. And if, on the other hand, we regard it as ridiculous to think of the Holocaustdenier, David Irving, as a victim of political correctness, it is because--without questioning for a moment his right to be published--we think of his arguments about the Holocaust as a Zionist hoax as worthless and disgusting. In both cases--in deciding whether Helen Garner or David Irving are victims of political correctness--critical judgment is inescapable. In the absence of such judgment and argument, the idea of political correctness can perform no useful work.

So it is with The Hand. The question of whether or not Helen Demidenko was ambushed by the armies of the politically correct turns on the question of whether or not we believe her contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust worthy of respect or a cause for dismay. Until judgment of this kind has been exercised and serious argument advanced, the cry of political correctness', as a means of rallying the troops of cultural conservatism and attacking the opponents of The Hand, is evidence not of critical thought but of its evasion.





The Culture of Forgetting

eggshells--it seems important to point out that Riemer himself is a secular Jew who was born in Hungary and who, with his parents, came close to perishing in the Holocaust.

Riemer's case concerning the Jewish role in the Demidenko affair can be summarised briefly. Riemer argues, firstly, that in general where the topic of the Nazi genocide is discussed Jews exhibit hypersensitivity and intolerance. For such behaviour he advances two lines of explanation. In part, he says, their touchiness is understandable. The Nazi genocide was a terrible event in Jewish history; it remains an 'open wound'. But he also believes that Jewish dwelling on the Nazi genocide must in part be explained differently, as a conscious strategy of conservative religious Jews who hope, by focusing on Jewish martyrdom, to slow down those inevitable social processes of modernisation--secularisation and assimilation--which threaten the survival of the Jewish people. Such people, he claims, have turned the Nazi murder of the Jews--a not untypical case of man's inhumanity to man--into the 'Holocaust'. They have spawned a 'Holocaust industry'. And in their insistence upon the 'uniqueness' of the Holocaust, such people exhibit attitudes 'close to racial, tribal or nationalistic arrogance'.

For Riemer the Holocaust is not a central event in human history. One day, admittedly in the distant future, when memory fades, it will appear as no more significant than the Albigensian Crusade or the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

In the case of the Demidenko book, he argues, unassimilated, conservative and religious East European Jews led the charge. Riemer claims that such Jews are especially numerous in Melbourne, in contrast to the assimilated, secular, cosmopolitan Central European Jews of Sydney. It was

Free Speech, Political Correctness and the Jews

no accident that a Melbourne newspaper, the Age, and the small magazines published there--like Quadrant, Australian Book Review, Meanjin, and Eureka Street--played leading roles in the Demidenko debate. Moreover such Jews were opposed to Demidenko on fundamentally religious or quasi-religious grounds. Demidenko had offended against what Riemer calls a theological 'technicality'. She had denied the uniqueness of the Holocaust. For that she had to be punished.

Every part of Riemer's case is false. First it is simply not true that the argument against Demidenko was dominated or even seriously influenced by the organised Jewish community. Before the controversy erupted in June 1995 the Australian Jewish press, insofar as it was aware of the existence of Helen Demidenko's novel, took a generally favourable view. On 26 August 1994 an interview with Helen Demidenko appeared in the Sydney edition of the Australian Jewish News. It described Helen Demidenko's 'intention' as 'honourable' . The author of this article, Vic Alhadeff, later admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, that he had written his piece without reading her book. Shortly after the Miles Franklin Award, another interview with Helen Demidenko was published in the Jewish News, this time by Shoshana Lenthen. While Lenthen now pointed out that one prominent Sydney Jewish community leader (interestingly Miles Franklin's physician) had strongly criticised the Demidenko book, once again the interview was basically friendly. This article appeared on 9 June, the day Pamela Bone ignited the Demidenko controversy with her piece in the Age.

Nor did the political leadership of the Australian Jewish community influence in any significant way the


The Culture of Forgetting

could be discussed. In addition it suggested an immediate meeting between Leibler and Romaniw.

Before July the organised Jewish community had-- notwithstanding rumours to the contrary--played no role whatever in the Demidenko affair. As Leibler explained to me, before Pamela Bone's article neither he nor, he thought, any of his colleagues on the ECAJ had ever heard of Demidenko, let alone read her book. Leibler had read Bone's article while in Israel. He had arranged a telephone conference of the ECAJ at once and had strongly urged his colleagues not to involve themselves in the Demidenko controversy. The image of Australia's Jews had already suffered because of determined campaigns for Nazi war crimes trials, against a visa for David Irving and in favour of race-hatred legislation. To appear now to wish to censor a work of literature by a young woman would do no end of harm. Leibler's ECAJ colleagues agreed.

In early July Isi Leibler reluctantly revoked his self-denying ordinance over Demidenko. He had done so, he told me, because he could no longer honourably remain silent while the leaders of the Ukrainian community began to rewrite history. There was, Leibler believed, no political or moral equivalence between the reality of Ukrainian collaboration in the Holocaust and the myth of Jewish involvement in the Famine. Throughout their centuries of existence in the Ukraine the Jews had been always and only a vulnerable and defenceless minority. Time and again, even before the Holocaust, from the Chmelnirsky raids of 1648--49 to the Petlyura pogroms of 1918--20, the Jews had been victims of Ukrainians. And as for the Holocaust, the Germans had long ago admitted their guilt. Why did the Ukrainians continue to deny the truth?

The Controversy

It was in a mood such as this that Isi Leibler on 5 July replied to Stefan Romaniw. Leibler expressed deep concern at some of the recent comments of the Ukrainian leadership. He rejected the idea of a co-hosted conference. In present circumstances it would be, he thought, counterproductive'. He agreed, however, to meet as soon as possible with his Ukrainian counterpart, Stefan Romaniw.

On 11 July, Leibler and Romaniw--two micro-sovereigns of multicultural Australia--met. They had with them two offsiders, Geoffrey Green and Mike Tkaczuk. Their meeting was tense. For their part the Ukrainians resented what they took to be a Leibler 'ultimatum' to withdraw comments about Jews and Ukrainians both having blood on their hands. For his part Leibler felt distinctly uneasy with the stories he heard about the very many Ukrainians who had once, supposedly, saved the lives of Jews.

Nonetheless there was enough good will for both sides to persist. Each side won a motherhood statement from the other. The Jews conceded that national stereotypes were deplorable, the Ukrainians that the rewriting of history was bad. More seriously, the Ukrainians extracted a promise from the Jews for future co-operation in struggling against national stereotypes, and the Jews a (reluctant) endorsement from the Ukrainians of a statement made at the unveiling of the monument at Babi Yar by the current president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk. In this statement Kravchuk had begged forgiveness from the Jews for the Ukrainian role in the Holocaust.

After their meeting both Isi Leibler and Stefan Romaniw were bitterly criticised in their respective communities for having supped with the devil. But at least now one of the nastiest moments in post-war Australian


The Culture of Forgetting

country girl from Bendigo, of solidly Anglo-Celtic Protestant stock. Our children were not being brought up within the Jewish religion, although they were aware of course of the Jewish ancestry on their father's side.

What then explained the intensity of my response to Demidenko? At the very heart of my being lay the fact of the Holocaust. Although, to my memory at least, my parents had rarely discussed it in our home, I had become aware while quite young--as most Jewish children of my generation had--that a few years earlier the Germans, the most sophisticated peoples of Europe, had under the cover of war set about a policy of remorseless extermination of the Jewish people.

My life was shaped by the terrible, unchangeable, untreatable wound of the Holocaust. I had studied history in the hope of understanding it. As a university student, when I had discovered that the crimes of Stalin had been no less grave than those of Hitler, I had become an anticommunist. As a university teacher I had for many years taught my students about Nazism and Stalinism, introducing the best of them to Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As it turned our, the pain of the Holocaust had not weakened for me over time. Very recently I had given a partly autobiographical political talk to a group among whom were many of my closest friends. In the text I had referred briefly to the fate of my grandparents in the Holocaust. To my complete astonishment when I arrived at that part of the typescript I almost wept.

I suppose it came, then, to this. I had always assumed that there existed in the Australian intellectual culture a rough historical knowledge of what had happened during


The Unmaking of Helen Demidenko

the Holocaust and a general awareness of the ideological forces which lay behind it. I had assumed that most Australian intellectuals still thought of the Holocaust as a central event in human history, as a deed so evil that the centuries would not wash its mystery and its meaning away. I had assumed that we all knew that no one worth reading would dare to write about the Holocaust without humility and high seriousness, without a recognition of what was at issue here not for Jews but for all human beings. And I had, finally, assumed that all Australians-- not only intellectuals--would find it easy to understand why an event like the Holocaust should matter so deeply to those of their fellow citizens who happened to be Jewish. As the Demidenko affair deepened, I discovered, rather suddenly, that not one of these assumptions was sound.


Could anything more happen in this affair? As it turned out, it could. On 26 August the Herald-Sun noted that a passage from The Hand about a 'vodka priest' and religious works smuggled in from Lvov bore resemblances to a passage from Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory about a 'whisky priest' and religious works smuggled in from Mexico City. On 31 August the Sydney Morning Herald reported allegations that Helen Demidenko had plagiarised from a further three sources--having lifted her book's first line from Thomas Keneally's Gossip from the Forest, a passage concerning a guilty death camp guard from Robin Morgan's The Demon Lover and an incident in the Famine


The Culture of Forgetting

thought to spare. Nothing in the novel marks an awareness of how terrible her numbness is.

By the time we arrive at the portrait of Magda, whose moral sensibility' Andrew Riemer informs us is 'somewhat more developed' than Vitaly's, the quality of Helen Demidenko's characterisation has become completely erratic and bizarre. One page 120 of The Hand we learn that Magda is ignorant of the fact that in his daytime job her lover and fiance, Vitaly, is a murderer of Jews. At most she has her suspicions. Once Vitaly had come to her home 'wtth blood on his uniform'. This, we are told, had 'scared her'. This is decidedly odd. For seven pages earlier we have been told that Magda has observed Vitaly shooting Jews at night. We have even listened to their subsequent lovers' squabble. 'You shot people in the trains. . . you woke everybody up... Look at the mess.' And six pages earlier than that we have been told that Magda was first attracted to Vitaly after she had spotted him in the streets of Treblinka shooting a Jew. 'She liked his face then. She likes it now.' Eventually Magda will be called by a Jewish doctor who has escaped from Treblinka a 'virtuous gentile'. No irony is intended. Pace Riemer, Magda's sensibility is of utmost impoverishment More deeply the moral narrative concerning her is so incoherent that it cannot seriously be discussed.


There could not have been many readers of The Hand who were not aware of what might be called its youthful


The Hand as Fiction

revisionist purpose, its determination to challenge and to overthrow received cultural wisdom about the meaning of the Holocaust. No doubt many readers were also, like Demidenko's publisher, Patrick Gallagher, broadly sympathetic with this purpose. 'The younger generation,' he reminded us on one occasion, 'have never taken kindly to having their terms of reference set by their elders.'

Others were less sympathetic. Like Gallagher, the writer Thomas Shapcott was aware of the revisionist impulse at work in The Hand. But, unlike Gallagher, Shapcott saw in it something ominous: the first serious cultural expression in Australia of a 'new generation which is distant from the horrors of the Holocaust, who see it as something they want to question, or to challenge, or to set aside'.

Shapcott's thought is worth pursuing. It is clear that if there is a revisionist purpose at work in The Hand it is not of the kind associated with the Holocaust-denying school of Arthur Butz and David Irving, of what has come to be called historical revisionism. The Hand does not deny the historical reality of the Holocaust--the death camps and the policy of the Final Solution. What it denies, more radically, is their significance, their meaning. The Hand that Signed the Paper is a work not of historical but of cultural or moral revisionism.

In The Hand the Holocaust is no longer understood as a unique event or even--as it has been since the evidence of the death camps came to light--as a defining moment in European civilisation, where the military, bureaucratic and technological resources of the German state were harnessed to the task of destroying in its entirety the Jewish people. In The Hand the Holocaust is no longer understood



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