While political activism saw minority groups move from

While the Holocaust happened far from America’s shores and bears little relevance to American history, the event has undoubtedly permeated the American imagination and almost seems to have become a part of the American experience. In his work The Holocaust in American Life Peter Novick skeptically questions the usefulness and agenda of collective American Holocaust memory. Novick states “In the United States, the Holocaust is explicitly used for the purpose of national self-congratulation. The Americanisation of the Holocaust has involved using it to demonstrate the difference between the Old World and the New and to celebrate, by showing its negation, the American way of life”. 
Novick argues that Holocaust awareness in the American public sphere was practically nonexistent in the immediate postwar years, stating “Between the end of the war and the 1960s, as anyone who has lived through those years can testify, the Holocaust made scarcely any appearance in American public discourse”. This silence is attributed to the optimistic atmosphere of the 50s and a cultural climate which favoured sameness and prosperity rather than diversity and victimhood. Novick subsequently brands the 1960s and the 1970s as “the years of transition” in which rising social awareness and political activism saw minority groups move from the periphery to the mainstream, provoking a new sensitivity to suffering and oppression. Furthermore, the capture and trial of Nazi War criminal Adolf Eichmann resulted in the mass circulation of the very term ‘Holocaust’. This period of immense social change began the process of assimilating and familiarising the Holocaust in mainstream American culture. This integration arguably culminated with two specific events in 1993; the inauguration of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Director Michael Berenbaum’s description of the museum and its purpose epitomises how this foreign event is shaped and presented in a manner that is relevant and effective for an American audience: 
“The story had to be told in such a way that it would resonate not only with the survivor in New York and his children in San Francisco, but with a black leader from Atlanta, a Midwestern farmer, or a Northeastern industrialist. Millions of Americans make pilgrimages to Washington; the Holocaust museum must take them back in time, transport them to another continent, and inform their current reality. The Americanization of the Holocaust is an honourable task provided that the story told is faithful to the historical event… the instruction in the Holocaust had become an instrument for teaching the professed values of American society: democracy, pluralism, respect for differences, individual responsibility freedom from prejudice and an abhorrence of racism”.
Over time, the Shoah has certainly reentered the modern landscape and become a pertinent and applicable symbol in which to consider and critique the American identity. This process of Americanisation is perhaps most visible and illuminating in cinematic depictions of the Holocaust, specifically Hollywood representations. Cinema certainly has enormous potential to educate, engage and captivate audiences. Film historian Arthur Schlesinger describes cinema as “The most potent vehicle of the American imagination”. Indeed, as a medium, cinema is able to convey a profound illusion of truth, authenticity, and verisimilitude. Therefore, perhaps the fundamental issue for filmmakers is how one attempts to use this literal cinematic vocabulary and find a representative image of an event that feels so outside the realm of human experience. One of the most cited dictums on Holocaust representation is Theodor Adorno’s statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Attempting to depict the horrors of the Shoah on screen and imagine the unimaginable is certainly a highly contentious and complex task. Our knowledge and interaction of the Holocaust is very rarely delivered by direct witness and by nature, cinema is an indirect representation of the past which involves inevitable artifice and manipulation. Many scholars assert that documentary is a more appropriate and authentic response than fiction, with Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1946) being two of the most notable and acclaimed examples. In his scathing denouncement of Spielberg’s film, Lanzmann states “The Holocaust is above all unique in that it erects a ring of fire around itself, a boundary that you cannot cross, because it is impossible to convey a certain absolute horror; claiming to do so is to be guilty of the gravest transgression. Fiction is a transgression; I am deeply convinced that there is a prohibition on representation”. Hollywood’s unique ability to present history in a concise manner through an episodic plot, linear narrative and characterisation appears at once discordant with the complex, incomprehensible nature of the Shoah. However, fictional American recreations are immensely important and enlightening as these films have a global influence and an immense ability to shape how mass audiences understand, remember and comprehend these events. The very term Americanisation is, to many, synonymous with trivialisation, commercialisation or universalisation. Judith E. Doneson expresses “The American imagination has decided how the Holocaust is to be remembered, making it, ironically enough, an American memory”. Indeed, by unequivocally dismissing these Americanised memories as ineffectual and unintelligent, one fails to recognise their complexities, nuances and what they may reveal. Furthermore, Doneson argues that the majority of Hollywood films use the Holocaust as a universal and symbolic metaphor for tragedy which is moulded in order to make some kind of moral statement about the United States, stating:
“In the paradox of the unknown trying to become known, the Holocaust can function only as a standard whereby the extremes of evil of which man is capable can be measured. The more visible the event becomes, the greater are its chances of being internalised in the American psyche. In a bizarre way, the Holocaust becomes part of the American tradition, albeit as a refugee”.
Consequently, these films arguably have a dual purpose, to effectively portray the past and simultaneously comment upon the present by reflecting contemporary societal issues and communicating values relevant to the American experience.