People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present

by Dara Horn

Book, 2021



Call number

662 HOR


WW Norton & Co (2021), 224 pages


Finalist for the 2021 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction A startling and profound exploration of how Jewish history is exploited to comfort the living. Renowned and beloved as a prizewinning novelist, Dara Horn has also been publishing penetrating essays since she was a teenager. Often asked by major publications to write on subjects related to Jewish culture--and increasingly in response to a recent wave of deadly antisemitic attacks--Horn was troubled to realize what all of these assignments had in common: she was being asked to write about dead Jews, never about living ones. In these essays, Horn reflects on subjects as far-flung as the international veneration of Anne Frank, the mythology that Jewish family names were changed at Ellis Island, the blockbuster traveling exhibition Auschwitz, the marketing of the Jewish history of Harbin, China, and the little-known life of the "righteous Gentile" Varian Fry. Throughout, she challenges us to confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, and so little respect for Jewish lives unfolding in the present. Horn draws upon her travels, her research, and also her own family life--trying to explain Shakespeare's Shylock to a curious ten-year-old, her anger when swastikas are drawn on desks in her children's school, the profound perspective offered by traditional religious practice and study--to assert the vitality, complexity, and depth of Jewish life against an antisemitism that, far from being disarmed by the mantra of "Never forget," is on the rise. As Horn explores the (not so) shocking attacks on the American Jewish community in recent years, she reveals the subtler dehumanization built into the public piety that surrounds the Jewish past--making the radical argument that the benign reverence we give to past horrors is itself a profound affront to human dignity.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nbmars
Dara Horn has won many awards for her writing, not only for her fiction, but for her essays. This latest book is a collection of her essays, some of which I have read before, but which are compiled here in a very coherent way and which deal with both timely and timeless themes.

One of the main
Show More
threads running through these essays is that there is a great deal more empathy and good feeling for dead Jews than for those who are living. However, in order to be "acceptable," these books about dead Jews - Anne Frank’s diary being the most obvious - must have positive uplifting messages, and preferably include non-Jewish rescuers. But as Horn points out, Anne wrote about her conviction that people were “truly good at heart” before she was captured and sent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp and then on to the Bergen-Belsen killing facility, i.e., before, Horn writes, “she met people who weren’t.”

Just reading the diary out of context, though, readers are offered grace and optimism without having to confront the reality of what happened to Anne.

Horn asks, “What would it mean for a writer not to hide [the] horror?” The answer, she avers, is that practically nobody reads the book.

One of her most funny-but-not-funny anecdotes is about a young Jewish man who worked at the Anne Frank house, and who tried to wear his yarmulke to work. His employers, she relates, told him to hide it under a baseball cap. She writes:

“The museum finally relented after deliberating for four months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.”

Jewish literature in English, Horn writes, is basically Holocaust fiction, but fiction, like the story presented in Anne’s diary, that meets certain requirements. She notes that in the West, as the literary critic Frank Kermode suggested, “readers desire coherent and satisfying endings,” which he connected to the history of Christian religion - i.e., the desire to live in a world that makes sense and provides happy or at least understandable endings. At the every least, the main character should have an epiphany or give us a moment of redemption.

But the problem is, as Horn observes: “the canonical works by authors in Jewish languages almost never give their readers any of those things.” The world Jews have known, she writes, is broken and unredeemed, and often doesn’t make any sense. Thus the Holocaust novels that have sold millions of copies have all been “uplifting.” The ones that haven’t been successful have “no contrived conversations with Nazis that show their humanity, nor even any brave rebellion - at least, not until the very end. Instead there is confusion, starvation, denial, and sheer sadistic horror.”

She also writes about “Jewish Heritage Sites” in places that no longer have any Jews at all. She calls the phrase “a truly ingenious piece of marketing. It is a much better name than ‘Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.’” [We have taken a number of tours at such sites. The emphasis is always on how the city honors its former residents, with nary a mention of why they aren’t there anymore.]

One of her essays deals with the role Jews play in popular imagination rather than the reality of who they are. Somewhat humorously (but not) she relates the story of Harbin, China, the former home of around 20,000 Jews, and since 2007 the location of one of these “heritage exhibits.” When it opened, Harbin’s mayor welcomed visitors by referring to “esteemed Jews” such as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Of course, neither one was Jewish, but they were rich, so the mayor assumed they had to have been (secretly, if not openly) Jewish, because “the Americans’ money is in the pockets of the Jews.”

How Jews themselves cope with antisemitism is another recurrent theme. Horn relates very interesting research that shows Jewish names were not in fact stripped of their identifying characteristics by officials at Ellis Island. Instead, the names were changed afterward, by Jews themselves (as well as by people in other disparaged ethnicities) in the courts. She writes:

“These new Americans and their children, living in what they hoped was the first place in centuries where their families could enjoy full and free lives, soon discovered that when they applied for a job as Rosenberg no one would hire them, but when they applied as Rose, everyone would.”

Horn has a theory that Jews are reviled because since ancient times, they “have represented the frightening prospect of freedom.” By that she means the freedom to be different, but also the Jewish notion that freedom is inextricably associated with responsibility, accountability, and obligations to others. Blaming others for your problems, and being accountable to no one or no law but yourself and your own desires, is much easier, and, as it turns out, much more popular.

How do non-Jews account for antisemitism? She points out the message promulgated by the newest Auschwitz traveling exhibition by Musealia, a producer of blockbuster museum shows. Their contention is that what is needed is more love. Horn writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented - have always represented . . . the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Evaluation: As usual with the writings of Dara Horn, these essays are full of thought-provoking insights, historical information, and moral passion. I highly recommend this collection for book clubs - it will provide hours of contemplation and discussion.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
It’s extraordinarily rare when almost immediately I know when I’m reading a 5 star worthy book. This is one of those very few books. I knew right away with this book. I wish I could give this book 6 stars. It’s one of the best books that I’ve ever read.

Excellent! Well written, great
Show More
storyteller, engaging, Thought provoking. Horrifying. Humorous at times. A wonderful variety of topics about the same basic subject.

I’d like to read more books by this author so I’ll look at her novels and if their stories appeal to me I’ll definitely add them and hopefully get to them and read them.

There is a list of works consulted included at the end of the book.

I thought that she might lose me in the last 10 pages but nothing could diminish the impact of the thoughts the author puts into these essays and I enjoyed even these last pages.

In spoilers because this is NOTHING to do with this book and I hate to take attention away from its contents but the musings here reminded me that much is the same for Native Americans (re the book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer that I read recently, and the Buffy Sainte-Marie songs I’ve known since I was 13) and other groups that have faced discrimination and violence against their peoples.

Brilliant book and I’d like to recommend it to all readers or at least all non-fiction readers or at least all who have Jewish heritage or know anyone who’s Jewish, but really almost all readers.

The author is a LibraryThing author. I would like it if she also became a Goodreads author member.
Show Less
LibraryThing member akblanchard
In this essay collection, novelist Dara Horn examines antisemitism past and present. She concludes that while there is a lot of sentimentality surrounding certain well-known symbols of the Holocaust, and a plethora of inspirational survival stories (mostly fiction), there is not an equivalent
Show More
outpouring of concern about the continuance of uniquely Jewish culture in the US and elsewhere. She finds solace in raising her observant family and online Talmud reading.

A thought-provoking, engagingly written, but at times difficult, read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
Horn provides some fascinating insights into Jewish history and antisemitism. This thin volume shares a number of unique perspectives that I've never thought about before — which is exactly what I look for in a book.
LibraryThing member Beth3511
This was a very thought-provoking, unsetlling read. The essays here, which can stand alone but also make up a compelling whole, address how it's easy for people in U.S. and European societies to spout platitudes against anti-Semitism while still perpetuating it with their words and actions. Horn
Show More
points out that acts of anti-Semitism, that have been committed for thousands of years up through the present, don't matter because they're lessons for non-Jews, or occasions for non-Jews to act out "redemption arcs." They matter because real people, generations, societies are harmed in these actions. These actions are wrong, period. "Fictional Dead Jews" was one of the more challenging essays for me to read, because it made me think about how much I want and expect any narrative, in my life or in fiction, to follow a "redemption arc," and how that arc is very Christian. I will admit, my favorite essay was the last one, "Dead American Jews, part three: turning the page," in large part because it has that uplifting ending that I've been trained to desire. It's a beautiful description of how religious practices can provide comfort. I appreciated the mix of history, ethics, description of places (Harbin, China) and people (like Varian Fry), as well as of religious traditions and current practices. The prose was lovely; this was a hard book to put down, even though it grapples with so many horrible human actions.
Show Less


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

224 p.; 8.6 inches


0393531562 / 9780393531565
Page: 0.1466 seconds