Nearly a half-century after it ended, the mass slaughter of European Jewry still provokes controversy. How should the death of six million be explained? How should artists depict it, how should museums present it? Was the genocide of the Jews unique without precedent or parallel in history? Or was it a particularly virulent eruption of all-too-human savagery, comparable to other acts of mass murder?
These are some of the emotionally charged questions that New York Times writer Judith Miller raises without resolving in her new book. ''I have tried,'' Miller writes, ''to explore the way different people have tried to distort, to justify, to erase memories of the Holocaust, and how some have tried to use them to rationalize the past.'' A veteran journalist, she scrupulously describes the situation in six different countries: Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Wherever she ventures, Miller detects evasion and bad faith. A Soviet memorial to the 100,000 victims of Nazi mass murder at Babi Yar fails to mention that 50,000 of the dead were Jewish. The myth of French resistance carefully constructed by Charles de Gaulle glosses over the extent of French collaboration with the Nazis under the Vichy government. In the Netherlands, the cult of Anne Frank reinforces the country's pride in the help that gentile citizens extended to their Jewish countrymen, but masks the fact that the Dutch Jewish death rate 75 percent perished was the highest in Western Europe.
American Jewish efforts to commemorate the Holocaust present different problems of distortion, as Miller notes: ''(T)he Holocaust became for some Jews after the Arab-Israeli War a militant symbol, a reason for the redemption of the Jewish people through a triumphant state.'' To brandish the Holocaust as a theological talisman in support of partisan Israeli claims to the West Bank is to transform the deaths of six million souls into an instrument of political propaganda.
Though each of Miller's chapters is never less than informative, her polished, professional tone the American journalist's mask of serene objectivity becomes irritating, largely because it implies that she has the answers, that she knows the truth. That Miller in fact is as troubled and confused by the meaning of the death camps as most of the people she interviews becomes clear only in her touching final chapter. ''(A)t times while writing this book,'' she confides, ''I found myself losing patience with the debate over. . .the Holocaust.'' As an event, it ''exhausts. It defies. It negates. And it raises frightening questions.''
Isn't this one reason why the memory of Hitler's death camps has proved so difficult to master, not only for the Germans and French but also for Judith Miller? What is frightening, as she points out, is discovering in the image of the death camps not only ''the evil in history'' but also the evil ''in each of us.'' ''If you could lick my heart,'' one concentration camp survivor tells director Claude Lanzmann in the film Shoah, ''it would poison you.'' That we are tempted to run away from the mirror that this man's experience holds up to our own is understandable; that we must continue to struggle against this temptation is perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from Judith Miller's diligent survey.