Lawrence N. Powell is professor emeritus of history at Tulane University and a founding member of the Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism. The new Second Edition of his book, Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana, has just been published by UNC Press.
Troubled Memory tells the story of Anne Skorecki Levy, a Holocaust survivor who transformed the horrors of her childhood into a passionate mission to defeat the political menace of reputed neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The first book to connect the prewar and wartime experiences of Jewish survivors to the lives they subsequently made for themselves in the United States, the book is also a dramatic testament to how the experiences of survivors as new Americans spurred their willingness to bear witness. Perhaps the only family to survive the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto as a group, the Skoreckis evaded deportation to Treblinka by posing as Aryans. The family eventually made their way to New Orleans, where they became part of a vibrant Jewish community. Lawrence Powell traces their dramatic odyssey and explores the events that eventually triggered Anne Skorecki Levy’s brave decision to honor the suffering of the past by confronting the recurring specter of racist hatred.
Here, Powell answers questions from UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek about the power of the individual to take a stand against intolerance.
Q: Troubled Memory, which was first published in 2000, tells the story of Anne Skorecki Levy, a Holocaust survivor who launched a passionate mission to defeat reputed neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. What was the response to the first edition?
A: The first edition was very well received, both in Louisiana and nationwide. An author always hopes for boundless sales, which, of course, rarely happens with university press books. But I have no complaints about how well Troubled Memory did out of the gate.
Q: Why is it time for a second edition?
A: American, not to mention global, politics have taken a dangerous turn in the last five years. And it’s gotten especially worse since the 2016 presidential election. I felt it was time to remind readers of the perilous path the country is hurtling down, what with the pell-mell erosion of democratic norms and the explosion of racial hate and xenophobic scapegoating. There is no question but that hate crimes are spiking, and white nationalism is on the march. Despite his many denials, Donald Trump is the glue holding the fractured racist movements together. The best antidote, in my opinion, is a mobilized opposition. To that end, it’s useful to be reminded that ordinary people can still make a difference.
Troubled Memory is a saga of family survival in the midst of a world-historical tragedy that seeks to understand how historical memory can empower personal courage. Josef Stalin once cynically observed that the murder of a million is a statistic, but the death of a single individual is a tragedy. That’s why Troubled Memory tries to make the survival of one family and an extraordinary daughter do the work of recounting the story of six million.
Q: In your new preface, you note that David Duke’s political insurgency was “no one-off event,” but rather, “a dress rehearsal for Trumpism.” Can you briefly explain that?
A: Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Louisiana seldom stays here. It travels. Maybe it’s because the state is like the rest of America, only more so. The classic example is Huey Long. Before there was the New Deal, there was the Kingfish’s massive public works and welfare program in Louisiana. They were a big reason why FDR moved to the left in his second term. Duke had the same affect from the other end of the spectrum. He uncorked a right-leaning populism fueled not by class, but race hatred, and he proved that it had national legs. Pat Buchanan took Duke’s white consciousness movement seriously enough to run for president on a Duke-without-the-baggage platform. What is more, the nature of Duke’s support, the angry energy of his base, the unapologetic yearning for a strong man—all this was as much in evidence during his meteoric rise in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as it is today among Donald Trump’s consolidated base.
Q: You also note that in a recent poll, “two-thirds of millennials can’t identify Auschwitz’s significance” and that “Holocaust denial has returned to respectability.” What are your hopes that the second edition of Troubled Memory might counter these trends in historical and political illiteracy?
A: One can only hope that a history, told honestly and without preachiness, still possesses the power to shape the values of young people. It’s why a lot of us became professional historians.