What I Learned From Auschwitz

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A non-Jewish physician who spotted me reading a book on Nuremberg said, "When I read about the Holocaust, I become clinically depressed." He was right. Holocaust literature must be sampled, interspersed with other reading. If you dive into it for several months at a time, you wind up wanting to kill yourself.

In his novel Jurgen, James Branch Cabell relates how Merlin sent Jurgen to a Druid who had promised to reveal the truth about life. Merlin apparently was afraid to accept the invitation himself. Jurgen, after having received the revelation, remarked that it was rather unpleasant. To which the Druid replied: "If Merlin had seen what you have seen, Merlin would have died, and Merlin would have died without regret, for Merlin receives facts reasonably."

Nevertheless, in compiling An Auschwitz Alphabet, I learned a few things.

There is no God

The most important lesson one can learn from Auschwitz is that God does not exist. Occam's Razor tells us not to search for a complicated explanation when a simple one is available. Ever since Auschwitz, theologians have had to go through major contortions to hold onto an image of God. There are only two possibilities: either God caused (or at least permitted) the destruction of the Jews, the Gypsies and the other victims, or God does not care. The first approach is unacceptable for two reasons. It means that entire groups of people may be indicted based on race or other identity, which is contrary to everything I believe. And it makes God out to be a mass murderer. On the other hand, if God does not care, why believe in Him? An uncaring God is either a cruel and negligent one, or, even worse, a God who is unaware of humans and their plight. This latter--the God of Spinoza and of Freud's psychotic Dr. Schreber--is really just a metaphysical formulation bearing little or no relationship to the popular idea of God as a being who intervenes in human history.

Although there are only two possibilities, there is a third approach to retaining belief in God: shut up and stop asking questions. Interestingly, this is the message not of God but the devil to the knight in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Probably, the majority of those who believe in a Jewish or Christian God today-- at least I hope it is the majority--simply do not confront God with the question of how He could let Auschwitz happen. But this approach is not acceptable to those who believe that there is no area off-limits to human questioning.

By far the simplest explanation for Auschwitz is that there is no God to intervene in human affairs. No deity exists to care what we do to each other. All compassion and all hatred in the human universe is ours. We are on our own.

Surviving Auschwitz was not an ennobling experience

I hesitated to include this one at all, because it is a sidelight rather than a major issue. Also, this insight could indirectly be used to fuel anti-Semitism. Since it is an insight I had in researching Auschwitz, I do not want to leave it out. But I do not want to make too much of it either.

It would be very easy to believe that anyone who survived Auschwitz must be a saint. This does not bear examination. Auschwitz was an extermination camp. A saint in Auschwitz likely died on the day of arrival. A saint who survived did so in spite of sainthood, not because of it. Those who survived did so because they had and exploited some advantage over the others. Doctors survived because early on the Nazis made a decision to spare them and enlist them in the administrative life of the camp, including human experimentation. Skilled workmen survived because their skills were needed. Polish prostitutes were spared for the brothel block. Hustlers, who made themselves indispensable to the camp authorities, survived.

Art Spiegelman in Maus tells the story of how his father, an enterpreneur, survived in Auschwitz. He persuaded the man in charge of his block that he was a shoemaker. He taught himself how to make simple repairs. When handed a pair of boots far beyond his skills to fix, Mr. Spiegelman found a shoemaker in one of the other blocks and subcontracted the work. Mr. Spiegelman survived in part because of this man's labor, but the shoemaker's fate is not recorded.

I do not remember the source of another story. Every morning, the inhabitants of each block turned out for roll call. Despite the chaos of the camp, the daily murders and deaths from disease and overwork, the neat German penchant for bureaucracy meant that the numbers must be monitored and that roll call would take place every day. Anyone found at roll call without his shoes would be sent to the gas chamber--but a moment of inattention and any personal effects could be stolen.

A teenager who survived Auschwitz related how he was raped in his bunk one night by another inmate. The next morning, he realized the rapist had stolen his shoes, to ensure his elimination. So he simply took a pair from someone who was still sleeping, assuring the other's destruction instead of his own.

Primo Levi survived because he was young, relatively strong, and a chemist. Here are his words on the survivors of Auschwitz:

There remained only the doctors, tailors, shoemakers, musicians, cooks, young attractive homosexuals, friends or compatriots of some authority in the camp; or they were particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals....or, finally, those who, without fulfilling particular functions, had always succeeded through their astuteness and energy in successfully organizing, gaining in this way, besides material advantages and reputation, the indulgence and esteem of the powerful people in the camp....[All others] followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

Survival In Auschwitz, p. 89.

Auschwitz is not a credit card

In high school, I had a friend who was Lebanese. We had a very full friendship; we could talk to each other about almost anything. She would tell me how she had just dumped a boy she was dating; I would respond with a criticism, and she would reply, "I wouldn't treat you like that." We were very highly attracted to each other, but nothing could ever happen because of the Arab-Jewish thing, which was the one topic on which communication always broke down.

The school was in a Jewish neighborhood, and most of our teachers were Jewish. She did not deny that the Holocaust had happened, but she believed that our teachers, when they taught it every year, used it as a kind of blank check for present-day Jewish interests-- an accusation that made me crazy with anger at the time but which I take more seriously today. Later, I met another woman, part American Indian, who added her own theory: only those things have happened to you which have actually happened to you personally. If you have experienced anti-Semitism in your life, you have experienced it and possibly learned something from it and evolved because of it. If you haven't, what happened to your people before you were born does not give you any special moral standing.

Our high school teachers were fond of writing on the board the quote from Santayana that says if we do not remember the past, we will be condemned to repeat it. This is the most important reason to remember Auschwitz--a message which frequently is lost in the way it is delivered, for example, when the Nazis are presented as demonic "others" entirely dissimilar to us. I will pick up this theme below. The point here is that, whenever someone speaks about Auschwitz, it is worth asking what the subtext is of the speech. If it is ever in aid of an agenda like support of a particular country or the betterment of a single group, those who died there are being insulted. If the speech is in support of self-examination, an end to hatred and becoming better human beings, it should be heard.

There are different types of remembering

It is not enough merely to remember the past; one must remember the truth, analyze it, derive rules from it and desire to act. But this is not what we usually do. Most of our remembering, in fact, does the opposite: it is a preparatory step for the final ejection of the truth from public consciousness. This style of remembering is similar to the process by which an oyster creates a pearl by coating an impurity. The movie Schindler's List is an example of this kind of remembering; it sends you from the theater hopeful and relieved, feeling that the Holocaust has been handled: a hero has arisen to handle the Holocaust. In so doing, it tells the wrong story. The main themes of the Holocaust were not rescue or hope but despair and murder. Of all the books I have read on Auschwitz, none mention Oskar Schindler or relate the episode shown in the movie of his rescue of the "Schindlerjuden" from Auschwitz. Instead, most agree that there was no rescue from Auschwitz. According to Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann testified that even he could not rescue a "favorite" Jew from Auschwitz.

How do you remember a truth that will cause clinical depression? A truth that will cause a man or woman who "receives facts reasonably" to want to die? You steel yourself and remember it, that's all. The only hope you can derive from such a truth, clearly seen, is the resolve to act differently and to do your small part to make the world different than it is.

The Nazis are not so different from us

I was born in 1954, and most of what I know about life I learned at the movies. Movie Nazis are swaggering villains and fools, revealed in films like The Dirty Dozen and Operation Crossbow. You can read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or any book on the Nuremberg trials and find that the people at the top-- Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, et al.--behaved like movie villains. But behind them were a multitude of people who didn't have to be. They followed their leaders. Some did it with enthusiasm, while others got along by going along. As do we. For every Dr. Mengele, every sadist who enjoyed killing, there were 100 or 1000 Eichmanns, bureaucrats dealing with questions of finding the railroad capacity to take the Jews to the east or the supplies of Zyklon-B necessary to gas them. Responsibility for the events was so thoroughly diffused throughout the bureaucracy, throughout society, that the people who enjoyed killing did it and everyone else was sheltered from it. The only difference between our society, any society, and Nazi Germany, is the charismatic leader who tells us killing is all right. And there is nothing in our society to prevent him from coming to power--in fact, it has already happened to us in several variations.

In a recent essay, I compared two books, Ordinary Men, about a group of middle-aged German policemen put to work executing Jews, and Band of Brothers, about a platoon of paratroopers in the American invasion of Europe. The humanity and the evil in both groups of men shine off the pages of both books. There is no doubt that if the Germans had not been ordered to kill, they would have been much happier, and if the Americans had been ordered to shoot down defenseless German women and children, most would have done so.

In those same high school years--the years in which I was morally formed-- I was very perplexed by alternating news reports. In some incidents, reminiscent of the notorious killing of Kitty Genovese, groups of people stood by while someone was assaulted or killed. In others, a group of people would go to a victim's aid, perform a rescue and hold the assailant for the police. I helped chase a couple of thieves in the street myself, and realized the explanation. I was running because someone else had shouted "Stop thief!" and started off down the street. When crowds rescue a victim, someone has acted first, and others followed. When crowds stand by, no-one has taken the initiative. Most people are probably poised precariously on the edge between action and inaction, between good and evil. Everything depends on the one who steps forward.

One of the most poignant quotes I found in reading about Auschwitz is also one of the most famous, and was spoken by Himmler in a petulant speech to SS generals when he was besieged with petitions to spare individual Jews:

And then there come eighty million worthy Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course, the others are vermin, but this one is an A-1 Jew.

And he went on to say that we must resist these weak, compassionate impulses, in order to be great:

Most of you must know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred, or a thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time remained decent fellows, that is what has made us so hard.

Its all there: the pathology of the leadership, the kernel of compassion in the breast of 80 million Germans, and even the delusion of having remained decent. We are no different.

Genocide is always with us

Auschwitz was not unique in kind, but only in degree. In every era of history, human beings have committed genocide, from the battles between competing varieties of prehistoric man to the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia today.

Just as each of eighty million loyal Germans had his favorite Jew, each of us has his favorite genocide, the one genocide that is an exception, that was only self-defense, or a regrettable but understandable act of war, or an act of heroism, or an exercise of a God-given right to claim a birthright. There are Israelis today who think the gunman in the mosque was a patriot and hero, Serbs who think the weak NATO response to ethnic cleansing an overreaction, and millions of Americans who do not realize that the United States itself was built on a genocide.

If you say that yes, but that was in the last century, and things were different, and Americans have changed since then, think about the heap of corpses at Mylai, women and children murdered by American soldiers under orders from Lietenant William Calley.

I know I sound dangerously close to saying that genocide is inevitable, that humans will always kill humans for land or for power, so lets get on with it. I am not saying that at all. Humans never flew until they flew. The fact that something has always been a certain way does not mean it must continue.

As long as we are taught that genocide is something that can only be committed by a demonic "other", that we are good people and the desire to commit genocide could never come to us, we will perpetuate genocide, for it is precisely (as Santayana said) those who deny who perpetuate the evils and disasters of the past. Gibbon said that history is nothing but the record of the follies and misfortunes of mankind: it is not however graven in stone that we are eternally doomed to commit the same crimes and mistakes until we expire on this earth. There is a way out.

Our hearts are prone to disease, which can be resisted

Our moral hearts, like our physical ones, are weak and prone to disease. If we acknowledge this and determine to exercise them, we have a chance to live. If we deny it and insist our hearts are failure-proof, we let the disease in at the door.

Like fragments of a hologram, each of us contains an image of the whole of our species; each of us participates in all of the beauty and all the evil of being human. We all participate in the music of Mozart and the murderousness of Mengele. If, in the morning, you look in the mirror and you say, "I have the face of a murderer," you have placed yourself in a position to begin the work that needs to be done. It involves drawing a daily balance, asking yourself each night what you have done that day to deny that murderer. Whatever other people do, whether they too are doing that work or not, you will have done your part to see that Auschwitz may never happen again.

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