9/17/2005

What I Learned From Auschwitz

This article by Jonathan rocks!!! -- law

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..
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... 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.

Surviving Auschwitz was not an ennobling experience
I hesitated to include this one at all, because.. this insight could indirectly be used to fuel anti-Semitism:
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... 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.

Auschwitz is not a credit card
In high school, I had a friend who [said that] the Holocaust.. [was] used it as a kind of blank check for present-day Jewish interests.. 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.

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 .. 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.

The Nazis are not so different from us

..Movie Nazis are swaggering villains and fools.. 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...
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...
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...

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.


What I Learned From Auschwitz

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