Preempting the Holocaust

Preempting the Holocaust

by Professor Lawrence L. Langer

ISBN: 9780300073577

Publisher Yale University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Schools, Periods & Styles, History/World

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Preempting the Holocaust

The unshakable conviction that the Holocaust contains a positive lesson for all of us today unites the three figures whose ideas I plan to examine here. The intellectual, the artist, and the cleric, whom I will identify shortly, each unfolds a vision of that event consonant with his or her worldview. When I speak of preempting the Holocaust, I mean using-and perhaps abusing-its grim details to fortify a prior commitment to an ideal of moral reality, community responsibility, or religious belief that leaves us with space to retain faith in their pristine value in a post-Holocaust world.

Although I find this strategy both misleading and presumptuous, I have no corrective vision of my own to provide, other than the opinion that the Holocaust experience challenged the redemptive value of all moral, community, and religious systems of belief. A life more shrouded by darkness than radiant with light-one inevitable bequest of the mass murder of European Jewry-is not necessarily a hopeless one, but only the least sensitive among us could celebrate a return to absolute normalcy after such chaos. Indeed, another major legacy of that event is the defeat of the words that try to describe it, since after such abnormalcy our very definitions of the normal seem flaccid and weak, while a generic term like "chaos" cannot begin to portray the moral and spiritual anarchy of those grievous times.

Let me begin with a concrete detail, because I am convinced that all efforts to enter the dismal universe of the Holocaust must start with an unbuffered collision with its starkest crimes. Recently I was watching the testimony of a survivor of the Kovno ghetto. He spoke of the so-called Kinderaktion, when the Germans rounded up all the children (and many elderly) and took them to the nearby Ninth Fort for execution. The witness was present in the room when an SS man entered and demanded from a mother the one-year-old infant she was holding in her arms. She refused to surrender it, so he seized the baby by its ankles and tore the body in two before the mother's eyes.

Whenever I hear stories like these, which unfortunately are not exceptional but illustrative of hundreds of similar incidents, I react with the same frozen disbelief, partly because of the intrinsic horror of the episode but also because it violates my sense of how life should and might be lived. I try to imagine the response of those in attendance-the mother, the witness, and the killer-but even more, I ask myself what we can do with such information, how we can inscribe it in the historical or artistic narratives that later will try to reduce to some semblance of order or pattern the spontaneous defilement implicit in such deeds? Where shall we record it in the scroll of human discourse? How can we enroll such atrocities in the human community and identify them as universal tendencies toward evil inherent in all humankind?

Well, we can't: we require a scroll of inhuman discourse to contain them; we need a definition of the inhuman community to coexist with its more sociable partner, and in their absence, we turn by default to more traditional forms of expression. The results may be comforting, but what price must we pay for such ease? The alternative is to begin by accepting a reality that escapes the bounds of any philosophy or system of belief that we have cherished since our beginnings, and to pursue the implications of this unhappy admission wherever they may lead. Consider, for example, this fragment of testimony from a former inmate of Auschwitz and Plaszow.

We never knew ... who would come back from roll call. Those who were "selected" for the "action" had to first dig their graves, then after stripping and placing everything they were wearing on the ground (in proper order: clothes on one side, underwear on the other), they had to kneel at the edge of the ditch and wait for the bullets in the back. Bullets that the Germans made the Jewish "leaders" of the camp pay for. Economizing on ammunition meant that the work was often botched, and cries rose from the ditches for hours after the execution. During large "actions" things moved too fast. There was no question of burying the bodies, they were simply covered with sand, so you could no longer tell whether you were walking on bones that were old or recent. Everything happened so fast that you didn't even have time to see your mother or sister vanish. We were no longer capable of suffering, or of being scared or surprised. Death is only frightening to the living. We hadn't been that for a long time.

It is fearful enough to have to outlive the death, or more exactly the murder, of those one loves, some of whom have been buried while still breathing. But it is equally agonizing to have to outlive one's own death, as this witness insists she did, embracing an anguish beyond suffering that lifts her experience out of the realm of the familiar and deposits it in a limbo whose boundaries have yet to be dearly defined. We have the option of accepting the Holocaust as an event in quest of a concept to contain it or a language to express it, a phenomenon alien to our usual patterns of speech or belief; or we can assume that it only threatens but does not subvert the virtue, the vision, and the lovingkindness that my intellectual, my artist, and my cleric affirm. They do so as they venture to face the Holocaust with a universalizing vocabulary and imagery that never troubles to ask what it might mean to be dead while one was still alive. Which path we choose to follow depends on a complex tension between the stable instincts of our nature and a reality that tramples on those instincts with a contemptuous disdain.

"If we fail to master the past," writes Tzvetan Todorov in Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, echoing both a famous German formulation and an overquoted aphorism of George Santayana, "it may master us." But it is not some abstract force called "the past" that the Holocaust challenges us to master; it is the mass murder of European Jewry. It is an SS man tearing a Jewish infant in two, or the German and Lithuanian murderers at the Ninth Fort in Kovno not even bothering to learn whether their victims were all dead before they ordered them to be covered with sand. How one goes about "mastering" such atrocities, as one of the murderers, or as a surviving member of the burial detail, or even as a detached reader today, I have no idea; I don't even know what "mastering" means in this context. But I suspect it doesn't help much to secrete such moments beneath a blanket of bland and evasive phrasing. What one faces when one faces the "extreme" of genocide is less important to Todorov than the assurance that moral life was still possible in the camps for both victims and murderers in spite of what went on there. He is not much interested in the specific agonies of the victims or the precise brutalities of their killers. He prefers instead to rescue both from the precincts of extremity and return them to the landscape of what he calls ordinary situations.

Todorov admits that many who outlived the camps and ghettos have written and spoken eloquently if bitterly about the selfish ways of behaving forced on them by the need to stay alive. But he is unwilling to accept this as a prevailing or even a requisite norm. It may seem odd that as recently as 1991 an intellectual as renowned as Todorov still finds it necessary to confirm the possibility of moral life even in the concentration camp (especially after Terrence Des Pres had defended the same idea so eloquently in The Survivor fifteen years earlier); I suppose, given the history of our indecent century, the impulse to defend the decency of the human species must surface periodically as ballast against the darker view.

But when such an effort is based on a dubious opposition between ordinary virtue on one hand and what Todorov calls "the principles of immorality expressed by the survivors" on the other, the resultant dichotomy leads us astray and blurs the tangled issue of who behaved how and why. Polarities, of which Todorov is unduly fond, quickly disintegrate in the atmosphere of a place like Auschwitz. For example, I have never heard a single survivor refer to the "principles of immorality" that governed his or her conduct in the camps. This locution is Todorov's invention, designed to strengthen a contrast between moral and immoral that may never have existed. He admits-and he really gives the game away through this admission-that "as a project, interpreting evil appeals less to me than understanding goodness." As a result, he devotes most of his considerable intellectual energy to recovering the human, in both victims and their oppressors, from the midst of the inhuman, and then expanding the circle of those reassured to include his readers, and himself.

Todorov's book is one of three recent examples of universalizing the Holocaust that I am addressing in this inquiry. What happened in Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia-Todorov speaks of them interchangeably-might have been done to, or done by, all of us. Experience, he says, is a contest between ordinary virtues-he labels them decency, caring, and the life of the mind-and ordinary vices-fragmentation, depersonalization, and the enjoyment of power. The Holocaust was little more than a drastic example of this modern conflict, and once we understand that, we will be in a better position to combat the totalitarian form of suppression of which the Holocaust was a not so singular example. This is a concise summary of Todorov's argument.

And where does all of this lead us-or lead Todorov? Well, it leads him to some extraordinary statements, and some even more extraordinary conclusions. Imagine their impact on the uninitiated reader, in search of authoritative accounts of the Holocaust. For example: "It is worth noting that the great majority of survivors have fallen victim to depression or trauma. The rate of suicide among this group is abnormally high, as is the prevalence of mental and physical illness." Or: "Life in the camps had been arduous in the extreme, and precisely because of this there had been something exalting in it [elle a quelque chose d'exaltant]. After the intensity of this experience, everything seemed colorless, futile, false" (263, 266). If the unexamined life is not worth living, what are we to say of these unexamined obiter dicta?

"Camp inmates," Todorov asserts-he seldom refers to Jews-"were made to know the far limits of human experience; it became their duty to humanity to report, in all honesty, what they saw and what they felt, for even in the most horrible experience there is some possibility for mankind's enrichment [un enrichissement]; only total oblivion calls for total despair." Because many victims were still alive at the end of the war, obviously we are not dealing with total oblivion. Hence the truth of their ordeal as they transmit it should not only enlighten and instruct but also enrich. One truth of their ordeal is as follows: A doctor at Mauthausen, in training as a physician for the front with an SS unit, liked to amputate the arms or legs of Jews to see how long it would take them to bleed to death. After all, this would be useful medical information for his subsequent military career. And once, when he was not thus professionally engaged, showing admirable initiative, because he clearly was not ordered to do this, he took two young Jews from an arriving transport, killed them, cut off their heads, then boiled the flesh from the skulls, which he used as desk trophies for himself and a colleague. After the war, he married another doctor and together they set up a gynecological practice in Germany. How this confirms Todorov's theoretical conviction that even in the most horrible experience, there is some possibility for humankind's enrichment must forever remain a mystery to most of us-though in a gruesome sense, it does ratify his opinion that "no life is lived in vain if it leaves behind some trace of itself" (96).

I suppose anyone can excavate from the rubble of mass murder a piece of testimony to support his or her philosophy or system of belief or critical point of view. Many of us who explore the terrain of atrocity are occasionally guilty of that. But not at the price, one hopes, of distorting the truth. Nothing is more threatening to the integrity of the historian than to allow facts to play him or her false for the sake of a thesis. Yet this is the trap Todorov succumbs to through his unempirical approach to the Holocaust. "To know, and to let others know," he proclaims, "is one way of remaining human" (97). But the rhetorical force of this idea so consumes his energy that he neglects the accuracy of the details that presumably lead to such knowledge.

So committed is Todorov to the notion that a bureaucratic system was responsible for the murder of the Jews rather than a collection of individuals who were enthusiastically pledged to destroying them that in one crucial but damning instance the forest blinds him to the real contribution of the separate trees. He designs a chain image to suggest the fragmentation of the killing process in Auschwitz. Each link leads impersonally to the next, beginning with Hitler, who of course makes the initial decision; followed by Reinhard Heydrich, "who never sees a single suffering face"; next comes the policeman, "who merely carries out a routine order to arrest and expedite" (but never, presumably, to tear Jewish babies in two); then we have the turn of Adolf Eichmann, whose "purely technical job" is to see that the trains leave and arrive on time; after him is Rudolf Hoss, the commandant, who oversees the emptying of the trains and the transfer to the gas chambers; and finally, Todorov concludes, "the last link: a group of inmates, a specialized commando that pushes the victims into the gas chambers and releases the lethal gas [et verse dedans le gaz mortel]." Before we have recovered from this breathtaking and infamous error, the author feels obliged to add to our knowledge: "The members of this commando are the only people who kill with their own hands." And now that we have been enlightened with the information that the only people literally involved in the murder of Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz were Jews themselves, we are relieved to learn that "they quite obviously are victims themselves, not executioners" (153).

Now how was this mistake possible, and what lies behind it? Certainly no malice, overt or covert: Todorov's tone is compassionate throughout. But the most elementary student of the Holocaust knows how Zyklon B was introduced into the gas chambers; how could Todorov have been guilty of such a lapse? If his aim had been to represent atrocity during the era of the Third Reich, he would have been more scrupulous in his research.


Excerpted from "Preempting the Holocaust" by Professor Lawrence L. Langer. Copyright © 1998 by Professor Lawrence L. Langer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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