Tuesday, December 8, 2009

…This is Man

[In the picture: SS officers in the Auschwitz camp who, despite their busy day murdering millions of our ancestors, find the time to take a pleasant afternoon nap.]

My mind, friends, works in tangents. Seeing a topic discussed in one media makes me interested in finding out about it in another. For example: As a result of my having seen the film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas I became interested in "the Holocaust" in general. One thing that incited my interest was the fact that Jewish critics of the novel/film mentioned have a number of complaints about it regarding the authenticity with which it describes the Holocaust. One exceedingly obvious thing in the film is that the camp inmates aren't emaciated (kind of hard to do that with makeup). Another film I had seen which had questionable representations of the Holocaust was a BBC film ("television play" actually) entitled G-d On Trial (actually pretty interesting).

From there I chanced upon a very well known book that I had heard nothing about; Primo Levi's If This is Man, foolishly published in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz). I hadn't even known that Levi was "in the Holocaust". The book, of course, was quite interesting, and it fulfilled one of the main purposes I was reading; getting a real and accurate description of the Nazi concentration and death camps. It's a very detailed description that a movie wouldn't really be able to represent anyway; how cold it was, or how uncomfortable it is to march all day in wooden shoes or in the freezing rain wearing nothing but a shirt and trousers. He speaks about it from the perspective of a thoughtful individual, not a complainer, and he covers many of the great philosophical issues the ordeal brings up.

Once I’m already involved in this, I think I might read his work of labor-camp-inspired poetry, entitled "Shma" in America, as well as Elie Wiesel’s Night; a book I couldn't imagine reading in high school, where it was assigned to me. I might also watch Schindler’s List, a film that, again, I would have found ruthlessly boring in the past.

But from whence comes my newfound interest in the Holocaust? I must admit that I originally, like most people, found no good reason in researching it too much or being obsessed with it. One of my main reasons was that "holocaust studies" should not be what defines Judaism for Jews in America, and non-Jews find Jews who are "too" interested in the holocaust to be of ill taste. They feel that the world has heard quite enough about the holocaust, and that it's not quite the most fascinating or cheery subject to start with. While I still agree that these are legitimate concerns (among other, legitimate, concerns) my feelings about the German solution to the judenfrage changed with age. I used to see the holocaust, as some still do, as something that happened in some primordial past of the 1930's-40's, regarding events about which legends abound in shuls and batei midrash every ninth of Av, and seems to be as distant as the churban itself. Though when I became older and more interested in past events, the 40's didn't seem like so long ago. In fact as far as technological advancements of the 20's century go, it was really very much like today; there were telephones, refrigerators, cars, airplanes etc. Essentially it was very recent. In that case then, its occurrence becomes all the more unbelievable. In the environment that I grew up in (yeshivot), the fact that the 'Goyim' wanted to exterminate the Jews was a given; they're inherently evil, there's nothing to talk about. Yet if we're dealing with the center of world culture, a place where Jews had played an important part in he previous war, a place where Shai Agnon felt safe and comfortable, a place where even he who's philosophy became the cornerstone for Nazism, Friedrich Nietzsche, was violently opposed to German Anti-Semites, that such a country would, just a few years ago, annihilate countless of it's law-abiding citizens within a few years is difficult to comprehend. ..which is the main place from which interest in the holocaust generally stems.

It's not a question of the Jews then, but a question the Germans seem to pose about humanity; not a "Judenfrage", but a "Menschfrage". In fact it was not only Jews that the Germans wanted to annihilate: the very founding of the death camps was for the purpose of eradicating the Slavs. In the long run, the Germans essentially wished to conquer the Eastern European states, eradicate and enslave the native populations, and build German colonies which would eventually become part of Germany (all of which actually happened on a small scale. Auschwitz was to become just one of these future German cities). It’s the enth degree of the colonialist ideology: "If the Americans can wipe out countless of innocent natives because they are 'savages', use their land as lebensraum and bring innocents from the African continent to work for them, and if France and Britain can colonize the relatively civilized countries of the Arab world and India, who's to say we can't remove and enslave the Untermenschen and replace them with ourselves" they would say. It's really just an extension of the same principle, but a very hard concept for any 'Modern' to swallow. ..which is why this can't become a stale or abhorrent subject, but rather one which requires diligent study, for, as I often say, any society, especially that of America, could go downhill like Germany did, and turn on it's minorities who, in some parts of America, seem to almost exclusively be Jews. And besides, the views of contemporary non-Jews on the Holocaust should be concerning enough to us: when they hear tha six million Jews died, instead of saying "how could this happen?", many of them call the Jews liars. They say "it was not six million Jews that perished, as the Jews claim, but rather nine hundred thousand nine hundred and ninety!”. After all that suffering, the only response of the Nations is that not enough of us died! …enough to cause concern..

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