Holocaust Testimonies II(a): Nothing Can Prepare You

The anus mundi was the habitat of the Devil. If ever [human beings] successfully created such a habitat on earth, it was at Auschwitz.

Only at the anus mundi could the Jew as deicide, betrayer, and incarnate Devil be turned into the feces of the world. – Richard J. Rubenstein, “Religion and the Origins of the Death Camps: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation,” in After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, p.32

I usually try to provide a photograph that creates an atmosphere for what I’m writing. For this post, however, I have chosen only to link to two distinct photos. First, there’s this photograph of “the last Jew in Vinnytsia,” in his last second of life. Few images capture the bleak reality of the horrors individuals lived when faced by Nazi terror. Not only is this the last Jewish person in this small Ukranian town; he is kneeling at a pit filled with the corpses of his friends, his family, his co-workers. Knowing he is the last, he gazes at the camera with something like a plea: Please remember me. Considering the Holocaust on any level, we should always begin with the individuals who faced the machinery of death powerless, alone, understanding the fate that was theirs no matter what they did.

The other image is a pile or corpses at Majdanek. If the truly human predicament of the millions can be seen in the final moments of the life of one man, the results of years of dehumanization, increased restrictions on civil rights, and finally a desire to eradicate European Jews wherever they might be can only be understood when we sit and look at the images of corpses, barely recognizable as human, and consider what any of this means.

As Lawrence Langer notes in the first chapter of Holocaust Testimonies, the search for meaning, like every other attempt to grasp the events of the murder of European Judaism, is useless. There is no moral lesson. There are no heroes or villains; rare moments of true humanity can turn just as quickly to murder, making even those gestures of solidarity we consider part of the armory of weapons human beings have in their fight against evil not only meaningless but actually antithetical to survival.

Written accounts of victim experience prod the imagination in ways that speech cannot, striving for analogies to initiate the reader into the particularities of their grim world. This literature faces a special challenge, since it must give most readers access to a totally unfamiliar subject. When searchlights at Auschwitz are said to lick the sky like “flaming rainbows,” we are invited to use this simile as a ticket of entry to the bizarre deathcamp landscape. The singular inappropriateness of an image of natural beauty, symbolizing good fortune and joy, to describe one’s arrival at Auschwitz underlines the difficult of finding a vocabulary of comparison for such an incomparable atrocity.(pp.18-19)

Nothing at all really prepares anyone for what they will see and hear encountering evidence of the Holocaust. That is why Langer insists that, just as reading fantastic fiction requires a willful suspension of disbelief, so, too, does reading and hearing the testimonies of those who witnessed these events as victims. Part of the suspension includes a most-necessary silencing of our usual, all-too-quick need to understand the actions of survivors under traditional moral and humanistic categories. Even the landscape of death and unreality had, for many victims, a sense of familiarity that those of us who have not lived it cannot – truly – fathom, except perhaps through an extreme effort of imagination.

One [survivor] reports that when he was first brought into a crematorium area with a work detail, he did not flinch at the pules of bodies because every day in the Lodz ghetto, from which he had been deported to the deathcamp, he had seen dozens of corpses strewn about the streets. What might seem like fantasy to us became a sign of “ordinary” reality for him, so he could make the adjustment enabling him to accept this “abnormality” as part of his normal daily routine.(p.22)

If this diabolical background can become commonplace, and can be understood by we witnesses to these testimonies as really becoming so, it still takes an effort to set aside our preference for morality tales.

Expecting to encounter heroes and heroines, we meet only decent men and women, constrained by circumstances, reluctantly, to abandon roles that we as audience expect (and need) to find ingrained in their natures. Ideally, for example, even in the camps you honored the sanctity of your fellow prisoner’s bread ration, often literally the staff of life. But in practice, as these testimonies constantly remind us, starvation and moral sentiment were uneasy bedfellows. A gesture of generosity from the world of the “normal” might momentarily kindle the despondent spirit, but the starved stomach sought other nourishment. One of the most difficult truths for the outside to grasp is the moral and physical havoc wrought on conscientious human beings by hunger’s ceaseless tyranny.(p.25)

This persistent upending of our usual sense of expectation requires a depth of feeling and honest willingness to hear what is being said as a once-lived reality, rather than something either edifying or not for future generations to grasp.

Audiences have little difficult dealing with heroic gestures where the agent is in control of the choice – episodes of sharing and support and even of self-sacrifice, all of which occurred in rare favorable circumstances in the usually hostile camp environment. Such gestures feed the legends on which the myths of civilizations have been built. But few witnesses mention them in their testimony, where, unflattering as it may sound, spiritual possibility turns out to be a luxury for those not on the brink of starvation. To understand and to sympathize with unheroic gestures . . ., withholding endorsement or blame but finding instead an admissible frame for them in the moral discourse of our culture – this is one of the burdensome but crucial challenges that still lie before us . . . .(pp.26-27)

Even the most important bonds, the ones we hold up as inviolable, become a burden in a situation in which all the ways we think human beings do and should act no longer apply.

Anna G., for instance, recalling a scene on the ramp at Auschwitz upon her arrival there, relates it to her own life much later, during the postwar period of “normalcy”, suggesting how hopeless is the quest for total immunity from the original ordeal. She tells of a ten-year-old girl who refused to go to the “left” (toward death) after the selection. (earlier she had explained that the members of her transport from Plaszow, having experienced many “selections” there, had learned to dear their meaning.) Kicking and scratching, the young girl was seized by three SS men who held her down while she screamed to her nearby mother that she shouldn’t let them kill her. According to Anna G. one of the SS men approached the mother, who was only in her late twenties, and asked her if she wanted to go with her daughter. “No,” the mother replied . . . .

Hell, they say, is the absence of God. The world of the ghetto and death camp, the slave labor factory and the local community overrun by the Einsatzgruppen, God was indeed absent. As Dostoevsky noted, everything was permissible. The corpses that were the final product were sped along their way not only by the removal of any restraints on human behavior among those in control; when real human choice, our normal moral universe, even the bonds of parent and child, no longer apply, we know we have entered a Universe where sense is no-sense, where terror is the commonplace backdrop, and both the rational and temporal sequence of events, of cause and effect, no longer exist.

Nothing really prepares a person for entering Hell. It is here, however, I must go, listening to the voices of those who made it through the Pit to the other side.