Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hopelessly Hopeful Jew

Why did you think it was so easy to exterminate your people? You're weakness. I saw it. Everyday I saw it. Everyone of them thinking only of how to avoid being flogged or kicked or killed. Everyone thinking only of themselves. Why do you think it only took four soldiers to lead a thousand people to the gas chambers? Because not one out of thousands had the courage to resist. Not one would sacrifice himself! Not even when we took they're children away! So I knew then, that you people had no right to live! You had no right

As it is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, it's been a week to think about the Holocaust. The lines above come from a 2011 film called The Debt which I saw on the weekend. Not a great film but the lines have stayed with me for days. They are spoken by a former sadistic Nazi doctor called "The Surgeon of Birkenau," a character clearly modeled after Mengele. He says this to one of his captors, member of a team of Mossad agents who traveled to East Germany in the early 1960s on a mission to bring him back to Israel to stand trial, obviously based on the successful abduction of Adolph Eichmann. The most riveting part of the film begins when the plan to whisk the ex-Nazi out of Germany fails and the Mossad agents are forced to hold him. The longer it takes to formulate a new plan to get him out of Europe the more the Nazi surgeon can toy with their minds and hearts, essentially exploiting perceived weaknesses. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't take it far enough, but I found the psychological manipulation and subtle control he begins to exert on the highly-trained agents extremely compelling. The lines quoted above spoke to me in particular because I've always wondered how it was possible that, aside from the odd episode of heroism and rebellion that we've all heard about like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, millions of Jews seemed to sleepwalk to their inevitable demise. We've heard explanations for this. About the disbelief, particularly among German and Austrian Jews, that the country and culture to which they felt so loyal, could betray them. We know that the Nazis perpetrated mass-deception, telling the Jews that they were going to be put to work, hence the words inscribed in black wrought iron "Arbeit Macht Frei" on the entrance gate of the camps. And yet, the explanations never seemed to me completely sufficient. Millions upon millions of Jews, were put to death with relative ease. As the character Vogel says, "It took four soldiers to lead a thousand Jews to the gas chamber." Could he be right that it was because the Jews were inherently weak, that they were too selfish to make the personal sacrifice to save their brethren if not themselves? The thought disturbed me. And then I had another thought. Maybe it wasn't because they were selfish. Maybe it was because as Jews we are programmed to be hopeful. We are culturally and religiously hardwired to believe that there is always a Promised Land if only we can get through the trials and tribulations of the wilderness. And so even when parents were separated from their children on the selection ramp, and even when they had their belongings stripped from them and were told to line up for disinfecting showers, their hopelessly hopeful minds continued to believe with every fiber of their souls that all would end well, families would be reunited in hugs, and they would survive. And then I thought about the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, which literally means The Hope, and I said to myself that the Nazi Surgeon could not be more wrong. He was wrong, tragically so, because he viewed hopefulness as weakness, and in doing so was himself expunged of any humanity, because hope is the very essence of being human. To deny hope in others, or to use it for personal gain, to take advantage of it and use it for manipulation, is a moral crime of the highest order. Perhaps maintaining hope in the face of unspeakable atrocities, and not willingness to die for a cause, is the greatest heroism of all.


M. Ungar said...

This is true -- these lines from “The Debt” are very important. This issue is dealt with in another couple of films that have the Holocaust as their background: “Marathon Man”, in which another character based on Mengele makes a similar observation: “You're weak. Your father was weak in his way, your brother in his, now you in yours. You are all so predictable”. In the movie “The Statement”, a really old Nazi is pursued by a young Israeli agent. The Nazi has various health problems, and can hardly walk fast without losing his breath, yet he manages to outwit and kill the young Jewish agent – symbolically, it says the same thing.

These examples have multiple meanings – first, as you pointed out, Jews were always hopeful, partially because Judaism lends itself to hopefulness, and partially because no one had any idea that the Germans’ purpose was total extermination. This had not happened before, and the average person did not know what was happening until the last minute. Jews were accustomed to outbursts of violence, pogroms and massacres that soon died down.

I think the best film about the Holocaust is Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, and the best book about the Holocaust is Hilberg’s "Destruction of the European Jews". Hilberg makes a most insightful comment about the fact that anti-semitism was part of everyday life for German and European Jews, but the Holocaust was something new: “First they said ‘You cannot live among us as Jews’; then they said ‘You cannot live among us’; then they said ‘You cannot live’.

In this way, Hilberg encapsulates the historic anti-semitic attempts at forced conversion, then at exile, but the last – genocide – had never been tried before. For this reason, hope was set against a disaster for which there was no precedent.

Jews who lived through the war in the town of Iasi, Romania, heard vague rumours of death and destruction among Jewish communities, but they discounted these stories as just rumours and exaggerations. Even after the 1941 Iasi massacre, when upward of 10,000 Jews were killed, apart from anti-semitic flare-ups from 1941–1945, there was quiet. There was also no information about the Holocaust.

As well, Hilberg pointed out that at first, right after the war and well into the 1950’s, the Holocaust was not researched, nor examined by scholars nor popular writers in Israel, for the same reason – a certain amount of shame that no one had resisted, and ignorance of the scale of the destruction. Hilberg was the first scholar to write about the Holocaust, and he had a difficult time getting his book published.

In literary works, encounters with Nazis have also taken on mythological overtones, and that’s what we see in the films we're discussing – that the Nazis are so toxic that even decades after the war, their power remains undiminished – they are like the Alien in “Alien”, a creature whose blood can eat through the steel hull of a spaceship. It’s as though they are radioactive, and keep on destroying people until their own death.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and erudite comment. Of course, recent events in Europe, remind us how relevant the discussion remains. Your last comment about how the Nazis have taken on a mythological dimension of the embodiment of evil is disturbing indeed. It reminds me of a discussion that took place surrounding Yan Martel's novel Beatrice and Virgil (which I reviewed for the Gazette when it came out). Many critics took the novel to task for fictionalizing the Holocaust. He argued that depicting the Holocaust in fiction is the only way to ensure that future generations will be able to relate to the Holocaust in any meaningful way. The moment we say that the Holocaust is untouchable in art and sacrosanct, is the moment we ensure that it will be forgotten or at least relegated to a dusty old drawer of history. Of course the notion of fictionalizing the Holocaust or using it (or referring more obliquely to it as Richler did in Saint-Urbain's Horseman, and Klein did in The Second Scroll) is utterly offensive to survivors. But if you're like me, several generations removed from Europe, works like Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, along with the work of Lanzmann, Hillberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Primo Levi to name only a few, help to give a sense of what happened, if not to understand an atrocity of unimaginable proportions. I think the main problem with Martel's novel was that it failed as an novel, which only served to heighten its offensiveness for many. Playing with fire risks getting burned.