Question: At Auschwitz, where was God?
Answer: At Auschwitz, where was man?
After two weeks worth of lectures, film, reading, documentary testimonials, completing the 9 hour movie "Shoah", I had come to understand a few things. Some things that I came to understand and appreciate would make me want badly to continue my study in this course on the Holocaust. Some things that I came to understand and appreciate would make me physically ill, mentally depressed, and feeling a bit hopeless.
Had it not been for a knowing and caring staff, led by some of the most knowledgeable and sensitive Professors, this course would have by now disintegrated into verbal combat between as yet unidentified factions within the student population. Forums filled with what could have been incendiary topics of discussion somehow remained thought provoking, respectful, knowledge-sharing and mutual caring. What could have easily become a battle field became, in a very real way, a hospital with just tons of group and individual therapy. The result was that I felt safe inside the turmoil of the course.
This particular week was one of great information learning for me, personally. Follow me just past the
squggledoodlethingey fold, and I'll try to explain what I learned, how I felt about it, and what this week's study has taught me about the world I live in today.
Sometimes in my learning endeavors, I can fairly skip across the top of the subject, or the lecture, or the information. I will admit, I'm pretty good at that (or at least I was pre-strokes), and can note new info or check off known information rather quickly. As all students do, we learn our own modes of learning.
We hone those skills which work the best for us at the time. What we either tend to forget, or never know is that our best tools for learning can change drastically as our learning journey proceeds with our maturity. While reading worked in the lower grades for me, my eyesight isn't so great now. Lectures, documentary, etc. is a better learning mode for me these days. I can write down what I want to say, or highlight for later. I can review videos, or reading (if necessary) and write as I go. The input changes as the delivery changes, but also as the understanding increases. If I get my brain out of the way, I can usually let my fingers fly without even trying to understand which point (as you may well already realize: my apologies.) I am attempting to address!
Some courses require more work. They may require much more reading, more and increasingly difficult exercises to learn processes or points of important. I used to do well in those courses, IF I decided the input was worthy of the output.
This course on the Holocaust, however, made me use modalities of learning that were very seriously impaired, rusty, out of shape. That alone made me grit my teeth, and consider (several times) dis-enrolling from the course. (Three hospitalizations for unattached medical problems didn't really help!) By the end of the second week, I was firmly entrenched, determined to give as good as I got. I got a lot.
Professor Kenez tells us that we cannot truly understand the Holocaust unless we understand the Germans, the mindset of the raging antisemitism, the opportunities made available to radical political speech as a result of a broken nation suffering under The Versailles Treaty, and the constant spiral downward from madness to purest lunacy by the end of Germany's participation in World War II.
The first important understanding was the illumination by Kenez of the difference between the Jews of the Soviet Empire, versus the Jews of Eastern Europe, versus the Jews of Western Europe. Stark differences were addressed, from the relatively insignificance of the Soviet Jewry of the Soviet Empire, collecting and living peasant lives in Shtetls with their own government and ruling parties. The understanding that the further West one traveled, the lower the percentage of Jews that either spoke Aramaic, Hebrew or even Yiddish or Ladino was a pictograph of cultural change for me.
This was also important for a second reason. Nazis did not generally deport, quarantine, collect or otherwise segregate their Jewish populations to any "visible" degree for many years. By the time of the Neuremburg Laws of 1935, most Germans simply did not see Jews. I mean the population had no Jews in it, and the average German no longer had Jewish friends in school, no Jewish Teachers, Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists...those members of the German elite who had done the heavy lifting to bring the very pride to the German nation that Hitler was now lamenting having been lost; that pride that must be recovered. So, when the isolation, segration, congregation and eventual deportation occurred, few noticed because they simply knew nobody affected!
The second reason for this truth is that the "acceptable" actions taken upon human beings, German citizens or not, for instance, were limited. When the trains started for Dachau, the understanding was that German and Western European Jews were being sent to "work camps in the East." Well, that's acceptable. Right? The German people did, after all, highly place the value of honest labor for all people.
What could not be done in Western Europe was mass killing, or (as the term was originated at the time) genocide. In Eastern Europe there was not only no such necessary limit, but nobody cared too much--unless of course THEY were being transported. By then, German occupation left these citizens without options.
The ghettos became commonplace and acceptable because, after all, they WERE Jews. Yes, 75 year old battle veterans with one leg, or four year old children being put on a train "to the East to build roads" was a known lie. It just didn't make good German sense! "Grandma's going to repair bridges? Grandma is 78 years old, and deaf as a Pickle!" Madness personified, on all counts. To speak out, or stand up against it was a guarantee for execution.
This is the lot with the occupied in war. The occupiers make the rules, the law, and determine what makes sense. This may well have turned into the most silent revolution in the history of humanity! With this tacit approval, the Nazi Regime believed the already planned concentration camps were the best for every one. Yes, people did notice the trains came back empty, or left Dachau or Auschwitz empty.Yes, there were some strange flames dancing in the night sky. The terror was complete, the regime had effectively removed all opposition, and now it was time to consider "the Jewish Question" in full.
What most people of Europe did not yet know was that Adolf Hitler had already set forth a plan, which he did communicate to his Senior Staff in a meeting in Berlin, on two separate occasions, which he would entrust to Reinhard Heydrich fill out the details, and use the 15 most influential Nazis in Germany to carry out. By all accounts, Heynrich did an outstanding job at Wansee--and until well after the cessation of hostilities with Germany in World War II. You should read about him. No, really!
Another serendipitous intersection with history occurred at this same time: modernity. With the exception of only a few countries, Jews had acculturated into modernity, establishing themselves as really great innovators who worked to fill the middle working class in Europe. Ergo: they had developed for themselves a value that was necessary, and very, very dangerous to the propaganda and reality of the Third Reich. One useful is pre-war Hungary, where Hungarian Jewry had very nearly completely assimilated into the middle class, and was in fact leading it. What the Hungarian Jew saw as an opportunity for family and country, Germany allowed the Hungarian ruling class to see as preparations for destruction of their wealth. Hungarian Jews were mostly urban pre-war, with almost 96% of these people living in Pesht!
This was a dichotomy that could not stand, if the Regime were to effect their desired elimination of the entire European Jewry. Why was Hungary not responding as, say Romania had done, and become the only European nation (besides Germany) to creae and carry out genocide on it's own people.
The arrival of modernity (the modern industrial age) did not help the Eurpean or Soviet Jew. It would kill them.
Professor Baumgarten tells us of a language that served as the homeland of a people during this time. Jews were literate. Jewish boys had to read and translate a passage from the Torah and/or the Talmud at the age of 13. Then they would become a man, and participating member of the family group. Hebrew and Aramaic were taught, along with the "local" language, Yiddish, and any other local dialect required to participate in community life. This is, Baumgarten assets, completely unique in world history. I agree with him. The trouble with this assertion is that, for me, it led to many more twisted knots requiring my best work to unravel.
From the mostly silent audience listening to the quiet, humble terror of Professor Kenez' interpretation of the historical annotations of 10s, then 100s, then 10,000s of citizens coincidentally placed onto trains for travel to an unknown future, to the passionate interaction with the readings, etc. of Professor Baumgarten, we were gently but definitely delivered directly into the heart of the Holocaust as victim. We were pulled and torn between what we had always believed reality to be, into a reality that we could not imagine...or escape.
By the end of this week's discussions, one argument would begin that would last for more than four weeks. The second began during this week's study, and is ongoing still. With "Shoa" argument erupted about whether or not the participants were paid for their testimony. If so, how much ? Does this make a difference in the testimony given? Were lives still at risk by speaking? Yes, indeed. Did this fact change the outcome effect of the movie on us, individually or as a group? No. I did come away with a very clear understanding of the scope and range of any purported falsehood concerning the Holocaust and the realities it indicates. Impossible.
That was a rather animated discussion, especially as the "deniers" were suddenly descending on the videos. We knew that, with 18,000+ participants in the course, there was no doubt that "deniers" would be among them. So, we as a group chanced to have some most basic, civil discourse with them. Silly us.
The second issue dealt with a review written by one of the authors of a recommended reading, who then wrote a scathing criticism of "Shindler's List" as purely "kitsch"--opportunistic capitalism making hay on the Holocaust. That fiery debate is on-going.
In the meantime, modernity, and the Nueremberg Laws were awaiting us in Week Three.
I thought I understood the difficulties surrounding the topic of the Holocaust, and the issues surrounding it. I had no idea at all. Week three would prove that to me.
I hope you will check out the writings, the films, the documentaries, the testimonies (especially the video testimony of Nechama Tec on YouTube) and bring your open mind to the scene of the learning.
Week Two Resources
Appelfeld, Aaron. Badenheim 1939, B. G. Rudolph Lectures in Judaic Studies, Syracuse U Press **
Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas **
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust*
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen *
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men **
Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time *
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz **
Kertész, Imre. Fateless *
Schwarz-Bart, André. The Last of the Just *
Tec, Nehama. Dry Tears (Should be completed) **
Wiesel, Elie. Night *
[In addition to these texts, several .pdf files will be uploaded for your convenience.]
Image Before My Eyes *
Everything Is Illuminated *
Shoah (excerpts) **
Night & Fog *
Europa, Europa **
Partisans of Vilna **
Divided We Fall *
The Wannsee Conference **
The Pianist *
Shop On Main Street **
[In the United States all movies are available for rent on amazon.com or netflix.com]
Star Ratings are entirely mine. YMMV.