I’ve had the Holocaust on my mind a lot lately, not just because of the recent memorial day but because of the novel I’m reading, which deals with it in a way that I’ve never been exposed to before – the main characters in this novel include both a man who was an SS officer, and a Jewish woman who survived the camps. We hear both of their stories, each from their own point of view.
We spend some time inside the head of a German child who, as a teenager, was exposed to Nazism and absorbed it happily. We follow his story and see the horrifying cruelty through the eyes of someone who was actually inflicting it on people. We hear how he had to learn not to look into people’s eyes, how he and other soldiers found themselves getting drunk more and more just to obliterate the horror from their minds – we get to the point of almost feeling sympathy for the guy.
Then we hear her story.
He, as an old man who needs to somehow live with the knowledge of what he has done, is full of the: anyone would have done the same, the adults taught us this stuff and of course as a child you just accept what you’re told – but I’m listening to his story and thinking: you knew it was wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t have had that need to get drunk and forget, you wouldn’t have had that need to avoid looking your victims in the eye, and you wouldn’t be needing to make all these excuses now.
And reading her story, I’m reminded again and again that there were people who behaved differently. Not everyone reacted in the same way. In the novel we have the character of this guy’s own brother, who had been exposed to the same indoctrination as a kid, but didn’t buy it, and tried very hard to avoid becoming part of the Nazi machine. And when he couldn’t avoid becoming part of it, he struggled with his conscience and he tried, here and there in small ways, to help individuals in the camps.
So what am I saying? On the one hand I know we all have the capacity for cruelty. I don’t like it when people call someone a monster because of something particularly horrifying that person has done, because I don’t think it’s right to ignore that part of human nature – I won’t join in pretending that being human doesn’t include the capacity for hate and violence and cruelty. Have I never been cruel to another person? Sure, not on the same level as the Nazis in the camps, but where do you draw the line? At what point do you call someone a monster? I don’t think there is a clear line. That part of me that makes me capable of saying something hurtful to another person just because they’ve annoyed me – that’s the same part that makes it possible for a person to torture a fellow human being, or to kill them. We all have it in us.
But on the other hand – we all have choices, and different people in identical circumstances make different choices. One of the people in the story is the Jewish guy who was in charge of the ghetto where this girl lived (after the Germans moved all the Jews of the city into the ghetto and shut them in; before she was, eventually, deported to one of the camps) – this guy was cooperating with the Nazis, clearly for material gain. Now and again the Nazis would demand a list of people to be deported to the camps, and this guy would provide them with the lists they wanted. In contrast to him, we’re presented with the rabbi who was told he had to provide a list of several hundred people from his synagogue and, rather than do that, committed suicide. Did he save anyone’s life through this act? Probably not. But he chose not to be an accomplice.
The whole novel is full of these choices. Choices made by desperate people in the camps – a starving person choosing to share some crumbs with another person, choosing to rise above the situation and continue to act with kindness, choosing not to let the circumstances turn her into someone else.
We have both of those sides in us. In a sense you could say anyone could have commited those atrocities – but not everyone did.
That’s what I’d say to the old man in the story: what you did was wrong. I understand why you did it. I understand that a contributing factor was the indoctrination you were subjected to, but that’s only one contributing factor. Others were exposed to the same indoctrination but made better choices. You made your choices, and you did – at some level – know it was wrong, but you chose to numb your conscience and do it anyway.
But to those who say “never again” (which I was hearing a lot on Holocaust Memorial Day recently) I turn with sadness and say: oh really? how are we going to make sure that something like that never happens again? has humanity changed and lost the ability to be cruel? or do you think we can somehow police the whole world and prevent such atrocities? who is this “we” anyway? is there a country that doesn’t do wrong? is there a bunch of people who have clean hands, who can go around the world stopping all the evil regimes from engaging in mass torture and murder? we don’t seem to have managed “never in this decade” so “never again” just… sorry, it rings hollow… (And please don’t tell me the UN is the answer. I’m not saying they’re never any help to anyone, but even with the best will in the world there’s a huge limit to what they can do.)
I do understand why we say “never again”. We say it because we want to believe it. We want to believe that we live in a better world than it really is, or at least we want to believe the world is getting better. We want to believe that it is humanly possible to prevent genocide everywhere. We want to believe that whenever we hear of some dictator somewhere going crazy and committing mass murder against his civilian population, we (we, the “enlightened west”?) can just make him stop – if only it were so simple and straightforward, but it is not. You topple a dictator and often get a worse regime instead. And can you really go around toppling all evil dictators? We can’t even always agree about who does or doesn’t deserve toppling. The decision to go and interfere in what’s going on in another country – it’s not a straightforward decision, it’s not always easy to judge from outside what is actually really going on, and it’s often unclear from the outside what the best solution would be.
I am very glad that the Allies did eventually intervene in what was going on in Nazi-controlled Europe at the time. I’m Jewish, and the thought of my people being exposed to such horror for so long before they were rescued (those who survived, that is) is almost unbearable. I’m very very grateful that eventually that choice was made, and people like that woman in the story, or like some of my relatives, were set free.
And I think there are times when such a choice has to be made, times when we have to try and rescue people if we can. I’d hate to live in a world where nobody ever tries to help those who are vulnerable.
I just know that we can’t always do that. So I hear the cry “never again” and think: that’s nice wishful thinking, but humanly we can’t make that happen.
Does it mean we shouldn’t ever try? Heaven forbid. Doing what we can, even if it’s only small, even if it only helps one single person – it makes a difference. The Jewish woman in the novel I’m reading managed at one point to escape and a German farmer’s wife hid her for a while, washed her and gave her clean clothes, and fed her. This didn’t last long before she was caught and dragged back to the camp – but a few days of being fed properly made a difference to her chances of survival so that when the Allies turned up and freed the camp, she was still alive! And that’s without mentioning the difference it made to her morale, being treated with compassion by a fellow human being after years of constantly being treated as less than human. That woman who helped her may have felt afterwards that it was all for nothing, but it wasn’t.
And doing what we can makes a difference not just to those we help, but to ourselves – looking yourself in the mirror is a lot easier when you know you’ve done the right thing.
So yes, let’s try and do good when we can. Even when it seems like a tiny little drop in a large, dark ocean. But let’s not kid ourselves that “never again” is realistic. The only time the horror will really come to an end is when Jesus comes back to rule this earth and bring the promised Messianic Age, the time when the lion will lie down with the lamb and there will be no more war, no more bloodshed, no more hurting one another.
In the meantime, we need to do our bit when we can.
P.S. in case anyone wants to know which novel I’ve been talking about, despite the multitude of spoilers… (if you don’t want to know, look away now) (leaving some gaps to help with spoiler avoidance)
It’s The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, and I highly recommend it.