Saturday, April 07, 2007

Darkness Visible

I recently read a book called The Sunflower. The book features a true story written by Simon B. Wiesenthal which addresses a profound question, and then includes a series of essays from prominent figures throughout the world in terms of the answers they would have given in his stead.

The Sunflower is the story of Wiesenthal's encounter with a dying twenty-one year old Nazi soldier. The Nazi, whose head is swathed in bandages and whose thin, raspy voice is his sole means of communication, confesses his sins to Wiesenthal, detailing how he and his comrades murdered Jews in a sadistic, cruel fashion. He and his fellow soldiers crowded three hundred Jews into a small house, locked all the doors, and set the house on fire. They positioned themselves opposite the house and shot anyone who tried to jump. This Nazi, Karl, remembers a particular family, a mother, father and son, their clothes alight, and is haunted by his actions. He begs forgiveness from Wiesenthal.

Simon does not grant forgiveness, but remains silent.

Many essayists discuss the moral/ theological/ political/ philosophical question of whether or not Wiesenthal ought to have granted the Nazi forgiveness. They attempt to put themselves in his place and decide. Some, citing Jewish law, explain that it is impossible in any case for him to forgive the sins comitted against those others than himself. Others debate whether the Nazi was truly repentant. I read through all the essays contained in my edition, and was surprised that many assumed Karl was truly unrepentant.

I personally found these words to be the most moving:

    We waited for the order to attack. It came at last and we climbed out of the trenches and charged, but suddenly I stopped as though rooted to the ground. Something seized me. My hands, which held my rifle with fixed bayonet, began to tremble.

    In that moment, I saw the burning family, the father with the child and behind them the mother- and they came to meet me. 'No, I cannot shoot at them a second time.' The thought flashed through my mind...And then a shell exploded by my side. I lost consciousness. (The Sunflower, 51)

I believe it is the Rambam who writes that one cannot accomplish true repentance or teshuva until one is in exactly the same position as the last time, when one sinned, and chooses to act differently. According to Karl, that is what he did. No, he was not physically in the same position as the last time, but mentally he saw the image of the burning family, and thought 'I cannot shoot at them a second time.' The very fact that he was preoccupied with this thought caused him to become unaware of his surroundings and lose focus. That is when the shell explodes at his side, wounding him mortally...indirectly, the fact that he 'cannot shoot at them a second time' is what costs Karl his life.

I cannot say whether or not Simon ought to have granted forgiveness to Karl. That is not a question I feel that any of us [non-survivors] are in a position to answer. But it seems to me that the Nazi was truly repentant in terms of the Rambam, if we are to believe his [Karl's] words. Some question as to whether his confession and repentance are achieved only because he is on the brink of death. I would say no- because the very reason he is in this position is because he paused, because he could not act in the same way he did the last time, because he could not shoot again. That was before he asked for a Jew, any Jew, to act as his confessor.

He is an example of the repentant Nazi; the notorious Dr. Mengele is an example of just the opposite.

Today I read a book called Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. It was a deeply disturbing read because I am closely related to a set of twins, and could envision every horror and cruelty being perpetrated upon them. That left me feeling sick.

The stylistic choice of the authors is interesting. They chose to write of Dr. Mengele's life- this is the primary focus- with interspersed quotes by twin survivors of his experiments as the secondary focus. Over and over again, survivors stress that Mengele's personality was duplicitous. He was handsome, dignified, elegant and truly loved little children. At the same time, he was cruel. He would slip a twin a piece of candy and then give him a painful injection. He would lie quite blithely to concerned parents on their way to the gas chambers. Seeing himself as a geneticist, he wanted to create the perfect Aryan race with beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes. Identical twins played a major part in his experiments, because, of course, he wanted to replicate the genes that would produce people with blonde hair and blue eyes. He also included some sets of fraternal twins for study, or children with extremely Aryan features.

Known as 'Mengele's Children,' they were allowed to keep their clothes and long hair, but subjected to painful and cruel experiments. Nurses and doctors placed drops or needles in the children's eyes in an attempt to cause them to turn blue, sometimes blinding them for days. They subjected them to painful injections, castrated them, performed major surgeries without anesthesia and forced them to undergo all sorts of horrible procedures. The book does not focus as much upon the actual experiments. It instead focuses on the characters of the twins and survivors and on Mengele's life.

One of the most fascinating characters is Twins' Father, Zvi Spiegel. He was assigned by Dr. Mengele to be in charge of the twin boys. His role was one of mentor and father; he was the one to gently break the news to the children that their parents were not going to come back to them, that in fact, they were dead. He was the one who watched and guarded the children, who invented games and classes in an attempt to keep them out of Mengele's way, the one who risked his own life to save them when a different doctor decreed that they should all be gassed. He was the one who led the children back home after they were liberated.

The book afforded me the most insight, however, in describing what happened to the survivors after liberation. Children went back to their hometowns to discover that nobody was left, or that a single parent remained. Some tried to stay in their hometowns only to encounter anti-Semitism once again- after everything they had gone through. Most survivors felt unsafe in Europe, felt that everything could happen again; they could be deported, stripped of their belongings, forced into unreal, horrific conditions- again. They needed a cause, something to live for. Young children or teenagers joined Bnei Akivah groups or the Zionist cause. Everyone wanted to emigrate, legally or illegally.

This is the first book I have read that follows survivors into the trauma and pain of adulthood and rebuilding. Most children and young adult Holocaust books end with liberation or death. If that is not the case, the continuing story is heroic, telling of a young woman's transition into a Zionistic member of the Haganah or some similar organization. This is the first book that movingly offered a fiercely true and accurate portrait of the sense of loss and trauma the survivors endured, of how they felt, adrift and alienated, everything having been taken from them, with nothing and no one to live for.

The survivors themselves seem to have bared their souls. Many speak of how they wanted to create a new family for themselves and married very quickly- often, if they were women, to men much older than they were, as these were the only people they felt could understand them. They became pregnant quickly, hoping that their children would replace all that they had lost. Once they had children, however, survivors were not always ideal parents. Some were extremely overprotective, feeling that if they left the house it could happen again- they could return and find their family gone, or dead. This was true even if the survivors were living in Israel or a different country. Others realized that the people they had married so quickly after the war did not really share anything in common with them, and suffered from unhappy marriages. Some unwittingly passed on their fears to their children. One woman associated any doctor who wore a white coat with Mengele and became sick, even suicidal, in the presence of people who only wanted to treat her. There was a feeling of resentment, even anger with how "weak" the Jews had been, going like "sheep to the slaughter." Nobody cared and nobody wanted to know what had happened there, and survivors did not want to speak- or felt that there was no audience. All was silence.

One of the most moving quotes:


    There are times I get so angry, I beat up my son. I get in such a rage, I don't know what I'm doing. I can't control my temper. I start throwing things and smashing furniture. I beat anyone who is near me.

    Anything can trigger my rages- even a little thing, like a messy room in the house.

    My second wife, Miriam, knew nothing about my past when she married me. She might not have married me if she had.

    I used to beat her a lot. She was very frightened when I hit her or the children. But she knew I was not to blame.

    When I calm down, I feel very bad. I tell my wife and my children I am sorry. I ask them for forgiveness. I beg them to understand.

This brings me to my third book, Children of the Holocaust.

The book title is misleading at first. The book is actually about the children of survivors, not children who lived during the Holocaust. Children of the Flames afforded me the missing piece in my knowledge; it helped me understand why some survivors ended up being the kind of parents they were. Children of the Flames explained a lot to me. Reading about it, it all seems so mismanaged. When they liberated them, everyone cared about them. American soldiers showered survivors in candy and took them to hospitals. But after that, there were displacement camps or simply lost souls, lost souls traveling back to a home that had nothing to offer them. Lost souls who had nothing to live for and seized hold of a cause, whatever it might be, who struggled to forge a new life for themselves in a different country, often battling feelings of guilt and depression. People who had once been highly-respected, professionals, now unable to practice their trades because of their lack of certification. People who now, in their adult years, had to overcome the language barrier. People who must have felt an understandable amount of anger- they had survived, they had come through so much, and for what? For this? To fight in a new country, to eke out a living, to accustom themselves to new ways and a new language- this was their reward for living?

Children of the Holocaust is an account of Helen Epstein's (herself a child of Holocaust survivors) interviews with other children of Holocaust survivors. The children explain how their childhoods were different than those of their peers, how they felt that there was a secret, an overriding horror, a pressing influence that ruled their lives. In some families, it was clear- the parents told the children what they had suffered; they even wanted to talk about it. In others, the Holocaust was a taboo subject, never to be mentioned.

Here are some accounts from children of Holocaust survivors:
    I don't know if you can understand this, but my family never did anything together. We never sat down at a table together; we never ate together; nothing ever as a family. Food was eaten alone. In the store, my mother would always be the first one. My father always used to say that even in the forest she always took food for herself instead of thinking of other people. She always talked about how hungry she was. They eat like horses on Yom Kippur. (101)

Then there is blonde-haired blue-eyed Gabriella, whose parents (Holocaust survivors) raised her to be as German as possible.
    You know, if you go to a German school and you grow up reading German literature, you become very pro-German. I can very well understand those German Jews who stayed in Germany late into the thirties, even while they saw what was happening. I understand those Jews who returned to live in Germany today. I travel to Germany. For most of my life, I was very close to everything German...

Or Ruth:
    I was a loner. I couldn't plunge into a group. I felt different from all of them and I was different. My parents were older than everyone else's parents. They were European. They didn't play bridge and do all the suburban things that parents in Rochester did. I felt different from the kids who weren't Jewish and I had this hate for American Jews. I didn't understand them and they didn't understand me. To be Jewish in high school meant joining the Jewish social group and going to synagogue. I felt the strongest Jewish experience I had was the Holocaust. That's where I identified being Jewish, and not with anything else. I felt very alone. (170)

Albert Singerman, whose parents did want to talk about the Holocaust:
    "Why? I don't know why," he said. "Look, when they talk to you about the camps and the torture and they show you pictures of the dead relatives, they don't have to tell you they're angry. You feel it. It's in the air. But at the age of ten, what are you going to do with that? When they talked about the family I got enraged that they were all dead. That stands out in my mind. The fact that they were all dead, and I couldn't do anything about it." (201)

Or Deborah, a competitor in the "Miss America" beauty pageant:
    "It's like your iron box," she told me. "I have a rock in my closet. I always think of what I would do if I needed to escape. Where are the exits? Who would I go to? Who would hide me and my family if I needed to be hid?" (270)

That's the one that resonates the most with me. I remember learning about the Holocaust, hearing about it, and staring in the mirror. Was my hair blonde enough? My eyes blue enough? Could I pass for an Aryan? I worried about my hair. I thought that I would have to dye it, but the roots would show, and then what would I do?

By no means do I want to imply that all Holocaust survivors had dysfunctional lives or a hard time acting as parents. That's certainly not true. Children of the Holocaust addresses a wide spectrum of children and discusses many different childhoods. It simply allows for a window of understanding. Why this one's mother never could bear to throw away good food. How a certain child's parents expected her to be happy, and the weight of that expectation oppressed her. How some took out their anger on their children. How some suffered from survivor's guilt or Survivor's Syndrome, feeling guilt because they had survived.

Some object to the institution of Yom Hashoa, the day of rememberance for the Holocaust. Perhaps Orthodox Jews do not need this day because they remember on Tisha b'Av. But for the rest of the world, at least, this day is very necessary. There is so much to remember. There are the victims and the ones who fought. There are the survivors. The children of survivors. So much.

And so much of this is being lost, drifting away...

At the seder, my mother questioned how it was possible that a Pharoah arose who "did not know Joseph." And my father answered, "They're already denying the Holocaust; you think there couldn't be a king who "didn't know" Joseph?"

Yom Hashoa, April 15, is one of the most important days of the year. It is a day for the world to remember what happened, what the Holocaust was. It is a day for all of us lucky enough to be living in America to really think about what it means to go hungry, to want, to lack, to be tortured and harmed, of all those who suffered psychological and emotional damage because of the Holocaust. And it is also a day to feel a deep anger toward those who claim that this never happened and does not exist.

I am so content and happy here that I do not realize until books put the subject in perspective for me. Did you know that Irma Grese, the "Beautiful Beast," was only 18 when she committed some of her cruelest, most horrible crimes? She sicced dogs on inmates, killed them in cold blood, tortured them, etc. She was 18. My age. A girl my age committed some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity and felt not a jot of guilt. It's strange to realize something like that. I know the victims' side very well, but the Nazis? I didn't know she was so young.

Yom Hashoa is a day that must that the world does not forget, and in my opinion, does not forgive. Forgiveness implies understanding of another's weakness and therefore leads to one's extending clemency, but there can be no understanding for those like Irma Grese. No, the world must condemn, and continue to condemn...only then will we not forget.


C said...

Do we really have to set aside a day to remember? It one day enough? How can we say that there is one day set aside to remember so much? I agree that we must never forget, but i think that remembering is something we must do every day.

Chana said...

No, one day is not enough. But I do not think we can accurately remember every day, as that would be far too much to bear. The day exists so that at least there is one day, the world over, for all to remember.

Anonymous said...

"I believe it is the Rambam who writes that one cannot accomplish true repentance or teshuva until one is in exactly the same position as the last time, when one sinned, and chooses to act differently."

Yes (Madah, Hilchos Teshuva, 2:1), but I'm not sure the Rambam would agree that mentally being in the same position is equivalent to physically being there, with regard to 'Complete Teshuva'. The example with which the Rambam himself illustrates his view is if a person engages in illicit relations with a woman, and then, after a while, is alone with her in virtually the same situation as before, but this time restrains himself - that's a "ba'al teshuva gemurah". Furthermore, the Rambam then says that if someone repents at a time when it's no longer possible for him to commit the original sin, it's still considered 'teshuva', but it's not the best type of teshuva. Would you agree that this was the situation Karl was in - not being able to physically "be there", and undo this specific family's killing, but mentally accepting it upon himself not to do it again?

Anyway, that's just a side issue. What I really wanted to point out is that the Holocaust is fast fading into oblivion, unfortunately. 'Revisionists' are cropping up everywhere - attempting to "explain" and "reconstruct" the unfathomable damage that was done. I don't know if five, ten, fifteen years from now, people will still remember the Holocaust, much less care about a day set aside for specifically remembering it . I'm afraid it might pass into legend. The gas chambers will become Hollywood creations, the death camps will become (and are becoming) arcane and shrouded in mystery, and the suffering and torment - overexaggerated fantasy.

This is something we must never forget - it's the main reason why Yom HaShoah was instituted. If Tish'a b'Av is good enough for you, fine. But for the rest of us, it isn't. Is one day enough? Definitely not. But it's the least that can be done.
As long as people still specifically remember the heinous crimes that were committed during the Holocaust, there is still hope that history won't repeat itself.


Anonymous said...

My mother could never discuss her death camp experiences. It’s a pity because she was such an eloquent woman. Her survival remains a complete mystery, as do practically all of my parents pre war lives, Their secretive, distrusting nature, their unwillingness to take even their own children into confidence were only two of my parents many issues. Although materially successful they were emotionally spent. The were outwardly ambivalent towards their children. As a child, ambivalence is hard to warm up to. Damaged parents raise damaged children, Unable to find any favor in my fathers eyes, I continually sought approval through the eyes of strangers. I still do!