The Life Of Death
I am myself a survivor of the Holocaust: I was born in Warsaw (the subject of a large part of the essay ) and was in the Warsaw Ghetto almost till the end; then after various adventures that included a period of time “on the Aryan side,” as it was called then (that is, being hidden by a Polish Catholic family and helped by other Poles). I finished in Bergen-Belsen where I spent nearly two years. I think that being a child of nine to twelve years old during the crucial part of those experiences (1942-1945) helped me to understand them afterward better than could those who were fully grown up; and of course children under such experiences grow up and mature beyond their formal age, without however losing a part of the openness to strange things which is one of the advantages of youth. In numerous talks in Israel with many survivors of similar experiences, of more or less the same age, I have found a confirmation of my opinions.
In the first place I think that Garton Ash and, even more, Lanzmann before him do not want to understand the behavior of those who tried to lead a “normal” life, disregarding, so to say, the mass murder that went on around them, or those who actually helped in some secondary capacity to carry out the work of extermination, because both of them limit themselves, completely and absolutely, to the consideration of the Poles and disregard completely, or one can say in the case of Lanzmann, willfully the fact that many Jews had exactly the same attitudes. Let us take the Warsaw Ghetto. Before the beginning of the actual extermination of Jews in other cities was known to many including the children (especially after the news came of the extermination of the Ghetto of Lublin) the life went on exactly as usual, exactly as in Polish Warsaw during the extermination of the Warsaw Jews.
More than this: When after the great majority of Warsaw Jews were exterminated in summer 1942, and in the following late autumn and winter there was a comparative lull in “the actions,” that is, in the rounding up of Jews to be exterminated, life in the pitifully small residue of the Ghetto that remained also returned to some level of “normality” with some entertainment and card playing or other kinds of parties. The explanation is simply that the great majority of human beings cannot do otherwise; but this is a human explanation, common, as I believe, to all humanity not something peculiar to Poles as Lanzmann tries to make it, by omitting a crucial part of the evidence.
The same I could observe under even more harrowing conditions in Bergen-Belsen. For some months the platforms bearing hundreds of naked, emaciated dead bodies passed daily at a certain hour in the morning before our “special” little camp. When the horror (which was a horror even to people so hardened to shocks as we all were) began, it did shock all of us to the extent of disrupting our “normal” lives, for it is an essential part of the real and true experience of the victims of the Holocaust (and no doubt of other similar experiences) that, except for very short periods of time, “in the face of death” so to say a sort of “normality” is being established under almost all circumstances. But after a few days the same people who on the first day could not eat, in spite of the continuous horrible hunger, ate what they could find to eat, and the subject was mentioned less and less in the common talk of our camp.
The same thing happened when for a shorter time (I think for about a month) another camp with people who were literally being beaten to death with clubs was situated in the shortest possible distance from our own compound where we could see and hear the people being tortured to death with deliberate beatings and starvation. (Much of the beating was administered when the victims waited for their small pittance of soup, much less than others got.) I am not implying that most people who witness such horrors, whether Jews or Poles, do not continue to suffer and to feel some sympathy for the victims, only that they must after a rather short time return to some sort of normal experience in which the sufferings of the victims do not obsess and occupy their whole lives. Maybe this is what Plato implied when he said that human beings cannot bear too much reality, but in any case this is a part of our common human experience, in no way peculiar either to Jews or Poles, as a little observation or reflection on human beings placed in similar situations could show. For example how have people behaved in the past when others, maybe their neighbors and/or friends burned alive in the town square? Or were stoned to death “before the gate?”
The observation of Garton Ash that the Nazi oppression in Poland was greater than in other countries and the argument of the Poles who debated Lanzmann in Oxford that Polish Warsaw was in a state of terror is no doubt correct (as I saw myself) but is only of secondary importance in comparison with the fact that Jews, Poles, and everybody else so far as we can know when we wish to know, behave in about the same way in this respect, and that such behavior is a part of something that we may call “human nature,” common to most of us. The last passover Seder celebration (of 1943) which I celebrated with my parents was held amid the noises of shooting of the Jewish Revolt and its suppression in another part of the Ghetto, not so far away. It was a poor and hurried celebration but most accessories of the occasion were there and all the ceremonies were carried out, including the prescribed singing. The one before that in 1942 was a joyful occasion of much splendor, not only among us but with very many thousands of other Jewish families of the Warsaw Ghetto. Yet the extermination of Jews had already begun months ago and was much advanced.
No doubt, had a survivor from one of the many small towns of conquered USSR, where most of the Jews had been already exterminated, arrived at a typical Passover celebration of spring 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, or at one of the numerous public balls, concerts, etc., he would have said, if he was as stupid as the survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto whom Lanzmann picked, that while Jews were killed in this area, in the Warsaw Ghetto “life went on as naturally and normally as before.” There are even prevalent theories that this “life as usual” phenomenon in the ghettos was a justified part of the passive Jewish resistance. I am not sure about that, but I am sure, both rationally and passionately that human beings or most of them, whatever their nationality or religion, have to behave in this way in order to remain human beings.
Lanzmann simply heard what he wanted to hear, that Poles are such and such and that Jews are chosen people whose behavior should not be investigated. He did not want to hear the real truth, that both of them, and of course all other people too, are human beings who behave more or less in the same way in similar circumstances.
Similar considerations apply to the question of those who participated in the extermination of the Jews (or on other mass murder committed by the Nazis) or expressed sympathy for the extermination; except that seeking normality, of whatever kind, is a reaction of a great majority, of nearly everybody in fact, in all human societies; while collaborating in fearful crimes even under the condition of impunity and reward (in the form of steady work and relative protection from state terror) is indulged, in all societies (so far as we can see) only by a minority.
Again the crucial social fact, which could enlighten us about the
human reality of carrying out mass murders, is shirked both by Lanzmann
and Ash. Of course there were Polish policemen who rounded up Jews
and Poles, who blackmailed Jews whom they recognized as such. My
own mother was stopped on Warsaw street by such a one (she bought
herself with a diamond ring) while I followed a distance behind
with a Polish friend. We were both well trained enough to continue
past her, while she haggled for her life, and to stop and wait,
only behind a corner so that the blood price would not increase.
Maybe two actual “stories” which I witnessed myself, but which I believe to be very typical, will illustrate this attitude. During the first weeks of the great extermination in the summer of 1942, the Jews who worked in the big factories supplying the German Army were not molested, while other Jews were being rounded up. They were supposed to be in the factories till five o'clock in the afternoon, when they were allowed to go out, and at that time the catching of other Jews was supposed to stop. One such afternoon, at quarter past five I was looking out of a window of “Tebens,” one of those privileged factories, and saw a Jewish policeman dragging a boy (naturally the Jewish Policemen having no guns, preferred the weaker victims). The boy was shouting at the top of his voice that now the Jewish policeman had no right to catch him and resisting as well as he could, when suddenly the Nazi vice commander of the factory, vicious brute by the name Bach, came out of the gate, hit the policeman with the horsewhip which he always carried, and shouted at him: “Cursed Jew! An order is an order!”
Naturally this became the talk of the next day, and as much as Bach was hated (and he was one of the most vicious Nazis I ever saw), he was much praised for what he had done. Everyone rejoiced in the discomfiture of the Jewish policeman and exclaimed that no matter how much Bach was a monster the policeman “must be worse” (of course I see that they both, together with the Polish policemen, etc., were perfectly equal in their wickedness).
Much later, in late winter 1943, a well known Jewish spy for the Nazis was killed by the Jewish resistance in one of the entrances of the double block of flats (in Leszno Street) which we then inhabited. This was a necessary part of the preparations for the Jewish Revolt which followed not long afterward. I witnessed the killing, done by a very young man with a revolver from a short distance, and then together with a few children and teenagers present danced for joy round the dead body and then ran as quickly as I could to carry the glad tidings to my mother. She was as glad as I was, and only after a short time returned to normality enough to rebuke me for dancing around the corpse, saying that a polite boy does not behave so, however justified was the act...
Really, such stories could have been found by Lanzmann had he not been a prisoner of his own prejudices, and they should be known to Garton Ash. The attempt by both Lanzmann and Ash to find the “essence” or the “essentials” of the Polish situation is unfair and wrong in both senses of the word. It is not honest and it is not true. It is also presumptuous and racist, in spite of the unconvincing attempt of Garton Ash to quote Orwell about the nationalism of the victim. Of course such nationalism exists, but this is not the essential point, to use the expression they both use.
The essential point is the behavior common to all humanity, in this case of a criminal minority which is present in all bigger human groups who even in their nauseating criminality behave in a similar human manner; just as the opposite group, those who risked their lives to save others, or the great majority who in almost every situation wanted so passionately to return to some kind of normality, also behaved in a way which is neither Jewish nor Polish but typically human.
This difference between the reality and the distortion of it which I see as profound, is also most important in my opinion, both for the understanding of the past and for taking such precautions as one can for the future. Faced by the extreme irrationality expressed in Nazism we must try to think as rationally (and therefore as truly) as possible. As Bertrand Russell remarked in his interpretation of Aristotle: “The irrational separates us, the rational unites us.” The correct rational and human understanding of the Holocaust can be some help toward the unification of people of good will everywhere, while the incorrect pursuit of the presumed “essentials” of the Poles makes things worse and actually increase the dangers of other Holocausts directed against other peoples happening.
Also, the correct perception of the actual horrors of the extermination of the Jews in their all too human and typical character can be, and should be, a powerful instrument of understanding and caution to be addressed to all members of the human race without exception. To see the typical common and human wickedness of the minority of both the Jews and Poles who became Nazi servants is to become aware of the common human danger which lurks everywhere, but against which the imperfect human majority struggles with some success. Such expressions as “but for the grace of God there I go,” as addressed to everyone, express such truth as we will be able to find if we will seek it, about what happened to all human beings under the Holocaust.
This question should be raised even if one accepts (as I do) the description which Garton Ash quotes from Jan Gross of the prevalence of the anti Semitism in Poland of 1941, to the extent of adoption of the postulate of emigration as a solution of “the Jewish problem” even by the Polish socialists. Can one, even when condemning “a solution of emigration” for “a problem” of any human group, as I do, and as I presume Garton Ash does, do a sort of “quantum jump” and make necessary connection between such an attitude, however wrong, and a tendency to approve or to participate in a mass murder? I think the answer is “no,” and had there been a willingness to reason which necessarily includes the willingness to compare other, similar phenomena, instead of dogmatically accepting “the uniqueness” of the Holocaust and of anti-Semitism, the absurdity of this opinion of Hilberg and Lanzmann would be evident.
In 1944, during the actual course of the Holocaust, the British
Labour Party in its annual convention proposed to solve the problem
of the Palestinians in Palestine by having them emigrate from it.
This hateful approach had been very popular also in many other social
Democratic European parties in Europe in the Twenties and Thirties.
Much as I condemn that resolution and the use which to this day
is made of it in Israel (and among many diaspora Jews too, especially
in the US), I do not agree that supporting such an attitude, which
is identical with what Garton Ash solemnly quotes about Polish socialists
and others in 1941, has made the British Labour Party members favorable
to any mass murder or genocide of Palestinians.
I opposed and still oppose this hateful crime against humanity (and I insist that the fate of the Palestinians should be discussed together with the Holocaust!) but I don't agree that extermination and expulsion (or forced emigration) should be put in the same category, or even assumed to influence each other. How people act and how they are influenced should be deduced from observation of their behavior and not by the use of syllogism. It is a simple fact that for most human beings (whether Poles or Jews, or any of other groups) morality as expressed by their behavior is organized in water-tight compartments. People who “allow” themselves to steal from the government will not steal from a friend. People who tolerate one sort of crime when done by others will not do it themselves. It may be and it really is illogical, but it is also human, and I am not sure whether, at least in our stage of human development, greater amount of logic in human behavior would make the majority of human beings better or worse.
Memories, and the memories of my friends too, tell me that the attitude of Poles during the Holocaust to the fact of the extermination of the Jews around them was in this respect typically human and almost illogical (and I assume that on the average every other group of human beings would have behaved in more or less the same way, Jews too.) That is, there was a small group of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews, and many of this group actually lost their lives for this reason, a fact to which Lanzmann does not seem worthy of record.
It is of course true that there was another small group which either helped the Nazis, or expressed, quite loudly too, their satisfaction that the Jews “are gone.” My friends, and I too, remember very well occasions such as that which Garton Ash quotes from Kazimierz Brandys in which Poles expressed loudly or casually their delight with the mass murder of Jews. But in justice it should be pointed out that on many, perhaps most, of those occasions, there was a verbal opposition to such a statement. The usual situation, so much more human and even tragic, really, that what is expressed by people who have particular axe to grind, was of an individual expressing his delight that Jews were being exterminated, another one rebuking him, and “the many” to use an ancient Greek term, being silent and not committing themselves one way or another.
I will quote one really typical story which I myself vividly remember:
It was on a railway, a short time after a control of personal papers,
quite perfunctory to my great luck, was carried out by some German
soldiers. The people in the crowded railway truck naturally began
to converse about the sufferings caused by the occupation and their
hopes of eventual freedom and independence for Poland, when one
person suddenly exclaimed: “I am as great a patriot as any
of you, and I am ready to shed my blood for Poland, but after we
have our independence I also want to donate money in order to put
a golden statue of Hitler in Warsaw for freeing us of Jews.”
There was a short silence and another person exclaimed and I am
translating him literally as his words are branded in my memory:
"Fear God, Sir! They are human beings too!' There was
then a total, rather long silence, and then slowly people began
to converse about other subjects.
This may be and really is a very illogical answer but it is more true to the real pattern of behavior of the majority of human beings than anything Lanzmann “compelled” his Polish witness to say. It was not a “Polish” answer, it was for both the bad and the good which was in it, a human answer. We should try to be better than this average, we should try to belong to this better minority which among the Poles admitted loudly, in deeds too. its adhesion to the principles of humanity logically expressed and done, but not at the price of ignoring the actual behavior of the majority of human beings.
All those serious faults and dangerous mistakes committed by Lanzmann and Hilberg, and to some extent by Garton Ash too, proceed from the dogma of the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust; from the assumption, utterly false in my opinion, that the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis should also not be connected to other phenomena. Let us take as our first example Hilberg's “logical progression” of the causes of the Holocaust “because from the earliest days... the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews “You may not live amongst us as Jews.”
Now this in itself is simply nonsense in two ways. First, although Christian churches insisted on serious limitations of the rights of Jews, on their humiliation and degradation, Jews were allowed to live in Christian countries with a rather full protection of their own religion and their right as Jews not be Christians, more than any other non-Christian or heretical group. In the Middle Ages and long afterward, the sole non-Christian group in non-Christian countries was Jewish. Pagans, witches, heretics (and other groups as well) were exterminated or persecuted with much greater ferocity than the Jews. Saint Louis of France burned, after a long legal process, the Talmud, and severely limited Jewish privileges, but in comparison to the thousands of heretics, especially the Albigenses, burned alive, and countless others imprisoned and persecuted, his treatment of the Jews was relatively mild, and of course this difference was with full approval of the Church in both cases.
But if not only the wishes, but the actual prohibition of the “others” living inside a particular group can be the most important reason for a Holocaust, for a mass extermination, then I must propound a dilemma to Lanzmann and Hilberg: As I write, one of the two chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, issued a ruling according to which Jews in the Land of Israel are prohibited to sell or to rent any real property, including flats, to non-Jews. This came after many similar, or even worse, official pronouncements by local rabbis, without, so far as I know, a single living Orthodox rabbi expressing the slightest disagreement with this racist ruling, which means that according to Orthodox Judaism the non Jews in the Jewish State should not only be discriminated against and put into ghettos, but denied, literally, the opportunity to live in Israel.This pronouncement, which I quote because it is so recent, came after many others made during the last ten years, in which many Israeli Orthodox rabbis declared that non Jews (or sometimes only “idolaters” meaning Christians as opposed to Muslims) should not be allowed to dwell in the Land of Israel according to Orthodox Judaism.
Moreover this could be called the true opinion of the historical Judaism, since before the beginning of the influence of the Enlightenment on Jews at the end of the eighteenth century, all Jews were Orthodox. Therefore if one accepts the thesis of Hilberg and Lanzmann, all non Jews in the state of Israel would be serious danger of being denied a place to live, and the Jews, especially the religious ones, could be suspected of either helping with such a project when they will be able to do so, or of rejoicing in it because of their Judaism, and of course Hilberg and Lanzmann should say as much. If not, then although we have here a piece of racism, of an apartheid of South African proportions which we should oppose, still we should make a distinction both in the case of Judaism and of Christianity, between the worst sort of racism, which does not include mass denial of a place to live, and mass expulsion itself.
The sophistic tricks of putting statements in the mouth of groups (“the missionaries of Christianity”) which never made them also ignore the facts about whom the Nazis exterminated. The first large scale Nazi attempted extermination of a group of completely innocent people was the well known murder of the Germans who were disabled or insane. How in a discussion of what Nazism is can one ignore it? Especially how can one ignore it when putting the historical blame for what the Nazis did on Christianity? Whatever was the Christian attitude to Jews or to heretics, it is quite clear even without invoking the example of St. Francis of Assisi, that Christian attitude to the disabled, the weak, the ill, and the miserable is most praiseworthy in principle, and that nothing can be imagined which is further removed from Christian principles (no matter if they have not been always or even often realized) than the purposeful extermination of people because they are ill or weak. That the extermination of the insane or the disabled Germans was stopped by the Nazis after a strong Christian opposition revealed itself in practice (particularly by the Catholics) does not affect this argument. (It is relevant to another important argument of what could or could not be done to stop the extermination of the Jews.)
It is relevant to add in this context that in the cases where a resolute opposition to the extermination of Jews was manifested, which could be perceived by the Nazis as being dangerous enough for them, the Jews were not exterminated although under the Nazi rule. Such was the case in two widely different countries, Bulgaria and Finland, and such was the very general case of the Jews who could prove a citizenship of either neutral or enemy independent countries. The Nazi intentions of exterminating ultimately both all the Jews and the German disabled (and of course of many other groups as well) are not affected in either case.
In fact, if we simply look on the reasons which the Nazis gave, there is no mystery about the origin of their views: it is the debased and the vulgar application of “social Darwinism” and of the “survival of the fittest” as it has developed in Europe and North America from the late nineteenth century. Such concepts together with “Lebensraum,” the race theory especially in its more debased forms, can take hold if applied fanatically enough under totalitarian conditions in which people are unable to reply to them. Bolstered by the tenet of an overriding loyalty to the state and combined with a lot of chauvinism, this way of thinking is enough to explain everything that the Nazis did (or intended to do after their victory) to everybody, including to Jews who of course suffered especially but who were not the only victims.
This dogmatic and total separation from the sufferings of the people, of which Garton Ash is aware to some extent but not enough, seems to me the worst fault, almost I would say the spiritual crime of Lanzmann, which induces almost total moral blindness in him and even indifference to the fate of human beings who are non-Jews.
One should know that the Nazi aims in Eastern Europe were different than those in the West. Garton Ash here is not accurate when mentioning only the Poles. All Slav peoples east of Germany were intended by the Nazis for an ultimate fate not very much better than the fate assigned by them to the Jews, while the fate of the French and others in Western Europe was to be much less bad, because of a measure of respect and snobbery that the Nazis, including especially Hitler, had towards them. Instead of unfolded remarks about the nature of the French and the Poles, I would advice Lanzmann, if he can be advised, to research the well recorded reactions of Hitler toward the French (especially on his visit to Paris in 1940 for example) and towards the Poles. And if he doubts that the minority of French can wish to exterminate another group, then some reading of the more extreme Catholic proposals of what to do to Huguenots in the sixteenth century, together with some few descriptions of what was done in some cases, would be recommended. Indeed at that time it was one of the Huguenot arguments that they should be tolerated in France at least on the same terms as the Pope tolerated Jews in the Papal States, which then included Avignon, an enclave inside France itself.
One cannot repeat too often: The extermination of the Jews by the
Nazis, with all its horrors and all the typical human behavior involved
in those horrors, was not unique, and one can only begin to understand
it when one sees that it was not unique in two ways. First, by trying
to see that the majority of human beings really behaved almost all
the time in a perfectly typical human way, we may perhaps be prepared
for other similar horrors which may well come. If we cannot prevent
them maybe the true understanding of what happened will cause some
of us not be merely content with the role of the majority of human
beings (of whatever group) and with them seek only for normality
under most circumstances, but to look higher, and without despising
this majority, to try in the hour of trial to be better, whether
by protesting verbally or by acting to save life. By "reducing'',
so to say, the Holocaust to what happened to Jews only, one encourages
the attitude, whether consciously or not, first of all of indifference
and the wish to disregard what has happened or is happening (or
may happen in the future) to other human beings, to other human
In this last category the horrors of the African slave trade, particularly as involving the “Middle Passage” through the Atlantic, should be regarded by everybody, including the Jews, as being fully equivalent to the horrors of the Holocaust. If I try to imagine to myself an African village raided, the able bodied males and females “selected” (as in Auschwitz) to be kept alive, the children, the old, and the weak killed, the long march and shipping under the most degrading conditions, as bad as anything I have seen under the Nazis, and then the life of slavery, particularly on the plantations then I must consider rationally and sympathize passionately as a human being, and also as a Jew who survived the Holocaust, say: Both were qualitatively such an enormous horror that we must regard them, and the reactions of human beings to them, as being equal, for in such altitudes of human suffering we can not differentiate and remain human. And we must remember, and I do so, that only the defeat of Hitler saved Poles, Russians, and all other Slav peoples of Eastern Europe from a similar fate of slavery.
In the same way we should look on examples of the actual extermination of groups, big or small, which were actually carried out. Of many examples, which can be found through the recorded part of human history, I will offer here three: the total extermination of the Tasmanians in the second quarter of the nineteenth century carried out by the British settlers with the help of the Australian Aborigines (whom they brought from Australia to Tasmania for this purpose); the nearly complete extermination of the Armenians in a great area of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 - 1917; and the custom prevalent through the greater part of Chinese recorded history of “wiping out” whole families and clans of “enemies of the state” including especially the careful extermination of children. Since under the mildest conditions this involved the killing of five generations “only,” that is the murder of all those descended from the grandfather, the father, the person sentenced, his sons, and his grandsons, and since the upper class of the Chinese was polygamous, one can easily make a rough calculation how many people were involved in one such proscription, of let us say, a sixty year old minister!
But serious thinking about the Holocaust cannot be limited even
by consideration of behavior in the past (and of current attitudes)
to such examples. We should go on and ask direct and really embarrassing
questions about our (or our neighbors') real attitude to mass murder,
to mass extermination of children, to all of what really happened
during the Holocaust; ask such people who while ready enough to
condemn Hitler and the Nazis (they failed after all) really praise,
even now, the same attitude of extermination if commanded by their
God in their Holy Books. For after all, extermination of whole peoples
including children, or “selection” in the Nazi manner,
that is, murder of innocent people or children arbitrarily chosen
on orders of “an authority,” is expressly commanded
in the Old Testament and damnation of the greater part of human
race in “the eternal fire” is predicted in the New (and
in the Koran too).
I could imagine that without going to the neighborhood of Treblinka, or better still, together with going there, Lanzmann could find some people in Paris who would, on being asked, really defend all those atrocities, first because they were supposed to be carried out by their own group and commanded by their own authority (a supposedly divine one which really makes matter worse) and second because in this case the atrocities are supposed to be supported by the success of survival and their acceptance by so many generations of believers.
Of course such hypothetical behavior needs real courage, such as I will dare say Lanzmann (and Hilberg) do not possess. To stand up actively or passively against the open or supposed enemies of one's own group does not testify to the really superior type of courage and honesty, for in this case the person, even though he knows that he is going to die, is being supported emotionally by the known feelings of solidarity, of the particular group to which he belongs after all by an accident of birth and upbringing.
The really great form of courage and honesty that could be witnessed under the conditions of the Holocaust was when a Pole opposed (in open opinion or in an individual action) the opinion or the silence of other Poles, when a Jew opposed other Jews, and when Germans opposed other Germans or against the Nazism in general (like the “White Rose” group or others).
This is the type of courage which we should learn about and emulate,
without despising, at least without despising too much, the majority
that is not capable of it, both under the conditions of the Holocaust
and of all others, whether similar or lesser ones. In this really
essential, unending, quest Lanzmann failed and Garton Ash does not
understand his failure.
First published in the New York Review of Books, January 29,
Israel Shahak: Brief biography:
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