The Humanity Amid The Horror
The memorial at Mauthausen concentration camp.
-- Arthur B. Shostak
In my Brooklyn youth in the early 1950s, I began a lifelong practice of seeking out novels and autobiographies of Holocaust survivors that could help me understand the unspeakable horror of that terrifying tragedy. Photos in Life magazine and the breathless discoveries by the press of the unimaginable atrocities shook me to my roots. But I found myself drawn far more to rarer accounts, as in the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, of efforts victims made to stay human, to defy the designs of the Nazis.
In the summers of 2005 and 2006, my lifelong interest here had my wife, Lynn Seng, and I visiting five European concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen, Plaszow, and Theresienstadt - the “model” Nazi concentration camp to which we went twice. Over the years we have also gone to several new and old Holocaust Museums here and abroad (Montreal, Paris, etc.), to the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem (which I have visited seven times since 1971), and to resister and war memorials in nearly a dozen European countries. I left all of those sights troubled by the emphasis placed on the horrors suffered by the victims.
A two-week East European tour in the summer of 2006 was typical. As the tour prepared to visit the Warsaw Ghetto, Schindler’s factory, the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, and two concentration camps, the American professor of Holocaust Studies who led the tour filled lecture after lecture with graphic stories of Nazi brutality and horror. No examples, however, were ever shared of victims trying to care for one another. Nothing was said about victims who reached out for one another, or tried to uphold the honor of their ideals, whether those of Judaism, Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Christianity, or whatever.
Nowadays, when I remember a Holocaust Museum or concentration camp exhibit hall, what readily comes to mind is the material that graphically documents the unspeakable, gruesome atrocities (executions, murder, torture, etc.). We gasp, recoil, and even avert our eyes. Some explores slightly less horrific material, such as vandalized shops, schools, or synagogues. A bit touches on the post-liberation lives of survivors (reunited families, newborn children, etc.), and a very small amount looks back on a pre-Holocaust bucolic scene of (false) security. Hardly any allows for the possibility that some of the victims may have struggled to keep in touch with their humanity. The possibility that the necessity for human connection could have led to the covert creation of networks of mutual support gets short shrift, if it gets any attention at all.
Rachel Korazim, director of Education at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, puts the matter quite well - “We’ve managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images. This is not Jewish history, this is Nazi history.” Is this preoccupation with evil the only, or even the best approach, given the challenge we have of keeping the narrative of the Holocaust consequential? Is a memorial strong in evil-focused motifs still the wisest course? Might a new balance favor greater appreciation of the narrative?
I learned more about all of this from a recent and entirely unexpected writing project. In 2005, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance near my Narberth, Pa., home of an elderly East European survivor, Henry Skorr. Over the next several months I tape-recorded 60 hours of his life history in Kalisz, Poland, and later, in Siberia. (During that time a camera crew from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project filmed two sessions with him.) With help from Ivan Sokolov, a graduate student who recorded and transcribed far more hours than I, and Ann Weiss, another Holocaust writer, we saw the project through to its 2006 publication as a remarkable 384-page autobiography, Through Blood and Tears: Surviving Hitler and Stalin (Skorr 2006).
Quick to deny being different from others, Skorr insists each person in his book “endured equally as horrific, sensational, and sometimes uplifting journeys” (Skorr 2006: 384). A total stranger, for example, hid him under her large skirt when German soldiers suddenly searched a train station in which they sat. Later this older Jewish woman shared what little food and money she had to help him make his escape, explaining with a smile he needed it more than she did. A Jewish blacksmith took his little brother under his protection when they were all captives, and, defying a German officer, saved the boy’s life when Skorr could not do so. Over and again Henry details uplifting situations of mutual aid given at peril of life.
On November 9, 1939, for example, Skorr’s father, a popular kosher butcher, hastily rushed a gang of local Jewish gangsters to a small town bordering on Germany. There, under his leadership, and at considerable risk, they rescued German Jews who had arrived earlier that day fleeing from the “Kristallnacht” pogrom, only to find themselves then seriously threatened by Nazi-allied Polish townspeople. Skorr’s mother, in turn, regularly sheltered and fed dazed and distraught Jewish refugees, although her own large family had less and less. Many of their besieged neighbors (though by no means all) warned one another about surprise Nazi sweeps of households, and in other high-risk ways, desperately sought to remain neighborly.
Skorr himself, after barely escaping from a Nazi death squad, made his way in shock and despair to a precarious safety in Russia - only to almost immediately turn around and, to the astonishment of all he encountered, retrace his steps back home. Once there, he took charge at age 17, gathered family and neighbors together, and led them from Poland to (relative) safety in the harsh lumber camps of Soviet Russia. His story, as assessed by his publisher, Sir Martin Gilbert, a Holocaust historian, is not only about “courage and survival, but also of the maintenance of moral values in the face of Nazism’s perverse determination to humiliate and degrade the Jews and force them to lose all dignity and humanity.”
Testimony to our will to stay human is available from many accounts of concentration camp life. For example, at Terezin, a “model” concentration camp that was actually a transport center to the death camps, doomed teenagers nevertheless created a literary magazine. They did this despite knowing any day they might see their registration number posted for transport east to the gas chambers. Their essays dealt with a wide range of subjects, from A to Z, anything
except the immediate plight of both writers and readers: Emphasis was put instead on matters that might help lift the spirit, rather than bruise it all the more.
Likewise, adult prisoners created a remarkable “university” without walls. For over three years, the school had 520 lecturers (of whom only 173 survived) who offered over 2,400 courses for hundreds of starving ghetto dwellers who might be transported at any time to their death. My gentile guide at Terezin had a friend who had been there: “She told me she got up at 5am to attend lectures. They were very secret and were held all over the village. She thought the Gestapo knew and didn’t care (as all were under death sentence anyway), even though all such activities were forbidden.”
Emanuel Hermann, an adult student (who did not survive), wrote: “Cultural life in the ghetto was the only phenomenon that transformed us back into human beings. If after a hard day I could listen to Bach, I at once became human.” Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies, notes that “even in these [horrific] conditions, literature, music, theater, and art flourished. And, still today, the musical pieces, poetry, and plays made at Terezin continue to be heard around the world…We must not only remember them, which is a cheap and superficial cliché - we must learn from them.”
Felix Posen, a philanthropist who sponsored a book-length account of the “university over the abyss,” thinks it “beyond comprehension and language to explain how, in the face of starvation, disease, and death there continued to be the desire to lecture on the great issues of mankind; create artistic, literary, philosophical, musical, and other gems for the benefit of those still barely alive and those who might possibly survive their living hell...[This] is a proud, perhaps unique legacy...[one] which will continue to live long after mankind will barely remember hundreds of years from now at what terrible cost it was created.”
Remarkable movies of actual camp experiences also help illuminate what Good can mean in the face of Evil. A film version of Imre Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, has a young camp-savvy prisoner selflessly chose to mentor a 14-year old newcomer in life-saving skills. The boy and other non-observant Jews later look on admiringly from their bunker beds as four old men risk all by clandestinely marking the Sabbath.
Likewise, characters in Stephen Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List (especially “Isaac Stern,” the accountant) risk their lives to help keep 1,100 other prisoners alive. (Romano 2006c).
Especially revealing is a 2003 Showtime Cable TV film, Out of the Ashes, the true story of Dr. Giselle Perl, a Jewish female doctor forced in Auschwitz to work for Dr. Josef Mengele. She helped infirmary patients recover, even knowing they might be killed later that same day. Risking her own life, she secretly moved about the camp at night to perform abortions on about 1,000 otherwise-doomed prisoners (pregnancy was against Nazi rules), and, in some few cases, smother their newborns - an act of mutual aid en extremis. The film’s depiction of her efforts to stay human remains with a viewer long after it has ended, for as Dr. Perl explains to confounded American immigration authorities weighing her admission in 1946 to the USA, “Auschwitz was another country.”
The maintenance of moral values, the matter of dignity and humanity, the possibility of an uplifting journey - these are the sort of topics whose neglect have left me troubled. These are what seemed under-valued and under-represented. I agree here with Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, who fled Europe as a child in the late 1930s. She doubts the soundness of building an identity alone or even primarily on victimization: “A community otherwise so ignorant of its sources that it becomes preoccupied with death and destruction is in danger of substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah’s insistence on life.”
It is time the puzzle we know as the Holocaust included aspects under-valued in present-day telling, aspects of a Holocaust narrative that would highlights deeds worth emulation. We need to pay attention to what enabled besieged men and women, like Henry Skorr, Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel, and others, to maintain moral values, dignity, and humanity. What combination of hope, integrity, morality, and strength enabled some to survive long after others had given up? What enabled some to trump their circumstance and defy a destructive script written for them by their captors?
An effort to establish a new Good-and-Evil balance in recounting the Holocaust will have opposition. For one thing, many concerned parties insist on staying focused on atrocities, the better to keep the flame of outrage burning. They identify the Holocaust exclusively with unmentionable horrors that must never again wound history, and their preoccupation with abominations allows no room for any other consideration.
Second, many think an empowering link between the memory and the need for a State of Israel as a bulwark should remain our paramount concern: Nothing should be permitted to distract from this.
Third, soupy homilies and airy platitudes might be advanced in place of confounding complexities. There is a danger of characterizations of victims being advanced that are overly heroic, that over-generalize, and that engender disbelief.
Fourth, some insist the only worthy narrative is that told by this or that survivor they heard at a memorial function (even though they know so small a sample is too small on which to base the whole story).
Finally, there are those who will always believe the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows any effort we might date to attempt to reframe it. They contend this incredible, mind-numbing event should not be used instrumentally, even if to promote mutual care and humanistic concern.
This opposition notwithstanding, we should revise what is taken away from Holocaust educational and exhibit material. More attention should be paid to the efforts victims made to hold onto their humanity despite relentless cruelties and atrocities. Scattered, out-of-sight, and often hard to secure evidence of our fundamental goodness merits fresh emphasis. Volunteers are needed to cull - perhaps for the first time - the vast archives available in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Centers in Montreal and Paris, and scores of other such places. (If you can join with me and help with this pro bono undertaking, please send
If, as Steven Spielberg suggests, there are less than 300,000 survivors left, and most are well along in years, within 10 or so years the last will have left us. We who had no direct experience of the worse crime in modern history will be responsible for the first time for the telling. As there is no “copyright” on ways the Holocaust can be remembered, we have room to re-assess where we place emphasis.
It is time we told a different story. In the last analysis, strategies of memorialization are transitory and incomplete. To date we seem to have under-valued how some men and women who suffered hardship struggled to overcome adversity, and thereby left us a precious, awe-inspiring legacy of their example. It is time we experimented with a re-balancing of the entire Holocaust narrative - a re-balancing that might uniquely help meet critical 21st century spiritual needs of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Arthur B. Shostak is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Drexel University.
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