I am not a Holocaust Jew. Though Auschwitz loomed large in my Jewish education, and though as a child I was duly traumatized and outraged by what my teachers described as the inexplicable and unprecedented evil perpetrated against us, it plays only a small role in my current Jewish identity and practice. This is by choice, as I have long regarded our community’s obsession with “what they did to us” as misguided in a number of ways.
Like many of my generation’s so-called “New Jews,” I see the recourse to the Holocaust as a substitute for living Judaism: an ersatz religion whose frisson of spiritual passion ultimately provides only negative reasons to live a Jewish life. As an activist, I am also dubious of how unspeakable tragedy was so readily converted into a platform for pretension, posturing and political exploitation. And as a teacher and writer, I know how easy it is to use the Holocaust as the ultimate cheap shot: the surefire way to get kids’ attention, get your book published and score points for piety when all else fails.
This summer, though, I visited Auschwitz for the first time. No, I was not in the parade of Jewish tourists on the European genocide trail, but since I was studying in Krakow (which, I hasten to point out, is joyful, cultured, vibrant and colorful) for the summer, I felt it was important to go, and so one rainy Sunday I went. So what happens when a “New Jew” goes to Auschwitz? In fact, despite my expectations, the trip underscored rather than undermined my ambivalence.
Standing on the tracks at Birkenau, or in the converted stables where our (great-) grandparents slept, what stood out most was the reality, the immediacy of the place. For decades, I had experienced the Holocaust as history, symbol and myth, but now it was entirely real: This happened here. Arendt’s famous locution, the “banality of evil,” took on new meaning. Over there is the bus stop, and in this room, thousands of people died. There is the train station back to Krakow, and here is the train platform where Jews were sent to the gas chambers.
This was the opposite of how I’d been taught. I’d known the Holocaust as a huge thing that seemed to take place in another world. “Planet Auschwitz, ” as it’s sometimes called, radically evil, unlike anything we can understand. Even at Auschwitz itself, I heard tour guides saying how no one can understand how such a thing was possible.
Really? Walking the expansive grounds, looking at the mounds of hair in cases, it seemed entirely possible to me. In fact, I don’t understand what people don’t understand. The hatred? The fact that people could do this? The meticulousness, the Vorsprung Durch Technik of death? Are we really surprised, after Stalin, Abu Ghraib, the Killing Fields, Rwanda and, yes, even the Jewish state’s own occasional disregard for human life, that people can be exceptionally cruel to other people, even to the point of murdering innocent children? Perhaps not in this degree, but surely we understand the power of ideology and the ways in which some people are turned into automatons and others into animals.
Yes, the scale of Birkenau is bewildering; the place is unbelievably huge. But that’s a difference of degree, not kind — and in its scale not unlike vast malls or industrial parks. In terms of the human capacity for evil, Auschwitz felt all too comprehensible.
This distinction between Planet Auschwitz and the real thing is, I think, why Arendt’s insight is so important. Standing on the actual ground, it was easier to appreciate how this wasn’t done by evil monsters — by George W. Bush’s “evildoers,” or by the cartoon Nazis we see in movies. This was done by regular people, to regular people, and this is what regular people can do. You and I could do it, I think. At least I could, given the right training, community, education and motivation.
Maybe it’s more comfortable for the bad guys to always wear swastikas and be monsters, but that’s not the reality — and it teaches the wrong lesson. So long as we perpetuate these stories about the Holocaust being unprecedented, inexplicable, incomprehensible and so on, we perpetuate its unreality, and its concomitant irrelevance to everyday political choices and personal decisions, like how cold or “tough” we ought to be when people are suffering, how much trust we place in authority and how often we second-guess that which we know to be true.
This relates to the second lesson I learned at Auschwitz: that it’s so tempting to misuse. There are at least two major ways to relate to the Holocaust: as something that “they” did to us (Jews, that is), or as something that people did to people. If it’s the former, then the right response is more heart hardening by, and more power to, the Jews. If the latter, then we are all called upon to consider our actions in light of it.
I already have suggested that the latter is my own view — although of course I understand that the Holocaust is both universal and particular, and the last thing I want to do is oversimplify something that is endlessly oversimplified. My point, rather, has to do with my own behavior at Auschwitz, and how I noticed some of the very ethnocentric tendencies in myself that I decry in others.
For example, it’s well known that Poland’s relationship to the Holocaust is complex. Whereas many Jews regard Poles as accomplices, most Poles regard themselves as victims, and present themselves that way in the Auschwitz museum. (From the museum, one would think that as many Gentile Poles died at Auschwitz as Jews; in fact, almost 10 times as many Jews died as Poles — not that 150,000 Poles is a small number.) Scanning the walls of photographs of Polish victims for a single Jewish name, I noticed that I felt offended, as if “they” had co-opted “our” tragedy and evaded responsibility for it.
But then I thought some more. Who are the “us” and “them” here, anyway? Is this something the Germans did to the Jews? Is it what the Nazis did to the Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals, communists and Soviets? Maybe it’s something people did to people? Most important, what was the source of my offense? What was it that I wanted, exactly?
Traipsing around Auschwitz in my yarmulke, the answer was clear: privilege. This is mine, I thought. Look at me — the Jew, in my yarmulke. This happened to us. And of course, this is why I am special. I guess we’re still the Chosen People after all. Not that anyone would choose this kind of chosenness.
But then again, maybe some people would. Maybe I would — and did.
And that is precisely the problem. By owning this big, evil, terrible thing, we victims get this sense of entitlement, power, ownership and enlargement. Our suffering becomes like a prize. It generates ethical imperatives, it lets us make solemn speeches about moral issues and, for some, it provides the final go-to point in any political argument about Israel. It’s the ultimate ace in the hole, the ringer, the closer — and many in our community don’t hesitate to call its number, just like some politicians remind us of 9/11 whenever they want to take away another freedom.
All this has long felt wrong to me, but at Auschwitz I saw how tempting, how natural it was. The ego wants to possess things, even terrible things, if it thinks they’ll make it bigger and better. Yet surely, whatever the Holocaust teaches us, it should not be that some people are better than others.
In other words, I came away with even more ambivalence about how we in the Jewish community teach about, relate to and otherwise use the Holocaust — precisely because I found myself acting in similar ways. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Holocaust of Jewish political/social discourse is practically its own pseudo-religion (“Holocaustism,” perhaps) with its own myths, moral authority and magical power, and surely Auschwitz is its cathedral. I have long thought that this pseudo-religion is greatly to our detriment as a living culture and meaningful religious community — but standing on its sacred site, I found it divorced from reality, as well.
In the weeks since I’ve returned, I can’t get Auschwitz out of my mind: the gas chambers, the latrines, the barbed-wire fences. But not because any of these was unreal or unbelievable, and not because this was done by monsters to saints. On the contrary — because it was entirely real, entirely believable and entirely the work of human beings like you and me. That reality seems to me far more powerful, and terrifying, than any fantasy or dream.