Passover, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sigmund Freud, and the Psychology of Bigotry

On the Enduring Lessons of the Exodus Story

Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.
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Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.

By Austin Ratner

Published March 15, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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Even as it was happening, some appear to have understood the Holocaust as a new chapter in the old biblical story of the Exodus: The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto began, history books tell us, on Passover eve, April 1943.

The Passover holiday has certainly apprehended that history in hindsight. In their meditations on the God of freedom that delivered us from bondage in Egypt, modern-day Seders can hardly fail to measure freedom in relation to the paucity of it in 1943, nor can they fail to measure prejudice in relation to the scale of it then.

Dr. Edward Reicher observed the uprising from outside the ghetto wall that April. He was a Polish-Jewish dermatologist who survived the ghettoes of Lodz and Warsaw and then escaped into hiding in Nazi-occupied Warsaw with his wife and daughter. In his stirring memoir “Country of Ash,” forthcoming this year in its first English translation, Reicher recalls a confrontation he had with a Pole in July 1943 outside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, which by then had been totally destroyed.

The passage set me to thinking once again about the psychology of bigotry, a subject to which I gave considerable thought during the writing of my first novel, “The Jump Artist.” (I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about bigots — except maybe Archie Bunker — but a good novelist has to understand his characters, especially evil ones.)

It seems to me that Reicher’s account of his confrontation further exposes to the light the inner organs of this skewed thinking.

It was a hot, still July day in 1943 when Reicher wandered along the walls of the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto in the guise of a railroad worker. Of all the humiliation and devastation he’d seen wrought against his people, the defeat of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was perhaps most heartbreaking: The tattered band of Jews remaining in the ghetto had provided a sliver of pride and hope when they rebelled with force, but the Nazis had crushed the uprising and burned the ghetto to the ground.

Reicher was ruminating on this by the wall when a Polish peasant and a young boy approached. The man told Reicher proudly that he was showing his son the capital of Poland.

Reicher asked what he’d told his son about the liquidation of the ghetto. The father got angry and replied that Hitler had been right to exterminate the Jews because they were parasites.

Reicher asked, “But aren’t there both good and bad people in every nation?”

The peasant grudgingly conceded that perhaps some Jews somewhere, sometime in history, may have been good, “but the ones who died here in the ghetto were forgers and thieves.”

The man didn’t know that he was speaking to a Jew who’d escaped from the very same ghetto, and that Reicher was not a thief but an esteemed and rather selfless physician. The bigot was wrong in his bigotry, not least because it was delusional, and it’s perhaps the delusion of it that renders the bigotry a little bit accessible to insight.

The bigot’s words to Reicher by the ghetto wall remind me of a passage from Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murad” that describes persecution not of Jews by Poles, but of Poles by Russians. Tolstoy writes of Czar Nicholas: “He had done much evil to the Poles. To justify that evil he had to feel certain that all Poles were rascals, and he considered them to be such and hated them in proportion to the evil he had done them.” Tolstoy’s inspiration for this idea may have come from the great Roman historian and psychologist Tacitus, who said, “Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris,” or, “It is characteristic of human nature to hate the man you have wronged.”

To Tacitus and Tolstoy’s point, there is probably not only ignorance and crudity to racism, but also a rather surprising element of misguided conscience; the Jews were slaughtered, so in the mind of that peasant, they must have deserved it. If they didn’t deserve it, that would mean an atrocity had occurred before God on Polish soil, and I suspect this Polish nationalist couldn’t countenance the idea of such a Polish sin.

Sigmund Freud would not have been surprised to see conscience behind bad behavior. He spent his career studying the ways that conscience causes us to avert our eyes from certain of our own thoughts, and the ways that this sort of “repression” can sometimes do more harm than good — not only to ourselves, but also to others. In his 1916 paper “Some Character-Types Met With in Psycho-Analytic Work,” Freud describes one type, to which he gives the name “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt.” While that short segment does not cover Tacitus’s or Tolstoy’s ground — it doesn’t touch on bigotry at all — it does supply a useful title to a general principle of psychology that’s highly relevant to bigotry: the notion that guilt can cause crime in addition to preventing it. What an idea!

The term “scapegoat,” which is by now a commonplace in explanations of racism, has to do with, of course, guilt — what else? It furthermore derives from the traditions of the ancient Jews — who else? Today, we use the term to mean a person or a people blamed for something he/they didn’t do. It’s invoked almost in a sense of mistaken identity or sloppy detective work. Yet the origins of the word itself in the book of Leviticus point directly back to the psychology of guilt management. What William Tyndale translated as a “scapegoat” in 1530 was a reference to an actual goat in primitive Jewish atonement ritual; the goat was magically bestowed with the sins of the Jewish people and then shooed into the wilderness to carry away the sins. In one of Leviticus’s creepier dalliances with paganism, the Lord decreed that the scapegoat should specifically be dispatched to an angry demon of the wilderness named Azazel (who is thenceforth scarce in the Bible but does turn up in Marvel Comics as an ancient mutant enemy of the X-Men).

The Pole by the ghetto wall seems to have used a scapegoat in the ancient, literal sense more so than in the modern, metaphorical sense: He has used the Jews to carry off his guilt and shame as if by a magical goat — not into the wilds belonging to the demon Azazel, but onto the pyre of the Warsaw Ghetto. He bears no sin; they do. And now the fire does. And now the sin is gone in the smoke, curling up and away from the earth.

Such magic acts derive from a condition of blindness, a refusal to look with the rational mind. The Freudian irony is that the courage to look upon and acknowledge a sense of guilt instead of invoking goats and demons to dispel it, helps forestall criminality of a much more damning kind. That is to say that the parable of Reicher and the Pole instructs that there would perhaps be fewer great sins in the world if people were not so frantic to purify themselves of small ones.

Austin Ratner is the author of “The Jump Artist” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009) and the recently released “In The Land of the Living” (Reagan Arthur Books).


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