Saturday, August 10, 2013

The god that failed

The boys of 1945, and degrees of humanity.

I don't know what people get out of horror films, but I do know what we get out of the holocaust literature. A sickening sense of moral depravity, of every value turned upside down, and of a world crying out for justice. There is also a sense of absolute Darwinism at its most brutal, both in the genocidal tribalism of a Germany gone mad, and in the grinding imperative to stay alive for every one of the exceeding few who survived.

This is occasioned by reading Martin Gilbert's "the Boys", about one remnant of Polish Jewry liberated from the concentration camps at the end of world war 2 and sent to England for recuperation. 732 children in their mid-teens, more or less, mostly boys, had undergone this harrowing journey, losing everything and everyone, and coming out through various strokes of luck and backbreaking labor into a world which generally went on without much ado, back into its normal grooves and preoccupations.

The outstanding part of the book is the first half, where the survivors tell their tales, frequently after decades of silence during which they were busy likewise getting on with their lives. Gilbert solicited their stories, and we can be thankful that many obliged, with great care and detail. They cover the nature of life in Poland before the war, which was a mixed bag of strong antisemitism in some communities, and unprejudiced positive coexistence up until the German occupation in relatively few others. Then of course the descent into hell. The restrictions, the dehumanization, the ghettos, the shipping to and fro, the labor camps, the starvation, the lice, the gas chambers.
"A few days after the deportation from Kozienice, the Jews working at Szyczki were given permission by their Polish overseer to conduct the Kol Nidrei even service, with which Yom Kippur - the day of atonement- begins. 'As a result', Moneik Goldberg recalled, 'some people figured that nothing would happen if they didn't report to work the next day. I was still observant at the time and wanted to stay in. There was a man, Moishe Zowoliner, whom my father had known very well and he had written him to ask him to look after me. He made me go to work that morning. When we returned to the barracks in the evening the SS from Radom were there. We were all marched to a clearing in the forest nearby. Those who had stayed in were already there. They had dug a ditch and upon our arrival they were all massacred, and we were ordered to fill the ditch with dirt. That was the first massacre I witnessed - on Yom Kippur 1942. I was fourteen years old.'"

Few of the survivors in this group remain religious. They are very much Jewish, but god for them seems to have pretty much failed as a concept. One typical query, from Meir Sosnowicz, now Michael Novice:
"There was another, very important question: 'Where was God?' I prayed to Him to redeem us. I acknowledged His presence. I looked for the miracles of redemption which we had learned about during our Bible studies at home and at school: the Exodus from Egypt, the story of Korah, who was punished immediately for his sins. The sins of Pharaoh seemed much less than the sins of the Germans and their cohorts. How long could God allow these obscenities to continue? Where was He? The redemption seemed a long time coming. Would it ever come? The question reminded me, in a very small way, of when, as a child, I hurt myself, and my mother was not around, it seemed for ever until she came. Where was my mother? I was confused. Today we say that God hid himself, turned his face from us, answered 'NO' to our request. I know that to this day I can not understand what He had in mind, to allow all this to happen for so long a time and to so many good and innocent people."

And do they regard religion good in a more general sense, spurring good morals and humanity?
"'While my behavior towards individual Germans and Poles is very forgiving,' Jack Rubinfeld wrote, 'I am fully aware of the enthusiastic participation by the majority of Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians in the hatred and gross mistreatment of the Jews. As a group, I have not forgiven them. For me, the main responsibility lies within the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant clergy and churches, that planted and nourished the seeds of this hatred. After so many generations of calculated cultivation, it became part of their genes or cultural landscape. Unfortunately for the believers, even hell is an absolute truth.'"

One of the additionally shocking aspects of the story was that after their liberation, many of the victims went back to Poland to their erstwhile homes. They were met there with killing squads, now of the native inhabitants, who perhaps were so full of the German ideology, perhaps so unwilling to face their own guilt and possible loss of ecnomic advantage, that they did their best to bring that final solution to a grim conclusion. Several of the boys describe hair-raising escapes at this time, which finally sent them on their way to England, Israel, and the US as totally, utterly bereft refugees.

For Poland now has a Jewish community of roughly 20,000, less than one percent of the original number. And it is interesting to reflect what a long and strong history Jews had in Poland. For over five centuries, it was a golden place, a Mecca(!) for Jews being driven out of Western Europe and Russia. Indeed at one time, Jews in Poland consituted the majority of all Jews world-wide. It is astonishing to think about.

It gives some perspective to the idea that the US is some kind of promised land for Jews. However well things go at the moment, and improve for many minority groups including Jews, there have been such cosmopolitan cultures and promised lands before. It is impossible to predict hundreds of years into the future. On the other hand, going the tiny Jewish country route in a more-or-less hostile world obviously has its risks as well.

Another aspect of the story made me reflect on the US. The survivors tell of the remorseless process of dehumanization that the German policies carried out, clicking the ratchets of restriction, segregation, expropriation, deportation, and down and down, till it ended in ashes around the crematoria. These were all conscious policies engineered out of a fundamentally competitive attitude. The Nazis felt superior in countless ways to the Jews, and wanted their land, their possessions, and everything else they had. And just to turn the screw even more, they played Jews off against each other in their misery, using some to run the ghettos, others to run aspects of the labor camps, even as the Germans themselves rolled the competitive dice on the larger stage by making war against the entire world.

Our own culture traffics in competitive dehumanization as well. To see homeless people trundling their carts around a city, and hear of prisoners in endless solitary confinement is quite disturbing. These people have lost a more individually specific Darwinian struggle, judged by some social process- "the market" in the former instance, and our justice and incarceration systems in the latter. Homelessness in particular seems a specific result of a national ideology: the right-wing combination of individual freedom and low communal responsibility. A bi-partisan commitment to the "competitive spirit". So we see ill-fed and desperate ghosts in our midst, whose only crime was to be born with or into some problem- maybe a bad family, propensity to addiction, or mental derangement- by which they fail the struggle, and become non-persons.

  • Social capital was a positive asset to the Nazis, not a negative one, at least in their original quest for power.
  • Evolution, music, and sociality.
  • Sexism in action.
  • Hooray for the girl scouts.
  • The common belief fallacy, and what to do about it.
  • And religious kowtowing making inroads at the State department as well.
  • As if we didn't know already ... David Brooks is not very bright.
  • What makes buses low-status?
  • Vast methane emissions are not helping the environment.
  • Workers should be paid better.
  • Economic quote of the week, about what China needs to rebalance its economy towards a consumer focus, which means giving more money to ... consumers. A good idea, not only for China.
"Three strands are needed: firstly, reducing the incentives for investment by putting in place fairer resource prices, interest rates, and distributing dividends from state-owned enterprises, secondly, boosting household incomes through higher wages and lower social security contributions, and thirdly, lowering precautionary savings by continuing to strengthen the social safety net and increase spending on pensions and healthcare."

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