I got a wonderful book in the Borders here in Philadelphia before it closed. It was one of the last three days the store would be open and there wasn’t much left in terms of stock. Still, everything was at least 75% off and the lines were shorter than they had been at the beginning of the sale, so I thought it was worth having a look. I got two books, actually, I’ll write about the other one in another post. The one I want to write about now is called The Life of Meaning (Seven Stories Press, 2007). It’s a collection of short pieces by people who have been interviewed for the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
The piece I read this morning was an interview with Menachem Daum, a New York filmmaker whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust. Daum’s father retained his religious faith despite the Holocaust, but his mother’s faith, if not destroyed, was dealt a serious blow. Daum says his mother never explained what specifically had happened to shake her faith, but that he had learned this from an aunt who had arrived with his mother at Auschwitz. “[M]y aunt,” he explains,
revealed to me that my mother had had an infant son in her arms. As they were roused out of the train, a veteran Jewish prisoner hurriedly came up to them. He knew mothers together with their young children would soon be directed to the gas chambers. He urged them to do the unthinkable. […] “You are still young trees. [the prisoner explained] You can have more fruit.” (62.)
And then someone pulled the child from her arms. “I cannot see a God,” Daum’s cousin Dora declared,
who will allow a little baby to be killed for no reason at all, and I really lost my belief then. I had one sister and two brothers who were killed. I was the oldest. I’m the only survivor of my family. Why, what did they do that was so terrible that they should perish? I think that if God is so great and powerful, he could have struck Hitler down before he killed so many Jews. That is my belief. (63.)
I guess, in a way, I’m a deist. I don’t think God intervenes either in the course of natural events or in human affairs to ensure justice. I mean, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t isn’t it? For me, though, the tragedy isn’t people, not even infants, dying, that’s a part of nature. The tragedy is people killing them. Human beings can accept death, as hard as that usually is. When we think about it, we understand that those who suffer are not the dead. After all, as Epicurus said–“When we are, death is not and when death is, we are not.”
Death is not hard on the dead–it’s hard on the living. It’s hard on the living to lose those they love, to have to go on without the presence of someone who made one’s life infinitely richer and better. We learn to do this though. We learn to turn, eventually, to the living to find from among them someone who can, in some way at least, replace what we’ve lost and we take it on faith that this is possible, that if creation can deliver to us the miracle that it has just taken away, then it must contain other miracles as well.
The tragedy of the Holocaust is less that so many people died than that they were killed, brutally, cruelly, viciously. The tragedy is that when a life is taken in that way, the natural process of seeking solace in the thought that after all, even despite the pain of loss, life is good, that love will come again, like spring, that it is all part of the natural order of things, is made exponentially more difficult. That kind of cruelty is not part of the natural order of things. It is not supposed to happen. That’s why it’s called “inhumane.” It is wrong and we know it is wrong on a very deep level, so when it happens, it shakes our faith in the idea that there is a natural order of things that is good. When we are forced in this way to look down into the abyss of ugliness of which human beings are capable, it requires an almost supper-human effort to continue to see them as loveable, or to see the creation of which they are a part as anything positive. That abyss is a vortex that threatens to pull everything that is beautiful and meaningful down into its unrecoverable depths.
That’s why we like to blame the Holocaust, a la Goldhagen, on the Germans. It’s comforting to think that it’s only this “monster race” that is capable of such depravity, not human beings in general. Unfortunately, the Germans are not a race, and even if they were, “race,” from the perspective of modern science is a meaningless concept in such a context. Depravity is the kind of characteristic that is necessarily species specific. And anyway, as everyone who knows anything about history knows, Germans weren’t the only one’s involved in the killing (see Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands), it was Europeans more generally, as well as much of the rest of humanity through indifference or willed ignorance, Jews even turned against Jews. That’s the horrible truth we really have yet to deal with. The potential for the kind of inhumanity that came to expression in the Holocaust is inherent in human nature. How does one go on believing that life, that creation, is good after being confronted with that fact?
I’m grateful that my own faith has not been tested in that way. I like to think it would survive, but one can never know a thing like that and it would be disingenuous of me to attempt to derive comfort from such speculations. Comfort is there, though, when I wonder, as I sometimes do wonder, whether it is possible for anyone to preserve a faith in the goodness of creation (which faith, to me, is the essence of religion when all the inessential trappings of the various discrete traditions are stripped away) when brought face-to-face with such a horrible truth: Daum’s father did it, and there have been others as well and if, as it seems we cannot help but assume, the future will continue to resemble the past, there will continue to be others. Now that, for me, is a miracle, and it sustains my belief in God.