Friday, October 19, 2012

The Holocaust Was Worse Than A Tragedy

Universal Justice


Where to start?Everything cracks and shakes,
The air trembles with similes,
No one world's better than another;
the earth moans with metaphors.” 
Osip Mandelstam [1891-1938],
Selected Poems
The Holocaust was not a tragedy. It was far worse and fits into a category of its own under human genocides and crimes against humanity. A tragedy, as defined by classical Greek thought, contains certain elements that the Holocaust lacks, most notably the tragic flaw, typically hubris, of the tragic hero, a mistake (hamartia) and a final resolution or recognition (anagnorisis), leading to some kind of redemption, if you will. Neither does the Holocaust follow a typical biblical tragedy like the story of Job; there is no voice from the whirlwind; no eventual redemption and reward; only deadly suffering and deathly silence.

This lack of an explainable reason is aptly described in Voices from the Holocaust (1975), where Howard Roiter writes:
The protagonists of Greek tragedies suffered because of a "fatal flaw" in their character. Oedipus the king was too headstrong—he had to get to the bottom of the plague that had settled over his country, His headstrong nature caused his ultimate downfall. The Holocaust sufferers were not victimized because of some fatal flaw; they were simply and indiscriminately slaughtered because they were born Jews (or their great-grandparents had been Jews. (21)
If anyone is looking for justice when reading Holocaust literature, he will be disappointed; it will not be found. I know that some books put out by religious publishers offer some light, some consolation, but I find such books both lacking in veracity and indulging a fantasy view of the world; they might even be offensive. In their attempt to justify, they minimize and mock. As Roiter writes, with clarity: "Holocaust literature offers no intimation of universal justice. It does the opposite—it suggests a world of universal injustice"  (21).

Now, some individuals, notably observant and devout Jews, might find such words harsh, perhaps offensive, even radical. Such is not my intent; they are meant in the way they are intended, namely, to raise questions of what is universal justice, and where can it be found. For at least forty years I have been searching for reasons why G-d would allow the Holocaust to take place. I have read hundreds of books, academic papers and monographs on the subject; I have had a few discussions with religious leaders, with those willing to broach the subject, with rabbis, pastors and other religious leaders.

I know about the human reasons, the human hatreds, the human hostilities and the human envies, and the chain of historical events that took place, leading to both indifference and atrocity, achieving nothing good. Only the unleashing of darkness. Even so, despite the human understanding of human actions, there remains the ultimate religious question posed to the non-human, in whose image it is said have been formed: Why would a loving G-d, who in the Torah claims the Jewish People as His own Chosen People, as His own beloved, choose to remain silent. Deadly Silent. Hester Panim.

I think of the poem by Paul Celan, "Aspen Tree":

Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother's hair was never white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My yellow-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Round star, you wind the golden loop.
My mother's heart was ripped by lead. 

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.
I suspect that no one has the definitive answer, or at least one that humans will like. In lieu of that final answer, the Jewish People after the Second World War had to move forward and plan their own future. That's why it comes as no surprise that the Jewish People came to only one inescapable conclusion right after the Holocaust. The Jews' survival as a people depended primarily on their own initiatives. Paul Johnson, a conservative Catholic historian, writes in A History of the Jews (1987):
But the Jews had grasped that the civilized world, however defined, could not be trusted. The overwhelming lesson that the Jews learned from the Holocaust was the imperative need to secure for themselves a permanent, self-contained and above all sovereign refuge where if necessary the whole of world Jewry could find safety from its enemies. The First World War made the Zionist state possible. The Second World war made it essential, It persuaded the overwhelming majority of Jews that such a state had to be created and made secure whatever the cost, to themselves or to anyone else. (517)
This generally remains true to this day.