Monday, April 28, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Week I--Other Genocides

Where we're running a series of posts in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year is on Friday, May 2.

The point of studying any genocide is to find the kernel of life-meaning that each carries. I firmly believe that the Holocaust sits at the pinnacle of human existence. The German intellectualization, rationalization, and physical implementation of the Holocaust truly astounds me. When I zoom out, far away from the emotions that entangle such thinking, I find myself almost impressed with the organization and execution of the Holocaust--not to mention the mental/emotional blockades required to carry out such disgusting actions.

But then we must zoom back in. And what is there at the bottom if not humans? And we must ask ourselves, what in the world could possibly induce humans to slaughter so many people?

The answer to these questions takes us into what we are really made of. I am a follower of the opinion of historian Christopher Browning, who, in his book Ordinary Men (above) follows Reserve Police Battalion 101 and concludes that they were utterly normal. That there was nothing innately evil about the men who killed so many.

Of course, such an analysis leads to the biggest question of the Holocaust: who's to say that if any one of us was in the position of the rank-and-file Nazis, we wouldn't have done exactly what they did?


This week we're going to be running posts for Holocaust Remembrance, and though we at JJ realize that it's not exactly the most pleasant reading, it is above all necessary--even, or rather especially, when you don't particularly feel like dealing with it.

And that's going to be the only apologetic utterance you'll get out of this one in regards to dealing with Holocaust Studies on an otherwise completely not self-righteous blog.

Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi (right) writes about the Holocaust's position in the center of human history in The Drowned and The Saved:

Years ago, Norberto Bobbio wrote that the Nazi extermination camps were "not one of the events, but the monstrous, perhaps unrepeatable event of human history." The others, the listeners, friends, children, readers, or even strangers, sense this, beyond their indignation and commiseration; they understand the uniqueness of our experience, or at least make an effort to understand it. So they urge us to speak and ask us questions, at times embarrassing us: it is not always easy to answer certain whys. We are neither historians nor philosophers but witnesses, and anyway, who can say that the history of human events obeys rigorous logic, patterns.

The fact is that any intelligent human who cares about the sorts of things that lie at the foundation of humanity--indeed, of existence itself--would do well to take a long, thorough look at the Holocaust.

So why should I be defensive about running a week of Holocaust posts? We'll fight through it, Ok?



Sometimes we find it difficult to position the Holocaust appropriately within the history of genocides and terror throughout human history. People too often separate one from the other, and usually based on personal biases. So if you talk to Armenians, they would no doubt elevate their genocide above the Jewish one, and both would probably distinguish theirs from the Cambodians', the Bosnian, the Rwandans', or the Sudanese's.

And I've been guilty of it too, as you can see in this mammoth piece I wrote after visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp last summer.

Certainly, on a human scale, it is foolish to try and compare genocides or argue about which one is worse. It's a grotesque exercise, really, because it carries an implicit satisfaction. And though it might provide momentary pleasantness for a victim to hear that what they went through was the absolute worst, upon any sort of inspection they would realize how arbitrary such a label is.

That being said, I think that the Holocaust's position at the forefront of the recognizability chain is not unfair for the simple fact that it was intertwined with World War II. We all know that WWII implicated so much of the world, for so many years, and because the Holocaust was involved with it (as well as the fact that the Holocaust's victims were western, white, and related to Americans), its status as the most recognizable genocide is understandable and fair.

However, to say that one genocide is "worse" than another one is ridiculous. It would elevate the lives of one nation above another. Of course, this would mean that we also can't call one genocide "better" than another one, which means that as soon as something is labeled a genocide there's simply no justification not to interfere.

It's interesting that Primo Levi predicted where the other genocides would occur. He said that the Western world is too sensitive to genocides right now, but the Third World is at risk. And sure enough, while Bosnia was interfered with, Rwanda was let to run, and Cambodia's genocide was likewise unencumbered.

(Last Friday, I mentioned the genocide trials going on in Cambodia right now. This will be worth following for the next weeks.)


Part of this week's posts will be Holocaust art. If you readers have any favorites, put them into the comments.

Here's Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar"

here in this transport
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of adam
tell him that I

Photos from Wikipedia and