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Redirecting Holocaust Memorialization Toward Humanization
by Arthur B. Shostak, Oct 5, 2009
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Dr. Art Shostak, an American futurist and friend of WNRF, has asked that we share his attached essay with our membership. He believes the future of religion in the next quarter century hinges in some unknowable way on the quality of Holocaust memorialization, as this involves Jews and non-Jews alike. He is concerned that over 60 years of memorialization emphasis only on the Horror has grievously under-valued the humanistic content hidden from sight (literally and figuratively) in the lives of millions of prisoners in over 2,000 concentration/labor camps.

Dr. Shostak would have futurists like ourselves - with our distinct focus on religious matters - help lead an effort to reframe the matter to bring overdue attention to what he calls "stealth altruism" - the care prisoners shared with one another at peril of their lives - even while strengthening the "Never again!" resolve fostered by existing focus on the Horror.

Art is puzzled by the almost complete absence of attention to this matter in the six camp museums and the many Holocaust museums (D.C., Yad Vashem. etc.) he has visited here and abroad.If, after pondering his thoughts you care to help his campaign, please be in touch with WNRF and we will direct your note directly to Dr. Shostak.

He is also hoping to find volunteers willing to join him in reading the many memoirs of survivors (he has thus far read over 80, listened to Shoah Foundation tapes, etc.). In these (never indexed) volumes is evidence - or lack of evidence - of "stealth altruism" and Art is eager to find either for a book he is writing on the entire matter.

Given the centrality of the Holocaust in earnest discussion of 21st Century values and religion Art's call to reassess the narrative would seem of strategic importance to futurists like ourselves.

IT IS TIME WE TOLD A DIFFERENT STORY when we recall the Holocaust: We should begin to dwell less on Evil and more on Good. We should begin to value over-looked achievements by victims who persisted in remaining human, in reaching out and caring for one another and/or for the honor of their ideals. For when the last of the survivors (and perpetrators) have passed away we who remain will have to invent a persuasive vicarious re-telling that makes sense to each succeeding generation, and lends valued meaning to life.

As a pre-teen in the early 1950s I began a lifelong practice of seeking out autobiographies of survivors and novels that could help me understand what had happened in an abattoir almost beyond belief. Unimaginable atrocities shook me to my roots, but I dwelled instead on rare accounts, as of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, of efforts made to stay human under conditions in extremes. Likewise, years later, on my second visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum I found myself drawn more to a temporary exhibit in the lobby ("Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race") than to permanent museum material (such as the Tower of Photos, the empty railroad car, the audio-visuals desks, etc.). It emphasized ways to help improve medical ethics, while also noting horrendous related Nazi crimes. A judicious balance of reform ideas along with a scathing condemnation of unforgivable acts, the exhibit gave me hope progress might soon be made in this medical matter.

In the summers of 2005 and 2006 my lifelong interest here had my wife, Lynn Seng, and me visit five European concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen, Plaszow, and Theresienstadt - the "model" Nazi concentration camp to which we went twice. Over the years we have also gone to several new and old Holocaust Museums here and abroad, to the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem (which I have visited seven times since 1971), and numerous war memorials in nearly a dozen European countries.

I was left troubled by something I found over-represented. This crystallized when during a two-week East European tour in the summer of 2006 we became increasingly uneasy with the narrative shared by an American-born senior professor of Holocaust Studies. As the tour prepared to visit the Warsaw Ghetto, Schindler's factory, the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, and two concentration camps, the professor filled lecture after lecture with graphic stories of Nazi brutality and horror. No examples, however, were ever shared of victims trying to care for one another.

Nowadays, when I remember a Holocaust Museum or concentration camp exhibit hall, I recall five educational themes of very different weight: 60 percent or so of the material graphically documents unspeakable, gruesome atrocities (executions, murder, torture, etc.). We gasp, recoil, and even avert our eyes. Fifteen percent or so explores slightly less horrific material, such as vandalized shops, schools, or synagogues. Ten percent or so explores the post-liberation lives of survivors (reunited families, newborn children, etc.), and another ten percent or so looks back on a pre-Holocaust bucolic scene of (false) security. Perhaps five percent or so allows for the possibility that some of the victims may have struggled to keep in touch with their humanity. The possibility that the necessity for human connection could have led to the covert creation of networks of mutual support gets short shrift, if it gets any attention at all.

Rachel Korazim, director of Education at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, puts the matter quite well - "We've managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images. This is not Jewish history, this is Nazi history." Is the current preoccupation with evil the only, or even the best approach - given the challenge we have to help keep the narrative consequential? Is a memorialization strong in evil-focused motifs still the wisest course? Might a new balance favor greater appreciation of the narrative?

Testimony to our will to stay human is available from Terezin, a "model" concentration camp that was actually a transport center to the death camps. Doomed teenagers there nevertheless created a literary magazine despite knowing any day they might see their registration number posted for transport east to the gas chambers. Their essays dealt with a wide range of subjects, from A to Z, except for the immediate plight of both writers and readers: Emphasis was put instead on matters that might help lift the spirit, rather than bruise it all the more.

Likewise, adult prisioners created a remarkable "university." Over three years, the "school" had 520 lecturers (of whom only 173 survived) offer over 2,400 courses for hundreds of starving ghetto dwellers who might be transported at any time to their death. My Gentile guide at Terezin had a friend who had been there: "She tells me she got up at 5am to attend lectures. They were very secret and were held all over the village. She thinks the Gestapo knew and didn't care [as all were under death sentence anyway], though all such activities were forbidden, and people could be hurt at any time."

Emanuel Hermann, an adult student (who did not survive), wrote: "Cultural life in the ghetto was the only phenomenon that transformed us back into human beings. If after a hard day I could listen to Bach, I at once became human." Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies, notes that "even in these [horrific] conditions, literature, music, theater, and art flourished. And, still today, the musical pieces, poetry, and plays made at Terezin continue to be heard around the world. … We must not only remember them, which is a cheap and superficial clich้ - we must learn from them."

Felix Posen, a philanthropist who sponsored a book-length account of the "university over the abyss," thinks it "beyond comprehension and language to explain how, in the face of starvation, disease, and death there continued to be the desire to lecture on the great issues of mankind; create artistic, literary, philosophical, musical, and other gems for the benefit of those still barely alive and those who might possibly survive their living hell … [This] is a proud, perhaps unique legacy … [one] which will continue to live long after mankind will barely remember hundreds of years from now at what terrible cost it was created."

Remarkable movies of actual camp experiences also help illuminate what Good can mean in the face of Evil. A film version of Imre Kertesz's semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, has a young camp-savvy prisoner selflessly chose to mentor a 14-year old newcomer in life-saving skills. The boy and other non-observant Jews later look on admiringly from their bunker beds as four old men risk all by clandestinely marking the Sabbath. Likewise, characters in Stephen Spielberg's film, Schindler's List (especially "Isaac Stern," the accountant) risk their lives to help keep 1,100 other prisoners alive. (Romano 2006c).

Especially revealing is a 2003 Showtime Cable TV film, Out of the Ashes, the true story of Dr. Giselle Perl, a Jewish female doctor forced in Auschwitz to work for Dr. Josef Mengele. She helped infirmary patients recover, even knowing they might be killed later that same day. Risking her own life, she secretly moved about the camp at night to perform abortions on about 1,000 otherwise-doomed prisoners (pregnancy was against Nazi rules), and, in some few cases, smother their newborns - an act of mutual aid en extremis. The film's depiction of her efforts to stay human remains with a viewer long after it has ended, for as Dr. Perl explains to confounded American immigration authorities weighing her admission in 1946 to the USA - "Auschwitz was another country."

The maintenance of moral values … the matter of dignity and humanity … the possibility of an uplifting journey … these are the sort of topics whose neglect have left me troubled. These are what seemed under-valued and under-represented. I agree here with Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, who fled Europe as a child in the late 1930s. She doubts the soundness of building an identity alone or even primarily on victimization: "A community otherwise so ignorant of its sources that it becomes preoccupied with death and destruction is in danger of substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah's insistence on life."

I learned more about all of this from a recent writing project I never expected to have as part of my life. In 2005 I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance near my Narberth, Pa., home of an elderly East European survivor, Henry Skorr. Over the next several months I tape-recorded 60 hours of his life history in Kalisz, Poland, and later, in Siberia. (During that time the Spielberg camera crew filmed two sessions with him.) With help from Ivan Sokolov, a graduate student who recorded and transcribed far more hours than I, and Ann Weiss, another Holocaust writer, we saw the project through to its 2006 publication as a remarkable 384-page autobiography, Through Blood and Tears: Surviving Hitler and Stalin (Skorr 2006).

Quick to deny singularity, Skorr insists each person in his book, only some of whom "bested the evil that attempted to destroy us, endured equally as horrific, sensational, and sometimes uplifting journeys" (Skorr 2006: 384). A total stranger, for example, hid him under her large skirt when German soldiers suddenly searched a train station in which they sat. Later this older Jewish woman shared what little food and money she had to help him make his escape, explaining with a smile he needed it more than she did. A Jewish blacksmith took his little brother under his protection when they were all captives, and, defying a German officer, saved the boy's life when Skorr could not do so. Over and again Henry details "uplifting" situations of mutual aid given at peril of life.

On November 9, 1939, for example, at considerable risk, Skorr's father, a popular kosher butcher hastily rushed a gang of local Jewish gangsters to a small town bordering on Germany. There, under his leadership, they rescued German Jews who had arrived earlier that day fleeing from the "Kristallnacht" pogrom, only to find themselves then seriously threatened by Nazi-allied Polish townspeople. Skorr's mother, in turn, regularly sheltered and fed dazed and distraught Jewish refugees, although her own large family had less and less. Many of their besieged neighbors (though by no means all) warned one another about surprise Nazi sweeps of households, and in other high-risk ways, desperately sought to remain neighborly.

Skorr himself, after barely escaping from a Nazi death squad, made his way in shock and despair to a precarious safety in Russia - only to almost immediately turn around and, to the astonishment of all he encountered, retrace his steps back home. Once there, he took charge at age 17, gathered family and neighbors together, and led them from Poland to (relative) safety in the harsh lumber camps of Soviet Russia. His story, as assessed by his publisher, Sir Martin Gilbert, a Holocaust historian, is not only about "courage and survival, but also of the maintenance of moral values in the face of Nazism's perverse determination to humiliate and degrade the Jews and force them to lose all dignity and humanity."

It is time the puzzle we know as the Holocaust included aspects under-valued in present-day telling, aspects of a Holocaust narrative that would highlights deeds worth emulation. We need to pay attention to what enabled besieged men and women, like Henry Skorr, Primo Levi. Eli Wiesel, and others, to maintain moral values, dignity, and humanity? What combination of hope, integrity, morality, and strength enabled some to survive long after others had given up? What enabled some to trump their circumstance and defy a destructive script written for them by their captors?

An effort to establish a new Good-and-Evil balance in recounting the Story will have opposition. For one thing, many concerned parties insist on staying focused on atrocities, the better to keep the flame of outrage burning. They identify the Holocaust exclusively with unmentionable horrors, and their preoccupation with abominations allows no room for any other consideration. Second, soupy homilies and airy platitudes might be advanced in place of confounding complexities. We must avoid characterizations of victims that are overly heroic. Finally, there are those who will always believe the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows any effort we might attempt to reframe it. They contend it should not be used instrumentally even to promote the cause of mutual care and concern.

This opposition notwithstanding, we should revise what is taken away from Holocaust educational and exhibit material. More attention should be paid to the efforts victims made to hold onto their humanity despite the depravity inflicted upon them. Scattered, out-of-sight, and often hard to secure evidence of our fundamental goodness merits fresh emphasis. In the last analysis, strategies of memorialization are transitory and incomplete.

As there is no "copyright" on ways the Holocaust will be remembered, we have room to re-assess where we place emphasis. To date we have under-valued how some men and women who suffered hardship struggled to overcome adversity. It is time we experimented with a re-balancing of the entire narrative - a re-balancing that might uniquely help meet critical 21st century spiritual needs of Jews and non-Jews alike.

URL: http://www.wnrf.org/cms/holocaust_futures.shtml

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