I love Holocaust literature. It seems a little weird, to declare one’s love for something so unenjoyable, but there you go. I’d say it’s a combination of the thoroughly fascinating history (I read nonfiction about both World Wars as well), the high literary quality of many works I’ve found, and certain personal factors which I shall explore here. Note that this is not a strictly informative post. Strictly informative posts may be forthcoming, however.
A little background: when I was in middle school, I was bullied. I was really bullied. It wasn’t mean girl shenanigans (which I had experienced in elementary school) or regular social ostracism (which I would experience in high school) – it was the kind of bullying that makes the papers nowadays. My middle school hosted the ill-conceived special education program for all the juvenile offenders in my county. I remember being eleven years old and having much older boys – they had been held back, naturally – bring gun magazines to school so they could show me the weapons with which they wished to kill me. I was terrified. I thought about killing myself every day, to give the people what they wanted.
After my mother pulled me out of school for my own safety, I began to look for answers.
Why did the people in that horrible place behave the way they did? I could accept that some of these juvenile delinquents were just that, juvenile delinquents, but what about everyone else? I wondered why the bullied underclass of my school had been unable to form bonds of solidarity the way bullied underclasses did in movies, why the others had run from me and I, despicably, had run from them. I wondered why anyone would be so base as to call a Jewish boy a Chistkiller and rub ham all over his locker (I did say that this was the kind of bullying that makes the papers nowadays.) I wondered why, when I was beaten up, a group of students would crowd around, not mocking but watching, not participating but haughtily indicating that it served me right. I wondered why a student calling me ugly could be punished, but a student calling me a cuntsucker, a dyke, a fag, or a queer became untouchable, covered by the first amendment because they had been smart or stupid enough to appeal to popular prejudice.
I’m not making any comparisons here, but this was the microcosm of human depravity in which Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel, William Styron, Markus Zusak, and Günter Grass found me. Yes, there was an element of narcissism, an element of what the educated people call cultural appropriation, an element of trying to apply the lessons of a big tragedy to my tiny, privileged life. But then again, why does anyone read anything? I’ve never heard of a person developing an academic fixation without the assistance of personal neuroses.
Unfortunately, my interest in the Holocaust became a new breeding ground for self-consciousness. Looking at those photographs made me feel so dazed and unclean – they make everyone with a heart feel that way, but in my young mind it meant that looking at the photographs was a transgression, perhaps even a sexual transgression on account of the naked people. These old silent nightmares, all sharp contrast because black-and-white. My mother asked me not to talk about it – a sensitive soul, she couldn’t stand to hear any of the stories. I would go on Arts & Letters Daily for the latest bookworm news, and they would link to articles about how all the really cool people had “Holocaust fatigue.” I read reviews of “scathing” books like My Holocaust and The Holocaust Industry; some of these reviews referred to gentiles who cared about the subject as disgusting rubberneckers with “no emotional lives of their own” who were looking to cash in on an essentially Jewish experience (how odd, as my impression was that the Nazis killed millions of gentiles.) Bloggers took an even harsher tack, adding a sexual dimension: gentiles interested in the Holocaust were “voyeurs,” “fetishists,” even “necrophiliacs.” An awful thought that I would want to – those bodies in the photographs – oh dear, oh dear. I knew from Wikipedia and Stephen King that serial killers often got started fantasizing about the Nazi era. Balancing perspectives from the films Freedom Writers and Paper Clips, which were based on the premise that Holocaust education for gentiles was not only good, but actually had the potential to save the world, were not enough. I had a sick obsession that I was going to have to hide from everyone.
Two things happen when a fourteen-year-old has to hide an obsession: more obsession, and increasingly bizarre behavior. In tenth grade I remember being invited – miracle of miracles – to sit with a table of all-American kids, and someone who wasn’t me for once brought up the Holocaust, miracle of miracles of miracles. These good-looking young ladies and gentlemen found the Holocaust a laugh riot, apparently, but I had to join in, I burned to join in – when was I going to get the chance again? I could wow them with jokes they’d never heard, simply because I knew so much more. When a boy turned to me, his face flushed from laughter, asking “What was it they used, sarin?” and I was able to say, “No, it was Zyklon-B, which is hydrogen cyanide…” I felt as if I were floating, floating up to the high fluorescent-glowing ceiling on the wings of my knowledge, knowledge hoarded and hoarded and then at last released to this vulgar yet receptive audience. Then the bell rang, and our nasty hilarity dispersed, and I was ashamed.
It was Primo Levi who saved the day. A crude, very un-Primo Levi expression for it: he pulled my head out of my ass.
For those who don’t know, Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian of Jewish descent who was sent to Auschwitz after getting involved with a motley, inexpert resistance group. He would survive in part because he was a chemist, and the passions of his post-Auschwitz life in his hometown of Turin, Italy would be chemistry and writing. His cerebral, clear style earned him the admiration of writers such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, and Judith Butler. Sadly, he suffered from severe depression and PTSD, which would contribute to his maybe-accidental-but-maybe-self-inflicted death at the bottom of a staircase in his home.
Levi’s Holocaust writings are so thoughtful, so insightful, so anti-lurid, and yet so wrenching at the same time, that it is impossible to imagine that you are a bad person for wanting to read them. There’s a scene in If This is a Man where Levi and Jean, a privileged prisoner (Pikolo) who acts as his supervisor, are walking through Auschwitz on some obscure errand. They fall into conversation, and Levi proceeds to enchant Jean with passages from Dante’s Inferno:
I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we may never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today…
We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos…the announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ‘Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’
‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’
This is an amazing depiction of a man fighting not only for his life, but for his mind, for the process of thought and the stuff of thought. Levi would win this battle…for awhile. His science writing is among the best there is, but that’s another post for another day.
What I learned from If This is a Man, as well as from Hannah Arendt’s works, is that Nazi ideology and actions appall the mind as well as the heart. These Nazis weren’t evil geniuses; they may have started out with some educated and intelligent men among them, but evil makes you stupid. Evil makes you so stupid that you can end up brutalizing the Russian peasants who could have been your ticket to victory. Evil makes you so stupid that you can end up refusing to send supply trains to your own troops because you need those trains for Jews. Evil makes you so stupid that you can end up giving a thumbs down to the theory of relativity, and thus the possibility of atomic bombs, because Einstein was Jewish.
The Nazis loved people-pleasers and ignorami. Keeping the appearance of ignorance for fear of someone’s disapproval was playing into their hands, and the hands of people like them.
The funny thing is when I realized this (and, perhaps more importantly, graduated from high school), the people whose distaste I so dreaded gave me a positive assessment: “It’s so good that you have an interest in history! So do I, and so do all these other young folks I know.” ‘Twas socially acceptable all along, it seems.
If you want to only learn about this subject as much as you need to and then move on, that’s fine. If you want to spend your day off with a pot of coffee and a copy of The Destruction of the European Jews, that’s fine too. Just because you’re a gentile doesn’t mean that you have to waste breath justifying your interest in history (or lack thereof.) Your brain belongs to you.
- Shema by Primo Levi (jessicabahn.wordpress.com)