Holocaust Remembrance (4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts.

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In my preceding post, I argued that our remembrance of the Holocaust must remain a carefully articulated one, in which we are careful to honor all he victims of the Holocaust at the same time that we preserve acknowledgment of the disproportionate suffering that the Holocaust inflicted on some segments of the general population--above all, but not exclusively, on those who were classified as Jews. Not to show such care to remember all the victims in their full articulation into disproportionate segments is to “forget ourselves” in the negative sense of a self-forgetfulness that works to our own dishonor.

Furthermore, if we are to honor all the victims of the Holocaust in just such an articulating fashion, we must avoid artificially limiting the very notion of what it means to be such a victim. To illustrate what I mean, I will cite a discussion by another, younger American philosopher (“another” besides myself).

Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale, has recently written about his own experience as a child of Jewish parents whom he identifies as having “survived the Holocaust” (Jason Stanley, “My Parents’ Mixed Messages on the Holocaust,” The New York Times for Sunday, August 21, 2016). Interestingly, those parents themselves both reject that very identification, despite their son’s insistence on it. Neither Stanley’s mother nor his father went into the Nazi camp system, either to die in the camps as so many millions of other Jews did, or eventually to be liberated from them, as their fellow Jews Primo Levi and Jean Améry were. Rather, the families of both Stanley’s parents managed to flee from the Nazis, with their children.

Stanley’s father’s German-Jewish family escaped with him from Berlin to New York City. His mother’s Polish-Jewish family escaped from eastern Poland into the Soviet Union even before his mother was born. That birth took place, in fact, in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia, as it turned out. At the end of the war, she and her family eventually returned to a still strongly anti-Semitic Warsaw, before finally moving to Brooklyn where she grew up.

A few paragraphs of Stanley’s description of his parents’ attitudes are well worth quoting:

My parents explained to me that these pasts meant that they were not Holocaust survivors. My mother told me that in her labor camp, they were hungry, they were put to work, but no one was shooting or gassing them. When they went back to Poland, it was hard, and Jews were hated. But this, she explained, was the fate of Jews. Anti-Semitism was a permanent feature of the world, not special to the Holocaust.

My father’s reaction to describing him as a Holocaust survivor was more severe. He angrily questioned my motivations. Was I seeking a special status as a victim? He urged me to reflect about how offensive this is to those who have to actually live under oppression. He argued powerfully against the stance of the victim. It was morally dangerous, he said, using the actions of Israelis and Palestinians toward one another as an example. He was scornful when he saw signs that I was taking the Holocaust to mean that Jews were special. “If the Germans had chosen someone else,” he often said, “we would have been the very best Nazis.”

Most frequently and passionately, he would reprimand me for taking the Holocaust to be about me, or about my family. The Holocaust was about humanity. It was about what we are capable of doing to one another. It could happen again, it could happen here. The Holocaust was about everyone. Helping to prevent such events from occurring required agency and good moral sense, and good moral sense was not consistent with preferring one’s own people.

My mother’s most frequent advice was about knowing when to get out of a dangerous situation. The moment where one must accept that a situation is genuinely dangerous is usually well past the time when one can exit it. Her advice would come out especially during any patriotic moment. She was afraid I would develop an attachment to a country and would not flee early enough.

A bit later Stanley writes that while he accepts the legacy of his father, it is impossible for him to disregard his mother’s concerns. “Maybe the reality,” he writes, “is that all groups are at war for power, and that to adopt an ethic of common humanity is a grave disadvantage. Maybe we should do what we can, but prioritize the safety of our families.”

That may indeed be. At any rate, it is definitely the case that full remembrance of the Holocaust and its lessons requires honoring both Stanley’s father’s experience and insight, and that of his mother. The two must be held together, even and especially insofar as they pull us in two conflicted directions at once. That conflict itself must be given its place.

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Jason Stanley’s Jewish father—a “Holocaust survivor” by his son’s estimate, if not his own—sees clearly that truly to remember the Holocaust is a universal, human obligation, binding on all peoples and not merely some. Therefore, he also sees clearly the moral necessity of rejecting any special claim to ownership over the status of Holocaust victims by any one people or tradition, including any religious tradition.

On the other hand, however, Stanley’s Jewish mother, who is also a Holocaust survivor by her son’s estimate, though not her own, sees with equal clarity—though she does not put the point just this way—that no one can escape one’s identify as the member not just of universal humanity, of humanity “in general,” but also and especially one’s identity as the member of a given family and a given people, “given” beyond all choice of one’s own.

Jean Améry learned that very same lesson when he found himself stripped of his German identity by the Nuremberg Laws and the Anschluss, and forced to assume his identity as a Jew, regardless of how he had identified himself up till then. Especially after surviving Auschwitz, to which he was sent for no more than being a Jew, he insisted on claiming that Jewish identity as his own.

That, however, did not at all mean that Améry adopted traditional Jewish customs, beliefs, or practices, most definitely including religious ones.

As he repeatedly insisted in his writings, Améry not only entered Auschwitz an atheist; he also left it as one. Thus, as he puts it himself, his own Jewish identity was one "without God, without history, without messianic-national hope."

For him, he wrote, being a Jew does not mean adopting any particular customs, rituals, or religious beliefs. Rather, for him

being a Jew means feeling the tragedy of yesterday as an inner oppression. On my left forearm I bear the Auschwitz number; it reads more briefly than the Pentateuch or the Talmud and yet provides more thorough information. It is also more binding than basic formulas of Jewish existence [ritual formulas, to give the prime instance]. If to myself and the world, including the religious and nationally minded Jews, who do not regard me as one of their own, I say: I am a Jew, then I mean by that those realities and possibilities that are summed up in the Auschwitz number.


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To be continued.