This is the first in a series of posts.
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Holocaust "survivor" Jean Améry knew as well as Primo Levi, another famous “survivor” of Auschwitz in the same sense that Améry was (both eventually committed suicide), that he was required to speak not only for his own sake but also above all for the sake of those who could no longer speak for themselves—those who could no longer speak for themselves, because they had been murdered by the Germans and their accomplices during the Holocaust. It was above all for the revenants of those who died in Auschwitz and elsewhere, the real “remnants of Auschwitz,” to borrow the title of Italian philosopher Giogio Agamben’s fine work, that Améry was called to speak. It was not only for their own survivors’ sakes, but above all for the sake of those who did not survive the Holocaust, that those who did survive it were obligated to raise their voices.
Primo Levi was one who fulfilled that obligation, and Jean Améry was another. The way that the latter fulfilled his obligation to give his voice to those the Holocaust had forever robbed of their own voices was by insisting on clinging to the end of his own life to his own lasting “resentment,” to use his own term, against Germany and the Germans, who perpetrated the Holocaust. He also witnessed for those who could no longer witness for themselves—could no longer witness for themselves precisely because they had been murdered by the very Germans Améry insisted on “resenting”—by demanding with equal insistence that a radical and continuing “self-distrust,” as he called it, be awakened and then kept awake in those very same Germans, because of what they had done.
It is precisely the purpose of the “resentment” at issue to awaken and keep awake such “self-distrust” in those toward whom it is directed. “[M]y resentments are there,” Améry wrote, “in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 70).
The issue is not revenge. Rather than revenge, writes Améry (page 72): “The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.” Thus, those offended against must be permitted to hold on to their resentments, and those who offended against them must become aware of and accept that resentment, allowing it to awaken within their own hearts a deep self-distrust, and an abiding acceptance of their moral responsibility to maintain that self-distrust.
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To be continued.