I wonder how many readers caught the piece in Wednesday’s New York Times Arts section about the newly discovered cache of photographs from Auschwitz? No, not the familiar, all too sickening pictures of inmates, starved or starving, not the images of the ovens with their charred corpses. not the hideous stacks of skeletal human remains. These are pictures of those who staffed this nightmare operation, taking their leisure at off-duty moments, relaxing with obvious satisfaction with the quality of their lives.
Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the Jewish "Day of Atonement," when Jews throughout the world are urged to reflect on their actions of the past year and make amends for those that may have caused hurt or harm. This fits in nicely with the Buddhist teaching that reminds us that every action has its consequence, and that we should be aware particularly of our own, and of the results they bring.
I am not a Jew, but my wife Ellie is, and we have always made a practice of observing Yom Kippur in some significant way. Tomorrow, therefore, I will not be making any entry in these pages. Instead, I will be fasting, as is the tradition, and reflecting, and joining friends, at the end of the day, to break the fast.
Added now to the solemnity of this day with its centuries-old traditions is the memory of the Holocaust. Yom Kippur, as I have come to understand it, is a day to remember those six million Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis while--let's not forget--the world looked on. World War II was not about those particular victims, whose predicament was known by all who cared to look for years before the war, and whose pleas for help went scandalously ignored in all too many ways. And while the world pretended shock--indeed, was shocked--when the gates to those concentration camps were finally opened and their few remaining victims liberated, that shock seems disingenuous when we recall the open atrocities and attacks on German Jews in the years preceding the war.
I was born in 1936, too young to be complicit in the events of the time, but I still feel that complicity in my bones. Ken Burns, in an interview last night about his new series, "The War", said that the compulsion to make this documentary arose when he discovered that the preponderance of American high school seriors graduated with the belief that in World War II the Americans were fighting with Germany against the Soviet Union. All the more reason, then, to remember, and to do whatever is necessary to keep the memory alive.
About those newly-discovered pictures, though: again, you'll find them here. (You'll need to navigate your way past an American Express ad. Sorry!) I urge you to check out the audio-visual narration and to read the full length of the article, if only because it raises, at one point, the issue that Mark raised with me earlier this week. Responding to my outrage that a Christian minister at a penitentiary would act to put an end to a thriving meditation group for fear that he would lose his own (literally!) captive audience, Mark pointed out that the man's intentions were probably good: that he (the pastor) sincerely believed that these men could be saved by Christ alone.
The worthiest of intentions, however, cannot justify bad results. Regarding these photographs, Judith Cohen, a historian at the Holocaust museum in Washington suggested that "in their self-image, [these murderers] were good men, good comrades, even civilized." Here they after all, in these pictures, all good fellows, all good lasses, relaxing on their deck chairs, singing their songs, enjoying their bowls of berries and their stupid dog tricks, and they look so... normal. So much--apart from those all-too familiar uniforms--like us!
Well, no. If that's the case, I believe their self-image was seriously deluded, and the delusion abetted by their own lack of awareness.
So, I will be reflecting on this tragic irony tomorrow, and about the relation between actions and their outcomes, about the role of "good intentions," and the absolute necessity that I myself remember always to examine what I believe to be my own good intentions in the light of the results that flow from them. I hope that some of you may be joining me in this observance of Yom Kippur.