With the history, the Holocaust has remained like a great shadow in my consciousness, always present, and never far from the surface. I believe this to be true of most Europeans of my generation. The unimaginable barbarity of those who perpetrated this ultimate act of inhumanity and the unimaginable suffering of those who died and those who managed to live through it--these are not easily repressed or forgotten by anyone who lived in a world that allowed them to occur. When American leaders rattle sabers, preach righteous, nationalistic patriotism, and argue in public about how much torture is permissible, such people shudder with dread lest those memories be forgotten.
Two reminders came my way last week. A while ago, we had placed in our Netflix queue the movie "Steal a Pencil For Me," without knowing much about it, and it arrived in the mail and sat for a few days before we got around to watching it. It's the very touching love story of two elderly Dutch Jews, looking back at the time they spent in a way-station concentration camp in Holland (not a death camp, but no Disneyland, either,) where they managed to fall in love in a few stolen moments before being transported off by the Germans to worse camps to the east. Both survived, by miracle, got back together after the war, and lived--as they say--happily aver after.
Remarkable about the documentary was the spirit of this now aging pair, the joy and gratitude they share with family and friends, the depth of humanity achieved in part, surely, through the intensity of their deprivation and suffering. Their capacity to love seemed multiplied exponentially by the tenuousness of their survival as young people, and the witness they bore to the suffering of others.
Shortly after seeing this film, I found myself with a copy of Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz" in my hands. It must have been around the house for a while, unread, and I'm honestly not sure how it surfaced from among the stacks and shelves, but there it was, and I opened it up--and could not put it down.
Primo Levi, you'll remember, survived the last year of Auschwitz and lived, barely, to be liberated by the advancing Russians--only to die, as suspected suicide, forty years later in his native city of Turin. "Survival" is the story of that year--a powerful description of life in the camp, of forced labor under the worst of circumstances, the lack of food and adequate shoes and clothing, the intense cold, the mud and filth, the shared bunks where sleep was constantly interrupted, the constant beatings and the fear of "selection." Survival involved the surrender of all normal moral codes, of friendship and respect for the property of others, of love and compassion for those who compete, tooth and nail, for the necessities of life. It also involved innate smarts, ruthlessness when necessary, a willing suspension of emotional response, a constant alertness--along with a kind of meditative distance from the surrounding reality.
Levi is not only a keen observer--that, too, is a survival tool--but also a moral and social philosopher. Consider this: in ordinary life, he writes (life, that is, outside the camps,)
a man is not normally alone, and in his rise and fall is tied to the destinies of his neighbors; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin. Moreover, everyone is normally in possession of such spiritual, physical and even financial resources that the probabilities of a shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life, are relatively small. And one must take into account a definite cushioning effect exercised both by the law, and by the moral sense which constitutes a self-imposed law; for a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.
These are thoughts as applicable today as when they were written, or in the time they were written about. We look around us and see evidence of this balance of social and moral contingency being lost. We risk descending into a place where the powerful are ceded too much power, and where the weak are allowed too easily to crash down into that "total inadequacy in the face of life" that Levi describes as existing in the camps. All the more reason, then, to be vigilant. All the more reason, in this political year, to listen carefully to those who seek to lead us.