I agree unequivocally with Rod Dreher that the Anne Breslaw piece he quotes (I don’t see any reason to link to it) is dreadful.
Which is a shame, because she could have written something worth reading, on either of two topics: her personal aversion for Holocaust survivors, and/or our culture’s problematic exaltation of survivors of trauma.
The former, the aversion, I understand. I had a yiddish teacher as a kid who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He’d been Sonderkommando. A Sonderkommando’s job was to dispose of bodies from the gas chambers. He survived because this was an important job; they didn’t want to kill Sonderkommandos too quickly. Had he resisted in any way, needless to say, he’d have been instantly killed, and someone else chosen to do the job. So he did his job. He became part of the machinery of death.
When I knew him, he was already an old man. He was cranky, prone to fits of paranoid rage, but he was also a devoted teacher, with a sweet, sentimental streak. He was a good teacher. He did not, in terms of character, stand out from the other teachers I had.
He terrified me, when I thought about him, because I did not want to get close to his experience. Because his experience was horrible, with nothing heroic to redeem it in my eyes.
I wrote a play in grade school about Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who labored to chronicle life in and the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. I wanted to find a hero in the Holocaust story, and I found him – a hero of memory. Here was a man who, though he could not stop the slaughter, did something, at least. His life, if not his death, had a purpose. I had a great time writing the play, and directing it, and acting in it on Holocaust Remembrance Day at our school. We all did.
We went up to our yiddish teacher after the play to ask him how he liked it. And he snapped at me, like Theodor Adorno: these kids, enjoying themselves, doing a play – on Holocaust Remembrance Day?!? It’s a sacrilege!
So there you go.
We don’t want to identify with the survivors, because we don’t want to suffer. They didn’t overcome their suffering – they just survived it. They are victims. Nobody wants to be a victim. We want to be heroes.
And that’s why, after a time, we invested the survivors with moral stature, retroactively turned them into heroes of some sort. We feel bad about our own embarrassment and discomfort, personal and collective (in the first decade after the Holocaust, survivors were held in contempt by most Israelis, an attitude that only began to change after the Eichmann trial). They deserve so much more by way of compensation, it’s really the least we can do.
But we’re lying. Survival isn’t a virtue. It’s just a fact. And it doesn’t necessarily imply virtue, anymore than wealth implies virtue, or good looks, or intelligence. The survivors are enormously valuable – because they can bear witness to the crime that was committed. But they are not, merely by virtue of having survived, heroes.
Primo Levi understood this. Isaac Bashevis Singer understood this. Hannah Arendt understood this. The Nazis were out to kill everybody. If you survived, it was overwhelmingly because of sheer luck. A distant second was physical qualities uncorrelated with any kind of moral virtue or defect. A distant third was any quality of personality or character – and these could as easily correlate with faults as virtues in the world of normal life. Meanwhile, the extermination machine itself inevitably corrupted everybody it touched, including the victims.
The character of the victims has no bearing on the character of the murderers. Whether they were saints or sinners, whether they were merely ordinary people, of all types – as they were, both those who were murdered and those few who survived – the crime was the same. If the Jews had been just as vile as any anti-Semite would have you believe they were, Hitler would still be the vilest criminal in modern history. But it’s hard for us to remember that fact.
There’s a shade of a Christian idea behind the notion that suffering, in and of itself, confers merit (actually, there’s Jewish support to be found for this idea as well), but that merit is abstract. It’s not that suffering necessarily makes you better, but that suffering earns you credit with the big guy upstairs. I’ve never had much truck with this idea, but it’s a religious commonplace. In any event, this idea is perverted when we move from credit in heaven to moral authority on earth.
And the perversion has grown with time. Suffering has, increasingly, become the currency of moral authority – not how one responds to suffering and trauma, but the mere fact of suffering and trauma. This is not a politically colored phenomenon; it’s part of the Oprahfied bath we’re all swimming in. It’s a corrosive notion, and it’s worth taking on at the source.
Rabbi Michael Goldberg asked the right question in a little book published a couple of decades ago that didn’t quite live up to the promise of its first chapters: Why Should Jews Survive. Survival is a good enough value for sea cucumbers. Mentschen should aim higher.
So should this Breslaw woman, whoever she is.