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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Understanding Auschwitz Today Introduction Lessons of the HolocaustThe Origins of Genocide How the World FailedThe Task of JusticeHow the Holocaust InformsWhy It's Crucial to Understand

Lessons of the Holocaust

The Panelists

 

"The gates at the entry to Auschwitz had the words Arbeit Macht Frei written over them. It translates as ‘Work makes you free.’ It was a horribly ironic statement. It was cruel."

Melvin Jules Bukiet

Melvin Jules Bukiet

Melvin Jules Bukiet is a member of what has come to be called the "Second Generation," the children of Holocaust survivors. Mr. Bukiet is an author and professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and has won several awards for his novels and short stories. He is the editor of and a contributor to Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendants of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

 

"The Holocaust has become the negative absolute. People don't know what is right, what is wrong, but they can all agree that this was evil incarnate, evil in the extreme."

Dr. Michael Berenbaum

Dr. Michael Berenbaum

Dr. Michael Berenbaum has dedicated much of his life to increasing public awareness of the Holocaust and its implications. He is the author of many books on the subject and has collaborated on several documentary projects. Dr. Berenbaum oversaw the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and is professor of theology at the University of Judaism.

 

The Discussion

What is meant by "Hitler won the war against the Jews"?

BERENBAUM: ...There's a professor at Columbia by the name of David Weiss Halivni who's the greatest Talmudic scholar of this generation, and his classmate was Elie Wiesel [Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, 1986]. They were two boys who matured in Auschwitz, and what Weiss said about him is, "You know, Eli and I were not the most gifted students in our class. Imagine what would have happened had some of our classmates made it where we did. They did not."

They [the Jews] also represent one of the original contributors to western culture. Consequently, their eradication, their elimination, their murder-and notice I don't use the word extermination because that really is a Nazi term- their murder constitutes a changing of the very fabric of this civilization.

BUKIET: A lot is made of survivors these days. I adore them, but they are not the representative figures of the Holocaust. They are a small, dare I say, statistically irrelevant minority.

Most Jews did not survive… The culture, the libraries, the language itself (Yiddish has effectively become a dead language), the science, the lifestyle… an entire way of life was lost. And it wasn't only lost for the Jews, it was actually lost for the cultures that contain the Jews.

Holocaust Fatigue

BERENBAUM: There are good reasons to be tired of the Holocaust. And one of the reasons is because it's so bleak. It is an atrocity and with an atrocity you don't have the balance that comes out of tragedy.

In tragedy, what you learn equals or somehow balances the price that you pay. In atrocity, you have an imbalance and consequently it is a heavy burden for civilization. It shatters your sense of belief in God, belief in the goodness of governments and the altruism of human beings. There is also a fear that this constitutes such an overwhelming negativity that we can't get the inner resources to create a positive future.

My sense is that the only way to go forward into the future with integrity is to confront, to grapple with this past.

BUKIET: I think we learn nothing from it [the Holocaust]. Michael, you use the word "learn" and that's one of the many problems with the Holocaust. It is simultaneously endlessly fascinating, because it does embody the extremes of human behavior. But it is also endlessly exhausting, because it provides no reward whatsoever. There is a tendency, however, on behalf of many people to try and impute some lesson to it. I find that incredibly dangerous.

The second you find a lesson, you are moving one inch towards finding a silver lining, towards actually justifying it. And that seems as repugnant as the experience itself.

BERENBAUM: It may have nothing to teach us and it may have everything to teach us at the very same time.

BUKIET: It has nothing to teach us and yet we have to recognize it.

BERENBAUM: …[yes] we have to recognize it. We have to face it. So I guess my point is you can learn nothing from the holocaust and yet you may also learn everything from it.

What allows people to become killers?

BERENBAUM: Where Melvin [Bukiet] and I would disagree is I think you have to at least confront the perpetrators. We have a debate in Holocaust literature. It is called the Ordinary Man, the Ordinary German debate that begins to approach the question of what allows people to become killers.

Is it the ideology? Is it the notion of complicity? Is it a notion of going along with the crowd? Is it a notion of dehumanizing the victims?

When I write about the perpetrators, I seek to understand their journey. Not with sympathy and not with the idea that I can fully comprehend it and therefore excuse it. But with the idea that facing up to the Holocaust is facing up to who these people are.

BUKIET: I would rather face up to what they did rather than who they are. I find the search for reasons to be false at its core.

Freud would say that there are two co-eternal impulses in the human consciousness: the desire for Eros, which is not only merely the sexual but an impulse towards life, and that towards Thanatos, an impulse for death. Clearly these exist to some extent in everyone.

What actually sent an entire society overboard into the realm of death? I am not sure. That they went there is fact.