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By Raphael Rosen
Berkeley, California


 

We must "remember that night." Yet ironically, the greatest genocide in human history, the "ultimate rebellion of nihilism against all moral emotion and all ethical values," is something we struggle to preserve (Berkovits, 131-2). How can we guarantee that the memory of this nihilistic rebellion, as Berkovits puts it, is not forgotten? Society must preserve the memory of the systematic murders of over ten million people, the main contingent being 5,721,800 Jews, yet it seems so difficult (Reitlinger, 533). Recognizing and appreciating the inconceivable numbers killed is important, but it is not enough. The accounts of survivors are invaluable, yet solely using their testimony is insufficient in preserving the memory of this crucial series of events. We need both survivor testimony and a cognizance of the outrageous numbers involved to appreciate the magnitude of the Holocaust, and to guarantee that the memory of this entire catastrophe is preserved.

The future of Holocaust remembrance hinges upon survivor testimony, since only it can provide a human connection to the Holocaust, that is so important to understanding any event. For example, in Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi takes a rather undramatic approach to the Holocaust yet his words speak volumes to the emotional experiences that are so crucial to Holocaust recollection. "Dawn came on u, s like a betrayer," says Levi as he prepares for exportation from his native town, "The different emotions that overcame us, of resignation, of futile rebellion, of religious abandon, of fear, of despair, now joined together.. .uncontrolled panic," (Levi, 12). The collapse of the human spirit that Levi describes here provides a key emotional description with which we as human beings can connect, by truly understanding the magnitude of his emotions and suffering. If we cannot understand on a basic human emotional level, the magnitude of what happened, then we cannot understand what occurred at all. Survivor testimony is our key to comprehending the horror that befell millions of innocent people on a basic human level. The emotional connection we make with Levi's description is fundamental to our ability to feel suffering when we read horrifying images and descriptions of individual human suffering during this time. In describing dysentery in concentration camps, Terrence Des Pres says, "Those with dysentery melted down like candles, relieving themselves in their clothes, and swiftly turned into stinking repulsive skeletons who died in their own excrement" (Des Pres, 59). "Repulsive skeletons" dying "in their own excrement," is a powerful image by itself, but when we can imagine it occurring to individual human beings, and when we can connect on an emotional level to this image, it becomes extremely puissant. The forceful images Des Pres and other survivors provide take the connection we felt towards Levi's work to the next step, the level of the visceral. With Levi we connect on a human mental and emotional level, but with Des Pres we can actually feel the suffering that so many went through. Survivor testimony and description will forever play the crucial role in the future of Holocaust remembrance.

However, at the same time, the survivors perseverance directly contrasts with the grim reality of so many who did not survive. After all, only 250,000-300,000 Jews actually survived the concentration camps and the death marches (Gilbert, 236). 300,000 people are only five percent of the estimated six million who perished. A proper history of the Holocaust cannot solely be based on the testimony elf five percent of the victims involved. As crucial as the stories of the survivors are, from a strictly historical and rational perspective, five percent speaking for the ninety-five percent who perished limits our ability to remember everything that happened. Besides the figure of only five percent surviving overall, there are numerous other important examples where so very few can speak for the multitude, where human survival crumbled in the face of the Nazi killing machine. Of the 25,000 people in the Sosnowiece ghetto, all but 500 were murdered. (Rutherford, 138). Can two percent speak completely accurately for the whole? In the Polish province of Volhynia, the same, haunting numbers hold true. There were over 100,000 Jews in Volhynia, yet less than 1000 would survive both the Nazi massacres and the harsh winter. (Gilbert, 115). If less than one percent survived, is it possible for them to speak the whole truth of the Holocaust for their entire province? In Norway, the Nazi police rounded up 725 Jews. Thirteen survived the war. (Rutherford, 132). Thirteen individuals cannot possibly know the whole truth of what exactly happened to all 725. Though the survivors of these events provide crucial accounts and information, they simply represent too small a fraction of the whole Holocaust to capture the entire truth of the atrocities committed during this ignominious time.

The actions and words of the men who killed these innocent people provide facts from a different perspective, and as despicable as some of their views may be, they are essential to recalling the horror that befell humanity. Therefore, we are obliged to study the deeds and thoughts of those nazis who are remorseful for their actions as well as the reports and conduct of those who are not. Auschwitz commander, Rudolf Hoss, who even prided himself on the "systematic disposal of humans," was so overwhelmed by what he saw sometimes, that he said, "'My pity was so great that I longed to vanish from the scene, "'(Gilbert, 135). This expression of partial regret by Hess is similar to that expressed by Eichmann in his recently released memoirs, in which he recalled being "tense and shocked," when he witnessed a mass execution of Jews in Minsk ("Eichmann's memoirs (excerpts)," 2). The ability for two merciless men, Eichmann and Hoss, to express their regret for their horrible actions adds another dimension to Holocaust remembrance, because we can even more fully comprehend the large scale horror of the Holocaust and its sweeping effect upon almost all who, participated in it. However, many SS soldiers felt no remorse for their action; s. One Nazi daily situation report writes that a fever broke out in a town near Minsk and to prevent it from spreading to the city, "1,025 Jews were shot," (Reitlinger, 133). The swiftness of action indicated in this murder demonstrates the satanic nature of some of the Nazis. In the same manner, remembering Hitler's preposterous views in his Mein Kamnf, emphasize Nazi mercilessness and help us understand yet another part of the Holocaust, the ability for humanity to think and act in a shockingly subhuman manner.

The Nazi subhuman manner betters our understanding of how so many could be killed during this epoch, and remembering the magnitude of this cataclysm is of utmost importance. Only historical records can insure the survival of such harrowing events as the execution of 6000 people per day in June 1944 in Birkenau, (Reitlinger, 130), or the fact that in just two weeks in August 1942, 200,000 Jews were murdered in Poland between the camps of Chelmno, Treblinka, and Belze. (Gilbert, 115). These numbers, though harder for us to relate to than with the individual human emotion described by survivors, are still extremely important. For if we cannot re: member the magnitude of the Holocaust we have failed in remembering it properly. It is not merely the total number murdered, but it is the thought that so many innocent people could be killed so quickly in a pre-nuclear age that confounds anybody studying the Holocaust.

The future of Holocaust remembrance will be tested over the coming years as the last survivors fade away, and the coming generations are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the remembrance of this greatest of all tragedies. Survivor testimony through books, videos, and all types of media are of utmost importance for they provide the emotional content necessary for a person to feel, understand, and connect with the tragedies of the Holocaust on a basic, human emotional level. However, this alone is not enough for a total remembrance. We must also preserve the harrowing numbers of those murdered, the situation reports describing Nazi cruelty, the evidence of the large-scale defeat of the human spirit, and all other pieces of objective evidence that allow us as human beings to comprehend the abstract horror of what actually occurred. Therefore, to preserve the memory of the Holocaust we need an objective understanding of what happened and all the suffering that was inflicted, in addition to subjectively feeling emotionally connected to this catastrophe. Modern psychiatry and biology have discovered that the midbrain controls human emotions, while the highest level of the brain, the cerebrum, controls thinking and other more complex human functions. (Holmes, 41) Nerve tracts connect these different middle and high parts of the brain. The future of Holocaust remembrance hinges upon the growth and preservation of these nerve tracts. It is our most pressing duty to make these nerves grow.

 

 

Bibliography of Works Cited

Berkovits, Eliezer. Faith after the Holocaust. New York: Ktav Publishing House Inc., 1973.

Des Pres. Terrence. The Survivor. New York: Pocket books, 1976.

"Eichmann's memoirs (excerpts)," http://www.us-israel.org/source/Holocaust/memoir. html, [Online: Available] Downloaded March 9, 2000.

Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust. London: The Rainbird Publishing Group, 1982.

Homles, David S. Abnormal Psychology. New York: Addison-Wesely Educational Publishers Inc., 1997.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. Trans. Stuart Woolf. New York: Collier Books, 1961.

Reitlinger, Gerald. The Final Solution. London: Sphere Books; 1971.

Rutherford, Ward. Genocide. New York: Ballantine Books Inc., 1973.

Other Helpful Works

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943.

Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust. New York: Plume Books, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie. Legends Of Our Time. New York: Bard Books, 1968.

Zyskind, Sara. Stolen Years. New York: Signet Books, 1983.

 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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