Studying the Holocaust -- Imagination and Searching For Human Words


-- Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defense of Poetry"

-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Integrating the American Mind"


The imagination and the ability to empathize with others is the key to living a wider life, a key to escaping the prison of a limited self. But, imagination and identification are also menacing. As we read and listen to the words of survivors, as we study the Holocaust from all points of view, our imaginations threaten us. As I pick up Elie Wiesel's novel Night, I take the Holocaust in my hands, and I hear children's' voices in the dark. I am afraid for them and for myself. First, I am afraid my imagination will fail me, and I will be overwhelmed. The terror and humiliation of the Holocaust may so numb me that I will go into "shock." I will isolate myself, deny everything -- suffering, empathy, mercy, family, God. I will experience what Wiesel experienced when his father was struck and he did nothing (36-37), or, in the end, I will abandon my father. Wiesel says to me, "I awoke on January 29 at dawn. In my father's place lay another invalid. They must have taken him away before dawn and carried him to the crematory. He may still have been breathing . . . . his last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond" (106). I imagine myself in Wiesel's place. I imagine myself in his father's place. I imagine myself taking him to the crematory. I imagine being the next invalid. Would it be any different for me? How much could I take before I was numb to my father's summons?

Second, I am afraid my imagination will put me in the camps with the victims. I will smell the smoke, experience for myself the horror of murdered children; those tiny hands that might fit cautiously into mine. A child may say, "Save me," and I will be helpless. I might succeed so well in identifying with those who lived through the selections that I will have to say, "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever" (32). A memory: Once after having read Night, I went home and was asked to start a fire in the fireplace. I couldn't do it. The bricks of my hearth had become a crematorium. I was angry, then, at myself, at Nazis, at Wiesel, at my family for wanting a fire . . . at God.

Third, I am afraid of identifying with the oppressor. Wiesel writes that after they came to Auschwitz,

Mengele, a savage irony: a Doctor dedicated to death rather than healing, all his skills and knowledge about life turned to another purpose. Some details. According to Thomas Roder, Thomas Kubillus, and Anthony Burwell, Mengele was part of an institute that provided "expert advice" on the "science of state sponsored murders" -- the "Racial-Biological Special Advisory Authority for the Reich's Kinship Research" (160). Besides his role as an advisor for state sponsored murder, Mengele practiced a particularly warped medicine. He was most interested in genetic research and was especially interested in "twin theories." The camps provided him an opportunity to perform "anatomical dissections of twins immediately after their deaths." Dr. Mengele organized a group of "special commandos," inmates who carried out his work in the camps, and his work included injecting prisoners (men, women, and children) with diseases in order to study their reactions. He also performed other "medical" experiments, castrating inmates with X-rays and submerging inmates in icy water for hours to see how long they could live while hypothermic (159-64). His name is one of the most dreaded names of the Holocaust.

What if I imagined myself Mengele, placing myself at the head of the selection line? I refuse to imagine myself Mengele, but I can still sense what it is like to be him. He has borrowed a conductor's wand from the Jewish band he forces to play during executions. Perhaps, he is hearing a Bach fugue in his mind as his conductor's baton waves to the left and then to the right. He is deciding, perhaps, not only who will live and die but who among the living and dead will serve his science. He might dream briefly, as he selects, about what he might have for lunch . . . what wine, what bread. His mental life is full of concerns for his comfort and his work. I think for a moment what it is like to wear his polished boots. "How old are you," he asks? He points with his wand to the right or left. He knows what they only suspect. They are dead. He is in charge and will soon eat a good lunch.

I like to believe I would not do such a thing. But, I cannot say for certain that given the right circumstances and the right indoctrination that I, too, wouldn't be a murder. The shadow of the madman swaggers in the darkness, and what we cannot see we still can feel. I must constantly say "no" to the madman and "yes" to mercy, mercy for myself and for others.

The imagination's power to unite me with another has its price and its dangers -- I fear my limitations as a human being; I fear suffering; I fear the allure of the oppressor; I fear being trapped in the "other," and so overwhelmed I cannot escape. I might be the victim or oppressor forever. Knowing this and still honoring the healing power of the imagination, I must somehow continue, take the chance, enter into Night in order to turn "no" into "yes" as Wiesel does as he writes. My only hope, I think, is to become aware of the kind of "human words" Wiesel remembers a Polish prisoner speaking on that terrible first night in Auschwitz. I must believe I might speak those words. I do -- almost as a prayer:

Wiesel says these were "The first human words."

What makes them human words is the speaker's ability to share in and understand the inmate's confusion and terror and to speak words that subvert the "seasoning" process. "Seasoning" is a term for the methods used by slave traders to dehumanize African people in order to turn them into slaves (Council of African American Students' presentation). The packing of people into slave ships, torture, separation, and humiliation were all part of the process of "seasoning" because in order for humans to submit to slavery, or as in the case of the Holocaust, to being systematically murdered, they must first be persuaded they are inhuman. While we think of "seasoning" as something the slave traders did to human Africans, we can think of "processing" as something the Nazis did in the Holocaust. In both cases, we recognize how humans can be treated as so much meat. The Nazi's methods of deportation and indoctrination of the inmates were calculated to dehumanize them through "processing." Herded, prodded, whipped, crammed into cattle cars, selected, separated from their families, starved, and kept awake, the inmates have been "seasoned." But while the Nazis calculated to do this, the Polish prisoner responds with words that evoke the spirit and pray for communal support -- the only weapons available to resist the dehumanizing acts of deportation and the camp. He consoles. He offers himself as an arbitrator for their disagreements so that the community might survive. His is an act of mercy because it is a response to an unspoken and fully human cry for help that he hears anyway because he can imagine their suffering and because what they do not say, he hears.

Studying the Holocaust teaches me to learn to speak "human words" and to listen carefully for "human words." In writing and reading about the Holocaust, I am learning bit by bit to sensitize myself to the commodious language of the human heart and the reconciling images possible in the human mind. If I do, I can resist those words and acts that "season" and "process" us and make us less than human and resist the urge to dehumanize others.

Not all words are human words. Some words serve the ends of the slave trader and the Nazi. Words may be spoken from many motives, and just as we can imagine ourselves murderers, victims, or healers, we can speak the words of murderers, victims, or healers. Joseph Campbell tells us that among our primal human responses to life, there are two urges that are constantly at war: the urge to possess and dominate and the urge to identification and mercy. We all share these urges to varying degrees and are susceptible to persuasion aimed at exciting us to act on them. A story:

The Evil Urge is part of all of us. For the most part, our urge to mercy and identification counters the urge to dominate and control. But when, as is often the case and was definitely the case in Nazi Germany, a government or other agency promotes dominance and control in order to meet its ends, then we are in danger of becoming a part of a killing machine. I think of this deliberate attempt to control people's Evil Urge to some end as a perpetual machine of the Holocaust. When the perpetual machine is functioning, words may be used to control us and direct us to the machine's ends. The ironic inscription over the gate at Auschwitz, Arbeit Macht Frei or "Work Makes You Free," is an example of how human words like "freedom" and "work" can be turned to the ends of the perpetual machine of the Holocaust (see Weinberg and Elieli's picture of the gate).I think that listening for human words means we listen for the sound of the spirit in them. By the sound of the spirit, I mean something that does not demand perfection, something that does not serve the ends of the machine, something that is rooted in paradox, something that is a cry for help (see Kurtz and Ketcham 22).

So, reading and writing about the Holocaust are acts of faith in the power of "human words" to interfere with the killing machine that created the Holocaust and that is still clanking its way through history. The same urge to power, domination, and death chugs on through the night. Speaking human words and listening for them is an act that promises the machine will someday rasp to a halt, stalled by those who have the courage to confront with their imagination both the possibility of being a victim and the possibility of being an oppressor but choose, instead, to resist death, to reconcile differences, and celebrate on the borders of their lives where they meet the "other."

Each of us may choose to either accept the fears we have of others and our own imaginations in order to imaginatively embrace our humanity through human words or choose to confine ourselves to the concentration camp of the spirit, where we are isolated and wrapped in "nocturnal silence." Each of us must choose how to end a poem that was begun in the voice of a Jewish mother:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed
Railway-Car

here in this carload
i am eve
with able my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i . . .

(Dan Pagis 491)

Do we dare try to end the poem for ourselves? Sometimes the spirit alone answers us, and we pause a moment to honor the silence, hanging as it were over the abyss following the "i." But, if we must speak for ourselves and end the poem, if we must try to imagine our way into the heart and soul of that mother and see through her eyes, we cannot speak with words given to us by anyone else -- no church words, no tribunal words, no temple words, no governmental proclamation. Our words must be "human words" that resonate into the night of all our souls.

Studying and writing about the Holocaust is a testing ground for all of us. What we test is our ability to remain human when confronted by the machine. I believe that if we have the courage to engage the Holocaust, we have the courage and ability to engage the world and to wreck the machine. There are no answers to the Holocaust, only questions we must ask ourselves in its presence. Those questions define us and shape our response to the world. The Holocaust urges us to tell our stories of the world with human words, and makes it clear to us that we must remember to be human. Once the good Rabbi Baal Shem Tov was approached by his students who asked him why he answered all their questions by telling a story. They waited patiently for him to answer them with another story, but after a "loving and lingering pause," he responded: "Salvation lies in remembrance" (Kurtz and Ketcham 155). The "pains and pleasures" of human kind must become our own, and we must not forget.

by Rex Veeder


Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

CAAS presentation. October 16, 1996.

Gates. Henry Louis Jr. "Integrating the American Mind." Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. Eds. William A. Covino and David A Jolliffe. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995. 342-49.

Kurtz, Ernest and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Pagis, Dan. "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car." Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust. Eds. Milton Teichman and Sharon Leder. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1994. 491.

Roder, Thomas, Voller Kubillus and Anthony Burwell. Psychiatrists -- the Men Behind Hitler. Los Angeles: Freedom Publishing, 1995.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defense of Poetry." In English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967. 1072-087.

Weinberg, Jeshajahu and Rina Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli, 1995.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Stella Rodway. New York: Bantam Books, 1960.

- - -. "Why I Write: Making 'No' Become 'Yes.'" The Essay Connection. 4th ed. Ed. Lynn Z. Bloom. Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath, 1995. 40-47.


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