This is yet another post touched off by a post by Eric Schliesser on the NewApps philosophy blog … He discusses a two-part article in the New York Review of books by Mark Lilla about several films and books on the Holocaust, and considers Lilla’s contention that “Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism.” Eric’s insightful discussion got me thinking about the moral implications of trying to represent the Holocaust in literary writing, e.g. fiction, memoir, etc. Following on that, I offer this little anecdote that I have been thinking about for a long time:
When I was spending a year as a student at the University of Hamburg in Germany, the year after I finished college in the US in the mid-1990s, I met an older German man at church who wanted to talk to me about his experiences as a soldier during the Third Reich. It was a little strange explaining to the people at the Mormon church what I was doing in Germany. They met a lot of Mormon American girls my age who came to be au pairs, and they always assumed I could only be another au pair. I finally managed to convince some of them that I was a real student, and that I was studying real subjects like history and theology and Semitic languages.
When this man heard that I was studying history, though my focus was the Greco-Roman era, he assumed I was there to study recent German history. He promised to set aside some time for me so I could interview him about his days as a soldier. I didn’t want to interview him, but I also didn’t want to be impolite. He seemed so determined, and I sensed that he wanted to talk about it, and perhaps at the same time it was hard for him to offer to talk about it, and so rejecting the offer might wound or humiliate him.
On the agreed-upon afternoon, on a dark, cloudy winter day, I went to see him in his cramped, dimly-lit Hamburg apartment where he lived alone. The furnishings were typical older, lower-middle-class hamburgische, from the fifties and sixties, worn dusty rugs and lampshades and curtains. I think he sat in an armchair next to a little side table with a lamp that provided most of the little light there was. I brought a notebook and a pen to pretend to take notes. To my relief, he didn’t seem to expect me to have any questions; he just started to talk.
Since I didn’t take any notes, at least not that I still have, I can’t guarantee how reliable my memory of his story is. But here are a few things I remember, loosely paraphrasing. He started off by saying, “I never liked Jews, when I was younger. I heard a story about a Jewish boy who seduced a girl and got her pregnant, and then wouldn’t marry her. And always after that, I never liked Jews.”
Under the Third Reich, there was a plan for the Jews. From what he understood back then, the plan was just to resettle them, to give them their own place. It even seemed like it could be a good thing for them.
He talked about how the years of the war, when he served as a soldier, were some of the happiest years of his life. “Those were my glory days.” He was young and handsome back then, and there was excitement and camaraderie in the army. But because of the history, because of the terrible things that happened as a result of the war, it was considered wrong to remember those years as happy. This seemed hard for him, to feel forbidden to remember his happiness as happiness, to have to be ashamed of having been happy.
He never knew about any of the camps, he said. He believed the Jews were being given transportation by train to their new resettlements in other territories. Once, he saw one of the trains go by, packed with people who were waving their arms out the sides. He had even thought, back then, perhaps they were waving because they were happy.
Then he said to me, in a near-whisper, “But afterwards, I heard that they were sent to camps. I heard … they even gassed them …” As if this were news that he still had trouble grasping, fifty years later. As if it were up to him to explain the fact of the death camps to me and confess their existence, as if I wouldn’t have read about this over and over again in high school history classes and seen the documentaries and the movies and read the articles and books. As if there still might even be some shred of hope that it hadn’t really happened.
And then perhaps we talked about other things for a while, and probably I thanked him, and left.
It’s not much of a story really, these few little sketchy details of a strange, long-ago conversation, and yet I’ve thought for nearly twenty years since that sometime I should try to write them down. And then I never have until now, because it strikes me as something that might seem to others completely random and trivial – just one little drop of a story in a vast sea of millions of terrible stories. Does it offer any insight into the Holocaust, or the nature of evil, or guilt, or innocence, or willful ignorance, or rationalizations? Is it worth sharing, and how can it be my place to share it? I’m not a Jew, I’m not a German, and the Holocaust happened decades before I was born. I have no direct connection with it. And yet I have this one story where it came to me unasked-for and unwanted and stood before me and tried to explain itself just for those few minutes in those few words of one old man.
Simply by telling a story like this, the story of another person trying to explain himself, a person who may have seen me as an outside judge with a kind of power to absolve him though listening and understanding – am I guilty in this of trying to understand and explain the inexplicable? I still don’t know. I thought perhaps in the act of finally writing it down, I might better understand what it meant to write it down. What having written it down makes clear to me is that I did feel sorry for this man, for his guilt and shame and confusion, for his good will and his past happiness, and his determination to confess and tell me things it pained him to say. Also, that I was simultaneously horrified by some of the things he said. Also, that the story helped me go a little ways toward understanding him and imagining myself in his shoes. Also, that perhaps I might have absolved him if I could have. The project of trying to understand him, and through him to have a tiny window into how the whole horror happened, does not feel immoral to me, it feels like a worthwhile thing to try to do, however flawed and inadequate my telling is. But then perhaps I’m only trying to ease my own guilt, as he was. I don’t know.