Thursday, January 27, 2005

Holocaust, Liberalism, Humanism, and God

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The author Aharon Appelfeld, writing in this morning's New York Times, remembers and reflects, and in so doing, subtly asks towering questions about the validity of all religious understanding, whether liberal or traditional, Augustinian or Pelagian, theist or humanist:

The Holocaust stretched over six years. Such long years there probably never were in Jewish history. Those were years when every minute, every second, every split-second held more than it could bear. Pain and fear reigned, but even then, in the midst of hunger and humiliation, the amazement sprouted: "Is this Man?"…

Under conditions of hunger and cold, the body, we learned in the camps, is liable to lose its divine qualities. That too was part of the wickedness of the murderer: not only to murder, but first to humiliate the victim utterly, to exterminate every shred of will and faith, to turn him into a despicable body whose soul had fled, and only then, that degradation complete, to murder him. …

In 1945, the ovens were extinguished. Jean Améry, a prisoner of Auschwitz and one of the outstanding thinkers on the Holocaust, says in one of his essays: "Anybody who was tortured will never again feel at home in the world."

Great natural disasters leave us shocked and mute, but mass murder perpetrated by human beings on human beings is infinitely more painful. Murder reveals wickedness, hatred, cynicism and contempt for all belief. All the evil in man assumed a shape and reality in the ghettos and camps. The empathy that we once believed modern man felt for others was ruined for all time. …

Some entered hell as pious people and came out of it just as pious. That position deserves respect. But most survivors - myself, and especially the young - were outside the realm of faith, and from the first stages of the liberation, we were engaged with the question of how to go on living a life with meaning…. We can barely grasp and internalize the death of one child. How can we grasp the death of millions? …

God did not reveal himself in Auschwitz or in other camps. The survivors came out of hell wounded and humiliated. They were betrayed by the neighbors among whom they and their forefathers had lived. They were betrayed by Western culture, by the Germans, by the language and literature they admired so much. They were betrayed by the great beliefs: liberalism and progress. …

What to hold onto to live a meaningful life? … No wonder many of the survivors went on to Israel. No doubt, they wanted to get to a place where they could leave their victimhood behind and assert responsibility over their fate, a place where they could connect with the culture of their forefathers, to the language of the Bible, and to the land that gave birth to the Bible.

… A doctor who survived, from a religious background, who sailed to Israel with us in June 1946, told us: "We didn't see God when we expected him, so we have no choice but to do what he was supposed to do: we will protect the weak, we will love, we will comfort. From now on, the responsibility is all ours."


At January 29, 2005 at 12:36:00 AM EST, Blogger Chalicechick said...

Beautifully put, all of it.

I've twice heard holocaust survivors speak to classes I've been in, and I've twice asked what the impact of the holocaust on their religious faith was. Two out of two entered the camps Jews and left athiests.

This doesn't especially surprise me. Seems only human to feel abandoned in such circumstances.

I wonder sometimes if that was not in some ways harder on the Jewish faith than the deaths themselves.


At January 29, 2005 at 12:26:00 PM EST, Blogger fausto said...

If by "atheist" you mean someone who refuses to accept the literal truth of traditional religious formulas about a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient, personal, sentient God, I accept that. I have trouble coming to terms with that description of God myself.

But I would have an even harder time calling someone who sincerely says, "From now on, the responsibility is all ours," anything other than faithful and devout. That simple understanding has been at the heart of everything else not since only the Holocaust, but ever since Adam and Eve had their little picnic, and a lot of people down through the ages have had far greater piety but far less understanding.

At January 30, 2005 at 7:08:00 PM EST, Blogger Chalicechick said...

The gist, as I understood it, was "God as I have always heard God described would not have allowed that to happen, therefore, there is no God."

So, yes, I'd call that becoming an atheist because one rejected the traditional God.

Elie Wiesel put it most poetically when he wrote in Night: A voice behind me asked, "Where is God? Where is He? Where can He be now?" and a voice within me answered: "Where? Here He is -- He has been hanged here, on these gallows."

I wouldn't agree with that theologically, but I wouldn't challenge him on it either.


At February 1, 2005 at 12:05:00 PM EST, Blogger fausto said...

I won't argue against that.

And yet there was something that caused that doctor to say to himself, "If God won't do what we expected God to do, then it is we who must." I'm sure nearly all UUs have said the same thing to themselves at some point along the journey.

I would argue that God is the still, small voice that even in the face of unimaginable horror continues to say, "We must", and God is that quality within us that after such horror is still willing to accept the obligation.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

At February 1, 2005 at 12:20:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's this now? To me it sounds suspiciously like Unitarians discussing the Resurrection.

Nah. Can't be. Humanists don't do metaphor.

At February 18, 2005 at 10:17:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad was a survivor, most of his siblings were not.

I have never once heard any survivor ask the insipid question "why do they hate us?".


Post a Comment

<< Home