The Right Way to Act

Nazi soldiers round up Jews for arrest during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. 
National Archives and Records Administration

The Right Way to Act

An essay of mine with that title, excerpted from my Good Look at Evil, is now posted on academia.edu.  It’s on the question of how to conduct oneself during one’s Holocaust.  The title is meant ironically, of course.  My aim was to disarm the many accusations that writers on the topic of the Holocaust have leveled against its victims

What did the victims do that is deemed so wrong?  They were too compliant.  [But a gun against the head is powerfully persuasive.]  They were insufficiently heroic.  [Hey, armchair moralizer!  I wanna see how heroic you get when, by Nazi order, you’re naked.] 

And their murderous tormentors?  Do they get criticized?  Oddly, the same critics who fault the victims often lean toward exonerating their killers: those poor fellows are just you and me in altered circumstances.  We are all guilty.  Extenuating circumstances encircle us all, too numerous to enumerate.  People are just social roles, with legs on them.  You can’t tell the players without a playbill.

And blah blah blah.  Are there any confusions and obfuscations still unsowed?  We’ll get right on it.  We’re the cultured few!  We’re beautiful.

A serious question remains, how should one conduct oneself, if faced with the worst of moral challenges:

a seemingly endless sea of human malice?

The question is not a character test, per se.  For example, though I had (and still have) the highest opinion of my own parents, even as a child I did not think that they would do very well in a Holocaust.  They were complex people, well-read in a number of languages, able to detect subtleties in human interactions and far-flung implications among the opinions of the day.

But it’s a feature of cruelty that its motivations and methods are astonishingly simple.  Complex people can be quite undone by simple cruelty.

I have a rather complex mind and a sensibility that’s inconveniently receptive.  Given that standpoint, I don’t like to think how I would do in a Holocaust.

All this is leading up to telling you about the most extraordinary book that I read during the week we were away in California: Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach. (Hasidism is a sect within Judaism valuing personal devotion and piety more than intellectual attainments.)  Though Eliach’s book won a literary prize when it first appeared, I never see this book referred to in discussions of the Holocaust or other books on religious, ethical or cultural topics. 

Martin Buber did pioneer work in collecting and translating hasidic tales that had already been transmitted in that milieu for the last two hundred years.  What Yaffa Eliach did was much harder.  She went to her students at Brooklyn College, some of whom were the children of Holocaust survivors, met and interviewed their parents and people to whom she was referred through these initial contacts, collected the stories from their sources, verified them through dates and other evidences wherever possible, and recorded these first-hand accounts for posterity.  She is a good writer, an intelligent listener, and a dedicated commemorator.  She deserves much wider recognition than she has so far received.

She was also my colleague at Brooklyn College.  We served on one faculty committee together.  Some of her students would have been my students as well.  The first time I met her at a faculty reception, I recall asking her — about one of the tales in the book – whether she thought such a thing could actually have happened.  Her answer was commonsensical and well adapted to the naturalistic tone of my question.  Though I’d read the book through, the fact was that it made no deep impression on me at the time, and she could probably sense that.

To read certain books understandingly,

one has to be ready.

In the hasidic world, the tale is a primary teaching tool, conveying more than an abstract argument can.  By its example, it shows how people can bridge the distance between The World of Truth and our lives here on earth.  Once told, the listener is left free – in the silences beyond the tale — to ponder its implications.

In these tales, the Holocaust’s countless cruelties are not foregrounded.  The degradations and humiliations are not underscored.  They are the shadows in the background.  That “background” is large indeed, stretching from horizon to horizon.  However, the spotlight is elsewhere.

What is foregrounded?  The immensities of human devotion, loyalty and deathless love – right in the midst of moral devilishness and physical chaos.

Though almost every story contains a jewel-like teaching, I’ll tell just one that picks up the question with which we began: What’s the right way to act during one’s Holocaust?

There was a macabre ceremony that the S.S. conducted with its Jewish slave laborers when they returned at close of day, ragged, frozen, exhausted and starving.  They would be lined up to face their tormentors and required to shout, repeatedly and in unison, that the Nazi regime possessed the most respected race on the face of the earth and that the Jews were the most accursed race on earth.  While they shouted in that way, they would be beaten with rubber truncheons.

One of the prisoners, a secular-minded lawyer, befriended another prisoner, who was a revered Hasidic rabbi. 

         “How,” the lawyer asked the rabbi, “can you join in the diabolic choir?”  Before the rabbi could respond, the lawyer confided that he had managed to get hold of two cyanide capsules and – as the only way out of this inferno — was offering one of them to his rabbinic friend.

         “I will not be able to enter The World of Truth,” the rabbi responded, “and face my illustrious ancestors as a murderer, as one who has taken a life — even his own life.  Thank you, my friend, for your friendship.”

That very evening at the intolerable roll call, when the S.S. men asked their familiar question, “Who is the most respected race on earth?” an answer came roaring – again and again and again — out of the gathering dusk:

“The Jews! The Jews! The Jews!”

As the S.S. men ran forward to find the forbidden voice, they came upon the lifeless body of the lawyer, a last smile still visible on his face.

Here are two views of life, of love, of duty.  We can try to ponder, which is the greater?

Don’t answer too quickly.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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