Was It A Past Life?

“Red Square on Black”
Kasimir Malevich, 1920-24

Was It A Past Life?

By now there are many cases on record of individuals recalling previous lifetimes.  A person under hypnosis will seem to remember incidents that occurred under conditions quite different from those obtaining in that person’s present life.  Children under a certain age can exhibit reactions to a painful circumstance they describe that is unlike anything that could have happened in the child’s experience.  Sometimes these apparent memories can be independently confirmed.  Yes, there was a sailor by that name on the ship’s roster and he did go down with that ship.  

Would such a case provide a “refuting instance” of the current materialist/mechanist model of the laws of nature?  Apparently not.  In working science, one exception to a physical law doesn’t overturn it.  Not even a thousand anomalies would be sufficient, by themselves, to overturn an established law of nature.  According to one philosopher of science, scientific theories “remain forever submerged in an ocean of anomalies.”  The current theory, or paradigm, would be retained until “there is a manifestly better alternative available.” 

So I don’t offer my tale as evidence for the truth of reincarnation.  It’s just … something to ponder.  Something that follows me.  I’ll share it with you now.

The first clue came some years back.   A diagnosis of breast cancer had been followed up by an excisional biopsy and radiation treatment.  In order to make sure that the radiation remained within required perimeters, small blue marks were tattooed around the treatment area.  I had not expected that and the blue marks offended me.

I was home after the first day’s treatment when the phone rang.  It was Edith Wyschogrod, an old friend and one time president of the American Academy of Religion.

“How are you?”

“I’m okay I guess.  But, Edith, I had the strangest sensation right after the treatment.   A strong smell of gasoline – like from car exhaust.”

“You must have known,” said Edith, “that Jewish women were tattooed in the death camps before being sent to the gas chambers.  It was likely an association of ideas.”

I wondered about that.  The gas used in the death camps was Zyklon B.  Did that have a smell like exhaust from an automobile?  I never read that it had. 

Years later, with the cooperation of an empathic Japanese/American woman GYN, I had the tatoo marks photographed for the medical record and competently removed.  (Degradation is not uniformly as compulsory as it’s often said to be.)  I did not brood over the incident.  It fell back into the wider context of that illness and its treatment.

Some time later, I was reading about the Holocaust, a subject I have written about in several chapters of A Good Look at Evil.  I came across a mention of other killing techniques, not widely known, that the Nazis had also used.  They included the use of exhaust gas emptied into the back of sealed trucks.  This was striking to me because it vindicated my impression that what I smelled — with hallucinatory vividness in the hospital — had been car exhaust!

It was some years later that I decided to try a past life hypnotic regression.  I wasn’t thinking about these earlier experiences.  I wanted to see if it could help with my neuropathy.  (Although such hypnotic regressions have sometimes led to remissions of phobias and physical ailments, in my case, this treatment did not help the neuropathy.) 

Under hypnosis, I found myself in an unnamed German town.  The Nazis were in power, so it must have been after 1933.  I was a Jewish young woman.  Although the systematic killing of Jews had not yet begun, my family and I were in seclusion.  We avoided the street.  However, the Nazis did learn of our existence from a neighbor who was an informer.  One afternoon, they came with loud poundings on the door to round us up.  They did not take us far.  Just to a parked truck into the back of which we were made to climb.  The truck was sealed and gas from the exhaust poured in.

I remember how I felt as I was dying.  First, an absolute refusal to take this as normal – or setting a new norm – or in any sense inevitable.  I saw it clearly as abnormal, entirely wrong, and in no sense excusable.

As I was leaving my body, I recall pausing in midair and looking round to take in the larger human scene, of which this incident was a small part.  I saw that the phenomenon – the Shoah – was vast in scope.  It extended as far as my gaze could reach.  To the horizon and beyond.  It was almost global.

There was something else that I felt.  The vision would stay with me and would inform any future life as an obligation.  Whatever future form it took, I would have to fight it.

I should say here that this “memory,” vivid and precise as it was, was not confirmed by any empirical evidence from my present life.  When, as a girl, I’d hitchhiked through Germany with my friend Anna, I felt neither fear nor dread.  

“You know,” one of our smiling Austrian drivers confided to us, “they tell terrible stories about S.S.  I was in S.S.  All my friends were in S.S.  We were all picked men!  Not a one of us under six feet!”

He hadn’t scared me.  I thought the encounter was funny.  In sum: nothing in my present experience confirmed this tale empirically.  

One more clue came the other day on C-Span.  A Holocaust survivor was being interviewed.  He said that, initially, Jews were murdered in trucks rigged up so that the exhaust pipe emptied into the back of the sealed truck.  When the trucks got stalled in the mud or broke down, and could only kill small numbers at one go, it became clear that stationary gas chambers, housed in death camps, would have to be provided for the purpose of mass extermination.

I waited a day to talk about it with Jerry.  What did they all mean, these clues, these odd reminders?  Was my “memory” real?  If so, why not more context to bear it out?  Was it a mere projection?  If so, why these graphic data – spread out at wide intervals over years?

As the signs of the new anti-semitism begin to gather like elements of a tidal wave — as well-respected figures attach their signatures to delegitimations of Israel that lay the groundwork and prepare the justifications for the next Shoah – what I have felt is not astonishment, not even outrage: only a sinking, over-familiar recognition.

Was it a real memory?  Was it an emblematic experience?  Or does experience itself include a third level:

where emblem and fact merge?

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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