Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ghosts Of Mississippi (the last part)

Here's the last of the follow-up posts from Ghosts of Mississippi.

First, from Logan:
I remember learning about the Holocaust in Jr. High. At the time I understood what I was learning, about WW2, Nazis, and the Holocaust. It wasn't until I was 18 and my parents gave me enough money to go to Germany to see my brother that it became real for me . During my stay I took a day trip and was out exploring Munich. I was having a great time driving around the city and visiting some of the Museums and the BMW HQ. After a period of deliberation, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust and looked up the nearest museum. I thought I was going to a Museum. :

When I arrived at the address I'd looked up, I was parked at the gates of Dachau concentration camp. When you go inside the camp, you go through the intake buildings. The tour is self guided, but you go through the camp as if you are a new arrival. It wasn't anymore graphic than anything I'd seen, but being there, knowing that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of doomed souls walked through that building to their deaths really hit me. I learned Jews weren't the only people there: homosexuals, gypsies, even German nationals who were dissidents were there. Eventually you are inside the camp yard and lots of the buildings are still standing. Guard towers, barracks, storage buildings etc. Then you reach the gas chambers. :

At this point, there are a few guides and you go into the chambers. You pass the crematoriums, and walk into the actual chambers. Then they lock the doors on you. I was pale faced by this point, when they slammed the door behind me and I heard the locks engage I started to tear up. Then the nice guide who was speaking to us gets to the end of his speech, and rolls up his sleeve. I was trying not to choke up and cry but tears were streaming down my face as I saw his tattoo. He spoke about how he wasn't angry and had forgiven everyone who had imprisoned him there. He just wanted everyone in the world to know that everything he said was true and he'd seen it with his own eyes.:

When I left that day, I saw the sculpture that had been placed in front for the second time that day, it was just a piece of abstract art when I walked by it going in. When I left it was truly something different, it was an embodiment of the pain and evil of what had happened there. I suggest you look it up, it's the most powerful piece of art I've ever seen.:

If I had been any younger, I don't know if I would have appreciated what that meant to me. If I hadn't learned about it earlier, I wouldn't have been able to comprehend it. I don't think telling Eli about the depths of evil is in any way bad for him, but I think only with age can you truly appreciate the magnitude and weight of these ideas. I trust your judgment on Eli, and showing him images of the civil rights moments seems age appropriate. Savage struggle, unimpeded hate, and prejudiced beliefs. These are a part of life and he should know, but I think the Holocaust as a concept is o.k. for now. I just think you should give him a few more years to mature and grow and see more of life before you let him really see what people are capable of. The only decision you could make that I would disagree with is never letting him know that the brightest parts of our world and culture contrast with the depths of the darkness that is and was.

Thanks to Logan for the powerful and deeply moving story. It's so powerful that my words seem wholly inadequate.

This last e-mail is from Eduardo Gabrieloff, who has e-mailed for years and who I deeply respect as a concise and intelligent thinker. His viewpoint differs from mine, but that doesn't matter a bit. What matters is that his writing is fierce and deeply passionate:
I felt like I needed to write in with, perhaps, a new perspective. I feel like this is a topic lots of people will say similar things about, so I was holding off. But, evil.

It's such an easy thing to say, to use to label others. It's great for fiction, great even for explaining parts of history that are abyssal. How better to explain the Nazis and the Holocaust than evil?

Well, I think it's too easy. People in Germany, Hitler and the Nazis included, were not acting out of a sense of being evil. They were acting in, what they thought, was their own self-interest. For the Nazis, antisemitism was a way to mobilize a base of people to support a political party and philosophy, but it was not a way to enact a program of evil. Hitler did not wring his hands and cackle at the idea of exterminating Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals and communists and the mentally disabled. He was going to perfect the world, wipe out what he considered evil and let humanity have a clean slate to rebuild from after the devastation of WWI and the depression.

And he didn't enlist a cadre of evil henchmen, necessarily, to enact his programs: he enlisted regular people. Good people. People who worked hard to provide for their families, to shelter and protect them. And those regular people committed some of the worst atrocities imaginable. The scope of these atrocities are unfathomable. We cannot understand what it would be like to do what Nazis at the prison did, nor can we imagine what it would be like to be a victim of these atrocities.

Anne Frank is an interesting example. She represents a rarity in terms of Holocaust victims: she survived for just over six months after being sent to camp. For most, estimated at 3/4 of arrivals at Auschwitz, life at the camp lasted maybe an hour before the gas chamber killed them. The average Holocaust experience consisted of a brutal life for months, maybe years, in a ghetto, a horrible ride in the cattle cars, and then death almost immediately upon arriving at the camp. The Nazis were incredibly efficient at killing and processing bodies. If you can stomach it (I hardly can), you can call it rendering bodies. Auschwitz was killing about 12,000 people a day at its height.

And the guards at these camps... who were they? As Germany was conscripting soldiers, it was random, you could say. It wasn't the most evil Germans. It was the Germans who were assigned to work the camps. Even though the Nuremberg trials scoffed at the idea, these were people who were following orders.

To me, that is the main thing I want to teach my son, whenever the time comes. Normal people can commit amazing acts of kindness AND malignancy. When we think of the Holocaust and say "never again," it should be a personal call to action, a decision that one will always question what is happening around you and be willing to speak out against it, even if it means being ostracized. But it won't mean, really, that a thing like that WILL never happen again because, while there has never been anything to the scale of efficiency of the Holocaust before or since, there has been genocide. There IS genocide. And we, in ways, let it happen because we don't have the power to stop it. All we can do is try to stop it. And if we're organized and loud enough, we can.

But bad things happen and will continue to happen.

Yeah, I'm repeating myself. But all I want to see from my son is that he will try as hard as he can to not be part of killing or violence unless it's in self-defense. But even now, you and I and everyone who pays taxes is aiding in the killing of women, children and other innocent people in Pakistan. What can we do to stop the drone strikes that are, basically, atrocities? I have no idea, and I have no idea what I'll teach my son.

And while people were celebrating Tuesday night, perhaps rightly, as Obama and his family walked on stage, I saw Obama as a parent, something I hadn't thought about since 2008. He and Michelle, with help, are raising two girls. And at some point, I wonder if either of his girls ask him why it is ok to kill people. I know he has an answer, or else he wouldn't be able to handle being president, but I would love to hear what that would be.

I believe what Eduardo is describing--borrowing from Hannah Arendt--is the banality of evil. And if you're wondering why I didn't edit the last paragraph (because I try so hard to stay out of political comment), it's because it's a philosophical question as well as a political one--the question of the acceptability of violence in any context and what it means about us.

I can't thank you guys enough for the wonderful, thoughtful e-mail you sent in on this topic. It's probably the best e-mail I've ever received in all the years I've been writing the blog (which started in the 1950s, seemingly).

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