The Worst There Ever Was

George Gomori writes a respectful obituary for the author Imre Kertesz, whose works I briefly encountered many years ago, along about the same time I discovered Malcolm Hay’s The Foot of Pride (Europe and the Jews).  Gomori quotes one of Kertesz’s contemporaries, the intellectual Theodor Adorno (another writer I should have spent more time with), who asked the question, “Can we go on living after Auschwitz?”

Most people, I suspect, would think Adorno’s question is directed only toward Jews.  Perhaps in the immediate context of writing it, it was.  But the form of the question is open, and may be, whether we wish it to be or not, directed to all of us.

My answer, first to Adorno’s most likely intended audience, is “Yes, you can, and you must; for if you do not, we fought World War II for nothing.”  If the Holocaust survivors should say to me in reply, “I cannot go on; the wounds are too deep,”  then my response would be only silence, because I wasn’t there; I have only the vaguest notion of what it was all about.  But in my mind and in my soul, I am screaming, “Then the Nazis won!” for their tortures were as exquisitely psychological as they were physical.  You must go on, because Hitler and his like cannot be allowed to win.  Ever.

Kertesz and Adorno were not the only intellectuals scarred by the war. Elie Wiesel, author of Night, one of the most moving of the many Holocaust memoirs, lived his entire post-war life with a face etched with the marks of what he had suffered.  Another, Eugen Kogen, whose great book on the German concentration camps, The Theory and Practice of Hell deserves to be rescued, remembered, and respected as much as Hay’s does, was also scarred by his experiences.

Leave aside for the moment the body count, six million dead.  One of the striking things about World War II and the Holocaust that happened within it was that it was recorded.  Camera crews were there, in Europe and in the Pacific theater, documenting what the soldiers saw, lived through, and died for.  The sheer bulk of the footage we’ve been allowed to see and the footage we will never lay eyes on is enough to put to shame every Holocaust denier who ever lived.  The Germans were filming away, too, recording for all time the glorious triumph of the Third Reich, both before the war started, and after the camps had been broken open.

Yet, the very existence of all these films made me ask myself a question this morning as I read the obituary for Kertesz:  if we can do these things to each other while the cameras are rolling, while the world is looking, what must we have done in ages past, when we know no one was around to see what the warriors did?  What slaughters and desecrations lay buried, I wonder, under the bones of history?  That’s a hard question to answer, but I’d be willing to guess that the Vikings’ depredations on the steppes of what was to become Russia were among the bloodiest affairs the world can show.  I’d also guess that the exploits of Timur the Lame and Ghengis Khan and his sons would shock even the most visually-jaded among us, if we ever learned their full extent.

So, yes, part of me wants to speculate that, somewhere deep in our past, we’ve behaved even more ruthlessly, more horribly than we did in the twentieth century.  Even if I am right, however, it’s hard to imagine the Mongols or the Scandinavian tribes being any more deliberately, systematically brutal than the Nazis were in their efforts to wipe out Jews everywhere.

The carnage was so great, so appalling to contemplate, that I began to wonder about World War II’s connection to trivial things.  We could joke about nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove (1964) because our conscience was clear: the Japanese were given an opportunity to witness the first atomic test.  They refused.  They were given a chance to surrender before Hiroshima.  They refused.  They were given yet another chance to surrender before Nagasaki but refused again because they didn’t believe the Allies had a second bomb.  They were wrong.  We could joke because, frankly, that’s all you can do in the face of obliteration within seconds, if it’s not happening to you.

But the Holocaust was and is a different animal.  It went on, burning up the bones and soul of Europe, for six endless years.  After all that, I asked myself one day, how the hell was a television show called Hogan’s Heroes ever allowed on the air, a mere twenty years after the war ended?

It got on the air because Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer), Sgt. Schultz (John Banner), Col. Burkhalter (Leon Askin), and Col Hochstetter (Howard Caine) were Jewish.  It got on the air because Klemperer (son of the famous conductor Otto Klemperer) had fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933.  It got on the air because LeBeau (Robert Clary), Banner, and Askin were all survivors of concentration and internment camps, and survivors also of families that were killed during the war.

It got on the air because its jokes and its buffoonery were the clearest way anybody could think of to say,”Hitler did not win.”  I respect that, and always will.  But part of me has never been able to laugh at the jokes.  I prefer the darkness of reality over black humor, just as I prefer Fail-Safe over Dr. Strangelove.  I know too much to laugh with a free heart at some things.  That’s what victory in war does:  it frees everything but our hearts.  The burden of what I know is too great.  The philosopher Robert Nozick in his book, The Examined Life, claims that the burden is so great that we have actually forfeited our right to exist.  I cannot go that far.  The evidence shows we are much more a building species than a destructive one, even after two world wars and dozens of smaller ones.  I would say, “Yes, for God’s sake (and our own) we must go on.”  There is too much good we can do in the world not to, and we owe our near-miraculous chance to continue to all of those people who suffered and died to give us that continuing life.  We should go on because not only did we survive in World War II the worst human calamity there ever was, that war also gave future generations, through institutions like NATO and the United Nations and humanitarian efforts like the Marshall Plan, the opportunity to create, day by day and year by year,  the best world that’s ever been.

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