Auschwitz, concentration camps, death camps, Elie Weisel, Final Solution, free will, God, history, Hitler, Holocaust, Jews, Judaism, Kristallnacht, memoir, Nazis, Nazism, Primo Levi, Rabbi Akiva, religion, Shoah, Survival in Auschwitz, Writing
“Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”
From Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.
I tried but failed to find a full text of the book to post here. So pick up a copy for yourself. Just don’t start it late at night, because you won’t get to sleep.
While I believe Levi’s unflinching moral outrage and existential cynicism are legitimate, even admirable, I think they should be counterbalanced by Elie Weisel’s somber reflection that, “after Auschwitz, I did not lose faith in God. I lost faith in mankind.” These takes on the Holocaust are divergent ways of grappling with Rabbi Akiva’s paradoxical epigram that “all is foreseen by God, yet free will is given.”
Kristallnacht, the attacks which intensified the rabid persecutions leading to the Final Solution, broke out 75 years ago tomorrow. Something on which we should all spare at least a moment’s reflection in the next few days. The German novelist W. G. Sebald remarked, in a hyperbolic but effective line, that, “no serious person ever thinks about anything else but the Holocaust.”
The above shot is one of my favorite photos, now hanging in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, “Diaspora” by Frederic Brenner.