Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Children of the Holocaust

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Children of the Holocaust

Article excerpt

Claude Lanzmann's Shoah opens with a Polish survivor singing a few lines that he first sang as a thirteen-year-old prisoner on the streets of the village of Chelmno. Lanzmann brought Simon Srebnik, forty-seven years old when he appears in the film, from Israel to that Polish village where the Nazis first began to exterminate Jews in gas vans before burning the dead bodies in newly-constructed ovens. Of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who perished there, he was one of only two who survived. Midway through the nine-and-a-half hour film, after having given additional accounts of what he endured and witnessed, Srebnik explains that the work details of which he was a part had to clear the vans of the bodies immediately after each tightly packed "shipment" of eighty people were gassed and put the corpses into the ovens. He recounts a particularly harrowing incident. After a mechanical breakdown, still living but not fully conscious victims tumbled out of the van and, slowly coming to, began writhing on the ground. Despite being alive, however, they were thrown by the work details into the fiery ovens:

When I saw all that, it didn't affect me. . . . I was only thirteen, and all I'd ever seen until then were dead bodies. Maybe I didn't understand. Maybe if I'd been older, I'd have understood, but the fact is, I didn't. I'd never seen anything else. In the ghetto in Lodz I saw that as soon anyone took a step, he fell dead. I thought that's the way things had to be, that it was normal. I'd walk the streets of Lodz, maybe one hundred yards, and there'd be two hundred bodies.(1)

Memory, Nietzsche asserts in Beyond Good and Evil, yields to pride when the two are in conflict.(2) Because pride is inflexible and memory indefinite, the self, if in danger, does what it must to protect itself, including the conscious or unconscious distortion of truth. Shame, on the other hand, is both the antithesis and nemesis of pride, because truth, unable to resist, recoils before it. Although at opposite ends of the emotional pole, both pride and shame are nevertheless interconnected by the moral imperative with which - through what it calls conscience - society governs. Throughout his work, Primo Levi has alluded to or specified the effects shame had on himself as well as on his fellow sufferers. In fact, in his most detailed analysis of the emotion, he writes in the chapter of The Drowned and the Saved entitled "Shame" that while few survivors feel guilty about having deliberately harmed or stolen from a companion "almost everybody feels guilty of having omitted to offer help."(3) While Levi applies the term "almost everybody" for the shame felt, he is apparently specifying men - since he does not speak of women while he was in Auschwitz. Women, in fact, seemed not to be similarly affected by their incarceration. Indeed, the difference in gender often accounts for the difference between the way men and women endured and consequently remembered their ordeal.

Basically, women because more nurturing were better able than men to endure their degradation despite suffering the same, or even worse, deprivation than did the men. This is especially apparent in the texts of female survivors of the Holocaust. From them, we see that women tended to look after each other, to share their food more liberally, to listen and provide comfort to each other. Men on the other hand generally hoarded their meager supplies for themselves and, worse perhaps, endured their emotional grief in silence, refusing to communicate their fears and despair and discouraging their fellow sufferers from doing so. This is not to say that shame causes men and women to remember the factual horror of the event differently. If anything women were probably aware that they suffered greater physical burdens than did the men, who were relatively better fed and housed because of their more valuable potential as workers.(4) But the felt memory is more profoundly compounded in those who had to endure humiliation, the moral and emotional degradation of self, than in those, who despite undergoing the same physical and emotional pain, could at least look back without shame at what they endured. …

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