Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Holocaust Child: Reflections on the Banality of Evil

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Holocaust Child: Reflections on the Banality of Evil

Article excerpt

Someday, if there is a someday, we will have to learn that evil thinks of itself as good, that it could not have made such progress in the world unless people planned and performed it in all conscience.

Stanley Cavell,

Must We Mean What We Say

According to some of the most recent accounts I have read, the number of Shoah survivors worldwide sums to less than 400,000. Our numbers diminish daily, hourly, each and every second. What is equally depressing is that the number of survivors in my age group-men and women who are now in their mid-to-late SOs-is an astonishingly minuscule percentage of the total.

This is not accidental.

Those of us who were infants, toddlers, or very young children were of no use in the camps. We could not serve as a labor force as many of our parents and older siblings could be forced to do. We needed food to survive even at a starvation level. We were a drain on scarce resources. Most of all, however, we were a constant distraction to our families, a reminder of a lost "normal" life, a danger that constantly threatened to rehumanize inmates. Our very presence threatened to once again make human and humane the stark, brutal, and systematic dehumanization of camp victims. That dehumanization, after all, was one of the principal objectives of concentration camps. Extinguish a person's human attachments and projects, all of them, and make humiliation routine to the point that it is no longer experienced as violation, and all that is left is living ghost. Most adults inmates were dead within,2 naked and empty shells, even while still walking.

In the typical case, therefore, we the children of the Holocaust were the first to be killed. Even before the ovens were built in the camps that had crematoria, children were already perceived as a potential menace to Germany's Final Solution to the Jewish Question. At the very least we were perceived as a potentially subversive force in the process of dehumanization. That is why there are so few of my peers left alive today.

We were used for target practice in some camps. We were rounded up, massacred, and buried anonymously in mass graves in others. Occasionally, infants were thrown out of infirmary windows to see if the camp guards could spear them on the bayonets attached to the guards' rifles. In the camps that had the earliest fully operational gas chambers and crematoria, we were among the first to be incinerated. Still others died of starvation.

I became haunted about eight years ago by the realization that when survivors in my age group are dead, the last living connection to the Shoah shall also probably have been extinguished. That is one reason why I agreed to publish this essay, which was originally an oral presentation. It is also the reason why I have agreed to write the book that shares the title of this presentation.

The recent deluge of Shoah literature has almost without exception been written from the point of view of adults. How else could it be written but from an adult's-eye point of view? Young children and infants do not produce Shoah literature. They are often the subjects of books and essays, to be sure, but always as seen through the eyes of adults. Even Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Tom Keneally's book, Schindler's List, makes this point unintentionally but graphically. For those of you who have seen the film or read the "novel," I am thinking of that unforgettable scene in which children in the camp are being rounded up and, forewarned, scurry to find places to hide. One such child, unable to find a hiding place that was not already crammed with other children, finally jumps into an open pit latrine, a privy, which is covered only with a board with holes to serve the camp's inmates toilet needs.

There is a slight look of surprise mingled with fear on this young boy's face when he realizes that two other children have already taken refuge there before him, soaked in feces and other excrement almost up to their necks. …

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