Conference Paper: Beyond ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’: Breaking Down Binary Oppositions in Holocaust Representations of ‘Privileged’ Jews

26 10 2009

Adam Brown
(Deakin University)

To read this article for free just click on the PDF link below.

Brown PDF

Commentary PDF – Jean-Marc Dreyfus (University of Manchester)

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In 1986, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s paradigmatic essay entitled ‘The Grey Zone’ highlighted the complex and sensitive issue of so-called ‘privileged’ Jews, an issue that remains at the margins of popular and academic discourse on the Holocaust. ‘Privileged’ Jews include those prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos who held positions that gave them access to material and other benefits whilst compelling them to act in ways which have been judged both self-serving and harmful to fellow inmates. The unprecedented ethical dilemmas that confronted ‘privileged’ Jews may be viewed as exemplifying the ‘limit’ events or experiences that were characteristic of the Holocaust, situating them at the threshold of representation, understanding and judgement. Levi’s essay singles out history and film as particularly predisposed to a simplifying trend he identifies – the ‘Manichean tendency which shuns half-tints and complexities,’ and resorts to the black-and-white binary opposition(s) of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy,’ ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ In the case of ‘privileged’ Jews in particular, such binary oppositions would appear to be inadequate. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates the fields of history, philosophy and literature, this paper considers representations of ‘privileged’ Jews, particularly those prisoners of the Sonderkommandos who were forced to work in the crematoria. The paper demonstrates how easily the boundary Levi maps out for moral judgement can be crossed. It is shown that while Levi suggests judgement should be suspended when confronted with the experiences of victims in extremis, moral evaluations of ‘privileged’ Jews permeate discussions and representations of the Holocaust. When confronted with such emotionally and morally freighted issues, judgement may itself be seen as a ‘limit of representation.’



27 responses

26 10 2009

I found this paper very interesting.

Thank you for sharing your work. I read the Sonderkommandos in terms of the machinery of the camps which were designed to force the prisoners (not just those belonging to the ‘privileged’ groups) to be treacherous, greedy, unclean and otherwise to conform to all of the accusations of the Nazi propaganda, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy which justified their extermination.

I am reminded of the passage in If This Is a Man where Levi describes the simultaneous demand for cleanliness in the camps with the complete lack of provision of the means to comply with this demand. Even for those who manage to somehow keep themselves clean, the diagrams in the washrooms suggest that instruction is required in order for the prisoners to apprehend cleanliness as a concept. Making the prisoners dirty, seemingly by their own volition, forces them to conform to the Nazi ideological machinery which casts them as animals.

26 10 2009
Adam Brown

Many thanks for your comments Philip, I completely agree. Levi often fluctuates in exactly who are the ‘inhabitants’ of the ‘grey zone,’ at times implicitly positioning all prisoners in the camps and ghettos (and some perpetrators themselves) within it. There would seem to be a tension between the ‘grey zone’ being conceptualised as a metaphor or moral spectrum and as a physical space (where your observation about ‘the machinery of the camps’ might be situated).

Great to hear you’ve read If This is a Man – an amazing, if sometimes morally devastating, work! Levi’s reflections on the Nazis’ dehumanisation of their victims – and the implications of this, for victims and perpetrators alike – are perhaps best summed up when he discusses the ‘double extermination’ experienced by the victims, both in terms of their physical annihilation and the moral degradation they were forced to endure in settings constructed by their persecutors.

Thanks again for reading,

26 10 2009

Adam, this is a very interesting and positively disturbing paper. I write ‘positively disturbing’, because it breaks down the usual distance from which we usually (and indeed inevitably) look at the unspeakable horrors of the holocaust, and what is more, from a seemingly simple moral perspective from which the bad are clearly bad, and the victims are simply victims. Such a perspective, however, prevents us from asking further questions that might in due course lead us to deeper insights into how and why the holocaust was possible — insights, which might help us to prevent future catastrophes.
Reading your paper, especially the passages about what the Sonderkommandos were forced to do, reminded me of my history teacher at school, several years ago, reading to us from a book called ‘Der SS-Staat’ (which translates as ‘the SS state’). I remember there was a passage where Jewish inmates were forced at gun point to dig a grave for one of their fellow inmates. I was also reminded of visiting Dachau and standing in the crematorium. I shall never forget those moments and the number of emotions they sparked inside. I was angry, terrified, deeply saddened, and maybe above all entirely at a loss how anyone could have done these things. That latter question, I believe, is a very important one. Simple answers could not do justice to this question, nor to the reality to which it refers.
The question raised by the poem you quote at the end of your paper, ‘What would I have done, how would I have acted under those circumstances?’, suggests an approach that goes far beyond reading source materials and compiling tables of data, which interesting though they may be (and of course they are, and we need to do this kind of work) will never be enough to get to the core of the matter, nor to anything resembling an understanding of it.
As you point out in your paper, we find it so hard to come to terms with the holocaust, because it seems so very unthinkable, because limits were transgressed that we dare not even think of transgressing ourselves. And yet the fact remains that these limits were transgressed, not once, but on a vast and regular basis, in organised fashion — with socio-political and socio-economic structures in place and standardised proceedures.
Clearly, once these proceedures and structures were in place, a certain automatism was set in motion, and things that were unthinkable before suddenly appeared as normal. I shall never forget the footage from the Eichmann trial, especially the moment when he talked about doing his job. He said that on a personal level, of course, he thought that what happened to the Jews was terrible, but that as an official of the state it was his duty to do his job and make sure the process went as smoothly and effective as possible. How often have we heard perpetrators claim that they had merely done their job, had merely followed orders, etc? Yes, it was they who pulled the trigger or who flicked the switch, but it wasn’t their responsibility. How convenient…
I am no expert on this, but I know that several experiments have shown this to be not at all unusual human behaviour. It has been said that man is a wolf to his fellow men, but that certainly is a gross injustice to wolves. To say the least, wolves wouldn’t come up with such insincere justifications and subterfuges…
Anyway, back to the above discussion. I agree with both Phil and Adam that forcing Jewish inmates do the dirty work for their tormentors was most likely intended to be both a further torment and degradation in itself, and also served as a demonstration and example of how Jews, according to Nazi propaganda, supposedly were. Furthermore, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the effect for their tormentors wasn’t that it made it easier for them to justify the act of torture and degradation by convincing themselves that the Jews were indeed as subhuman as Nazi propaganda made them out to be.

27 10 2009
Vicky Nesfield

Fascinating paper, thank you Adam.

I agree with all of the above comments, that the camp system and structure was designed to break down the humanity and the bonds between the Jewish prisoners, and dehumanise them as much as possible. This I think, is evident throughout Nazi policy, the ghettos arguably representing a precurser to the camps in their structure, and before that in the laws and legislation laid down by the Nazis, taking away the citizen rights of German Jews, ergo, forcing them into the roles and representations of ‘the Jew’ of the anti-Semitic propaganda.

Levi’s work is brutally honest and at times very self-critical, he comes across, particularly in ‘If This is a Man’ and ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, as being painfully aware that the camp system forced a self-serving attitude among prisoners, the necessity to put oneself before anyone else in order to survive. Levi openly recalls and critiques his own behaviour and appears at times haunted by the memories of events where he acted ‘selfishly’ -for want of a better word – to survive. I am reminded of his story of the water spigot, the small source of water he shares with Alberto, to the exclusion of Daniele who, even after liberation, remains hurt by the exclusion – another bond successfully broken by the SS and by Auschwitz.

Levi appears to be asking for the reader’s understanding, he has referred to the camp system as ‘an etiquette’ that is not his, nor is it the etiquette of anyone who has not experienced the camps, therefore how can we truly understand, or judge fairly the actions of the Jews who were there. Levi was not in a ‘privileged’ position, nor did he play such an difficult role as those in the Special Squad, but he is well aware of his own behaviour and the memories that plagued him. To have been a member of the SK could only have amplified those feelings of guilt and shame that are associated with Holocaust survivors. The poem at the end of the paper reminded me of Levi’s own poem he begins ‘If This is a Man’ with; we may not be able to judge the Jews forced into these roles, but we must remeber them and judge the system that created the Sonderkommando.

27 10 2009
Adam Brown

Thank you very much for your interest and comments, Chris and Vicky.

Levi’s work can definitely be praised for dismissing easy answers and raising issues that are as complex as they are sensitive. The issue of ‘privileged’ Jews, and the Sonderkommandos in particular, has often seemingly been considered taboo, though as you suggest, is crucial to develop a more (though never totally) comprehensive understanding of the Holocaust.

I think the way in which you both highlight the role of the perpetrators in the extreme situations imposed on victims is very important. Levi constantly stresses the persecutors’ role and makes a clear distinction between the agency of this group and the lack of this on the part of the victims. Here I see a clear parallel between Levi’s notion of the ‘grey zone’ and Lawrence Langer’s influential concept of ‘choiceless choices.’

In terms of the apparent ‘normality’ of what might otherwise seem an environment (in Auschwitz, though not only here) of relentless irrationality and twisted logic, I think you’re spot on Chris. This might be considered a coping mechanism for victims (and perhaps perpetrators as well) and is evident in the testimonies buried by members of an Auschwitz Sonderkommando themselves. Salmen Lewenthal wrote that the men ‘of necessity [got] used to everything.’ Likewise, the memoir of Miklos Nyiszli, prisoner doctor to SS personnel and the Sonderkommando, states that after the ‘liquidation’ of one squad: ‘life soon resumed its normal course… [the new squad] would get used to all this before long.’

I’m glad that you mentioned the ghettos too Vicky, as these settings (while attracting less scholarly and popular attention) also saw signficant and controversial roles played by ‘privileged’ Jews (namely Jewish Council officials and members of the Jewish police). Levi’s own discussion (and judgement, despite again warning against this) of Chaim Rumkowski of the Lodz Ghetto tells us as much. And it was great to see you pointing out the inherently problematic role played by language in this, as the term ‘selfishly’ reveals one’s own moral perspective even while one attempts to avoid this (for this reason my doctorate is full of inverted commas!).

Obviously, ‘privileged’ is a conspicuous term here too. Ironically, while Levi does not fit into the category of ‘privileged’ Jews as I define it, his survival can be interpreted as owing in some ways to ‘privileges’ he obtained in his last months at Buna-Monowitz due to his previous training in chemistry. When reflecting in a 1983 interview on what his own behaviour might have been if ‘recruited’ to a ‘Special Squad’ (I quote this in my paper), Levi is notably ambivalent.

Thanks again for your insight and contributions.

28 10 2009
Sam Rickless

I think it is indeed interesting to think about the moral evaluation of the Sonderkommandos, and I commend Adam for bringing the issue to our attention. I must admit to being a little baffled at what strikes me as the intellectual flailing around, in the work of Levi and others, surrounding the problem of moral evaluation. All this talk of a “grey zone” just seems vague and unhelpful. Interestingly (and I am hoping that this is one of the reasons for having such an interdisciplinary conference), analytic moral philosophy has developed what I think are very useful categories to help us understand the actions of the SK. We can ask two different questions here. First, did the SK act wrongly? Were they morally permitted to do what they did? Second, were the SK morally blameworthy? The reason that there are two questions here is that one is not automatically blameworthy for doing something that is morally wrong. Children, addicts, and persons under duress (to name just a few) often do things that are objectively wrong, acts for which they are not blameworthy precisely because they are not responsible (or not fully responsible) for what they do. In the case of the SK, the answers to these questions are, I think, obvious. First, the SK acted wrongly. It was wrong of them to deceive their fellow prisoners into thinking that they would get showers. It was wrong of them to accept favors from the camp guards. And so on and so forth. But second, the SK were not blameworthy, reason being that they were acting under duress, indeed the most extreme form of duress imaginable, namely the imminent threat of death. Another way to put the point is that there is a difference between justification and excuse. The acts of the SK were excusable, but not morally justified. If we do not pay attention to the distinction between wrongness and blameworthiness, or to the distinction between justification and excuse, then we will likely find ourselves saying that the SK’s actions were part of a moral “grey zone”. But this just papers over an important moral distinction.

28 10 2009
Adam Brown

Many thanks for your comments Sam, it is great to have perspectives from a variety of disciplines engaging with the issue. I completely agree that Levi’s notion of the ‘grey zone’ is vague. The widespread appropriation of Levi’s concept to discuss other areas of the Holocaust and beyond has not helped this, and even in returning to Levi’s original ideas in his essay, the concept of the ‘grey zone’ remains multi-layered and contradictory.

Even if we stress that the behaviour of ‘privileged’ Jews was ‘morally wrong’ but not ‘morally blameworthy,’ I worry that this brings us back to the construction of binary oppositions that Levi was concerned with avoiding – ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Jewish prisoner doctor Miklos Nyiszli’s much-criticised ‘cooperation’ with Josef Mengele’s medical experiments serve as an interesting case here. As a direct result of dissecting the bodies of twins for Mengele’s pseudo-scientific ideals, Nyiszli was able to rescue his wife and daughter who were also in the camp, showing a complex interrelationship between what might be termed a ‘morally right’ and ‘morally wrong’ act (if indeed they can be separated so easily). Examples like this abound. Further, distinguishing the Sonderkommando members’ behaviour as ‘morally wrong’ would imply that there is a ‘morally right’ course of action, presumably a refusal to undertake the work (to be answered with immediate death) – which, in practical terms, was possible and did occasionally happen. As I note in my paper, the distinction Levi makes between the few who did refuse the work and ‘the others’ who did not clearly implies judgement (even though he simultaneously claims they must not be criticised/blamed for their actions); hence raising the question, if ‘privileged’ Jews are not to be found ‘blameworthy’ for their actions, how are they to be represented? This perhaps returns us to the inherently judgmental nature of language I alluded to in a previous post. Abigail Rosenthal’s essay ‘The Right Way to Act: Indicting the Victims’ (in Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time) can be seen to reflect on the problem of constructing a ‘morally right’ response on the part of victims. I also hesitate to consider myself, having not experienced anything that bears resemblance to the same circumstances, capable of deciding (judging) whether the Sonderkommando members were ‘morally permitted’ to behave one way or another. Levi himself, who had been in an adjacent camp, makes this point.

Interestingly, the few writings by philosophers (such as Massimo Giuliani, Frances Kamm and Ervin Staub) who have engaged in discussions of morality in relation to the extreme experiences of ‘privileged’ Jews note (explicitly or implicitly) that these liminal figures are not ‘blameworthy’ for their behaviour, though their depiction of ‘privileged’ Jews’ activities (they usually focus on members of the Jewish Councils) often imply strong judgements nonetheless. Others, such as David Jones in Moral Responsibility in the Holocaust and Richard Rubenstein’s highly critical essay on Chaim Rumkowski, have simply concluded that Jewish leaders were ‘blameworthy.’ Conventional notions of ‘choice’ are often at the centre of reflections on morality and the Holocaust, an event which made ‘choice’ (particularly in relation to ‘privileged’ Jews) far from unproblematic. Lawrence Langer argues that the ‘choiceless choices’ of Holocaust victims, due to their irresolvable quality, do not even involve deciding between a ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ evil and can thus be seen to have existed in an environment constructed by the perpetrators not of immorality, but of ‘non-morality,’ one ‘beyond good and evil’ (Versions of Survival). In a broader context, philosopher Bernard Williams argues for the disposal of the institution of ‘morality’ altogether, noting that even in a general sense, ‘it is simply unclear what it means to say that someone can act, or could have acted, in a certain way’ (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy). This problem might be seen to be radically exacerbated when contemplating the extreme situations facing ‘privileged’ Jews.

28 10 2009
Deb Watson

Thanks for your paper, Adam – it’s a nuanced and appropriate response to a sensitive and little-discussed area. Regarding the representation of the experiences of the Sonderkommandos, I find the apparent contrast between the approaches of historians and artists intriguing, and am curious about how other historians and filmmakers have approached the task of representation. Is this a common trend, or have others taken different approaches?
I also particularly liked the poem you concluded with − its demand for a personal response, inviting the reader to imagine themselves with the impossible situations the Sonderkommandos faced, makes quite a contrast with historians’ usual project of constructing a supposedly “objective” portrayal. These “objective” portrayals often require, or even demand judgement.

28 10 2009
Adam Brown

Thank you for your comments and questions Deb, you’ve raised some intriguing points. Interestingly, it is only relatively recently that the circumstances of the Sonderkommandos have been engaged with (by historians and artists) in what one might term a ‘serious’ manner. Prior to the last several years, they have seldom been the sole focus of attention.

Historians other than Clendinnen have engaged to varying degrees with the Sonderkommandos in recent years (and the issue of ‘privileged’ Jews more broadly, particularly the role of Jewish leaders), sometimes with reference to Levi’s ‘grey zone’. The positive moral judgements of the Sonderkommandos on the part of Clendinnen have been reiterated elsewhere and I hope to incorporate some of these into my work. However, it is difficult to make a generalisation about the treatment of ‘privileged’ Jews in historical writing. Significantly, one of the Sonderkommando members wrote in his buried manuscript that he and his fellow crematorium workers ‘will not give historians much work to do.’ Arguably, this is far from the case.

The self-reflexive nature of the poem reveals what has become a common feature of artistic representations of ‘privileged’ Jews, particularly in the genre of Holocaust fiction film. Tim Blake Nelson’s film entitled The Grey Zone (released in 2001) directly engages with Levi’s ideas in what I believe is a nuanced and sophisticated mannter. The film is set primarily within the crematoria and depicts the 12th ‘Special Squad’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau – it is, predictably, a difficult film to watch but well worth the time. In a similar manner to Anders’ poem, Nelson’s unconventional mode of representation asks his audience, ‘What would you have done in the same situation?’ While this question is arguably rhetorical, and reveals as much about the inevitability of judgement as the inappropriateness of it, this manner of representing ‘privileged’ Jews arguably approaches the suspension of judgement required by Levi. Similar strategies in the representation of ‘privileged’ Jews can be found in the films Out of the Ashes (2002), Ghetto (2006) and The Counterfeiters (2007). The critical acclaim and commercial success of the last of these perhaps signifies a growing interest in the ethical dilemmas of ‘privileged’ Jews and the ambiguity that permeated the ‘Holocaust experience.’

28 10 2009
Sam Rickless

Thanks for your nuanced and thoughtful response, Adam. I feel like my eyes are being opened to aspects of Holocaust Studies of which I had not previously been aware. I am not nearly as worried as you are about the use of “binary oppositions” to characterize the behavior of persons under extreme duress. My main point is that what might appear at first as the absence of binary opposition (which some equate with a grey zone, others with the fact of being beyond the reach of morality’s demands) is really just the existence of different kinds of binary opposition that pull us in different directions (we are at one and the same time drawn to judgments of moral wrongness and also drawn to withhold judgments of blame). The Jewish doctor’s collaboration with Mengele (a very interesting case) does not force me into abandoning binary judgments. If Mengele asked Nyiszli to *kill* or *maim* a living prisoner and offered to release N’s wife and children in exchange for N’s cooperation in *this* endeavor, then N’s cooperation was wrong, even if not blameworthy. On the other hand, if M asked N to dissect already dead bodies in exchange for releasing N’s wife and children, then N’s cooperation was not wrong (unless N had good reason to believe that N’s cooperation would result in M’s obtaining new knowledge that could be used to kill others). The key here is that details are *important* to moral judgment. Many who are faced with descriptions of Holocaust scenarios are tempted to withhold judgment of any kind. But this is often because the situation is, morally speaking, underdescribed. Once further features are filled in, moral judgment comes much more easily. Example. If I ask my students whether A’s killing B is wrong, many will say that they don’t know unless I tell them more about the situation. Is A acting in self-defense? Is A acting in other-defense? Is A maliciously aiming at B’s death out of revenge? Similarly, it is difficult to pass judgment on the SK unless we know the details of their situation. In the vast majority of these cases, I think we can confidently say (once the situations are sufficiently well described) that the SK acted wrongly, but that they should not be blamed for what they did. These judgments are clear and they are unambiguous. They are not fraught with the needlessly obfuscatory language of “choiceless choice” and “irresolvability” and “greyness” and “non-binarity” and “non-morality”. To be honest, I worry here that the reason why such language is so current in the discipline of Holocaust Studies is that it sounds really *deep*. A world beyond morality, wow, what a concept! A world beyond binary opposition, whoa! The theoretical terrain is actually far clearer and more prosaic than this. If we accept the two sets of binary oppositions, I believe that we purchase badly needed moral clarity and lose what is no more than the illusion of depth.

28 10 2009

I think Sam does have a point in differentiating between the moral status of a given act and the question of whether the circumstances of the act make it ‘blameworthy’ or not. It is true that such a distinction sounds more analytical than speaking of ‘grey zones’ within which ethically relevant behaviour occurrs.
I have not read any of Levi’s books, but I imagine that being a survivor of the camps must have had an impact on his approach to, and understanding of, the holocaust. He won’t have been able to think about its aspects from a purely theoretical point of view, but must have been deeply involved emotionally. From what Adam states in his paper, Levi seems to have been torn between his demand that judgement be suspended, and his personal inability to really do so himself — for exactly the reasons Sam suggests: that the deeds were morally ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, but that the situation was such that those forced to commit these bad acts should not be blamed. We know we must not judge them harshly, but at the same time we cannot help but judge their deed. Certainly, ethics is a topic of philosophical discussion and analyses, but at the same time morals are very much a matter of the public domain. As such, they are first and foremost bound up with our emotions and instincts, they are not at all rational. In this context, in this domain, I believe that the concept of the ‘grey zone’ is mostly at home. As I understand Adam’s paper, Levi’s books were above all the attempts of a man at trying tocome to terms with an extremely terrible prolonged experience of an unprecedented system and social environment. I don’t think we should dismiss all of those instances of what Sam calls “needlessly obfuscatory language” in wholesale fashion, because I suppose that very often they merely reflect a sincerely experienced ‘being at a loss for words’ due to a situation’s emotional effect. That being said, I agree of course that in academic research, analyses and writing we ought to be as clear as possible.
I believe we ought to be aware of the fact that distance in time between the event and academic research of the event has a distinctive bearing on the way research is conducted and the findings evaluated. Would the world 40 or 30 years ago have understood a purely analytical, academically ‘coldblooded’, account and evaluation of the mechanisms that made the holocaust possible and kept it running? I don’t think so, because emotional involvement was still too fresh. And what historiographer or sociologist would have dared to look a holocaust survivor in the eyes and lecture them in academic terms on what their experience actually was and meant? I guess there were a lot of things that could not be said, that could not even be properly talked about at the time.
Earlier today, sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, I read a line in a magazine article claiming that by now the Third Reich and the holocaust are becoming ‘history’ for the Germans, in the sense that they now find it easier to deal with the topic. Indeed until a few years ago, the entire topic was always bound up with a sense of guilt, even among the younger generations who weren’t even born until years after the war — with the result that many people felt uneasy about talking about it, while being made to talk about it at school and being shown documentaries on TV. Some therfore reacted agressively against any mention of the topic. This seems slowly to change towards a slightly more distanced and historical attitude.
And it seems to me that in recent years the approaches to historical research of the Third Reich and the holocaust have also changed and evolved in new directions. Adam’s paper certainly points in such a new direction by highlighting an aspect formerly generally neglected.
That both Levi and those members of the SKs who wrote down their thoughts and buried them seem to have been painfully aware of the analytical distinction you propose seems to be evident, but I guess they were too emotionally affected and involved to state it in such detached analyses as today’s researchers should try to undertake.

28 10 2009
Sam Rickless

Thanks for your post, Chris. I do appreciate that much Holocaust literature has been written by survivors who are deeply emotionally involved in the subject matter about which they are writing. Sometimes indeed an author will be at a loss for words. Fair enough. But there is, as far as I can tell from Adam’s paper, a fair amount of literature (some written by survivors, some not) that tries to understand and come to terms with the Holocaust. A good chunk of this literature aims to enlighten. This is the literature to which I am referring. I am not thinking of poems or plays or music or dance or some other art form. I am thinking of essays that specifically address moral questions. It’s not true, I think, that the world would not have understood an objective attempt to understand, explain, and evaluate the actions of Holocaust victims and perpetrators 30 or 40 years ago. Arendt published *Eichmann in Jerusalem* in 1963. Nazi war criminals were tried, evidence was brought forward, stories were told, in a courtroom, where objectivity is paramount. I might add that emotion need not be understood as somehow inconsistent with objectivity and detachment. Objectively speaking, the Holocaust was a moral abomination. Do I feel emotional about this? Absolutely, and not only because dozens of my own family members died in the concentration camps. Indeed, the reason I feel so emotional is precisely *because* I have confidence in the objectivity of my moral judgment of wrongness (and, in the case of the Nazis, blameworthiness). You speak negatively of academics “lecturing” Holocaust survivors “in academic terms” about what their experience “meant”. I am not suggesting that anyone “lecture” anyone. What I am suggesting is, first, that Holocaust survivors are not necessarily the best moral judges. I think that there is a tendency to defer *in all matters* to those who have greater experience and who have been through hell. This is understandable, but it is not justified. If a Holocaust survivor attempts to make sense of his experience by telling me that his fellow prisoners’ actions were part of a “grey zone” or “beyond morality,” I will respectfully disagree. Second, I am suggesting that those who write about the specifically moral questions related to the Holocaust and who are not themselves survivors have something to learn from modern moral philosophy. This is something I think you agree with, but that bears repeating.

29 10 2009
Adam Brown

Thanks for your continued contributions Chris and Sam, it’s great to see the paper provoking lively debate! :) The issue of who might be ‘best equipped’ to understand the Holocaust (whether one of direct proximity to the events or one who has some ‘distance’ of a kind) is an interesting one, though I’ll raise a few points that come back to one of my main arguments…

I agree that historically specific details are crucial to attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust (the trivialisation of the event in many avenues is often due to a lack of this attention to detail); however, one key problem is that the extreme situations of ‘privileged’ Jews can and will never be adequately ‘described’ (the vast majority of these victims died during the event, which is only one of many reasons these experiences are ‘underdescribed’) The key factors of intent and volition, which the questions in Sam’s hypothetical reveal to be crucial to moral evaluation, are themselves next to (if not completely) impossible to evaluate under the circumstances.

Even more crucially, I am doubtful of the idea that there are ‘objective’ descriptions that (can) precede judgement. The crux of my research – setting aside the question of whether or not moral judgements of ‘privileged’ Jews are inappropriate – is that judgement and representation are intrinsically connected. Language is value-laden, not value-free, and there can be no ideologically neutral, ‘objective description’ that is filled out prior to the passing of judgement. To take a brief example, the term ‘collaboration’ (used above, and frequently found in discussions of ‘privileged’ Jews) comprises strong negative connotations and encourages parallels between victims and the ‘real’ collaboration with the Nazis (e.g. by Vichy France) which was of an entirely different kind. Yehuda Bauer distinguishes between ‘collaboration’ and ‘cooperation’, though others have pointed out this is still problematic. Thus even finding ‘appropriate’ categories is a fraught process. This kind of issue, of course, is not limited to the specific term ‘collaboration.’ I think Chris’ comment regarding ‘being at a loss for words’ fits in well here with the problem of representation, or alternatively, the paucity of language. To take an oft-quoted passage from Levi’s first memoir, ‘our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man [sic].’

Raul Hilberg, by far the most influential historian of the Holocaust, explicitly claims in his seminal work, The Destruction of the European Jews, to give a ‘description’; however, the negative judgements of Jewish leaders contained therein (through the various strategies he uses as a political scientist) have been roundly criticised by historians and other scholars. Several philosophers and other commentators (some of whom I mentioned in an earlier post) adopt Hilberg’s judgements by relying on his ‘description’/representation. Even more so, Arendt’s critique of the behaviour of Jewish leaders in the book mentioned by Sam are almost unanimously considered to be polemical in their evaluation of the Jewish Councils and far from a successful ‘objective attempt to understand, explain, and evaluate the actions of Holocaust victims’ (although in my view this reveals as much about the notion of analytical ‘objectivity,’ which was undoubtedly her goal).

I must emphasise here that in stressing the problems in representing or attempting to ‘come to terms with’ the ethical dilemmas of ‘privileged’ Jews, I am in no way implying that philosophers, historians and others should not engage with these issues. The extreme situations of the Holocaust (and these are of course not only related to ‘privileged’ Jews) are fundamental aspects of the event to reflect upon – my primary intention is to highlight the obstacles in such attempts to do so.

29 10 2009

I totally agree. It is exactly because of the complexity of the topic, both in terms of the holocaust as a whole, and in terms of the aspect of ‘privileged’ Jews, that I think and believe that it calls for, even makes necessary, an interdisciplinary co-operative approach.
My comments were in no way intended as attacks on either Adam or Sam. I am generally uneasy about claims of objectivity in terms of morals, because morals are intersubjective, social constructs. But of course I agree with most of the moral judgements made within our ‘Western’ contexts of morality and ethics. I am no trained philosopher, historian or sociologist, but I have always been interested in all of these fields. Also, I can only speak from the perspective of one born and raised in West Germany, the second generation within my family who was born after the war. I have always taken a keen interest in this part of German history ever since I became aware of the fact that my late grandfather had not only been a soldier in a terrible war, but had been a soldier for the bad guys. We didn’t have the easiest of relationships after that.
Maybe my suggestion that a lot of researchers, and people generally, weren’t too keen on addressing certain aspects of that time with the analytical clarity and thoroughness was very much influenced by the impressions I have had over the years here in Germany. Only in recent years, for example, has it become possible to talk about the role ‘ordinary’ Germans played in the holocaust and nazism as a whole. And yet, certain reflexes are still strong in German society to put the blame solely with the leaders of both the nazi government and its organizations. The controversy about the actor Bruno Gans’ portrayal of Hitler in ‘Der Untergang’ (which I believe was shown in the anglophone world as ‘The Decline’) a few years ago is very telling here. Is it, many people asked, permissible, is it okay, to depict Hitler as a human being? My answer to that has always been that it is not only okay, but in fact necessary, because Hitler and his henchmen were in fact human beings, not demons. That is the truly terrible thing about the holocaust: that all these attrocities were committed by human beings who chose to create and run a hell on earth for their fellow human beings. That is the background from which my comment came.
So, no offence meant whatsoever.

29 10 2009
Vicky Nesfield

I think that Chris has really hit the nail on the head in saying that Levi’s writing attempts to “come to terms with an extremely terrible experience of an unprecedented system and social environment.” Within the camps the normal social rules of behaviour, justice and even logic were not just suspended, but actively destroyed by the SS. Where this happens the ensuing systems of understanding, representation and judgement are also thrown into a moral chaos.

Theologians have said that the Holocaust requires a new kind of theology and way of thinking about Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries, and linguistically the same problems have arisen – there did not exist the adequate language to represent the Holocaust, as has already been discussed here, and notably, as Adam has just pointed out, is a problem Levi observes and must negotiate. I would imagine that these same problems exist within the philosophical framework? (I must confess, Philosophy is not my area of study!)

This debate is both an interesting positive, but also a difficulty of our field. I would agree with Sam in that, looking at judgement as the primary issue, survivors may not be the best people to approach for an ‘objective’ voice, but then I feel that ‘objective’ is an almost impossible word to use in this context. However, I believe I am right in thinking that Adam and I share an academic research area in Holocaust literature, so when considering these themes, and judgement is absolutely tied into many other issues, Levi is naturally the figure we look to first. He may not be objective, not is he definitive in his views, but he is an authoritative voice, and a fantastic figure to study!

29 10 2009

So, to be clear about the reason I commented earlier. I do agree entirely with Sam’s distinction between moral status of act, purely taken on its own, and the blameworthyness aspect determined by the circumstances under which the act occurs. However, I didn’t feel that even this helpful analytical distinction solved the problem of dealing with the topic of ‘privileged’ Jews entirely and exhaustively somehow. But that, I think, is due to the complexity of the topic. Which, as I pointed out above, calls for approaches from various academic disciplines which I am sure all have a few things to bring to the table.

29 10 2009
Liam Cooper (Managing Editor)

Thanks Chris et al.,

Just a quick note to say that Der Untergang was shown in the anglophone world as ‘Downfall’

29 10 2009

Vicky touches upon an important contention in the field of Holocaust Studies here which I think is worth making explicit: when describing the Holocaust, language offers only a half-measure in capturing, experientially, what went on. The Holocaust sits outside of representation.

To quote Levi:

‘Just as our hunger is not that of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say ‘hunger’, we say ‘tiredness’, ‘fear’, ‘pain’, we say ‘winter’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lager had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.’

In this context, the argument goes, it is an offensive arrogance on our part to attempt to apply any degree of understanding to what went on. We simply can not understand – we have no frame of reference. It is our role, as those who were not there, simply to listen. I believe this would be the stance traditionally taken against Sam’s argument.

I, personally, would contend that this line of thinking, dangerously, takes the Holocaust outside of history. If we are to make the Holocaust a special case where the normal rules do not apply, then we allow our academic discourses to continue as if it never happened.

I would not want to offer the glib argument of those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it, but I do think a case can be made that, whether or not the Holocaust sits outside of representation, if we stop trying to understand it then we will never learn from it.

29 10 2009
Sam Rickless

I think we may be getting closer to the nature of the disagreement that separates me (and I think also Philip) from Adam, Chris, and Vicky. One very important issue is the nature of moral rules. For A-C-V, they are nothing but “social constructs,” but for S-P they are objective, existing independently of social conventions. If moral rules are social constructs, then, in situations in which the normal social agreements break down, as in concentration camps, the rules are “destroyed” or “suspended”; there is no injustice, there is no wrongness, there is no charity, there is no virtue. If moral rules are objective, then it is at least possible for there to be injustice and wrongness, and so on. My own view is that the rules of morality do not disappear at the gates of the Lager. They exist there, as they exist anywhere. This is what allows us to say, quite plainly and simply, that it would be wrong (yes, wrong) for a SK to kill a fellow prisoner in cold blood in exchange for better treatment from the camp guards. What makes us *think* that moral rules do not exist in the camp is that we are hesitant to pass judgment on those who were there. Our hesitation is quite understandable. We can only *imagine* what it was like to barely survive under the abominable conditions that Levi and others so eloquently describe. We were not there; we don’t have even similar sorts of experiences that we can latch onto in performing the act of imagining. (One of the reasons we value the work of Levi and others is precisely because we find ourselves capable of glimpsing, even if only barely, what life must have been like under such appalling conditions.) Not really being able to put ourselves in the shoes of the SK, we are hesitant to pass judgment on them. We are then tempted to explain this hesitancy by the hypothesis that moral rules were suspended in the camp. But this is a mistake. Our hesitancy is explained by the fact that the SK were not blameworthy. Most of us, except for those who, like moral philosophers, have been trained to make distinctions such as that between wrongness and blameworthiness, confuse wrongness and blameworthiness. Finding ourselves unwilling to blame the SK, we think (mistakenly) that they did nothing wrong. And we then conclude that the rules of morality must have been suspended in the camps. But the rules of morality were *not* suspended. Some, indeed much, of what the SK did was wrong, plain and simple, even if it was more than excused by extreme duress.

There is something unique about the Holocaust, in the sense that it represents a highly organized, systematic, regimented genocide. But, in trying to come to terms with the experience of the SK, we very badly need some perspective. This is not the first time in the history of the world that human beings have been placed in conditions of extreme duress. When natural disasters hit, persons find that the normal conditions of life no longer obtain. They find themselves in imminent danger, of starvation, of dehydration, of violence at the hands of nature or other persons. Are the rules of morality suspended then too? Absolutely not. If, in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane or earthquake, I find myself in dire straits because I have no water and then come across a weaker individual who needs his water to survive, am I morally permitted to take his water by force? No.

On the question of whether it is even possible to describe what happened in the Lager using value-neutral language, I find myself disagreeing with Adam. Indeed there is value-laden language that may initially appear to be value-free. Words like “collaborate” have negative connotations. But if the thought is that *all* descriptive language is value-laden, then I beg to differ. If one person deceives or kills another, this is a matter of fact, a fact that is amenable to moral evaluation. The evaluation is not already contained in the description. To mention a previous example, A might kill B out of pure malice, in which case A act wrongly; but A might kill B out of self-defense, where B is out to kill A out of pure malice, in which case A acts rightly (assuming the other factual conditions for legitimate self-defense obtain). We can, at least in principle, describe what the SK did and evaluate it morally. There is no *in principle* problem here posed by the “value-ladenness” of language.

Adam suggests that some aspects of the situation in the camp will always be beyond our reach. He notes, rightly, that we do not *know* exactly what the SK’s motives and intentions were when they acted. But if the standard for the appropriateness of moral judgment is this high (*knowledge* of intention), then we might as well stop judging others altogether. We might as well forget about judging, say, Timothy McVeigh, because, after all, who knows what McVeigh was thinking when he planted the bombs in Oklahoma city? The fact is that we know *enough* about the circumstances of the SK (from the testimony of camp survivors and from camp documents) to be *confident* that much, if not all, of what they did was wrong, that there could not have been good enough *moral* reason for them to, say, deceive their fellow prisoners so as to lead them to their deaths without commotion. Of course, the SK had reasons of *prudence*, that is, reasons to survive. They judged that they would be killed if they did not do what the camp guards ordered them to do. But reasons of prudence are not *moral* reasons. They are *excusing* reasons, not *justifying* reasons.

I should note that my disagreements should not be read as hostile or non-collaborative (in the good sense of “collaboration”, now). I am finding these exchanges very stimulating, in part because they are helping us identify (and perhaps, hopefully, break) barriers to cooperation across disciplines. If moral philosophers and Holocaust scholars from other disciplines are to learn from each other, then they must begin by self-reflectively locating the assumptions on which they differ, so as to avoid talking past each other when they come together. I appreciate your comments and contributions and all the effort that you have put into them.

29 10 2009
Vicky Nesfield

That’s a really interesting comment Sam, and likewise, I am really enjoying the discussions that are arising out of our various disciplines, lots of food for thought, which just show what a complex subject the Holocaust is.

The point that struck me the most is that, as you have mentioned, Levi is extremely eloquent. In using a very ‘refined’ if that is the correct word, and rational language, he lends himself very well to academic debates. As has been mentioned earlier, it seems that, to me, lots of thematic and moral issues are intertwined, and in a literature study, one of the primary issues is narrative. It is important (certainly for me, in my research area) to keep in mind that while negotiating a multitude of moral issues etc, Levi and other Holocaust authors are writing for an audience and must construct a particular narrative style. For Levi that is one of rational and considered representation of events, for someone like Elie Wiesel for instance, his Holocaust testimony ‘Night’ is filled with rhetoric – beautifully written, but it must be kept in mind that it is a carefully constructed narrative written from a particular angle.

While my area is very much focused upon the literary representation of the Holocaust, I do think Sam’s comments about McVeigh, natural disasters etc offer a different perspective than I had previously considered, and I take on board the idea that one can look for a moral framework to place the SK AND the Holocaust within, rather than constructing a new Holocaust framework to explore the SK within.

It’s getting late, I hope that made sense! I’m finding this a very helpful and interesting debate, moreso than I’ve experienced at a ‘real’ conference, so thank you everyone for all the comments.

30 10 2009

Sam, we may conceive differently of the term ‘objective’ in relation to moral values, and that may have caused some misunderstanding. I did not mean that our commonly held moral values were, or are to be considered to have been, suspended in the context of the camps and the holocaust. Far from it.
I think that both accounts such as Levi’s (especially due to his apparent struggle with the matter of suspending judgement because of the ‘grey zone’ he senses) and those accounts written and hidden by members of the SKs point towards their awareness of the moral norms that were transgressed by those members of the SKs.
Indeed, I think the nazis needed their antisemitic propaganda, the ideological dehumanisation of the jews, to convince themselves that those moral norms, which I suspect they probably still largely held to be valid where they themselves and their families and friends were concerned, did not apply to the treatment of jews.
So, when I wrote that I am uneasy about the term ‘objective’ in relation with morals, and called morals ‘social constructs’ (maybe I should rather have called them ‘intersubjectively agreed upon, commonly held values’), I was merely refering to my doubts about ‘objective’ propositions about human ideas and values, as opposed to, say, the results of physical experiments.
So yes, I agree with you that what the SKs did was morally wrong, and I agree with the distinction you suggest between the moral status of the act and the aspect of blameworthiness. I agree totally and unconditionally.
I also agree with Philip that we must not allow the holocaust to be ‘taken out of history’ to be treated as something totally different from other events in history. In fact, I think it might even be worthwhile to do comparative studies of the situation and behaviour of the SKs and other instances in history when a group of people were under duress and then acted in a way contrary to how they would have been expected to act under ‘normal’ circumstances. As you rightly point out, moral values should be the same irrespective of the situation. But since experience has shown that certain circumstances can lead to transgessions which are not, however, considered blameworthy by others afterwards, it would be rather interesting to see what psychological processes take place in the minds of those under duress, how they justify their behaviour to themselves and to others, what language is used in the discourses arising around the topic, etc.
Above all I am in general agreement with you all that this has turned into a very interesting and lively discussion, and therefore I’d like to seize the opportunity to thank you all for this discussion.

30 10 2009

Greetings from The Management. We’re thrilled that you’ve found such fruitful grounds for discussion and exchange. You’re welcome to continue here after today.

30 10 2009
Adam Brown

Thank you again to all.

No offence taken Chris – I had not read your comments that way at all. Philip and Chris raise a crucial point regarding the tension between the perceived ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust and its ‘universal’ importance, a tension that can be found throughout much of Holocaust Studies. There is certainly a much-commented upon danger of taking the Holocaust ‘outside of history’ and I generally use the word ‘unprecedented’ rather than ‘unique’ for this reason. I should also note that my focus is very specific and certainly not a reflection on the Holocaust (and all the events, settings and ‘groups’ of people this involved) or the concentration camps as a whole. My definition of the category of ‘privileged’ Jews has had to undergo frequent revision, although I hope my paper makes the specific circumstances I am concerned with reasonably clear. For this reason, I think parallels with ‘terrorists’ and natural disasters unnecessarily confuse the issue. Moreover, I must respectfully disagree that ‘descriptions’ of one who ‘deceives’ or ‘kills’ (or for that matter phrases such as ‘in cold blood’ or ‘pure malice’) are ideologically neutral and bereft of judgement, which can thereafter be met with a ‘separate’ judgement.

I am certainly not proposing some form of all-encompassing moral relativism – I hope the comments in my paper regarding the need to judge perpetrators reinforce this. On this subject, I am glad, Chris, that you raised the issue of the need to represent perpetrators as human beings and not ‘sadistic monsters’ (as the continuation of such stereotypes, as you suggest, does persist to this day). The continued reliance on stereotypes of perpetrators is perhaps in some ways understandable, although, like Chris, I find it considerably more ‘frightening’ and important to acknowledge that the evolution and implementation of the Holocaust was more complex than this, that human beings were at its source.

Most importantly, it is great to see such fruitful discussion and I sincerely thank you all. It is very gratifying to see that Levi’s concept of the ‘grey zone’ continues to inspire, provoke and play a crucial role in continued attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust.

30 10 2009
Sam Rickless

Thanks again for your post, Adam. Let me just briefly address the question of whether it is possible to provide value-neutral descriptions of human behavior. To kill is (roughly) to cause death. What is value-laden in the concepts of “cause” or “death”? To deceive is (roughly) to intentionally lead someone else to believe something one believes to be false. Again, where is the value-ladenness? When one describes someone as acting out of malice, this too is a factual description, not a moral evaluation. The description is of the agent’s mental state. To act out of malice is (roughly) to act from the hate-motivated intention to harm. If you don’t like the negative connotations of the term “malice”, then feel free to substitute the more cumbersome “hate-motivated intention to harm”. We need to be careful here. There will be cases in which a person intends to do wrong. In such cases, the use of evaluative language is needed to describe her mental state. But it does not follow that the description of her mental state is value-laden. The description itself is purely factual. Whether it is morally acceptable to a person to intend to do wrong is a separate, moral question that is not answered merely by looking at the relevant description. I hope this helps.

31 10 2009
Deb Watson

I’ve been reading back over previous posts (it’s certainly a lively debate!) and it seems to me that what’s often being misconstrued here is the relationship between language and things/actions/ideas etc. While most of us may understand this relationship as one of direct correlation – that is, that a specific act of language correponds directly to and neutrally describes a specific action – those who have been trained to distinguish the subjective (and inherently judgemental) nature of language can distinguish its function as productive of meaning. When I call someone a ‘refugee’, I am not merely ‘describing’ them, I am making a judgement about them. I could refer to _the same person_ as an ‘illegal immigrant’, which would bring different judgements. Similarly, to ‘kill’ is not the same as to ’cause death’ – the latter is a very vague phrase, which could encompass everything from the euthanasia of a terminally ill person to ‘cold-blooded killing’. It could likewise refer to a Jew ‘walking themselves’ into the gas chambers. The word ‘kill’ has many associations attached to it, and the choice of the word ‘kill’, therefore has consequences for the way a particular act is viewed. The use of language in the ‘real world’ is rather more complex than it is in abstract thought, as we can see in this debate. Hope this helps!

3 11 2009
Kivmars Bowling (Senior Managing Editor)

Due to a glitch at our end, Jean-Marc Dreyfus’ commentary on this paper never went live alongside Adam Brown’s paper. The post has now been updated and you should be able to read Jean-Marc’s commentary above! –

Thanks to all of you who have participated thus far in what has been an excellent discussion.

4 11 2009
Adam Brown

Many thanks for your insightful comments Jean-Marc, they’re most appreciated.

You are right to point out that Levi was caught between his ‘humanist foundations’ and the persistent feeling that these were not ‘enough’ after Auschwitz. While some commentators have credited Levi with establishing a new ethical system, others contend he was never able to escape the ethical abyss left in the Holocaust’s wake. Reflecting this divide, Stanislao Pugliese sees in Levi’s testimony not just an effort to ‘bear witness,’ but also ‘to search for an ethical line of conduct and moral reasoning based on classical humanism but cognizant of humanity’s changed moral status after Auschwitz.’ Personally, I think there is much in the comments of Bryan Cheyette, who succinctly outlines the ‘ethical uncertainty’ at the heart of Levi’s Holocaust writings. Emphasising ‘the division between Levi’s renowned scientific detachment and his profound uncertainties about the efficacy of any intellectual or moral system,’ along with the survivor’s ‘tremendous distrust of words,’ Cheyette qualifies the common impression of Levi as the dispassionate observer to show him caught between the necessity and impossibility of representation.

You are certainly right about the scarcity of finding the Sonderkommando manuscripts in print, though related testimonial material has arisen recently, including Shlomo Venezia’s memoir, “Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz” (2009). Unfortunately, while it is estimated that 20-30 manuscripts were buried by crematorium workers at the Birkenau site, there have only been half a dozen discovered – perhaps partly due to postwar looting undertaken by local Poles who were hunting for ‘Jewish treasure’.

As the conclusion to your commentary suggests, there is nonetheless much room for more historical work to be done here.

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