At work Friday night, talk turned to my German farm. I was reminded of the last few lonely weeks. More specifically, I remembered falling asleep almost every night to The Life of the World to Come, an album marvelous for its appreciation of Christian Scripture from an outsider's perspective and one of my top five favorite albums from 2009.
The bed in my upstairs room was certainly the hardest one I have ever slept on. Further, it was partially broken, tilting a few degrees to away from the wall. I slept like a rock.
More often than not in the last month on the farm, this song was the last thing I heard before sleep:
"I have a particular fond memory of one fellow pupil. He was pleasant and his behaviour towards the Jews was impeccable. When I saw him for the first time after the war – he had by then become a doctor – he told me that in 1940, near the Stettiner railway station, he had caught sight of our old classmate T. among a large group of Jews under police escort. He had looked miserable. 'So I thought T. would feel very embarrassed if I saw him in such a pitiful state. I felt awkward, and I quickly looked the other way.' Yes, that is exactly what happened: millions looked the other way." -Marcel Reich-Raniki, one of the most influential living critics of German literature
I wish I could remember when I first learned about the Holocaust. Was it before or after I learned that my grandfather, my mother's father, fought in Europe? How old was I? Perhaps I ought to figure out which textbooks were used in my history classes and pinpoint the first occurrence to see if that jogs my memory at all. I do not remember how I reacted. That seems odd, but I suppose my introduction was more gradual rather than, say, Susan Sontag's horrifying discovery of Holocaust photographs in a bookstore at the age of 12.
Between that time, whenever it was, and now, I have read countless accounts in textbooks, articles, monographs, and memoirs, not to mention novels and short stories. I have watched, performed in, and worked as stage crew for productions of the Diary of Anne Frank and other pertinent plays. I have seen innumerable photos; and watched innumerable treatments in documentaries and films. The volume of material is astonishing.
Even given this massive, sustained inundation, I am grateful that an account can still shake me, still evokes that shifting combination of horror, astonishment, fear, anger, and anguish. I do not know how to respond to this brief picture of an apparently decent man turning away from a combination of concern and embarrassment.
I wonder about the future of the Holocaust in our memory. Perhaps Inglourious Basterds marks a shift. A major American film probably could not have treated the matter so flippantly twenty years past, though it stirred a significant amount of furor upon release. What it means is that, through the passage of time and, perhaps more significantly, the passing of witnesses, the Holocaust is losing its sacred stamp--in American culture, at least. It is no longer set apart.
Good can come of such demystification. We could certainly do with less reductio ad hitlerum (speaking of which, a minor hurrah for the departure of Glenn Beck–minor because the Daily Show just got less entertaining, and because Fox is unlikely to replace Beck with, I don't know, Andrew Sullivan or a sane conservative, never mind a non-conservative). But I also fear the consequences of inevitable, creeping indifference, of sterilization due to time and distance.
My best hope is that, rather than focusing on the demonic, other-worldly wickedness of the ringleaders we portray as otherworldly monsters, we'll look more honestly at the faces of those whose passive collaboration allowed Hitler's Third Reich to do all that it did. Sometimes these faces terrify me more than the Eichmanns and Himmlers and such, because it is all too easy to imagine normal persons–myself, for instance–looking away from the discomfort of evil.