Eisenbud's Odyssey: Evil: Beyond banality

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ – Edmund Burke

see no evil 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
see no evil 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The term “the banality of evil,” largely popularized by the contemporary media following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers 10 years ago to describe al-Qaida, was coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 tome about the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
The book, entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, remains a timeless case study of the insidious nature of apathy and inaction.
Eichmann, the Nazi mastermind responsible for the prodigious logistics necessary to orchestrate the mass deportations and subsequent mass-murders of Jews during World War II, is the only person in the history of Israel to have been executed. He was hanged shortly after midnight on May 31, 1962, following his conviction by a civilian court.
Eichmann’s appeal to his conviction rested on the infamous refrain: “I was just following orders.”
In Arendt’s morbidly fascinating, eponymously titled final chapter of her book, she concluded that genocide is not carried out by sociopaths and extremists, but rather by “normal” men and women, much like Eichmann, who rationalize their behavior based on the premise that such acts are therefore normal, as well.
Indeed, in his 1995 book Triumph of the Market, Edward S. Herman, a noted economist and media analyst, contends that the systemization of genocide is based on the concept of “normalization.” In Herman’s words: “This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.”
FURTHER SUBSTANTIATING Herman and Arendt’s contentions is last month’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar – sadly, still a largely unknown catastrophe – considered the largest single mass murder of the Holocaust.
Babi Yar, a ravine near the Ukrainian city of Kiev, is where within 48 hours in September 1941, the Nazis systematically executed 33,771 Jewish men, women and children with machine-guns. It is believed that 10-15 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation from the weight of the layers of bodies burying them.
Jews certainly were not alone in the massacre.
It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 more lives – including communists, Soviet POWs, Gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists and civilian hostages – were also taken at Babi Yar.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel and a child Holocaust survivor, has rightly stated that Babi Yar was a litmus test for Hitler to gauge public outrage regarding his “Final Solution.” Lau logically concluded that when the world did not react in horror to the atrocity, Hitler was ostensibly given carte blanche to carry out the six million murders.
His theory makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? After all, the most basic metric for gauging the viability of murder – or any other crime – is punishment, and in this case, the reaction was apathetic. As for the punishment? Nonexistent.
Somehow, the multitude of witnesses, and those cognizant of the unconscionable tragedy, were able to depersonalize themselves from the murders of their countrymen through “normalization.”
HOWEVER, AS history teaches us, ultimately the barbarity that takes place against our fellow human beings is entirely personal.
Indeed, as edified by the famous quote from Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant pastor who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps, the outcome of passivity by German society during the Nazi occupation ultimately came full circle:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.
“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
"Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
ON AN acutely personal level, I blame the millions of “normal” enablers, as much as the Nazis, for the murder of most of the maternal side of my family. Without question, my family – the Iserowskis and Greenspans – were as much victims of the former’s indifference, as they were the latter’s treachery.
To be sure, in her book Live Your Legacy Now!, my mother, Barbara Greenspan Shaiman, writes of the first-hand account of the astounding apathy experienced by my beloved grandmother, Carola Iserowski Greenspan. In Carola’s words:
“You should have seen me. My head was shaved, I was wearing wooden shoes, a flimsy dress, and no undergarments. I came with my dearest friend, Pola. We had to call out our names to recognize each other. It was the middle of winter. We were freezing and frightened.
“One day... I’ll never forget, there were a bunch of German civilians who were reading the newspaper. They were going to work in the morning and I was looking desperately at their faces and thinking, ‘Let them see me! Let them see what they are doing!’
“But they just buried their heads in the paper. I was invisible.”
The outcome, my mother writes, was the following: “In Auschwitz, my mother bore witness to the unspeakable, while others closed their eyes. By the time she was liberated in May 1945, she was the sole survivor of a family that had once numbered 65.”
THAT SAID, I would be irresponsible not to recognize and honor the profoundly brave men and women, known as Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives – as well as those of their families – to save Jewish lives.
Notable among them is a Catholic social worker named Irena Sendler, who served in the Polish Underground and the Zegota Resistance Organization in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II. With the help of fewer than 30 other Zegota members, Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children by providing them with false documentation, and sheltering them in various children’s homes outside the Warsaw Ghetto.
Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 2007. I keep her picture in plain view in my apartment as a source of inspiration.
Then, of course, there is Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,100 Jews, and employed my recently deceased grandfather Henek, and his father, Nathan, at his Krakow factory.
Clearly, the number of “righteous” non-Jewish men and women are absurdly dwarfed by the millions of “normal” men and women who “followed orders,” but they will always serve as a beautiful – albeit barely visible – constellation of hope in the face of overwhelming darkness.
CONVERSELY, THE horrifying aforementioned examples of group apathy resulting in genocide are antithetical to the humanity expressed by the most “abnormal” group I have ever known: Israelis.
Last week, the leaders of this country turned the concept of “normalization” on it head by illustrating that they will go to virtually any length to save just one life.
Indeed, the historic 1,027:1 prisoner swap agreed upon by the Israeli government with Hamas to free Gilad Schalit, an innocent man – in exchange for convicted murderers of women and children, with sworn mandates to destroy Israel – runs counter to every “normal” agreement one could fathom, or even justify.
However, the decision – with its far-reaching implications, which will be vigorously debated for generations to come – serves as a powerful reminder of the transcendental and cohesive nature of the Jewish faith, as encapsulated within the Talmud:
“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Welcome home, Gilad. We are one. And that is why we will survive.
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