Holocaust narratives

Survivors' anger may be too strongly overshadowed by their other feelings, such as that of shattering loss.

Reconstructed Warsaw Ghetto bunker 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Reconstructed Warsaw Ghetto bunker 370
(photo credit: reuters)
A major emotion, an emotion that in principle could be expected to feature very prominently indeed, is singularly missing in a large proportion of the narratives on the Holocaust, both of its survivors and by others. Although the omission is remarkable, it is not immediately evident, because it is harder to notice something that’s missing than something that’s there – the omission only becomes obvious once it has been pointed out.
What is missing is anger.
Feelings like grief, pain, regret, loss, devastation and bewilderment are seen to be there, in unfathomable depth. Very often, that such things could have been done by people to other people elicits visible expressions or signs of horror-struck amazement and disbelief. But sheer fury at the perpetrators, which prima facie might accompany or even precede the other feelings, and in incomparably lesser situations frequently does, is all too often not exhibited.
The omission isn’t just a fact to be noted, just as finding exceptions to it does not disprove that it is very commonly true. Nor is it enough, once noticed, to explain it; accounting for it isn’t the whole story. It also needs to be perceived that this situation has a very significant consequence.
Those are three different steps – awareness, explanation and identification of consequence – and confusing them does the issue a disservice.
The usual absence of overt anger among all the other emotions seen in Holocaust narratives stands out in relief all the more when a counterexample occurs. There is an hourlong documentary film called The Final Victory: The Story of Felix Zandman (it can be found on YouTube).
At one point in this tale about an engineering wizard who launched an electronics empire, reference is made to the village in Lithuania from which Zandman’s mother came. The Jews in the village were murdered during the war, but the soundtrack reports that they weren’t killed by the Nazis. The movie’s director, Haim Hecht, comes on camera to say, visibly incensed, that those who did it were “the sickening Lithuanians.”
He speaks in Hebrew, and what he actually says is “cholerot,” a rather old-fashioned cussword that literally compares them to cholera, the disease.
Hence the present translation as “sickening”; the movie’s English subtitles render his phrase more loosely as “beastly Lithuanians,” and Spanish-language subtitles, in a version for speakers of that language, use a word that is the same in both Spanish and English, “detestable.”
What emerges from all this and from the tone used is that, in the everyday parlance of the man in the street, the purport of the phrase would be rendered as “the damn Lithuanians” (without any direct religious overtones).
In any case, so rare are such outbursts in Holocaust accounts that the inclusion of the insult is downright startling.
The general rule applies even when words like “barbarians,” “savagery” or “sadism” are used. These are strong words, but like so many other expressions can be used in more than one way. They can be terms of abuse and also descriptive of fact, as the suitable labels that put people or their deeds in the category they correspond to.
The latter is the alternative mainly resorted to. More precisely, there may be combinations of both senses of the terms, and when this happens, the second of the two options tends to be foremost. Such terms come across as no more meant as angry invective than phrases like “the initial advances of the Wehrmacht were lightning-fast” are meant as praise.
If the actual manifestation of anger, as distinct from woe and from condemnation, tends to be infrequent, so is analysis of this infrequency.
Compare with the degree of mention and comment that attaches to road rage, in which minor mishaps precipitate disproportionately large outbursts of anger.
AFTER THE awareness comes the essaying of explanations.
Quite a number may be guessed at, and their operation may be conscious or unconscious, single or in conjunction. The writers or speakers may be making an effort to differentiate their deportment from that of the barking Nazis, even if they have actual cause and the Nazis didn’t.
Their anger may be too strongly overshadowed by their other feelings, such as that of shattering loss.
They may just be putting a very high premium on showing self-control, less for appearances’ sake than for fear of further hurt from allowing dammed-up emotions to burst out, even if it is ultimately cathartic; this self-control is clearly perceived as regards trying to hold back tears, so it is reasonable to also expect it as regards the withholding of expletives.
The expectable anger may simply have been too numbed by the magnitude of the atrocities, even when the latter did not succeed in numbing other feelings like sorrow or empathy with fellow victims. Additional explanations can be foreseen.
PERHAPS THE main step to be taken is the third, the realization that the characteristic analyzed here has a key consequence. Drawing attention to it must not be misconstrued as criticism; rather, it could be of help in suggesting supplementary ways of dealing with the issue. The consequence alluded to is that reading, hearing or seeing the Holocaust described with few or no open signs of anger can cause it to feel like a searing natural disaster rather than a man-made catastrophe. As if a huge earthquake, say, had rolled across the map and somehow engulfed those millions of people, or a continent- wide hurricane had swept them to their death. However terrible an erupting volcano or a tsunami, the feelings they generate do not include anger.
It would be fatuous to even begin to explain that the victims of the Holocaust, and anybody else who wishes to help keep its memory alive, are entitled to try to deal with the trauma in any way they want to or can. In the event, the observable fact is that they mainly speak in controlled, held-back tones instead of bursting out, over and over, in livid fury at the Nazis and their willing helpers, which would be at least equally understandable.
But it might serve a useful purpose, where possible, to tack on an occasional reminder – a footnote, an end-note, an epigraph – that the events evoked were not ungovernable acts of nature. They were the willful actions of people who could have abstained from acting atrociously and didn’t.
The author is an Argentine author, journalist and translator who has written on a variety of subjects, mostly nonfiction, including some books published in the United States under the name Nicholas E. Meyer – to differentiate himself from the US novelist Nicholas Meyer.