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Opening Locked Doors

Reflections on Teaching the Holocaust

By Lawrence L. Langer | HUMANITIES, November/December 1998 | Volume 19, Number 6

For thirty years Lawrence L. Langer has been teaching Holocaust literature. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Preempting the Holocaust.

Imagine a teacher fifty years from now in a course on the twentieth-century short story trying to introduce a work that begins, “All of us walked around naked” or “Those who had no papers entitling them to live lined up to die.” Even today, such opening sentences in a course not expressly named “Holocaust Literature” might rouse the same bewildered initial response.

Therefore, the need to furnish an explicit context for Holocaust chronicles will increase as the event itself recedes in time and public reminders such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or the film Schindler’s List become ignored emblems of an earlier era.

Some critics say Franz Kafka foresaw our age of catastrophe, but despite the sinister quivers in his texts, the climate of his fiction is not drenched in the threat of human physical decay that pervades so many Holocaust narratives. For his characters, loss of identity is a greater hazard than loss of life; they find themselves wandering through a maze of bureaucratic officialdom that anyone mindful of the uniformed hierarchies of the Austro- Hungarian Empire will have little trouble recognizing. But those of us who teach the Holocaust search in vain for metaphors of cruelty or antecedents in actual time to cast light on this frightful episode of history. We seem to be left with the challenge of unearthing a context each time we approach this painful subject.

Consider the Polish writer Ida Fink’s brief story “The Key Game.” We are offered neither date nor locale for the narrative, simply a vague allusion to “the start of the war.” The characters have no names -- they are merely the man, the woman, and the child. Only slowly do we grasp that they are members of a single family. The opening line gives no clue to the panic-stricken world we are about to enter: “They had just finished supper and the woman had cleared the table, carried the plates to the kitchen, and placed them in the sink.” Nothing urgent here: a routine scene of domestic calm. The reader feels safe -- but for no more than an instant. The real theme of this story might be called “hiding for your life,” and the problem for the author, as for so many other Holocaust writers, is how to lure an audience into the domain of terror that disturbs normal family harmony in this tale. The agitated father and his three-year-old son practice a prescribed ritual, in case “searchers” should come some day when the mother is away at work: the father tries to squeeze into a concealed recess in the bathroom while the son pretends to look for the key to the apartment before he answers the doorbell. No one worries what might happen to the child should the “searchers” believe he is really alone. The words “German” and “Jew” never appear to mark the source of the father’s fear. The malefactors are identified only as "searchers” and “the people who would really ring the bell.”

Concealment is one of Fink’s favorite motifs, and it has strong psychological as well as physical vibrations. The average student of Holocaust literature is unequipped by his or her background to venture into those dark corners of the concealed self that drove so many potential victims to make staying alive the top priority of their menaced existence. Illuminating human behavior under these circumstances, trying to teach about a self constantly in danger of annihilation, is a major test for Holocaust educators. Moreover, narratives featuring heroism, resistance, and spiritual uplift do little to help students enter the veiled space of the concealed self. The deepest atrocities of the Holocaust lie in that shadowy area, where the ruthless German impulse to humiliate their victims temporarily disabled the power of human dignity and drove many survivors to shun the chance to speak about this paralysis even years after the event. One of the most difficult tasks of the teacher is to locate texts that shed some light on this distressing legacy.

Only by multiplying voices can we begin to present the moral complexity of the Holocaust experience to individuals accustomed to basing their conduct on stable value systems. The little-known diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, for example, allows us to study tensions unfamiliar to the less immediately threatened dweller in Anne Frank’s secret annex. Sierakowiak, who died of tuberculosis at the age of nineteen in the Lodz ghetto, made daily entries from 1939 until his death on August 8, 1943. His description of the roundup of his own mother in September 1942, along with ten thousand other Jews, including the ill, the aged, and all children under ten (most were shipped to their death), makes Anne Frank’s family conflicts seem rather tame: “After my mother’s examination and while she was frantically running around the house, begging the doctors to save her life, my father was eating soup. True, he was a bit bewildered, and approached the police and the doctors, but he didn’t run outside to beg people he knew in power to intercede on her behalf. In short, he was glad to be rid of a wife with whom life was lately getting too hard, a fact which Mother had to struggle with.” Such passages force readers to consider extending the frontiers of moral possibility to include modes of conduct that no one could normally justify.

Holocaust literature taints the imagination with portraits of “impossibilities” like this one, a pathetic rather than a monstrous indifference that even the son cannot sympathize with. He is relentless in his bitter honesty: “My little, exhausted mother, who has suffered so much misfortune and whose life has been one long sacrifice for family and others, would probably not have been taken because of weakness had she not been robbed of food by my father and Nadzia [his sister].” Sierakowiak’s diary entries raise vital issues that no serious Holocaust teacher can avoid. In these passages we have an example of what I call the “disappeared criminals,” because the only actors in the “drama” are family members. Students who ask how “they” (the persecuted) could have allowed themselves to be mistreated and murdered might without guidance assume that the victims described in Sierakowiak’s diary were agents who conspired in their own doom, that the father was somehow responsible for the fate of his wife. So vividly do narratives like Sierakowiak’s animate the details of his family’s forlorn existence that the deeds of the “disappeared criminals” could easily dissolve in the future into a role defined as “forgotten culprits.” Only the constant use of context, chiefly historical, can discourage the uninformed student from leaping to judgment and blaming Sierakowiak’s father for the nightmare that consumed his wife and distressed his son. He himself died of starvation soon after.

As we approach the twenty-first century, the need grows more urgent for teachers to achieve a balance between the history of the catastrophe and the various ways of representing the private ordeals of its victims. At the University of Vermont, years ago, Raul Hilberg established a model for teaching the subject by joining with a colleague in the English department to offer an interdisciplinary course in the history and literature of the Holocaust. No respectable course or unit on this topic can afford to ignore either discipline. The moral plight of Sierakowiak and his father reflects the impact of inhuman ghetto conditions on traditional family values. His diary is a vital personal and historical document. But fictional stories of the Lodz ghetto by a writer like Isaiah Spiegel are equally vivid. They give flesh to the naked bones of another diary excerpt, written by an anonymous young man in the margins of a French novel. Spiegel’s version of ghetto life and the diarist’s are really inseparable, pumping life into each other as if blood from the veins of fiction and the arteries of fact flowed in the same body.

Here is an entry from the unknown author’s diary:

What kind of world is this and what kind of people are these who are able to inflict such unbelievable and impossible suffering on living beings?

Our nearest ones have been murdered, some by starvation, some by deportations (modern civilian death). In a manner unheard of in history, we’ve been crippled physically, spiritually, emotionally -- in our whole personality. We vegetate in the most horrible misery and need; we are slaves who, deprived of our own will, feel happy when we’re being trodden upon, begging only that we not be trodden to death. I don’t exaggerate: we are the most wretched beings the sun has ever seen -- and all this is not enough for the “strong man”: they continue deporting and tearing our hearts to pieces -- while we’d be happy to live even as enslaved, wretched insects, as abject, creeping reptiles -- only to live . . . live . . . .

Few passages raise with such concise fervor two key issues that continue to vex our imagination: the inner state of the murderers and the inner state of the victims. It is of course important to understand the mechanics of the Holocaust, the slow but systematic reduction of the Jews to a helpless condition -- but that is only the external narrative, which when pursued alone leaves the story incomplete. Students need to explore the dark cave of motive -- and without the aid of traditional psychology. Traditional psychology has done little to answer the diarist’s plea: “what kind of people are these who are able to inflict such unbelievable and impossible suffering on living beings?” Nor has it explained what happens to the self when its main and often sole driving force is to stay alive, “to live . . . live . . .” despite agony, humiliation, loss, and shame.

Anyone teaching this subject must be willing to confront behavior that cannot be explained by prior notions of why we do what we do. Robert Jay Lifton, in his influential work on Nazi doctors, developed the idea of “doubling” to clarify how “civilized” medical professionals could join in the selection of men, women and children for death in the gas chamber. They did this, Lifton alleges, by separating their “Auschwitz self” from their “normal self.” Not everyone is happy with this explanation, which may simply reflect an effort to retain value words like “civilized” and “professional” in our vocabulary of how decent human beings live. An alternate but much less flattering interpretation of the Nazi doctors’ conduct is that the majority of them saw selection and brutal experimentation on helpless victims as an expression of their values, and hence of their “normal” selves, because they believed that a chief aim of their duty as physicians was to support the goals of Nazi racial ideology. Certainly there was no surplus of public contrition and repentance, to say nothing of penance, among culpable doctors -- or any other professionals in Germany -- after its defeat in 1945. Many teachers may be daunted by the challenge of inviting students to revise their premises about “reasonable” behavior during the Holocaust by admitting that what we consider evil conduct could be as psychologically rewarding for certain people as charity and love are for the rest of us. Hence reading and teaching Holocaust literature requires a flexible stamina -- one might even say courage - - that few other subjects require.

Charlotte Delbo writes in None of Us Will Return that the unsuspecting new arrivals at Auschwitz may have known the worst but did not know the unthinkable -- by which she meant the doom that awaited most of them in the gas chamber. This is the crux of the dilemma facing any Holocaust teacher: Delbo’s distinction affronts the moral imagination, eternally unprepared for such a grim possibility. As we teach and study the Holocaust, the unthinkable in its numerous guises clamors to burst into the safe havens of our sedated minds. There, terms like “guilt” and “conscience” have for centuries helped us to array acts of good and evil in separate ranks and judge them accordingly. Then we encounter from the Simon Wiesenthal Newsletter in Vienna an episode like the following:

Dr. Heim came to the Mauthausen concentration camp after completing his medical studies to gain surgical experience in preparation for later duty as front-line medical officer. During his less than a year’s time in Mauthausen, 540 inmates were used as guinea pigs and operated to death by him. This “Sonderbehandlung” (special treatment) included amputating the arms or legs of healthy prisoners and cutting open abdomens and then leaving his victims to die without further treatment. After examining the teeth of the prisoners from one transport to the camp, Heim selected two young men with complete sets of teeth, took them to his office and killed them with an injection of poison. He then personally decapitated the corpses, had the heads boiled and cleaned, and finally decorated his desk with one of the skulls, giving the other to a colleague friend of his.

It would be consoling to be able to account for such action by labeling Dr. Heim a lunatic disguised as a physician, but there is no proof to justify this conclusion. On the contrary, Dr. Heim went on to serve as medical officer to an elite SS division. After the war, he turned up as a gynecological specialist in Mannheim. He married another doctor and moved to Baden-Baden, where he and his wife opened a practice. Only years later was he forced to flee Germany, when investigators turned up evidence of his war crimes.

In Germany during the Nazi era, mass murder became government policy: officials had to adapt to their new role as killers, while their victims had to adjust in labor, concentration, and death camps to the abnormal pressures of staying alive through strategies they would have found inadmissible in more normal times. After the war, both criminals and survivors resumed their lives, though the oppressors like Dr. Heim with far less difficulty than those they oppressed. This is one of the many ironic legacies that make the Holocaust a narrative without closure and with few cheerful endings.

Teaching and learning about the Holocaust is thus a double journey, a temporary excursion that concludes with the end of a class or a course, and a ceaseless encounter with evil that raises a multitude of unsettling questions about history and human conduct. I have taught students about the subject for nearly thirty years, and incredulity remains a constant factor in their response. “How could human beings have done that to other human beings?” is one of their recurring queries. And the other is: “How could the victims have been so passive? How could they have let them do that to them without fighting back?” Behind both inquiries lies a naïveté about individual behavior and the forces of history that continues to tax the Holocaust educator. I have always believed that students flock to Holocaust courses not because such courses are fashionable but because they have a deep-lying interest in the Final Solution’s criminals and victims, so one of my main goals as a teacher of the Holocaust has been to subvert stereotypical thinking: for example, that only sadists could organize and execute an atrocity like the murder of European Jewry or that all victims went unresistingly to their deaths.

The basic challenge for Holocaust educators is to begin expanding their own sympathies and vision to include the personalities of all those involved in the disaster -- criminals, victims, collaborators, and bystanders -- and then gradually to extend to their students means for crossing the threshold into their historical and psychological space. Traditionally, teachers open doors of possibilities for their students. In this one instance, they are obliged to open doors of impossibility, an equally compelling but more arduous task because the obstacles to gaining entrance are so many, the usual rewards so few.

About the Author

Lawrence L. Langer is Alumnae Chair Professor of English Emeritus at Simmons College in Boston. Among his many books is Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991. This article, reproduced by permission, is from Preempting the Holocaust, copyright 1998 Yale University Press. Opening Locked Doors has been excerpted in a condensed version.

Funding Information

Langer received NEH fellowships in 1979 and 1989, and has directed five NEH-funded summer seminars for school teachers on the literature of the Holocaust.