FROM ANGER TO INQUIRY *
“Some people think of me as the Jewish James Bond. But I am really an old Jew with a heart condition who survived the holocaust and who feels that justice, however inadequate, must be done.” /1/ These words, spoken by Simon Wiesenthal as he stood on a stage at Emory University surrounded by enormous Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents, changed my life. Up to that point I had, like many Jews, avoided the subject of the holocaust. My Christian colleague, the late Jack Boozer, had tried to persuade me that I owed it to the dead, to the survivors, and to God to teach the holocaust but I was not willing to listen. Jack couldn’t understand how a young, serious Jewish person, and a scholar at that, could not feel compelled to deal with the holocaust but I was in deep denial — until Wiesenthal spoke. Then, I knew I must confront the holocaust.
My first efforts were really primitive, as was natural. By 1964, I had studied in Jewish parochial schools, majored in Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, been ordained at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and spent two years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In that time, I had heard one lecture on the holocaust which was all numbers, no experiential approach. I also knew that I had an Uncle Max who was a survivor but, like many survivor relatives, he had been kept out of our way as children. So, when I decided to study and teach the holocaust after Wiesenthal’s visit, I was ill prepared, to say the least. Only Jack Boozer’s moral vision sustained me.
“Professor Blumenthal, why are you snapping at us?” the undergraduate woman asked, at once surprised and aggressive. After hemming and hawing, I apologized and confessed that the material upset me, as a person; that, even though I was an instructor, I was also a human being and I was angry, confused, and deeply hurt by what we were studying. It was a revelation to the students, and to me, but it was true. We shared our own upset and then we began to analyze the myriad defense mechanisms we were using to push the material away from us. Even several years of psychoanalysis had not prepared me for the sheer creativity of the human being in the face of data which undermines our basic human self-image. We learned that defense mechanisms are a sign of our humanness, but that we did need to try to get beyond them to the data.
“Be a little paranoid.” “Get organized and stay organized.” “Educate.” “Support the institutions of freedom.” “Reproduce.” “Confront your opposition.” And “Be prepared even with violence.” These were “The Seven Commandments for Jewish Survivial in the Post-Holocaust World” (1981b). The last one always aroused opposition. Was I really advocating social violence? Did I really approve of assassinating a potential future Hitler? The lecture became known as “Blumenthal’s Brass Knuckles Lecture.” Violent as it was, I thought then, and think now, that it does represent a considered and perhaps intelligent response to racial hatred. Jack Boozer did not agree, nor did many Jews, but they did learn to think: Where would I go if I had to flee? How much cash do I need to have on hand to rescue my family? Whom would I really trust with my children? How early would I resist? And, how far would I let my resistance go? These were emotional responses to studying the holocaust, as much as they were reflections of popular Jewish attitudes and possible, if not probable, contingencies for a future that all Jews knew could happen again.
Slowly, I tried to sort out the data and the emotions. I wrote “Scholarly Approaches to the Holocaust” (1979a) as an attempt to put the data field into some order. It is still a good guide. I also wrote “On Teaching the Holocaust” (1980b) to share with other instructors the affective problems of this material. And I began reading and reviewing books in the field (1978a – 1984a).
The holocaust, however, must be seen to be experienced. So, I began acquiring and using films. We also organized the first of what became a long series of exhibits on the theme of the holocaust. “Danzig 1939,” prepared by The Jewish Museum, came to Emory and we organized a wide range of sponsors, lectures, national television coverage, a film series, and docents for organized tours. Over 20,000 people saw the exhibit in the short time it was at Emory (1985b). We also began to ask survivors to speak in the classroom. I could introduce them, but I was always too upset to thank them; Jack took care of that.
Slowly, the circle widened. The late Fred Crawford, a colleague and American POW, persuaded me to work with him on the Witness to the Holocaust Project which interviewed primarily liberators (Fred, as an Army person, had a special rapport with these people) as well as survivors. We republished booklets issued by the Armed Forces as they liberated the camps. We made tapes for public television, including one with a liberator and a survivor who were at the same camp, and we examined the Jewish and Christian press. /2/ When Fred died, the Witness to the Holocaust Project continued and a fellow was designated who wrote a book on the early American reaction to the holocaust. /3/ In addition, Elie Wiesel was awarded an honorary degree by the Emory School of Theology. Other exhibits came to campus, including “Auschwitz: A Crime Against Mankind,” the Anne Frank exhibit, “The Value of the Human Being; Medicine in Germany: 1918 – 1945,” and more recently “The Rescuers: Portraits in Moral Courage During the Holocaust.” Graduate students also began to take an interest and several went to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for training, taught the holocaust course, and published articles on the subject (1985a; 1988a). Undergraduates, too, wrote publishable articles and one even coedited a book (1985a; 1988a). Meanwhile, I continued to read and write articles and reviews (1985a – 1995b).
Having broadened my inquiry and involvement from near denial to teaching, publishing, organizing exhibits, and sustaining students and colleagues in their work, I began to feel the need to focus, to develop a more formal inquiry. My interests and training are primarily in the area of theology. I had already begun to express this interest by looking into the area of Jewish and Christian spiritual resistance (1978b). But the most important theological problem still remained: How can one account for the active, loving, and covenantal presence of God in the holocaust? Human beings are, to be sure, responsible for the holocaust but, in a theological perspective which asserts God’s presence in history, what can one say? This is the question that motivated the writing of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (1993a).
The most recent stage of my work in the holocaust was the realization that, with Jack Boozer and Fred Crawford no longer among the living and with my own interests becoming more focused, I needed a colleague who could effectively guide the University’s efforts in the area of holocaust studies, giving direction to our scholarship in the area, teaching the courses, directing the Witness to the Holocaust Project, and providing direction for future exhibits. We hired Deborah Lipstadt and we received a chair to support her work. /4/
For me personally and morally, Emory University’s activity in holocaust studies reached a high point in May 1995 when Emory awarded an honorary degree to Mr. Alex Gross, the survivor in the Atlanta area who has been most active in speaking about the holocaust, not only at the University but in the entire State of Georgia. The degree, awarded to a man who never formally graduated high school but who has shown unbelievable courage in continuously exposing himself and his story, was a deeply moving moment, one which brought a certain closure to the years of intellectual, emotional, and administrative wrestling with the issues of the study and teaching of the holocaust.
In retropsect, I see that I moved from denial to involvement. At first, it was very difficult because I was so upset by the material and by my own reactions. During that period, I encouraged everything: exhibits, speeches, articles, reviews, classes, projects, interviews. Slowly, however, I moved toward my own focus, the theological question. I began with emotional indignation and broad investigation and gradually gave more disciplined consideration to my work without ever losing the passion that had brought me to it.
My extensive training in Jewish theology did not give me an adequate answer to the question of theodicy. It is really not morally permissible to say that the holocaust was punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, even when one admits that the people has been sinful. Nor is it really cricket to say that God was not responsible at all, that God was “hiding God’s face,” or “in eclipse,” or “present but not causal.” God is, and must be, present in our personal and national lives. Following the example of medieval Jewish theologians who went outside Jewish tradition to study philosophy and then returned to the Jewish sources to elaborate a philosophical theology, I too turned to sources outside the theological tradition. I worked in child abuse, particularly in the area of psychotherapy with adult survivors of child abuse.
There, I acquired much human wisdom. I learned, first and foremost, that abuse is never, never the fault of the child no matter what the child is told or how she or he blames himself or herself. Abuse is force used against a person when that force is disproportionate to the alledged wrongdoing. I learned, too, how abused persons behave — their inability to trust, their wariness in love, and their towering anger, their rage. Finally, I learned that some healing is possible. One is never fully “cured” of child abuse but one can learn to live a more trusting and a more productive life. The wounds do heal but they leave scars.
Returning to the Jewish situation, I noted that the Jewish people exhibits many of the symptoms of adult survivors of child abuse — innocence of the violence of the holocaust, hypervigilance, and inability to trust others. I reasoned that we might learn something from therapy with adult survivors of child abuse which would yield insight into reconfiguring our relationship with God after the holocaust. It was a very difficult book to write, emotionally and theologically, but I was able to conclude first that, since we were innocent of the violence of the holocaust, we were “abused” and, therefore, that God was the Abuser. Second, unpleasant as that realization is, we owe it to ourselves, to the dead, to the survivors, and to God to speak that truth — theologically and liturgically. Hence, I called up the long tradition of protest, beginning in Psalm 44 and carrying through to post-holocaust Hebrew poetry, as the proper response to the problem of God and the holocaust. I also pushed this protest into traditional rabbinic liturgy, creating inserts into the prayerbook as well as new prayers.
The whole is very powerful. My own faith, real faith, is stronger for having faced the facts, and God, honestly and for having evolved a no-nonsense answer, even going so far as to modify the received prayers. These inserts into the prayerbook are not easy to recite but they say what needs to be said.
No one, so far, has agreed with me; the response has been enthusiastic but very wary, resistant. Still, I think I am right, theologically and morally, and I have no regrets. As a follow-up, I would like to see a conference of psychotherapists who deal with adult survivors of child abuse and those who deal with survivors of the holocaust. I think they would have much to say to one another. I would also like to see a conference of holocaust and child abuse survivors. These people, too, will have much to say to one another. How does one put humpty-dumpty back together again?
The mystery of the holocaust is not its sadisim, or its antisemitism, or its scale. Each of those factors is known. To me, the real mystery is a double mystery. The first half lies in how so many people were persuaded to go along with the holocaust. Tens of millions of people went along with the holocaust. It was not only terror, though terror played its role. Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, embodies this aspect of the problem best./5/ The other side of the mystery lies in how a few were persuaded to resist the overwhelming force and consensus that generated the holocaust. Some few thousands did resist. It was not just politics or ideology, though these were factors in some cases. Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s book, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, presents this apsect of the problem best./6/ Conformity and obediece, on the one hand, and resistance and disobedience, on the other.
The implications are enormous: Why do people conform? disobey? If we knew, could we cultivate resistance? How? Can we “prevent” another holocaust? or at least mitigate its effects? Suppose more people had resisted…
My current work is in examining the social-psychological data on obedience and altruism and comparing it with historical data drawn largely, but not exclusively, from the holocaust. Eventually, I will need to work out a field theory which will account for the commonalities and disjunctions in obedient and altruistic behavior. When that is done, I will have acquired some wisdom from outside the tradition and I shall be ready to return to the tradition with that wisdom. I will, then, need to confront the fact that preaching good and studying it, which is what religious traditions usually do, is not effective. I will need to figure out what would be effective in cultivating a morally-resistant stream within Judaism. That, too, will be a focused response to the holocaust.
I wish I didn’t have to teach the holocaust. It tears me apart each time. It hurts my students, and my Christian colleagues. It also distorts the values of Jewish civilization and survival.
I wish I didn’t have the sense of identification with those who were murdered. I was born in late December 1938 in Houston, Texas. Had I been born in late December 1938 in Warsaw, Poland, the little brown-eyed child in Night and Fog would have likely been I.
I wish I didn’t feel so responsible for the decisions that my generation is now taking which will ensure, or endanger, the State of Israel and Jewish survival in the exile. But I do, and I am responsible. I am “on watch” now, as those before me were “on watch” in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s.
I visited Dachau in the summer of 1962; I’ve never been back to a concentration camp. I’ve never taken my children. There are plenty of opportunities, to go alone or with colleagues or with groups. I know more now. But I am afraid to go. I have enough defense mechanisms to deal with it, or at least I think I do. But the horror is too strong. I understand why students prefer The Yellow Star (a film based on holocaust paintings) to Night and Fog.
I wish I didn’t have to recite the prayers I myself have written. Sometimes, I skip prayers on Mondays and Thursdays to avoid saying them.
And I wish I didn’t have to get out on a limb in academic areas in which I have no special training, earlier with psychotherapy with adult survivors of child abuse and, now, with social psychology. Writing theology is difficult enough but writing it with wisdom garnered from elsewhere exposes one to claims of incompetence. Also, while this interdisciplinary process generates new theology, it does force one, and others, to question the old theologies. This too exposes one to criticism. Still, if we are to face the holocaust as directly as we can and if we are to do more than pin down the loose historical details or just react emotionally, we must be able to go from anger to inquiry, to develop the questions that that moment in human history poses, and to search diligently for answers — not just out of curiosity, but out of a deep moral impulse to confront evil with as much courage as we can and to fight that evil whether it be in theology or in society. This, it seems to me, is the task at hand, always, but especially so in holocaust studies. My own contribution has been small but at least I know that I have tried.
Blumenthal, David R. (see below)
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. San Francisco, HarperCollins: 1992. The most significant problem remaining to be examined.
Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1976. The clearest description and analysis of life in the camps.
Katz, Steven. “The `Unique’ Intentionality of the Holocaust.” In Post-Holocaust Dialogues, edited by S. Katz, 287-317. New York, New York University Press: 1985. The clearest article on the uniqueness of the holocaust.
Laytner, Anson. Arguing With God: A Jewish Tradition. Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1990. The best summary of the Jewish protest tradition.
Oliner, Samuel and Pearl. The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York, Free Press: 1988. The most significant problem remaining to be examined.
Full Bibliography of David R. Blumenthal on the Holocaust
(a) review of S. Wiesenthal, The Sunflower in Journal of Jewish Social Studies 40:330-32.
(b) review of C. ten Boom, The Hiding Place and I. Rosenbaum, Holocaust and Halakha in Journal of Religion 58:447-52; reprinted in 1985a:79-88.
(c) review of G. Green, Holocaust (the television show) in Intermountain Jewish News 5/5/78; excerpted several times; reprinted in American Judaism: Adventure in Modernity, ed. J. Neusner (New York, Ktav: 1978) xvi-xviii.
(a) “Scholarly Approaches to the Holocaust,” Sho’ah 1:21-27; reprinted 1985a:14-35.
(b) review of T. des Pres, The Survivor in Jewish Social Studies 41:330-32.
(a) “On Teaching the Holocaust,” The Reconstructionist 47:12-18; reprinted in Creative Jewish Education: A Reconstructionist Response, ed. J. Stein and H. Staub (New York, Rossell Books: 1985) 171-177; reprinted in 1985a:152-61.
(b) “The Popular Jewish Response to the Holocaust: An Initial Reflection,” Sho’ah 2:3-5.
(a) “Of All Small Things…,” Judaism 30:247-48.
(b) “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” The Jewish Spectator (Winter) 11-14; reprinted in expanded form as “Memory and Meaning in the Shadow of the Holocaust,” 1985a:114-22.
(a) review of A. Neher, The Exile of the Word in Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter 31:6.
(a) review of Y. Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52:402.
(a) ed., Emory Studies on the Holocaust, vol. 1 (Atlanta, Emory University).
(b) “`Danzig: 1939′ — An Exercise in Interfaith Understanding,” 1985a:136-45.
(c) review of C. Thoma, A Christian Theology of Judaism in 1985a:146-51.
(d) review of R. Abzug, Inside the Vicious Heart in Martyrdom and Resistance (Sept.-Oct.2) 4.
(a) “Hitpallalti le-Yad `Ehad ha-Nitsolim” (poem in Hebrew), Siah Mesharim 10:9; reprinted in 1988a (in Hebrew) i.
(a) ed., Emory Studies on the Holocaust, vol. 2 (Atlanta, Emory University).
(b) “I Prayed Next to a Survivor” (translation of Hebrew poem, 1986a), 1988a:ii-iii; reprinted in Peace Prayers, ed. D. Leadingham (San Franciso, Harper and Row: 1992) 57-58.
(a) review of S. and P. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe in Critical Review of Books in Religion 3:409-11.
(a) review of A. Laytner, Arguing With God in Modern Judaism 12:105-10.
(a) Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, Westminster / John Knox).
(b) review of P. Schindler, Hasidic Responses to the Holocaust in the Light of Hasidic Thought in Critical Review of Books in Religion 5:447-48.
(c) review of I. Müller, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich in Modern Judaism 23:95-106.
(a) “Can Jews Celebrate D-Day,” Atlanta Jewish Times (6/3/94) 55.
(a) review of G. Kren and L. Rappoport, The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior in Martyrdom and Resistance (March-April) 2-3.
(b) review of E. Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust in Journal of Psychology and Theology 23:62-63.
(a) “The Holocaust as the Icon of the Twentieth Century” (available on website).
(b) “From Wissenschaft to Theology” (available on website).
/4/ Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust: 1933-1945 (New York, Free Press: 1986) and Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York, Free Press: 1993).