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Facing the Extreme:
Moral Life in the Concentration Camps


by Tzvetan Todorov, Abigail Pollak,
88 pages,
ISBN: 0805042636


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The Trains Left on Time
by Doug Beardsley

In a now-forgotten Sartre play, a character asks: "Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?"

We cannot imagine what he would cry out after the Holocaust.

Nor can we refuse to face the horrifying truths forced upon us by our unimagineable century.

In Facing the Extreme, Tzvetan Todorov, renowned pioneer in the field of structuralism, focuses his critical eye on life in the concentration camps and posits the theory that there was "a rich moral universe... of innumerable ordinary gestures of dignity and care, compassion and solidarity." He concludes that these "everyday virtues... allowed inmates to survive morally intact in the most immoral and inhuman conditions."

A half-century after the Holocaust, the search for contemporary moral values in a secular age is both appropriate and laudable, but Todorov's rewriting of the camp experience smacks of the worst kind of historical revisionism. Only from the fortress of academe-where virtually any idea is encouraged-could one pour forth such nonsense. So much for the life of the mind. It makes one wonder: had Roberto Benigni read Todorov before making his fairytale film, Life is Beautiful?

The desire is understandable. For over fifty years, we have sought to articulate the inarticulate in the hope that we can learn something from the horrors that unfolded in the death camps, "to reach a better understanding of our own moral life." Now that faith has failed us, we are desperate to believe in something, in anything-and, in a secular age, the something that is left us is the common good. The goal is noble, but futile. Todorov's hypothesis is more than a serious misreading of history; it is akin to madness. Such a willfully wrong-headed pursuit of a na´ve idea is not what Plato had in mind when he spoke of "an awareness of the Good".

Bruno Bettelheim was one of the first to suggest that life in the camps could "teach us about the human condition". In addition to Bettelheim, Todorov quotes Levi, Solzhenitsyn, and the Polish-Jewish poet, Leopold Staff, in order to support his contention that the ordinary human virtues of dignity, caring, and responsibility ("a concern for others can keep us from giving up") were practised in the camps. But these were only isolated instances at best, not to be confused with the minute-by-minute humiliations and denigrations of camp "life". It was simply not possible to remain human in such an inhuman hell, much less to act within a moral dimension.

In pursuit of the absurd, Todorov leaves no source untapped. He even quotes one survivor's recollection that the medical staff at Ravensbruck was "not a very inspiring lot but on the the whole, not too different from what might be found in any hospital."

The problem is one of structure. Todorov has, in fact, given us two books in one. While the subtitle reflects the theme of the first half, Todorov addresses his central concern-what we mean by morality-in the second. In doing so, he nearly redeems Facing the Extreme.

Here, the author is particularly adept at what he so unwittingly accomplishes in the opening pages: his analysis of how human beings can so easily "cut off the life of the mind from the rest of life" by personal or internal fragmentation is highly informative in view of Nazi behaviour in the camps. Also instructive is his examination of the indoctrination techniques employed by the Nazis, the ability of Germans to separate public and private life, and their tendency to compartmentalize-i.e., to have the private life "serve as a counterweight" to public action.

No less revealing is Todorov's breakdown of German character: how language shapes character; the inheritance of "the black pedagogy"; and how the German sense of intimacy and stress on the life of the inner self, in contrast to their indifference to public actions and behaviour-a division encouraged by Luther's separation of religious and secular life-led to the Holocaust.

But what really makes Todorov's book-within-a-book invaluable is his explication of what constitutes a moral life. His discussion of the characteristics of the heroic, and the distinctions he makes between physical strength and psychological weakness, artist and society, caring and charity, shed light on a subject that, if treated at all, is dealt with in an abstract manner.

In addition, his writings on the value of acts of kindness and of books, what he means by "meaningless work", suicide as freedom, and the relationship between totalitarianism and moral behaviour are thought-provoking.

Todorov is at his best when analysing the relation between compartmentalization and bureaucratic specialization that effectively excised any sense of responsibility: nobody killed anybody, people simply went to the station platform, the trains left on time. All considerations of conscience are suspended under totalitarianism, and social schizophrenia dominates as a defense mechanism, allowing people to function in a bureaucratic manner. The total sacrifice of the individual was Himmler's motto: the individual was merely an instrument, a cog in the totalitarian machine. Todorov believes the resulting synthesis of depersonalization and fragmentation produced the perfect technocrat to spawn totalitarian evil. To submit to commands was to fulfill one's duty: "One thing counts-the order given."

The author traces the depersonalization process from the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 with its use of euphemistic bureaucratese to speak of the unspeakable: "[T]he business was concluded... [There were ] difficulties in loading the cars because of the long October nights... Hungary, too, should be relieved." It was Albert Speer, Germany's armament minister, who saw this self-depersonalization of language as part of a larger historical process: "The automatism of [technical] progress will depersonalize man further and withdraw more and more of his responsibility."

All this, of course, is somewhat easier to understand a half-century after the fact. In the hell of the moment, it was impossible to have any sense of what was happening. How else can one account for the philosophical absurdity of a soon-to-be inmate of the camps who muses: "If you have a rich inner life, there probably isn't all that much difference between the inside and outside of a camp." Such na´ve wistfulness probably sustained one for a few minutes at best in the reality of what awaited the Jews who were rounded up.

The subject matter of The Last Days is the last roundup, the devastation of Hungarian Jewry in the final months of the war. As a "product" of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the book/film suffers from some shameful Hollywoodisms at the outset: in the prologue, the Holocaust is referred to as "the Event", and its story begins "when the world was whole" (whenever that was). But the text-and the photographs taken from the film of the same name-are based on undeniable fact: in a little under two months, almost 440,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps. The Last Days highlights the harrowing testimony of five who survived.

David Cesarani opens with a valuable historical overview of the anti-Semitism that disfigured Hungarian society by the 1920s. He levels two charges against Hungarian Jewry that make for disquieting reading. First, Cesarani contends that Hungarian Jewish leaders could have known, indeed should have known, what was happening by mid-March 1944. Second, the split between orthodox and reform Jews "gravely weakened Hungarian Jewry in times of crisis". Whatever the case, by July 1941, through a series of harsh laws, Jews in Hungary were completely isolated, made ripe for the picking. The Nazi format for deportation and murder of the Hungarian Jews-long perfected in so many countries-was the same: each demand was the last; the last demand was the worst; the nightmare will soon end; to refuse to cooperate was suicidal.

The testimony of the five survivors in The Last Days is eloquent and heart-wrenching, both in itself and in the pattern that emerges: "It couldn't happen... it was inconceivable... they will come soon and apologize. This is an insane asylum. Someone will apologize... [On arrival] we thought the inmates were sick and they were being kept there until they got well... I saw how they were throwing people into these fire pits. I said to myself, `something is wrong with me,' my mind is going."

It falls to Bill Basch, one of the five, to provide the strongest refutation of Todorov's theme in Facing the Extreme: "We couldn't remain moral because survival was everything and those that survived were those who were prepared to break the moral code." If there were a few who, as Todorov claims, lived a "moral life in the concentration camps", they were the first to perish.

It's only fitting that Basch should have the last word on both these volumes. "[I]t's amazing," he writes, "how the desire to believe the impossible, to refuse to acknowledge the terrible truth, will sometimes make us accept the lies." 

Doug Beardsley is the author of seven books of poetry and three volumes on hockey. He has recently completed book-length appreciations with Al Purdy of D.H. Lawrence and John Donne. A new book of poems, All That Remains, and an "imaginative memoir" are forthcoming. He is also Professor of English at the University of Victoria, where he teaches a course on the Holocaust.

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