In last week’s Forward, we read the following in a review of a recent Holocaust encyclopedia.
In the village of Iwaniska, for example, we read with consternation that “Orthodox and liberal Jews continued infighting to such an extent that both groups assisted the Germans by preparing lists of their opponents, whom they claimed were not complying with the German orders.” Ultimately, however, as their situation grew more perilous, younger Jews from this community — contrary to the urging of their Hasidic elders — decided to slip out of the village and hide in bunkers in the forest.
This deep lack of solidarity among Jews is discussed in the important book Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. The book discusses many of the important points obscured by Elie Wiesel stories. Todorov shows how people did not change immediately in a single “night,” they maintained many ordinary virtues. These ordinary virtues like art, music, religion, helped people survive (as Frankl and Berkovits claimed).
Todorov asks whether it is true the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags revealed that in extreme situations “all traces of moral life evaporate as men become beasts locked in a merciless struggle for survival”(31–46). However, in his reading of actual survivor testimonies, Todorov says the picture is not that bleak, that there are many examples of inmates helping each other and showing compassion in human relationships despite the inhumane conditions and terror. Survivors point out that survival always depended on the help of others. For example, righteous gentiles who saved Jews were usually husband wife teams, the husband had the virtue of courage to engage in smuggling and defiance and the wife had the virtue of compassion.
Those that survived needed people to help them. But Jews could not automatically rely on other Jews. All Jews were not saints, nor are they sinners for us to judge. People are complex.(similar to Maus) We are all fragmented human beings.
On the topic of solidarity, Bulgarian non-Jews saw the country’s non-Jews as Bulgarians- showing that solidarity was not Jew vs non-Jew. Todorov says: Solidarity is no more than a quantitative extension of the principal of self interest; it is the selfishness of the collective. Acting with a group doesn’t make you moral to Todorov, but it does in Wiesel’s thought. (Would you consider the solidarity activities of NYC Jews as moral?)
Todorov, the humanist, asks the difference between humanity and solidarity. He shows that in troubled times/places, solidarity is important to survive. But in ordinary times we need humanity not to have a paranoid or vengeful society. In the war, solidarity was important but Bulgarian non-Jews showed it with their Jews. However, Polish or Hungarian Jews had no solidarity at all with French or Greek Jews. They could leave them to die or considered them of little concern. Wiesel creates this fuzzy idea that all Jews, especially Hasidism had great solidarity the world’s Jews and their suffering. Todorov shows that none of the eyewitness or survivor stories show that. The secular Jew on a transport with orthodox Jews is left to die.
There are many other important discussions in the work, but the Forward quote clearly brings Todorov to mind.
Thanks, Alan – for years I’ve thought Todorov’s book deserves a wider audience, and in particular his distinction between heroic and ordinary virtue, the former taking shape in terms of grand Ideas (Art, Religion, Scholarship, Nation), and the former, fundamental care for the well-being of the people around us.
I think that the heroic virtue has its place (even to call it ‘heroic’ is to deflate it a little), as part of how society talks about its own collective values, and perhaps on an individual level in some extreme situations. But ordinary virtue is a far more certain moral compass in our lives, and regularly harder to achieve.