I lost track years ago of how many books I've read about the Shoah. There was a time in my life when that was almost all that I read and, although that's no longer the case (and far from it), I still read a lot on the topic. That being the case, I find it amazing when I read or see something so different—and so shocking—about the Shoah that it stops me cold. I had such an experience just the other day. You can have the same experience. In fact, I suggest that you do.
Go to http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/arts/20070919_ALBUM_FEATURE/index.html , and you'll see what I mean. It's only two and a half minutes of viewing—it's a narrated slideshow—but you'd better make sure you're seated when you watch. And, no, there are no horrific images here, no pictures of death or torture, no ramps, no selections, no gas chambers...only pictures of happy people having fun in the country. What you will see here are photographs of picnics and sing-alongs, of young men and women enjoying bowls of fresh blueberries, of people unwinding after a long day's work. So what's so odd about that? Don't workers have the right to unwind a bit? Well, I suppose they do...but these are not factory employees or office workers in the pictures, they are the men and women of the SS who ran the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And the work they were relaxing after consisted, among other things, of murdering Jewish children.
I can't take my eyes off these pictures. I just watched the slideshow three times in a row from start to finish. And to say that it was beyond shocking to see the depths of depravity to which human beings—members of the same human race to which we all belong—can sink is really to say the very least. These are not monsters from some other galaxy, after all, but regular people, men and women who like blueberries and who enjoy singing...and who found it in their hearts to participate in the greatest crime of the twentieth century.
To feel pride in being human, therefore, has to be tempered by the realization that there is, apparently no real bottom line beneath human behavior simply cannot descend. I can't take my eyes off the people in these pictures, because the realization that these are human beings created, as are we all, in the divine image, simply confounds everything I think about what it means to be human...and what it means to bear the divine image. But I know that the work for me, both intellectually and emotionally, has to be to overcome these feelings, to realize that these monsters at play are merely the dark side of what it means to be human...and that the potential for nobility, decency and goodness is inherent in our humanity as well.
Perhaps contemplating the grotesque spectacle of men and women who murder Jews for a living gathering around an accordion for some relaxing folk singing can shock me (perhaps it should shock me) into understanding that the great challenge laid down for us by Scripture—that we symbolize in our national and personal demeanor the great moral cornerstones of our faith—is not child's play, and neither is it something trifling or inconsequential when compared to the real stuff of Jewish ritual life. By contemplating these photographs and realizing that the kinds of moral degradation which regular people—people who like music and who eat blueberries—can intentionally embrace are far more shocking than I ever imagined, the challenge in living morally and ethically seems all the more daunting.
I hope I haven't upset anyone by pointing you at these pictures. Personally, I can't take my eyes away...but only because in the laughing faces of these murderers and murderesses I see the challenge in being human in an entirely different—and terrifying—light. (September 21, 2007)