Sunday, June 28, 2009

Obama at Buchenwald

When we first heard about the events in Washington at the Holocaust Museum yesterday, all of us were seized by some version of the same amalgam of horror, disbelief, and sadness. How could it have been otherwise? I was also seized by a witch’s brew of angry thoughts, but when I calmed down I found myself focusing on the tragic death of Stephen T. Johns, the security guard who was killed in the line of duty. He leaves behind a wife and an eleven year old son, neither of whom will find much comfort in knowing that he now becomes a symbol of the price we Jews must pay for not hiding our light under a bushel, for not being reticent or shy about bringing the story of the Shoah to the attention of the world, for choosing not to feel that Jewish life can only thrive underground…and then only if we can somehow collectively will the world not to notice us much.

We are way beyond that point in feeling comfortable in society—and the choice location of the Holocaust Museum in Washington is only one of the more obvious examples of that truth—but the reality is that few of us ever have to pay any price at all for our sense of being accepted as integral members of our own society. Stephen Johns paid that price. It wasn’t his battle, just his job. But he’s gone from this world nonetheless, his senseless death the work of a man apparently so wholly possessed by his own anti-Semitism, by his own racism, and by some idiosyncratic mixture of delusions, personal demons, and conspiracy fantasies that he lost all perspective and brought a rifle to the museum yesterday to make some sort of obscure point and opened fire. I’m glad it’s not going to be my decision how to try or, if convicted, how to punish the accused perpetrator. I suppose they’ll think of something and the story will slowly fade from the scene. But, of course, Stephen Johns will still be gone long after the newspapers have gone on to report on other events and we ourselves, all too pleased to feel secure once again, will have gone on to worry about other things. I suppose you could say that he must have accepted the risks inherent in security work. His gun was a weapon, not an accessory. A museum in the center of our nation’s capital devoted to the Shoah could be expected to draw crazy people almost as a kind of magnet. It’s all too true. But which of us would offer any of those thoughts to a little boy who must now grow up without a father?

That this all unfolded not a week after President Obama’s visit to Buchenwald seems almost uncanny to me. If you didn’t hear it or read it, I suggest you take a few minutes to watch it here: . (It won’t take long. The whole thing is under ten minutes.) He was preceded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose words were also very well chosen, even eloquent. Regretfully, I haven’t been able to find a video clip of her remarks that features simultaneous English translation, but you can read what she had to say here: .) And then the president and the chancellor were followed by Elie Wiesel, whose remarks you can listen to here: .

Reading Mrs. Merkel’s comments, and then listening to the president and to Elie Wiesel was an exceptional experience for me. Wiesel spoke about his father’s death, a topic he almost always returns to in his writing and in his speeches one way or the other. But this time, speaking openly and with the greatest candor in the presence of the chancellor of Germany and the president of the United States, and standing while doing so in Buchenwald itself where he was a teenaged prisoner and where his father died, Wiesel spoke in a way that I have never heard him speak before. He didn’t speak for long—the youtube clip is only nine minutes long, roughly as long as the president’s—but he spoke with such depth and such quiet conviction that I found myself truly riveted by his remarks. And when he finished up with the famous line from the end of Camus’ novel, The Plague, in which the author wrote that even after the most horrific tragedy there remains more in the human spirit to celebrate than to denigrate, my emotions were even more powerful. Watch the clip. You’ll find it, I think, as moving—and as arresting—as I did.

But I want to talk in more detail about the president’s remarks. First, he spoke about the experience of being in Buchenwald itself, noting that his own great uncle was part of the 89th Infantry Division that liberated the Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald’s sub-camps, and remembering how his great-uncle’s experiences in the camps shocked him so deeply that he had no choice upon returning home but to isolate himself from society for as long as it took for him to feel strong enough to live in a world that could have produced Buchenwald. But then the president went on to anticipate Wiesel’s use of Camus’ comment by focusing on the lessons of Buchenwald for the world today, for our world, and that was the part I wanted to write to you especially about. Interestingly, he chose to frame his remarks not by contrasting the bad old days and the progress we’ve made since then, but the other way ‘round: by considering the evils that plague us today and the good that we discern in humanity even then, and then by allowing us to realize from the unexpected juxtaposition of lessons that the ability to do good in the world is unrelated to circumstance, just as is the ability to turn away from God and do evil.

There was nothing inherently evil about the land on which Buchenwald was built, the president implied. There was nothing depraved about the trees that overhung the mass graves, nothing noxious or inherently polluted about the air that the Nazis breathed as they tortured their victims to death. The place itself is not wicked. No place is inherently wicked. Nor is any inanimate thing, including tracts of real estate, inherently good. But the hearts of the men and women who ruled over the prisoners in that place were filled with evil…and ultimately that is the lesson of the Shoah for us all: that we cannot blame evil on circumstance, only on the willingness of individual men and women to embrace depravity and to turn away from goodness. The Nazis were not born bad, nor are tzadikkim born righteous. We are what we do. And we are what we will ourselves to become.

This is what the president said:

We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished. To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.

Also to this day, there are those who perpetuate every form of intolerance—racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and more—hatred that degrades its victims and diminishes us all. In this century, we've seen genocide. We've seen mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground; children used as soldiers and rape used as a weapon of war. This places teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests.

But as we reflect today on the human capacity for evil and our shared obligation to defy it, we're also reminded of the human capacity for good. For amidst the countless acts of cruelty that took place here, we know that there were many acts of courage and kindness, as well. The Jews who insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur. The camp cook who hid potatoes in the lining of his prison uniform and distributed them to his fellow inmates, risking his own life to help save theirs. The prisoners who organized a special effort to protect the children here, sheltering them from work and giving them extra food. They set up secret classrooms, some of the inmates, and taught history and math and urged the children to think about their future professions. And we were just hearing about the resistance that formed and the irony that the base for the resistance was in the latrine areas because the guards found it so offensive that they wouldn't go there. And so out of the filth, that became a space in which small freedoms could thrive.

I don’t know why I found these words so moving, but I did. I’ve just lately been reading President Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, which has also made a great impression on me. So perhaps it was the realization that the Shoah has the capacity to teach not only an interesting lesson but the most profound of all lessons, and not only to Jewish people but to all men and women of good will in the world—which is why the rightful place for the Holocaust Museum is precisely where it is located in the center of our nation’s capital—combined with the obvious detail that our president, standing in here for our country as a whole, seems to understand why we feel as strongly as we do about the need for Holocaust education and to accept our feelings as rational and reasonable—from that combination of realizations came the first glimmer of comfort I have found in contemplating the details of the Shoah in a long time. (June 12, 2009)

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