Thursday, April 8, 2010

Facing the Perpetrators

Along with the presumption of innocence and the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers in a timely manner, the right to confront one’s accusers is one of the foundational ideas of our justice system. It’s an old idea, one that actually goes back through English common law all the way to Roman times. But even if most of us only know the concept as a feature of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, the right to cross-examine one’s accusers, thus publicly to attempt to debunk their testimony, is at the heart of the American conception of what it means for a defendant to be tried fairly and justly. And the concept certainly also has the side benefit of discouraging people who might be inclined to give false testimony from doing so by requiring that they face the people about whom they are testifying while speaking about them in court. (It is one thing, after all, to calumniate another person in private and quite another to do so while actually facing the individual about whom one is shamefacedly lying.)

All of this, of course, has to do with the accused individual whose right to a fair trial must be sacrosanct in any just society, but there is no parallel right of witnesses to face the people about whom they are giving testimony. Indeed, the whole point is to go as far as humanly possible to guarantee that no one is ever falsely convicted based on testimony they were not permitted to attempt compellingly to refute, not merely to give witnesses the closure that may well come from confronting the person responsible for their suffering. It’s about the defendant. It should be about the defendant. It is, after all, the defendant who is the one who will suffer if falsely convicted. But, legally enshrined or not, there is also something psychologically meaningful about providing aggressed-against parties with the opportunity to speak openly and forcefully about the wrongs done to them and to do so while looking directly at the parties responsible for their misery. And perhaps there is even a moral dimension to the concept to consider as well in that, for all the criminal justice system is about the defendant, society surely has an equally real responsibility to assist the victims of violence and crime back to their natural places in society, a happy ending that almost never occurs when the crime involved is hidden away from public view and not discussed in detail and in public, or when the victim of a violent crime never actually lays eyes on its perpetrator.

I’ve been thinking about all these issues as we approach Yom Hashoah, the day set aside by the Knesset in 1951 as a national day of mourning for those who died during the Holocaust and subsequently adopted almost universally throughout the Jewish world as a day of remembrance. The emphasis for all these years has been on memorializing the victims. That, I suppose, is as it should be and for many reasons. First and foremost, so many of the martyrs died without leaving any relatives behind at all that it became, and remains, the collective obligation of the Jewish people itself to recite Kaddish on behalf of the martyrs and to remember them as best we can. Secondly, there is something mind-numbing about the numbers involved that can be sidestepped by requiring that remembering take place on the level of the individual. (It is almost impossible, for example, for any normal human being to conceptualize the fate of the 33,371 Jews who died at Babi Yar in 1941 or the 70,000 machine-gunned to death in the Ponary Woods outside Vilna, much less the 800,000 and 1.1 million Jewish individuals murdered at Treblinka and Auschwitz respectively. But it is not at all difficult to comprehend the stories of single individuals dragged from their homes and shipped to their deaths. That is why it is so important that we continue to publish the stories of individual victims and survivors alongside the kind of academic tomes that tell the story of the Holocaust in the kind of scholarly prose only an academic can appreciate. The thick books are crucial for ongoing research, but the stories of individuals are the ones to which regular people can relate far more easily and emotionally.) And finally it is crucial that we focus on the victims because so many of them have no graves at all, thus also no specific place in which they are acknowledged as people who lived and died. If not within the realm of recollective memory, then, where will such people rest at all?

In the context of all this effort to remember the kedoshim, however, we have rarely wished to look directly at the perpetrators. Telling ourselves that the most important of them either died at their own hands or were executed after the war—and not knowing quite what to do about the countless numbers of murderers (including not only Germans but also their henchmen in every country of occupied Europe) who simply washed the blood off their hands and went back to their “real” lives after the war ended—we have found it simpler and more satisfying to memorialize the victims than to seek vengefully to publicize the names and faces of their murderers. I myself have been part of this effort too, speaking at countless Yom Hashoah events over the years and focusing always and solely on the martyrs and their doleful legacy. So it was with special interest that I began the other week to read about a new exhibit at Ravensbrück, the concentration camp north of Berlin that was unique in that it was primarily a camp at which women were imprisoned and killed. (Ravensbrück was also unusual in that Jewish prisoners were a minority there, something like 15% of the total inmate population. Of the 140,000 women brought to that place, about 90,000 were murdered there. Of these, about a quarter were ethnic Poles.) But what interested me about this exhibit is that it is primarily about the SS-men and women who worked at the camp, about their living conditions and their personal experiences as mass murderers. (If you can read German, you can get a good sense of the exhibit at the camp’s website at

The exhibit focuses on Max Koegel, the camp’s commandant, and his staff. His living quarters have been restored so that visitors can begin to understand what it meant to live with one’s family in relative luxury in a lovely villa to which one is permitted retire after spending a long work day torturing and murdering innocent women. Those who worked for Koegel are also named and their pictures are displayed prominently. This kind of formal identification of the murderers, priorly considered a kind of taboo in Germany, has gotten a lot of attention over these last weeks, especially since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her intention personally to visit the exhibit in a few weeks’ time. I admire Mrs. Merkel for being willing to visit such an exhibition, one that has at its core the notion that the actual killers were not high-ranking Nazi party officials or ideologues consumed by some toxic blend of racial hatred and philosophical anti-Semitism, but regular Germany men and women—over 4000 female camp guards, each a murderer in her own right, were trained at Ravensbrück—who found it in themselves to participate in crimes against humanity on a scale that would earlier have been considered not only undoable but unimaginable. To confront that part of the national heritage of Germany cannot be a simple task for a woman hoping to remain in favor with the electorate nor can it be a pleasant one. And yet…the traditional disinclination to look directly at the perpetrators themselves is not one we can claim not to understand given how many decades we ourselves have also preferred to look away.

I have no plans to visit Germany in the near future, but if I were to go I think that I would want to see the exhibition at Ravensbrück. (You can read more about it on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website here: It is, after all, the perpetrators who pose the greatest moral dilemma to moderns contemplating the Shoah, not the victims. They victims were mostly powerless, mostly doing their best to survive under unbearable circumstances. More to the point, they did not choose to become victims and would all have preferred escape martyrdom. They do not, therefore, pose any sort of moral riddle to those of us who endlessly contemplate their fate. But the same cannot be said for the perpetrators, men and (at Ravensbrück, especially) women, who chose to earn their living by participating in the greatest crime against humanity the world has ever seen. To wave them away as sadists and sociopaths is to miss the point. They were both of those things, certainly, but they challenge us to reconsider what it means to be human in the first place in a way that is as unnerving as it is unpleasant. By their very existence, they challenge us to wonder about the human condition, about what it means ultimately to be a human being created in God’s image. No wonder we prefer to look away! But if Mrs. Merkel can look, then I suppose we also can. And I believe that we should. This is not, after all, an either/or proposition. We do not have to decide whether to memorialize our dead or to confront the perpetrators. We can do both.

Indeed, I have come to think that we should do both. To remember the dead—to chant the memorial prayer in their memory, to light a candle, to visit Yad Vashem or the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington—these are all praiseworthy undertakings, things we can do and should do. But we also have reached the point at which I think we need also to look directly at the perpetrators. We need to remember that even the most sadistic among them were once innocent babies suckling at their mothers’ breasts, that they were once children untainted by virulent prejudice. Something turned them into monsters capable of crimes almost unspeakable in terms of their inherent atrocity. We do the victims honor, not disservice, by asking ourselves what that something could possibly have been. And by continuing on to ponder how we can make certain that that thing, whatever it turns out to have been, is totally and utterly eradicated from the world of decent men and women that we hope to bequeath to our children.

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