A Note for the Sake of Historical Accuracy
I wasn’t going to write about this, but the one-two punch of Rod Dreher and John Podhoretz — in agreement,* no less! — has somehow made me shift into gear. Anna Breslaw penned a not-quite coherent bit of first-person pop-culture “criticism” that somehow uses Breaking Bad to confirm what she suspected from childhood and thinks Jean Amery’s essays confirm: that Hitler’s unnatural selection created a race of “conniving, indestructible” Jews, always “taking and taking,” who are the moral and emotional equivalents of the man who knocks on the door of an unsuspecting stranger with a loaded gun. Podhoretz criticizes this beyond-maddening mess of words on the grounds of anti-Semitism and self-hatred. But there’s plenty wrong with the article, and subjective criticisms are unnecessarily weak. The simpler case is to point out that Breslaw’s version of history isn’t the one borne out by the facts, and that Amery doesn’t say what she claims.
Quite simply, being a schemer — being the purest distillation of Shylock and Marlowe’s Barabas — was not the highest guarantee of survival in Auschwitz. Nor were the moral compromises — not sharing bread or a secret source of water, lying about one’s age or profession. The most important factor in the odds of one’s survival was the date of arrival at a death camp. Polish Jews were not killed at a higher rate than Hungarian or Romanian Jews because of piety or kindness. They were killed because their slaughter began in 1942 while Hungarians and Romanians, somewhat protected as citizens of their Nazi-allied states, were not deported until 1944.
Even if we grant the thesis that being morally warped made one more likely to survive, a morally warped inmate who arrived in 1943 would have stood next to no chance of surviving to the end of the war. This was not the case for a decent inmate with technical skills who arrived in 1944. I say, “with technical skills,” because most were killed on arrival in the last months of the camps, a fate personality could not alter. Primo Levi survived only because he was a chemist who arrived in 1944. Amery survived because he was a war prisoner with French citizenship; Elie Wiesel survived because he came from a town on the Hungary-Romania border. There was luck involved, and life somewhere on Levi’s “Gray Zone” spectrum. The “handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse” were not the most likely to survive and “carry on the Jewish race.” Those who had the luck of timing, health, and vocational skill were.
Breslaw’s use of Amery’s At the Mind’s Limits is just as inaccurate and disingenuous. In the passage she quotes describing “Concentration Camp Syndrome,” Amery summarizes studies that today would be said to describe the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in camp survivors. This is hardly controversial; this is hardly a statement of the survival of the most devious. Amery’s point is that the trauma he suffered — physical torture, personal degradation, betrayal by nation and culture, and the inability of his intellect to cope — have made him specifically unable to forgive those who committed the actions. As he notes a mere two paragraphs before Breslaw’s quotation,
to my own distress, I belonged to that disapproving minority with its hard feelings. Stubbornly, I held against Germany its twelve years under Hitler. I bore this grudge into the industrial paradise of the new Europe and into the majestic halls of the West. I “struck out” [. . .] I attracted the disapproving attention no less of my former fellows in battle and suffering who were now gushing over about reconciliation, than of my enemies, who had just been converted to tolerance.
He is skeptical of those who do not show resentment, but is nonetheless unable to do as they do. He is isolated from his old, non-Jewish Europe, from his pre-war life, from his intellectual pursuits, and even from fellow survivors and partisans. His self-diagnosis is limited to precisely himself. How he reached this isolation through the inability of his highly European intellect to cope with his experiences is the theme of his book. Breslaw makes a half-hearted attempt to enlist him in a cause not his own.
Finally, none of this is some secret that’s been hidden by a cabal of bearded schemers plotting to milk the world’s guilt for all it’s worth. Primo Levi discusses the compromises he was forced to take in Survival in Auschwitz, perhaps the second most famous Holocaust memoir; he devoted his final book, The Gray Zone, to it. Tadeusz Borowski’s stories are filled with self-incrimination. And the most famous memoir? Elie Wiesel’s Night does not depict those in Auschwitz as saints. He sees one son betray a father; he comes to hate his own on the night of his death. Their greatest concern is bread. The driving force behind his late-life memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, is his inability to escape from nightmares of his father’s ghost. He is openly haunted by who the camps drove him to become.
The central problem with Breslaw’s article is not that she is (or is not) a self-hating anti-Semite, but that she does not use facts and misreads her literary sources. It’s wrong on an objective level; I hesitate to even publish this post I still can’t see how anyone could have taken her seriously. Tablet, however, used to be a magazine I took seriously. I must confess that I’ll have a difficult time doing so again.
*I really shouldn’t be too surprised. If, in retrospect, I had to design an article that would put them in agreement, it would probably look like the one in question.