Do you ever get the feeling someone is trying to tell you something? To get through your thick skull (my thick skull) some knowledge or insight to which you are (I am) otherwise oblivious?
I feel that way pretty much 24/7. And occasionally I figure it out.
I was in a waiting room yesterday, and picked up the September issue of Smithsonian magazine (one of Jungle Trader’s favorite reads). There was an interview with the British novelist Martin Amis by the writer Ron Rosenbaum. Amis was once kind of a literary hero of mine, as he was to many young male writers. Although my tastes have changed (I couldn’t finish London Fields, last one I tried, though I have stolen that novel’s locution “National Elf” when talking about British socialized medicine), I would still recommend his novel Money to anyone interested in the genre of male debauchery in the 1980s. It’s not such a limited field as you might think, and Amis was the man to write its ultimate tale.
But I probably should pick him up again. Between Hitler and Stalin, genocide is on his mind.
Shortly after we settle into his living room with a couple of cold Coronas, I ask Amis about an offhand remark he’d made in a U.K. Telegraph interview, saying he was thinking of returning to the subject of the Holocaust in his next novel.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m actually 50 pages in.” His return to the subject came from a feeling, he said, “that in the very palpable, foreseeable future the Holocaust is going to absent itself from living memory.” The survivors’ testimonies will endure in print and on video, but their physical disappearance from life will mark a symbolic divide.
I mention that some recent American commenters have called continued consideration of the historical relevance of the Holocaust a sign of being “Holocaust obsessed”—a slur that I?believe represents a new form of Holocaust denial.
Amis’ reaction: “I agree with W.G. Sebald [the prominent German novelist], who said, ‘No serious person ever thinks about anything else.’”
He added, “I’m just amazed by the exceptionalism.”
I stumbled over that word, but Amis’ point is that the Holocaust is “exceptional” in the most literal sense: rare, if not unique.
The question of the Holocaust’s exceptionalism is one that I find fascinating, and wrote about in a book called Explaining Hitler: Is Hitler on the continuum of other evildoers in history, on the far end of a spectrum, or does he represent something off the grid, beyond the continuum, an “exceptionalist” phenomenon, in a rarefied realm of radical evil all his own?
“It’s certainly exceptional in my case,” Amis continued, “in that it didn’t matter how much I read about it, I felt I was getting no nearer to understanding it,” the nature of Hitler’s evil.
“That was not the case with the Russian holocaust,” he says, despite body count figures for Stalin’s mass murders that exceed Hitler’s.
“You said a little while ago that Stalin [his evil] was not equal to Hitler’s.”
“I feel that more and more,” he said of Hitler’s primacy in evil over Stalin. “Where do you stand or how do you feel?”
“I recently read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands,” I told him, an important book that reminds us that in addition to Stalin’s multi-million-dead purges and gulag victim body count, we cannot ignore the deliberate starvation of the entire Ukraine in the early ’30s, an act that killed millions and drove many families to cannibalism, even to eating their own children.
“That was the one crime that is analogous to the Holocaust,” Amis agreed, “because families had to watch each other starve. That takes a long time, to starve, and to watch your children starve….”
“The thing that crossed some boundary for me,” I said, “were the accounts of families eating their own children.”
“I want to show you something,” he replied. “It’s in Koba the Dread, my book about Stalin, and [there’s a picture that shows] these awful sort of rather drunken, crazy-looking parents with the limbs of their children.” He trudges up the stairs and trudges back down—one feels the weight of what he is bearing: a hardcover edition of Koba the Dread—and opens the book to the full-page photograph of family cannibalism from 1920, really Lenin’s famine, but cannibalism is cannibalism. The photo is just as he described it.
One I now wish I’d never seen. One I now will never forget.
“Look at their faces, the parents.” Amis says. “Nightmarish.”
I wanted to follow that discussion, even if it was extraneous to my main point. Today, I opened up (on line) Yedioth Ahronot, and read this story:
Vladka Meed, a weapons smuggler and courier in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who published a book about the struggle, died last week at the age of 90 at her daughter’s home in Arizona, the Washington Post reports.
According to her son, the cause of death was Alzheimer’s disease.
Meed posed as a Polish gentile woman during World War II, smuggling weapons and documents into the ghetto and finding hiding places for children from the ghetto outside.
“To remain a human being in the ghetto, one had to live in constant defiance, to act illegally,” Meed told Jewish newspaper Forward in 1995. “We had illegal synagogues, illegal classes, illegal meetings and illegal publications.”
Meed was born Feigel Peltel in Warsaw in December 1921. Her father died of pneumonia in the ghetto, and her mother and two siblings perished at the Treblinka death camp.
She joined the Jewish Fighting Organization, using the code name Vladka – a name she kept for the rest of her life.
As the war continued, she immediately chose armed resistance. Using forged identification papers and with her Aryan looks and fluency in Polish, she lived for extended periods amid the ethnic Polish population and worked on both sides of the ghetto walls to obtain weapons and ammunition on the black market and find hiding places for children and adults.
She also acted as a courier for the Jewish underground, hiding documents in her shoe.
In an interview to the Washington Post in 1973, Meed said it was horrifying to discover the apathy of most Poles to the fate of the Jews. “I lived among them for a quite a while as a Pole. Most of them were indifferent. Quite a large number of them were openly anti-Semitic and even, in a way, having satisfaction” with the ghetto extermination.
You can watch a two-hour interview with her on YouTube. [Link fixed.] She gave many interviews, and wrote extensively about her experiences. But she never will speak or write about them again. (With Alzheimer’s, she probably hadn’t for some time.)
Amis is right: “[I]n the very palpable, foreseeable future the Holocaust is going to absent itself from living memory.” And “I agree with W.G. Sebald [the prominent German novelist], who said, ‘No serious person ever thinks about anything else.’”
PS: One thing that separates Hitler from Stalin is that Hitler had accomplices among the native population of every country he invaded. See Poland above, and see our story yesterday about the 70-year-overdue apology by the Norwegians for deporting their few Jews to the Nazi death camps. (Also, see this comment recalling Adolf Eichmann’s admiration for Holland’s deportation efforts!) Stalin had a higher body count, but “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (to borrow a phrase) spanned an entire continent.