How to understand the people who stood by?

As Primo Levi writes, ‘mental laziness’ allows charismatic leaders to carry nations with them


ORANIENBURG, GERMANY - JANUARY 27: Carnations hang at the infamous entrance gate that reads: "Arbeit macht frei", or "Work sets one free" at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial on January 27, 2020 in Oranienburg, Germany. January 27th will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, the most notorious of the many Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis began the operation of Sachsenhausen in 1936, initially as a prison for their political opponents, but later used it for other groups, including Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. Sachsenhausen was the first camp to test the use of gas chambers for perfecting the mass murder of prisoners. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

January 26, 2023 10:03

Every group I lead in Poland is different, although the vast majority process what they see and hear through the lens of their own life experience. In very general terms, I have found that young adults think of the past in the context of their own futures and the values they hope to live their lives by. Those who are older and more established in life view the experience in the context of how different their lives would have been had they lived in another era.

There is, however, one aspect of Holocaust education that cuts across all ages and backgrounds. As participants visit places of unspeakable horror, such as Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, they all find themselves struggling — and failing — to comprehend the mind of the perpetrator.

Perhaps this is due to a positive aspect of human nature. Perhaps we have an inherent assumption that people are naturally benevolent, rather than malevolent. But perhaps, more worryingly, it is because we are unable to accept the fact that human beings are capable of astonishing cruelty, indifference to suffering — and perhaps most disturbingly of all, are often simply lazy.

When faced with a choice between a difficult path of resistance to morally depraved leadership and an easier path of keeping their heads down and following the majority, how many ordinary, good people become ordinary, bad people?

Facing this reality takes courage. It also requires an ability to take an honest look at human nature and grapple with the roots of morality itself. But doing so is essential if we are to properly understand not only the reality of the Holocaust, but also the truth of Primo Levi’s immortal injunction, echoed by innumerable survivors since: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

That is why I commend the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for selecting the theme of “Ordinary People” for Holocaust Memorial Day this year. Having observed group after group struggle with this when learning about the Shoah, we need to have the courage to face it together if we are to confront what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil”.

Primo Levi wrote this phrase in his final work, The Drowned and the Saved, which was completed shortly before his tragic death in Turin in 1987. In the concluding paragraphs he describes how, as time passes, more and more young people ask “who our torturers were [and] of what cloth they were made”. But the word “torturers”, argues Levi, is wrong. It brings to mind “twisted individuals, ill-born, sadists, afflicted by an original flaw”.

This, however, is incorrect. Instead, they were, “made of our same cloth...average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked”. For the most part, they were “diligent followers and functionaries”. Of course, some were convinced by Nazi ideology. But many were simply “indifferent, fearful of punishment...desirous of a good career, or too obedient”.

Levi’s final devastating conclusion is that the “great majority of Germans” accepted Hitler in the first place out of “mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity and national pride”.
This is something truly terrifying. Is it really the case that “mental laziness” alone can lead to a Holocaust?

The answer, of course, is no. But mental laziness can, and repeatedly has, enabled charismatic individuals with agendas of destruction to carry entire nations with them into oblivion. Perhaps this is one reason why the Torah repeatedly emphasises the leadership of Pharaoh in the account of the Exodus.

There is a direct line between his original command to his people to enslave the Jews — and his leadership of them towards their own downfall in the Sea of Reeds.

And yet. Within the shocking truth of the depths of depravity to which ordinary people can sink lies one of the greatest paradoxes of this most immense of tragedies.

For if we acknowledge that ordinary people can sink so low, that ordinary people can commit such heinous crimes, we must also accept that there is conversely no limit to the heights that ordinary people can soar. The lives that were saved by ordinary people. The lives that were sanctified in death, as in life, by ordinary people who refused to lose their dignity and faith to the very end.

As long as our people exist, we will retell stories of the greatness of ordinary people during the Shoah. And it is those ordinary people who inspire us not just to keep going, but to transform our own, ordinary, lives into the truly extraordinary.

Yoni Birnbaum is Rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim, Hendon

January 26, 2023 10:03

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