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The Bounds of the Human: Holocaust, Army Service, and the Importance of Clean Underwear

July 31st, 2008by Haim Watzman · 2 Comments · Culture and Ideas

In the Holocaust, the Jews were, uniquely, the victims of a horrible, unprecedented crime. In the Holocaust, the crime committed by the Germans against the Jews shows how fragile the boundary between humanity and beastiality is and how human beings are capable of committing unimaginable crimes. Both those statements are true, but a difference in emphasis is characteristic of the dialogue on the Holocaust between American Israeli Jews–as was brought home to me in a discussion the other day.

An American participant in this discussion of the Holocaust criticized Israeli author David Grossman’s novel See Under Love, for depicting a Nazi concentration camp commander with human depth. In the third part of that novel, the commander and one of his victims share memories of children’s stories.

I responded that, in my reading, Grossman used this device to show that, however deep into inhumanity the Nazis had sunk, they were still human beings. While the Nazi evil represents a decay of natural human morality far deeper than any other in the modern age, the Nazis were nevertheless human beings and their actions represent an extreme to which any human being, and any nation, has the potential to reach.

“That’s bullshit!” shouted another American Jew who participated in the discussion. “I can’t accept all that junk about there being a little Eichmann in all of us.” Normal human beings and normal societies, this person insisted, have moral and social mechanisms that stop them short long before they reach the crime of genocide.

But the two American Jews I’ve cited differed not just in their thinking from me and the other Israeli in the discussion. There was an important biographical distinction as well. We two Israelis had been soldiers, which the Americans had not.

We two Israelis recalled times when we, tired, hungry, wet, and cold, had felt our morality and human empathy disipating in the face of our overwhelming desire to sleep, eat, and warm ourselves. We were not Eichmanns–we did not lose our humanity, did not take out our frustrations on those weaker than we, did not commit murder or genocide. But we both remember that feeling, and how frightening it was. We felt that we could understand how decent people could turn into animals in extremes, especially if their society dehumanized their enemies and if their commanders told them to take out their frustrations on the weak.

This awareness in no way excuses Eichmann and his cohorts. But it shows that the Holocaust teaches the Jews two things: We must defend ourselves and never again allow ourselves to be the victims of genocide. And we must work hard to preserve our own humanity, especially at times when the basic needs of survival threaten to blind our moral vision.

The best advice I ever got as a soldier was shouted at me by my NCO course company commander. “No matter how little time you have to sleep, no matter how miserable you are, don’t shut your eyes until you’ve washed yourself and changed your underwear. It’s not just hygiene–it’s to remind yourself that you are human being, not an animal.”

That’s not the magic way to fight Nazism–I’m sure Eichmann bathed and changed his socks regularly. But I did find that the ritual of washing and sock changing underwear helped me keep my animal needs from overwhelming me.

So yes, the Nazis descended to a depth of moral depravity unprecedented in human history. But they began their descent as human beings, just like the rest of us.

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