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

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.

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